The soul of Hip Hop, part 1

Toward a missiological gospel of a culture

Dan Hodge | Jun 1, 2010

Photo by Søren Astrup Jørgensen

Daniel White Hodge, PhD studied Hip Hop culture at Fuller as an FYI fellow with Dr. Jude Tiersma Watson. His new book, The Soul of Hip Hop: Rims, Timbs and a Cultural Theology will be released this August through InterVarsity Press. This article is an adaptation from the introduction and chapter 1.

Hip Hop, in the words of KRS-One, is “something that is being lived.” [[KRS One, introduction to Ruminations (New York: Welcome Rain, 2003).]]

Hip Hop is larger than the radio, larger than commercialized artists, larger than record industry branding. It is a culture, a people, a movement, a growing community of people that live, breath, eat, love, hate and work just as anyone else does. Hip Hop cannot be easily understood or defined. It is complex and full of narratives that would blow away many of the strongest anthropologists. But as I always tell my students, we have to discuss the obvious to get to the obscure. I am suggesting we begin to deconstruct parts of Hip Hop as a larger phenomenon in order to understand the whole—in this case, its theology.

Seeking the Obscure

The obscure part of Hip Hop is its theology. What is it? Is Hip Hop evil, or is it misunderstood? Many Christians hear “Hip Hop” and envision loud music with rough sounding lyrics and deep bass, and young men with low-riding pants, long white T-shirts, and ominous facial expressions. Hip Hop is as much of an enigma to many church members as is, say, Islam or the New Age movement. Yet theology, in its basic sense, is the study of God—how God interacts, intercedes, speaks, lives, thinks, wants and is. And Hip Hop repeatedly shows God “showing up” in the most unusual and interesting places. In many ways, Hip Hop theology is, in essence, a study of the Godhead (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) in the urban context, with a goal of better understanding God’s rich and complex love for everyone and the revelation of God through the liberation of the oppressed from the oppressor.

Kanye West, on his album The College Dropout, argues that God loves hustlers, pimps, killers, prostitutes and other people that society would otherwise not deal with. Tupac questions if there is a heaven for “real Niggaz” (changing the letter “s” to “z” to indicate class rather than Individual). [[Robin D. G. Kelly (Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class [New York: Free Press, 1994], pp. 207-12) suggests that Tupac’s term can transcend skin color as well.]] Big Syke asks if the church can handle Hip Hoppers, while KRS One has suggested that Hip Hoppers need to start their own church. Hip Hoppers have strong opinions about God and the church—there’s no doubt about that!

Part of the reason Hip Hop is so mysterious to people outside its culture is that its roots and religious history have both multiple and complex sources. Many pastors who are trained in “classic,” or modernist, hermeneutical methods struggle to make sense of Hip Hop. A theology that engages real life in real time, that respects the person of Jesus but distrusts institutional religion, often doesn’t efficiently or predictably systematize—which is to say it sometimes doesn’t reconcile easily with traditional, modernist approaches to culture.

The Muddy Middle: Theology of the Profane

Ethnomusicologist Christina Zanfagna recognizes that to accept Hip Hop “presupposes that popular culture could be a sacred place—an area in which one may encounter God even in the most unholy of places.” [[Zanfagna, “Under the Blasphemous W(rap),” p. 2.]] Hip Hop theology not only embraces the sacred; it dines, sleeps, laughs, cries, loves, hates and lives with the profane. To truly understand Hip Hop requires a basic theological worldview of the profane.

This is not a new concept. Theologians and church heroes assert that God meets us first in death and despair—the hell of life. Only those who enter the “s***” (to borrow language from Martin Luther—in his rebuttal against the Roman Papacy, Luther uses extremely strong language [[See Martin Luther Against the Roman Papacy, An Institution of The Devil 1545 in Luther’s Works Church and Ministry III By Helmut T. Lehmann, Eric W. Gritsch]] ) can encounter the God of Jesus Christ. Noah—who loved liquor—could not wait to get off the boat and get drunk, yet we revere him and even honor his example at different points. David not only engaged in adultery, he sold Uriah out—but he is still cited in countless sermons and Bible studies as a man after God’s own heart. Paul continued to struggle with his “flesh”. Jonah actually wanted the people of Nineveh to perish.

Many Christians gloss over presentations of the profane in the lives of biblical heroes, but Hip Hop says, “Man, we’re dealing with it all!” Tupac’s habit of calling out his own “sin” made pastors, political figures, cultural critiques, conservative zealots and even some rappers extremely uncomfortable. The million-dollar question surrounding the intersection of Hip Hop and religious culture is this: How can the profane exist in communion with God?

