“Hip-hop is the voice of this generation… It has given young people a way to understand their world, whether they are from the suburbs or the city or wherever.”
– DJ Kool Herc
Music has always been an expression of African/African-American religion. Drums and vibrations, sounds and melodies, rhythms and songs have allowed us to feel free when in captivity and liberated in times of bondage. A major component of Black life and belief has been centered on the “symbolic importance given to the word “freedom”. When Blacks could not find freedom anywhere else in reality, freedom was experienced through music. Spirituals. Hymns. Gospel. Poetry. Hip-Hop. Rap. These are all forms of expression that African- Americans have used and continue to use to artistically and creatively express their understanding of God, and God’s relationship with us.
Spirituals gave African/African-Americans a creative freedom during the oppression of slavery. Influenced by the prophetic tradition experienced in the Bible, many of our ancestors created utopic visions of deliverance and freedom. These were not senseless babblings but songs entrenched in prophetic fire for resistance to forces of evil, both physical and spiritual. Spirituals provided freedom in the truest sense of the word as understood by the oppressed. As C. Eric Lincoln records, “From the very beginning of the black experience in America, one critical denotation of freedom has remained constant: freedom has always meant the absence of any restraint which might compromise one’s responsibility to God.” In music, Blacks found no restraint from their devotion to God, in spite of the restraint one might have felt from our oppressors.
Gospel music gave Blacks an expressive outlet similar to spirituals in the sense that both were formed from oppressive circumstances and devotion to God. Gospel music formed during the oppressive years of Jim Crow segregation. Like spirituals, they gave voice to Blacks who sought God for answers and hope in their new situation of oppression. Freedom from slavery may have been granted but total freedom had not been achieved. Gospel music took the preached Word of pastors within the church to the outside and gave Blacks daily sermons that could be lived in such detrimental conditions.
Fast forward to Hip-Hop. Just like its musical predecessors, Hip-Hop bursts into the world’s earlobes out of resistance and injustice. The difference, however, is that this movement was led by young people: youth and young adults who had been victimized by society and ignored by their own. Hip-Hop icon and legend DJ Kool Herc suggests, “Music is sometimes the medication from reality, and the only time you get a dialogue is when tragedy happens.” If tragedy had ever need a voice, Hip-Hop spoke up loud and clear. When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968, the black prophetic tradition of the church, which had been carried through Reconstruction to the Civil Rights movement, appeared to die. Gayraud Wilmore believes the African-American community never recovered from the blow suffered by King’s death. He states, “The African-American community in the United States went through a hardening process from which it did not recover during the more placid 1970’s, and, indeed, it has not yet quite recovered today.”
I disagree with Wilmore’s assessment. In this work, I will argue although the African-American church lost its prophetic tradition and influence in the advancement of Blacks post-King, Hip-Hop became the prophetic voice. My thesis for this work is simple: The prophetic tradition of the black church was not lost in the backlash of the MLK assassination but found in the radical movement of the Hip-Hop Generation. Wilmore, Dr. Tamara Lewis, and other scholars believe the Black church and the African-American community as a whole has lost its prophetic fire. In this work, I will contest where scholars believe the church dropped the prophetic mantle, Hip-Hop picked it up. My work will be guided by a question raised by Dr. Lewis, “Is the black church capable of reviving the Black Prophetic Tradition?” I will begin my analysis of the historic origins of Hip-Hop. Three sections will guide my study: Hip Hop as the Church, Hip-Hop as radical, and Hip-Hop as prophetic. I will conclude my analysis with an assessment of how the church and the Hip-Hop generation can coexist to revive the black prophetic tradition.
What is Hip-Hop?
I believe it is first important for the basis of this work to give a working definition of Hip-Hop and its relationship to this analysis. “Hip Hop is an urban subculture that seeks to express a lifestyle, attitude, or theology. Rejecting dominant culture, it seeks to increase social consciousness, cultural awareness, and racial pride. Rap music functions as the vehicle by which the cultural messages of Hip Hop are sent, and the industry by which Hip Hop culture is funded and propagated.” In this definition, taken from Daniel Hodge’s work on hip-hop theology, as given by Phil Jackson, co-author of The Hip-Hop Church, it is obvious to see its connection to the church and the prophetic tradition it shares.
As we will explore in detail throughout this analysis, Hip Hop culture is, as a community, not the evil, violent, and hedonistic culture that the church has often made it out to be. This misunderstanding of a culture has created a large portion of urban youth that attend church simply to appease grandmothers and parents. If we are to missionally engage culture, then we must begin to embrace Hip Hop’s good, bad, and ugly sides, just as we have done with the church.
Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: Post-Civil Rights Era
“The problem is that many African American congregations are still working with evangelistic assumptions from the Civil Rights era”– F. Douglas Powe, Jr.
