Rap Research Group #2: Is Hip-Hop Just A Euphemism For A New Religion?

by December 8, 2010

As part of The Hip-Hop Word Count project, Tahir Hemphill hosts a series of Rap Research Groups which make for lively and casually moderated discussions between Rap enthusiasts, historians, creative technologists, cultural critics, linguists, teachers, MC’s and academics.

Rap Research Group #2 will meet this Wednesday, December 15 at Eyebeam Technology Center 540 West 21st St at 7:30.

The discussion on Religion is presented by Reverend Sekou – Is Hip-Hop Just A Euphemism For A New Religion? The pre-requisite reading material is below.

Spiritual not Religious: Hip Hop, Spirituality, and the Future of the Black Church
Written by Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou

Spiritual but not Religious
One hot June afternoon on the eve of Tupac Shakur’s birthday, we gathered in the fellowship hall of Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey. The hall was suited for about 200 people but well over 500 people crammed in the space. Cameras and reporters swarmed and hovered as Hip Hop and young movement celebrities give selective interviews and posed for photojournalists and daunting fans alike. Reporters seemed stunned at the fact the words of “Hip Hop” and “politics” were being used in the same sentence. The occasion was the National Hip Hop Political Convention (NHHPC).

In the midst of a pivotal Presidential election of 2004, over three days, 6,000 or more youth activists, organizers, Hip Hop authors and journalists, and a few clergy gathered to contemplate the role of Hip Hop in American politics. The opening event of the convention at Mt. Zion Baptist sought to bridge the infamous generation gap.

With the war in Iraq, expanding prison industrial complex, crumbling public schools, and palpable breach between the Civil Rights the Hip Hop generations, an intergenerational dialogue kicked off three days of intense debate concerning the political future of our generation and ultimately our democracy. Moderated by a youth pastor and movement elder, the dialogue included movement veteran Dr. Ron Daniel, Rev. Dr. Michael Eric Dyson and me. I began my talk with a harsh criticism of the very institution that was hosting us and that gave me my voice-the Black church.

I laid bare the level of mistrust engendered by some Black church leadership and lamented the fact that number churches in our community are led by commuter shepards; Self-serving pastors who drive luxury automobiles from well manicured suburbs to improvised inner cities to Sunday service. More often than not the commuting clergy preached to a commuter flock; Black middle class members of these houses of worship, who do the same as their pastor.

I noted that a number of young people in Hip Hop generation have been burned by the church. They have been exposed to a number of religious traditions, such as Islam, and found at least a truth that helped them make sense of the world in their own image. Hence, I stated: “This is why a number of people in our generation say I am not religious. I am. . .” And on cue, over 500 young people bemoaned: “spiritual”.

Nearly, four years later with another major presidential election pending, I recalled this experience at another historic gathering at Harvard Divinity School. Sponsored by Harambee- the divinity school’s black student organization, the symposium was entitled, “Hip Hop and its Religious sensibilities”, yet, another pairing that puzzled reporters and Ivy League professors alike. This panel was a collection of theologians, clergy, a female Muslim divinity student, a Christian rapper, two African-American studies professors, a youth practitioner, and myself. As I re-told the Newark story to the Harvard audience, they on cue responded with the generational mantra: “I am spiritual.”

For a decade and half, I have pondered the question of the relevance of the Black Church and its relationship to Hip Hop. In my first book, urbansouls, I mediated upon my experiences as a youth advocate and youth minister. As a result of the book, which this essay builds upon, I have been referred to as a “Hip Hop” theologian. Equally, I am child of the Black church- an ordained elder in the Church of God in Christ. I love the church. It saved my life and offered me the space to explore my gifts and celebrated in the public presentation of those gifts. Yet this is not the experience of many of my peers.

These aforementioned experiences offer damnable critique of the Black church and its relationship to Hip Hop and young people. Whether the setting is an inner city middle school, gang funeral, the nation’s most famous school of religion, or a gathering of young political activists, the criticism of the Black church remains unified. In their minds and lives, the Black church is irrelevant to their life chances.