Hip Hop and the Church

When living in God’s will, the church (like Hip Hop culture) provides relationships, identity, structure, and support in times of trouble. Hip Hop culture was formed in community and has helped give meaning to several generations of young people. The church and Hip Hop share common ground in more ways than one. How can we build on that ground and dialogue rather than shake our heads and miss out on an opportunity to be where God is at work? It is imperative that we not only begin grappling with these issues, but begin moving out to reach this cultural movement.

There are at least five theological areas that Hip Hop presents as a potential “Gospel” message for this generation. The first is a theology of the profane, described above. Here are four other important lenses:

A theology of suffering: This theology actually embraces the concept of suffering and moves beyond the basic three theological responses to suffering: suffering for divine retribution, suffering because of God’s will, and suffering as only a temporary reality. [[For more on the issue of “theodicy”, or the “problem of evil,” see Jude Tiersma Watson’s article “Your Pain: Six Lenses to Help.”]] Hoppers use suffering as life experience and an actual process to draw closer to a God who suffered like us.

A theology of community: For Hip Hoppers, life is done in community. Whether those communities are a few people or one hundred, community is still occurring. For example, many of the concerts I have been to reflect Hip Hop’s deep desire to engage in community. More importantly, Church happens in that community and the presence of God is also experienced.

A theology of the Hip Hop Jesuz: For many Hip Hoppers, Jesus is not the “traditional” form of a savior most of us have been taught to believe in (i.e., the blonde-hair, blue eyed, White embodiment of perfection). Jesus is the multi-racial Jesus. Jesus is the Jesus that can understand the pain and misery of the inner city. Jesus is the one who could relate to the poor, downtrodden, and folks that people set aside. Thus, a theology of the Hip Hop Jesuz is a contextualized “version” of Jesuz (Hence the adding of the letter “z” to the name).

A theology of social action: Hip Hop is about taking action and responsibility for the community. This theology explores the deep social awareness that is not only prevalent throughout the Bible, but also through Hip Hop’s connection to both justice and Jesus. A theology of social action encourages personal responsibility: sometimes we are the true culprit of social injustices. Hip Hoppers, such as Tupac, would challenge pastors and theologians to think deeper about issues such as poverty, social justice, and suffering and urge them to take action.

Regardless of what you think of Hip Hop personally, it does possess many redeeming qualities that should, at the very least, elicit our curiosity. What can we learn from it? What can we bring to it? If we want to live out the gospel authentically, we cannot afford to fear things that are unfamiliar or nontraditional. [[Adapted from Hodge, Daniel White. 2007. “Gettin The Hype on Hip Hop.” Prism 14 (3):18-21.]]

Action Points

  • Take some time to listen to Hip Hop artists like Lupe Fiasco. What is his message? What are his points regarding social action? How does he see “life” from a Hip Hopper’s perspective?
  • Take a look at Jesus’ lineage at the beginning of Matthew. Study it. Try to draw some connections between some of the “messy” people in Jesus’ lineage and yourself, the Church, and Hip Hoppers.
  • After you’ve done some homework on Hip Hop, ask the students you work with to give you their top five rappers they listen to. Take them to lunch or have them over and take time for a conversation about rap music. Take time to listen to what they’re saying and what the music is saying. Don’t respond to the “bad language” or even the overall “message.” Just listen. In part 2, we’ll take this a step further. But for now, just listen and take it in!

Adapted from The Soul of Hip Hop: Rims, Timbs and a Cultural Theology by Daniel White Hodge. Copyright(c) 2010. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press PO Box 1400 Downers Grove, IL 60515.

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Dan Hodge

Dan White Hodge, PhD is a dynamic speaker, scholar, Hip Hop theologian, urban worker, & racial bridge builder that connects Urban popular culture with daily life events. Dan has been an active member of the Hip Hop Community for over 20 years and continues to not only study the culture from both an academic and practical perspective, but live it as well. He has over 16 years of urban youth work experience having worked for Young Life and now working with undocumented peoples in Los Angeles with his wife Emily. Dan’s books are “Heaven Has A Ghetto: The Missiological Gospel and Theology of Tupac Amaru Shakur” (VDM Academic 2010) and “The Soul of Hip Hop: Rimbs Timbs & A Cultural Theology” (IVP August 2010).

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