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The hip-hop church

April 6, 2009

hip-hopThis post is an assignment for my seminary course, The Good News, Culture and Anabaptism.  The reading for this week is The Hip-Hop Church (Smith and Jackson).  The first section of this post are quotes which caught my attention.  The second part is my own reflections and comments.

“Today hip-hop is still very influential among youth and adults outside the church, yet developing ministry ‘wells’ with those living within hip-hop is not all that common.”  (47)

“the ‘well’ of common ground between the church and hip-hop must be found both inside and outside the church.”  (47)  (John 4)

“How must the church position itself in order to gain a hearing and build relationships with those living in…the strongest expression of postmodern urban culture?”  (Acts 17)  (49)

“…in this postsoul culture there is a widening gap between African American culture and the church.”  (54)

Source of empowerment/Liberation theology

“Hip-hop is an independent and unique community, an empowering behavior, and an international culture.  (KRS-ONE as quoted in Smith and Jackson, 63)

“…made people ‘feel their existence most powerfully.'”  (66)

“Hip-hop arose against the South Bronx’s backdrop of poverty, tension over economic injustices, social injustice and social change.  The children, youth, young adults and older adults trying to raise families under difficult conditions have to be heard, and often the powers that be are not listening.”  (67)

“Hip-hop takes rap….  Now a voice of a generation is being heard in order to empower an otherwise powerless class of people.”  (72)

“It is difficult for a culture that is serious about the maintenance of social arrangements, economic conditions, and political choices that create and reproduce poverty, racism, sexism, classism, and violence to display a significant appreciation for musical expressions that contest the existence of such problems in black and Latino communities.”  (Eric Dyson, Reflecting Black, quoted in Smith and Jackson, 72)

“Hip-hop gets on your nerves because it forces the listener to rethink their entire existence as it questions societal structures.  Hip-hop exposes lies and provokes thought, leaving listeners grasping for something to hold on to as their assumptions about life are challenged.”  (73)

“This is the tension about Christendom and hip-hop:  most Euro-American evangelicals are so separate from ‘the world’ that they don’t really know what issues urban people are facing.”  (81)

“…hip-hop’s sustainability does not rely on the medium of its message, rap, but on the identity it provides to a people group that have never really had an identity of their own.  Ask yourself this question:  What people group in America has had their identity taken from them and their dignity denied, has been exploited the most for others’ profit, and has had their life shaped by strife and injustice?”  (82)

“We African Americans have never really expressed our own distinctly African identity in America independent of slavery.   …Hip-hop came along as a way to bring meaning at a time when young African Americans needed a voice to proclaim what life is for them.  …For years the African American community sought to fit it, to count, but never did.  When belonging is a prevailing need, you will find a place or even create a place where you belong.  Thus hip-hop culture.  (83)

“When you don’t know the struggle of people, you don’t know the people.  Black and Latino theologians, pastors, youth ministers and poets have to speak of theology out of their social context, the struggle of poverty and disenfranchisement.  In the African American experience, struggle is a way of life and is best expressed through the arts and especially music.”  (92)

“The dominant culture–from the perspective of the minority culture–looks at life from a self-centered vantage point….  This is oppressive to those who are not a part of the mainstream culture.”  (93)

Comparing Negro spirituals to the blues, to hip-hop:  “There are three key similarities among these three musical expressions…:  a connection to liberation, a need to transfer values, and coded language.”  (95)

“…hip-hop has its own language that is distinctive to the culture it is speaking to, and it keeps the dominant community out while seeking to advance hip-hop culture.”  (96)

Who is at the table?

“the postmodern discussion among emerging Christian leaders consists mainly of young whites who grew up in the modern church complaining about what they don’t like about their daddy’s church.  It is white folks talking about white church, white Jesus and white theology.  What’s more, given that these discussions are mostly taking place outside the inner city, those around the table tend to overrepresent the socially privileged.” (105)

“Only in recent years has there been preaching and writing that has not only challenged a Eurocentric Christianity but also presented an alternative view that is more multicultural and in some cases more authentic.  Some of these voices, such as James Cone, Tom Skinner, John Perkins, Martin Luther King Jr. and Renita Weems, were those of professed Christians seeking to dismantle a Eurocentric Christianity.”  (109)

“Hip-hop culture has an influence as well as a tolerance that brings disparate people groups together.  Hip-hop culture tends to swing toward the liberal side politically; this could be partly because the liberal political agenda seems more receptive to multiculturalism than does the conservative political agenda.”  (110)

“To understand the spirituality of hip-hop, we must begin to grasp the intense quest of an oppressed people for a window of hope that can sustain life in the midst of crazy paradoxes.”  (117)

“Hip-hop’s self-awareness recognizes only that something is missing; it does not recognize what it is and where it can be found.  The church is the last place it would look for the answer.”  (119)

“The desire to welcome you and to have you “come as you are” to the African American worship experience, however, is coupled with a weakness in practical application to build sustainable faith.  It is true that the U.S. church as a whole has this flaw…” (121)

“The spirituality hip-hop offers is attractive but can’t provide consistent, holistic solutions–internal peace and sustainable life change.” (123)

“The African American church has always tended to be conservative theologically but liberal in regard to social issues.”  (123)

“The teaching of the Five Percent Nation reflects the larger drive of hip-hop:  the need to be self-supporting, self-educating and self-directed.” (127)

The main theme I want to pick up in relation to Smith and Jackson is that of liberation and empowerment.  In my reading of the Hip-Hop Church what stood out to me was that hip-hop culture has emerged as a medium which gives voice to a systemically marginalized urban population.  Hip-hop culture reflected in deejayin’, emceeing, breaking, graffiti art, street language, street entrepreneurship, beat box, street knowledge, street fashion, and hip-hop spirituality gives expression to the lived experience of those outside the dominant culture.