Moreover, there are not any theologians or scholars of religion who are attempting to craft a systematic theology or spirituality that takes youth voices seriously. This is in part of both the lack of value attributed to poor black and brown youth voices in the academy, the inability of the black church to relate to youth, and above all the sheer lack of courage among African-American religious leaders and otherwise to sit at the feet of young folks and engage them in sustained way. This lack of engagement is fueled a belief among older African-Americans and younger Black folks with petite bourgeois sensibilities concerning youth. In word, the problem with Black folks is young black folks -ala Bill Cosby.

Reading the graffiti on the wall
As theologian and clergyman, three perennial questions haunt my existence: How do we end human misery? In light of said misery, how do humans make meaning for themselves in circumstances not of their own choosing? And what do our contemporary circumstances have to teach us about meaning making? Given that religion is primarily is a meaning-making activity. Humans use it to situate themselves in within a broader context in the face dread, death, and despair. Religion offers an eternal story in the face of a finite reality.

The foreboding gap between the Black church and youth has lead youth to seek and create alternative spaces of meaning making. Hip Hop’s saliency proves a space of meaning. The question at hand is how do we interpret that meaning? To achieve such an answer, one must take ontological risk that will lead to existential vertigo. “Ontology itself can not formulate ethical precepts. It is concerned solely with what is, and we cannot possibly derive imperatives from ontology’s indicatives. It does, however, allow us to catch a glimpse of what sort of ethics will assume its responsibilities when confronted with a human reality in situation.” Hip Hop reflects the situation of youth and their relationship to the church and society. Hip Hop reflects the situation of youth in America. And if the Black church is to remain relevant in the 21st century is most ponder it relationship to Hip Hop, youth activism, and young people.

Treating young people as theological agents is sure to cause the same consternation that puzzled the reporters at the NHHPC and professors at Harvard Divinity. Hip Hop and theology are not typically shared in the same discourse. They are often seen as oppositional. In the preface to his book, The Parallax View philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek provides a vision for blending of seemingly unrelated topics.

A short circuit occurs when there is a faulty connection in the network-faulty, of course, from the stand point of the network’s smooth functioning. Is not the shock of short-circuiting, therefore, one of the best metaphors for a critical reading? Is not one of the most effective critical procedures to cross the wires that don’t usually touch: to take a major classic (text, author, notion), and read it in a short-circuiting way through the lens of a “minor” author, text, conceptual apparatus (“minor” should be understood here in Deleuze’s sense” not “of lesser quality,” but marginalized, disavowed by the hegemonic ideology, or dealing with a “lower”, less dignified topic)? If the minor reference is well chosen, such a procedure can lead to insights which completely shatter and undermine our common perceptions.

By suggesting that that young people are theological agents, both the historical theological canon and the sub-hegemony of the black church on religious discourse are short circuited. Given Hip Hop’s impact on the life chances of youth, I want to position Hip Hop artists as para-theologians. The term para-theologian is inspired by St. Clair Drake insightful category, para-intellectuals. Hip Hop artist are persons outside the church and seminary are active consumers of theological knowledge and used that knowledge for intellectual, activist, and artistic purposes .

Secondly, I want to posit Hip Hop in part as a theology of existence- a systematic theology of ongoing critique of existence that is realized in everyday interactions and practices. Their theology of existence is partially shaped by the constraints of oppressive society and the hope experienced in said situation. This theology has a basic set of discursive coordinates that are epistemological, ontological or ethical positions. In Hip Hop, existence is explicitly thematized and can not be avoided by anyone serious about articulating a theological project relevant to the life and life chances of young Black people and their relationship to the Black church.

This consideration honors spiritual sensibilities of a generation by highlighting the theological and religious moments of Hip Hop music. The intent of this work is not to develop a Hip Hop theology but rather a theological read of Hip Hop culture as means to help us see you people as theological agents, religious beings, and spiritual creatures. Hence, to consider the spiritual not religious phenomona, we must be willing to accept that young people are theological agents; observe Hip Hop as a subterranean spirituality; and to take into account the Hip Hop generation’s critique of the church, which, of course, should not be valorized but its more than valid it is necessary for the redemption of the church.

This framework allows the possibility of a serious and rigours engagement with Hip Hop as the potential euphemism of an emergent religion in late modernity. It pushes me to reconsider my role as pastor and theologian and may help us all be able to say with a straight face- I am a preacher.