Dr. King’s assassination of 1968 sent the country into a frenzy, then a freeze. Wilmore notes, “When shouts of anger, the sounds of violence, and the weeping died away… and when King was… laid to rest…, a great and terrible silence settled down on black communities all across the nation.” This silence eventually caused more unrest, especially in the hearts of young people. Off the shores of America, Jamaica, a country of pride and Blackness, was fighting for its freedom as well. It had already received its independence during the same time as America’s Civil Rights movement, yet there was much progress to be made. Turmoil was happening on the island and music was the outlet. Reggae became the sound of political action and the voice of the people. Bob Marley, who began to rise to international stardom with his music filled with political overtones and peaceful vibes, “reacted to Jamaica’s national crisis, global restructuring and imperialist posturing, and intensified street violence.”
It is out of this atmosphere that Clive Campbell, later to be known as Kool Herc, grabbed hold of a sound that became hip-hop. As Herc notes, “The blues had Mississippi, jazz had New Orleans, [and] Hip-Hop has Jamaica.”Kool Herc had moved from Jamaica to the Bronx with his family during the tumultuous 70’s. When jobs were scarce and opportunities within the Black and Brown communities even fewer, young people had to find some way of maintaining hope. It is often said if blues culture developed under conditions of forced labor, the hip-hop culture would arise from no labor! The church might have lost its prophetic fire, but it was during those rough times that reggae and hip-hop was birthed to carry the prophetic mantle!
As I analyze the church post-Civil Rights, and more specifically after King’s assassination, I believe the Church lost its fire because it failed to reach young people. Throughout the long history of the church and its prophetic tradition, young men and women were always on the proverbial frontlines of the struggle for justice and equality. For reasons unknown, the church became extremely focused on the wellbeing of its adult members. . In C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya’s The Black Church in the African American Experience, they note, “Black youth… became a kind of afterthought in the church’s schedule of significant ministry.” Perhaps the notion of arrival for many of the Boomer generation left them disillusioned to the injustices many youth were facing in the inner city. Black middle class began to migrate to suburban areas seeking better living conditions, leaving the inner city ripe for drugs, violence, and poverty. Regardless of the causes, it is out of this that the Hip-Hop Generation is born, and to which the Hip-Hop generation responds.
Ain’t No Stopping Us Now: Hip-Hop is the Church
In Acts 2:46-47, the writer records, “Day by Day, as they spent much time together… praising… and having the goodwill of all the people… (NRSV)” This illustrates that the early church spent much of its time fellowshipping together, concerned about the wellbeing of one another, and praising. This describes the origins of Hip-Hop as well. Contrary to popular belief, and contrary to much of what the public currently thinks about hip-hop, the focus of Hip-Hop is just as described in Acts. DJ Kool Herc and the other founders of hip-hop began throwing parties in the neighborhood that served to help one another with various needs. As a matter of fact, the very first “church” gathering of Hip-Hop was orchestrated to raise money to provide school clothes for Herc’s sister.
Hip-Hop is the church because it was birthed by the same oppression that birthed the church. It is the church because it is the “voice crying out from the wilderness” to the young people in the streets, in the Burroughs, the community, pointing to a place of hope and togetherness. As Herc points out, “Hip-Hop is the voice of this generation… it’s about taking responsibility.” The early church understood this principle. They met together and as each had need, they worked together to fulfill it. Hip-Hop is the church.
Fight the Power: Hip-Hop is Radical
“In every generation, radicals nurture scorn for authority and the old. They tap into a desire to destroy convention and induce shock. They demand tribal commitment and discipline. They risk everything to bring the new into being”– Jeff Chang
Hip-hop is radicalism in its truest sense. In the 1980’s, when the drug epidemic spread across America’s black communities and incarceration rates began to take its incline, it was hip-hop that stood up to speak to these issues. Rappers like Eric B. and Rakim, KRS-One, Run-DMC, and Public Enemy heighted the Black communities’ consciousness of the injustices black youth were facing. The intense nature of the political activism of Hip-Hop drew on the spirit of prophetic movements such as the Black Panther Party. Young people couldn’t find work so they sought solutions.
Hip-Hop’s radical nature was just as offensive to the church as it was to mainstream white America. I believe the main reason for this, as noted above, was the church’s rejection of Hip-Hop as the outlet chosen by young blacks. Bill Stephney notes, “Hip-hop was not just a ‘Fuck you’ to white society, it was a ‘Fuck you’ to the previous Black generation as well.” The older generation had abandoned the youth, but the youth were going to speak out against the injustices they were facing. The apartheid of South Africa in the 80’s was embraced by the hip-hop generation, for in their African brothers and sisters, they saw themselves. Rapper Rakim is quoted as saying, “Not only there but right here’s an apartheid,” in response to the slaying of Michael Griffith in 1986. The problem that remained, however, is that while the church basked in the glory of the Civil Rights movement, they dismissed the hip-hop generation who were making a movement of their own to speak against the injustices of their time. As noted above, the church saw hip hop as evil, especially because of its use of profanity and direct language against cops, and more offensively, rap’s casual use of ‘nigga’.
While the church remained silent for much of the struggle against apartheid, the resurgence of African nationalism among young blacks in America was increasing and their voices were a threat to white America in ways that differed from their Civil Rights foremothers and fathers. There was a cry, heralded by these young folk of the hip-hop generation leading marches, protests and demonstrations on campuses like Yale, Rutgers, Stanford, and UC Berkeley. “Apartheid gave the young students of color a frame to understand the power of whiteness.” Hip-Hop had given voice to many of these movement across America, steeped in the radical tradition of the Black church.
