“A theologian of the cross says what a thing is. In modern parlance: a theologian of the cross calls a spade a spade. One who ‘looks on all things through suffering and the cross’ is constrained to speak the truth…it will see precisely that the cross and the resurrection itself is the only answer to that problem, not erasure or neglect.” – Gerhard O. Forde
I admit: I am frontin’ when I talk hip-hop. I was raised on 90s country and Neil Diamond. I didn’t hear my first sample until high school when a friend of mine popped N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton into his Jeep stereo. And I hated it. I was not raised with parents who cloistered us from any, seemingly, “negative culture,” but I was still pretty sheltered just by geographic cultural isolation. I’m not sure what made me hate it at the time, but I didn’t go out and buy the album right after I heard it. Matter of fact, I didn’t listen to hip-hop again until the spring of 2011—after grad school—when I met a self-proclaimed music snob at my church whose specialty was hip-hop. He grew up with it, lives it and breathes it. We got to talking and he convinced me to drop what I was listening to and listen exclusively to hip-hop for a year.
It took most of the first three months of 2011 for me to start really liking hip-hop. More specifically, it was De La Soul’s third album, Buhloone Mindstate, which dealt the deathblow to any remaining hesitations and prejudices I had against hip-hop as music. The presence and rhythmic flows of Posdnous (Plug One) and Trugoy (Plug Two) and the samples and beats of Maseo were a softening strike to my hardened heart. The album is playful, it is socially observant and it seemed to match every clever word and turn-of-phrase in a perfect beat. And then there was “I Be Blowin’,” an instrumental track featuring a sample from Lou Rawls’ “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy” and the saxophone work of Maceo Parker of Parliament-Funkadelic fame. “I Be Blowin’” may be one of the most beautiful pieces of music I have ever heard. In the end, hip-hop entered into my life with a fury and, with that entrance, my interest in thinking about hip-hop and how it intersects the Christian story.
The easiest connection to make between Christianity and hip-hop is its prophetic voice. The prophets in the Old Testament were sent by God to speak to his people and tell them how it was, show them with vivid language the reality of their plight. It was always descriptive long before it was prescriptive. Prophecy was not some futuristic sightseeing, but truth telling so that they may see the future. Ralph Basui Watkins has been a central figure in the discussion of hip-hop and Christianity for years and he expands on the nature of that voice:
“Like Jeremiah, hip-hop is crying out as it critiques and engages the plight of those it speaks for and to. Hip-hop is looking at the political centers and religious leaders, critiquing them while crying out for help. The question is, will the leaders hear hip-hop? Will they listen to the cry? Will they come alongside hip-hop and help, or will they condemn the screaming voice from within?” – Hip-Hop Redemption, pg. 49
If you remember, the prophets, too, turned toward the political and religious leaders of their day and described the very sins that infected the cities and altars. The prophets spoke with the very word of God passing through their teeth to accuse and condemn. I can only imagine the harshness of the language that they used to fill their listener’s ears with descriptive force. Hip-hop employs the same format as emcees see and report the way things are and shout out about the way things ought to be. They speak to the beat in hopes that the political machine and church will see the reality of what is going on in the culture, especially in the inner cities. Making a call for them to turn and repent of their part in the fracturing of those very communities and work towards restoration.
Unfortunately, much like the prophets of the Old Testament, the laments of hip-hop often fall on deaf ears and hardened hearts. Collective society depreciates the overall value of hip-hop and the list of reasons are legion. One doesn’t have to go far through the history to see the rougher edges of the genre. It is quite understandable to see the where the critiques come from. There’s the misogyny and machismo; the one that specifically stands out to me is in Ice Cube’s “You Can’t Fade Me” on AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, when he laments not kicking a girl in her belly for trying to “fade him”—convincing him that her unborn child is his. There are several episodes, especially in gangster rap, where their actions should, rightfully, be condemned, but the presence of those elements, no matter how harsh they might be may in fact speak descriptive truth about the nature and plight of inner-city life.
Violence is another critique lodged at hip-hop as a whole, even though it wasn’t until gangster rap that violence reached fever pitch with emcees. However, much of this criticism is often lodged only at the emcees who talk about shooting cops, or each other, while turning a blind, uncritical eye away from the violence done in the inner cities by, largely, white cops. However, the critique stands. Hip-hop can often be violent and pushes for vengeance more often than grace and reconciliation, but, realistically speaking, it can also relay the violence that is part of the makeup of those communities, especially if events like the L.A. riots are taken into account—which itself led to the height of gangster rap.
The same critiques and complaints continue, but the ultimate irony of the whole situation is that hip-hop, with its inconsistencies, blatancy and rough edges, is an earnest reflection of human life. We are inconsistent, we are violent and sexist, among an insurmountable list of inner-oppressors. However, humanity also has severe moments of clear and cogent truth-telling—at the behest of the Spirit. At best we are a mixed bag of motivations and actions that surrender often to our basest desires. If we had the full biographies of the OT prophets, I would imagine there would be much to condemn in their behavior, for they were human as well. Would we then stop listening to what they were saying? Probably. That’s what we’ve always done.
Hip-hop, I have learned in my growing love for it, is a cry in the wilderness of real suffering and despair. Things are not right with the world today. There is much to observe and describe honestly. Because if we are not honest about the reality of the situation, how do we ever expect to understand the nature of Christ’s work in the lives of people, communities and nations? No, hip-hop is not perfect, nor is it outright “redemptive,” but it speaks truth to a society that has, historically, ignored the laments of sufferers. It is often a clarion call to honesty: to name a spade a spade and recognize the truth for what it is. As is the case throughout Scripture, this is the only starting point. God has always been a proponent of saying the truth through a broken medium. Hip-hop is just another example of how God uses crooked sticks to make straight lines. And that’s why I love it.