Smith and Jackson call the church to find ways to position itself in such a way that does not just categorically condemn the hip-hop expressions of culture.  Appealing to Jesus at the well in Samaria (John 4) and Paul at Mars Hill (Acts 17), they call for incarnational forms of witness which take seriously the need to study the historical, sociological conditions which give rise to hip-hop.  They certainly call for critical analysis as we engage with hip-hop, openly acknowledging that there is much content that is not helpful for the cause of liberation and transformation (glorification of drugs, sex, violence…objectification of women…mysogenistic views of women).  However, they also call for an engagement with the poets, prophets and storytellers of the hip-hop culture who are naming a reality within which many young people find themselves.

It is helpful to consider the parallels between the hip-hop truth telling and liberation theology.  Speaking truth to power and exposing the lies and hypocrisy of a system that perpetuates racism, sexism and classism rings true to a gospel-oriented engagement with culture.  The kingdom that Jesus proclaims and embodies does not favor the rich and the well-connected.  It is an upside down kindom that is good news to the poor and freedom to the oppressed (Luke 4).  However, I think Smith and Jackson also point to the limitations of hip-hop culture in being able to provide answers.  If hip-hop is deconstructionist (which I believe it is), the question is how might it move into a more constructivist expression which provides empowerment not through reaction (defining self over and against the system) but through authentic transformation of story through a Gospel lens.

I wonder if this is the kind of message Bill Cosby is bringing to the African-American community as he has questioned the way in which the African American community has become disempowered as they have embraced the negative images, behaviors, values and identity that have been proliferated through the hip-hop culture.  How do you balance the need to name injustices and oppression without perpetuating a victim mentality and identity?  What is the source of authentic empowerment?

It is also clear that true liberation and empowerment do not come through the Christendom oppression and illusions.  I believe Smith and Jackson are calling us to find post-colonial ways of discovering the implications of the Good News of Jesus Christ with a multi-cultural lens.  They are calling us beyond a white, middle-class suburban Jesus church which has traditionally (because there is political and economic power) marginalized the elements of truth and the authenticity of the voices speaking the code and stories of a marginalized people.  How might Jesus speak to the black experience in non-colonial ways?  How might Jesus resonate with the truth-telling that cries out to expose the systemic injustices that have contributed to the struggle for liberation in the black experience?  If the church itself has been part of the oppression, how will the liberation call for transformed institutions?

This is where the prophetic voices of Martin Luther King Jr., James Perkins, and Cornell West provide examples of constructive forms of engagement without minimizes the force of injustice in history.  They cling to the hope of transformation from within the resources of the Jesus story.  They call all of us (powerful and disempowered) to a journey of transformation that is more than merely self-supporting, self-educating, and self-directed.

The Good News calls for reconciliation and a restoration.  The Good News calls for healing that takes seriously history–both personal and social history.  The challenge becomes working towards the transformation of communal (global) realities in a way that does not sweep history under the rug.  This takes trust and hard work as disparate peoples come to a table of conversation in the kingdom of God.  It takes humility and a servant attitude.  For the powerful, it takes a willingness to examine how our relationship with power has distorted our understanding of the Good News.  For the marginalized, it also takes a willingness to truly experience liberation and not continue to find power through a victim identity.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Steve permalink
    April 6, 2009 8:51 am

    Brian–The quotes you pulled are the ones that speak to me as well. What are the insights that you pull from looking at hip hop that influence what you might do at Sunnyside or who we might be as Mennonites?

    This invitation toward constructivism–that you find in Smith & Jackson, is my bias as well. Post-integration and now with Obama, what is the message of the black church, the white church, the multi-cultural church in a US context of imbalanced power?

    I leave with more questions than I came with which is never a bad thing. I need to do the bricoleuring work, probably we all do. And I wonder what it is that we can see from within the hip-hop movement that’s both revolutionary and Biblical? (using Smith’s ending quote)

  2. just an apprentice permalink
    April 6, 2009 11:25 am

    Thanks for the feedback and questions. As far as how hip hop might influence what we do at Sunnyside…I see our immediate neighborhood identifying with the hip hop voice and culture. There is an identification with the themes of disenfranchisement…systemic injustice. We have a talent show night (at TATH) every year…also have begun karaoke. Both these formats provide opportunity for this indigenous hip-hop voice to be expressed. I am intrigued by Kirby’s method of inviting people to bring music into the classroom that speaks a message that they find themselves in or identify with. I wonder how we might more deliberately engage with the music that represents the experience of our neighbors. I wonder how that might transform the space in which we gather and the depth of our relationship?

  3. April 6, 2009 3:39 pm

    I’ve been thinking about your comment:

    “I wonder how we might more deliberately engage with the music that represents the experience of our neighbors.”

    I’m also wondering what deliberate engagement could look like? From my time in youth ministry, we spent a lot of time looking at resources that talked about evaluating media (including the work of many hip-hop artists). But I found these resources–though certainly having merits of their own–tended to be a little too focused on how we could “use them” for ministry purposes. There sometimes was little engagement with the “story” the artist was trying to tell. I’m thinking that deliberate engagement will entail getting much more in touch with the story and learning to hear what’s being said. This is an area where I feel I need to grow, I’m intrigued by what hip-hop artists are speaking to our culture.

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