Welcome to America: Hip-Hop is Prophetic
…They saw themselves, by the power of God and the dint of their own dogged determination… out of degradation, toward God who called them to be soldiers of the Cross of Christ, working for a better world for themselves… -Gayraud S. Wilmore
Hip-hop is prophetic because as already mentioned, it is birthed out of the need for liberation and freedom. As Hodge notes, “Hip Hop… is about liberation from shackles of modernity. As Black gospel music has a liberating tone, Hip Hop likewise offers postmodern youth a new and “meatier” image of Jesus.” Modern artist like Lecrae, Sho Baraka, and Kendrick Lamar, among others, are lifting up a consciousness of God’s liberating work in the midst of crises, oppression and injustice. Hip Hop presumes that God “shows up” in unusual and interesting places. This is the prophetic tradition of the Black Church.
It is important for this portion of this work to acknowledge the theology of Hip-Hop. For many years, the church has ignored the voice of the Hip-Hop generation, but I argue that this should not and cannot continue because the Hip-Hop generation are the offspring of the church. There is a theology of hip-hop that is rich in the doctrines of the Church that are ignored because of the sound that Hip-Hop produces. Hip Hop Theology is a liberating theology. It is a study of the Trinity in the urban context, with a goal of better understanding God’s rich and complex love for everyone (not just those who look and talk nice) and the revelation of God through the liberation of the oppressed from the oppressor.
Where Do We God From Here: New Wine, New Wineskin
“Like an artist who gives everyone a paint brush, King sketched a picture of the future and invited other to add their strokes to the canvas.”– F. Douglas Powe, Jr.
To answer the question that guides this analysis, “Is the black church capable of reviving the Black Prophetic Tradition”, I answer with a resounding, “Yes!” I believe it is possible when the church embraces the Hip-Hop generation in three distinct ways. It must understand these fundamental facts about the Hip-Hop Generations:
- 95 percent of all Hip Hoppers have some understanding of who Jesus is.
- Of that 95 percent, three-fourths have roots in the Christian church
- 98 percent of Hip Hoppers report that they desire spiritually centered conversations
- 95.5 of Hip Hop Christians want more Hip Hop in the church
- 56.6 percent of Hip Hoppers agree that the Hip Hop community is a “spiritual” place for them
- 53.5 percent of Hip Hoppers see church as a spiritual community for them too.
First, the church must create space for Hip-Hop as a worshipful expression. Powe notes, “There is no one way to experience God, and a worship experience should provide space for a variety of ways to connect with God.” This is important because many young people find refuge in hip-hop and are disappointed that the church does allow them the freedom to express their creative hip-hop aspirations. These expressions include, but are not limited to, poetry, dance, art, graffiti, and rap. When the church allows for this as a worshipful expression, the prophetic fire of our youth can carry the mantle of the church into places and spaces the church is unable to do alone.
Secondly, the church must develop a hermeneutic of hip-hop. In other words, the church, more specifically clergy, must become versed in the rhetoric and culture of hip-hop. Much of the critiques of Hip-Hop from the church, the seminary, and any other institution concerned with social morality tend to exegete the art from positions unfamiliar with the contexts represented by the artists. Many of our young people are also from these contexts. It is imperative for the church to understand this in order for Hip-Hop to carry its prophetic tradition.
Lastly, the church must develop an ethic of hip-hop. This ethic is what creates honesty within Hip-hop and allows it to address issues that are pertinent to the Black community. The church has lost is desire to be honest, especially in areas of weakness, which has stifled its progress and prophetic voice. Hip-Hop embraces honest critique because honest critique is what allows the movement to stay focused on its task.
The reviving of the Black prophetic tradition does not rest squarely on the back of hip-hop alone. As young scholar James Howard Hill, Jr. notes, hip-hop has some inadequacies that hinder it from being as powerful as it can be, and therefore needs the church just as much as the church needs hip-hop.Hip-Hop must be willing to work with the church for its prophetic advancement. Simply put, there is not a prophetic without the church. While many of hip-hop’s prophets are offspring of the church, they cannot adequately function without proper understanding of the Black prophetic tradition.
Lastly, the hip-hop generation must be willing to learn the rich history of the church. Many of our current youth do not understand that hip-hop is birthed out of a struggle that the church has been fighting since its conception. It is easy to think of Hip-hop’s contribution toward the advancement of the Black community as singular when in fact is not. It is up to the church to embrace the hip-hop generation in order for hip hop to learn of its connection to the prophetic. When the church and hip-hop begin to coexist in every space of African-American life, the prophetic tradition toward liberation and freedom will be more evident than ever. I also believe we will begin to see real change in America and the world when the two join together. Then we will be able to see a fulfillment of the beloved community that King dreamed of and spoke into reality.
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- Douglas Powe, Jr. New Wine, New Wineskins: How African American Congregations Can Reach New Generations. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2012.
Hodge, Daniel White. The Soul of Hip Hop: Rims, Timbs and a Cultural Theology . Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2010.
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