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Alejandro NavaMarch 03, 2023
Kendrick Lamar at an event for The 60th Annual Grammy Awards in 2018. (IMDB)

I am not sure if it was hip-hop or a curiosity for religious questions that first prompted my interest in human rights and social justice, but I know that they each had something to do with my personal and professional development. Religion and hip-hop may seem like odd bedfellows, but in my hearing they share more in common than many would presume.

Chronologically speaking, hip-hop came to me first, its fat beats and siren-like voices mesmerizing my attention as early as my middle school days. Even before I was able to fully name and decode it, I knew there was something in it that resonated with my own experiences and roots. Not only were rap’s street bards capable of coaxing an amazing range of tones and rhythms from their mouths in beautifully spun yarns; they were also capable of turning situations of poverty and marginalization—something that my family knew firsthand—into points of pride, something even to boast about. They flipped the prevailing narrative on ghettos and barrios in the Americas, transforming neighborhoods and communities that were routinely demeaned and ostracized into places bursting with abundant life, and proving that beauty could come out of impoverished conditions, lotus flowers out of the mud.

Hip-hop’s cadenced chronicles of poverty and racial injustice made me more mindful of social problems here in the United States.

In the process, hip-hop’s cadenced chronicles of poverty and racial injustice—however hyperbolic—made me more mindful of social problems here in the United States, and complemented what I saw with my own eyes, both in Tucson and across the border. Both sides of my family tree have origins in southern Arizona. Trips across the border were regular parts of my childhood, and any time we crossed, we suddenly entered a different world, beset on all sides by hungry children and beggars, some of them no more than living wraiths.

At some point, we walked into one of the makeshift colonias in Nogales, Mexico, where people constructed threadbare shelters near landfills and dumping grounds, and struggled with ant-like determination every day to survive. This experience, still raw in my memory, hit me like a lightning strike, bringing before my eyes a darker and more deprived part of the Americas, not unlike the way hip-hop revealed to me another world here in the United States, just across certain streets and neighborhoods.

As years went by and I searched for ideas and images that reflected many of these experiences, I was pulled into the orbit of the liberation theologians. They finally gave me the words to hang on my early experiences. Seen through their eyes, Christianity was a voice of the slaves, the outcasts and the oppressed of history, a lineage that traced its roots to a group of nomads, captives and exiles who slogged their way across the deserts of the ancient Near East. Like their forerunner in the Hebrew prophets—a bird that sings before the dawn, in Julius Wellhausen’s graceful definition—liberation theologians raised an alarm to the threats and injustices of the day, rousing listeners from their slumber, warning of impending doom.

Hip-Hop rhymed with many of the concerns of the liberation theologians, especially when it came to matters of racial justice and human rights.

I heard them loudly and clearly. They broke through the windows of my world like a high-pitched note or bleating shofar. They made me see with greater clarity the histories of oppression in the Americas, including the unending violence and injustice that continues to create an exodus of migrants and refugees to the north, many of whom risk dying in the gaping jaws of the desert, like Moses who never makes it to the Promised Land.

Hip-hop’s street knowledge

As I was reading and wrestling with such things, I almost always had hip-hop hollering in my ears. If more profane, and more interested in partying than politics, hip-hop as I heard it still rhymed with many of the concerns of the liberation theologians, especially when it came to matters of racial justice and human rights. With its rumbling bass lines, incantatory syntax and conscious emcees, it played a role in my coming of age, contributing, along with the books that I greedily started to devour, to my love of learning. The music gave me my first conscious taste of mellifluously charged language, orchestrated as a blend of poetry and song. Since I didn’t grow up surrounded by books (I’m the first in my family to graduate from college), rappers were the first to enchant me with words, their rhymes and chants like some kind of magical spell.

Hip-hop has almost always prioritized the knowledge, experience and artistic expressions of the poor and disenfranchised.

The more I listened and allowed the music to wash over me, the more I began to notice the complexities and varieties of the genre, including the surprising effusions of religious passions and appetites. Hip-hop was bigger than I had ever presumed, running over the banks of any one creed, school or style. It resisted definitive formulations and shapes, shifting as quickly as the sea in a riotous storm. Like the god Proteus, it slips through your fingers just when you think you have a hold on it. Call it shallow and devoid of self-awareness and it will turn brooding and introspective; presume that its rhymes are contrived and crude and it will present you with instances of remarkable wordplay, prosody and metrical variation; conclude that it lives and breathes for pleasure alone and it will inspire a movement; judge it profane and it will suddenly leap into a sanctified register, whooping and discoursing like an inspired preacher.

Hip-hop and liberation?

To play the devil’s advocate: Even if it can soar into sanctified heights, and the name of God is invoked with unexpected frequency, does it follow that hip-hop bears a liberationist impulse? Is the music and culture compatible with the tradition of liberation theology?

First and foremost, hip-hop’s self-understanding and primary reason for being is festive and bacchanalian, committed to tearing the roof off this sucker, to wrecking the house. It lives and breathes for thrilling the body, moving the hips, slaying the spirit. If it is defiant in the process, it is defiant by way of celebration, not by way of social and political engagement.

Put another way, hip-hop is revolutionary for its aesthetic and cultural inventiveness. From the very beginning, it ushered in a new style and vision by searching the wreckage and ruins of the Civil Rights era, scavenging for musical shards and fragments and creating new medleys out of those old splinters of sound. In the hands of a skilled D.J. or producer, different musical texts from the age of R&B, soul and funk were first raided, chopped and cut; and then, in a determination to avoid discarding any scraps, spliced and pasted together again to make a new arrangement, a vibrant sunlight of sound, blindingly fresh. Hip-hop turned the practice of salvaging into the stuff of art, proving that holiness could be found in the broken.

Hip-Hop as a the genre has given us a fresh vision of the world, seen through the eyes of disenfranchised youth.

Through such acts of ingenuity and cunning, through the perfect beat, the perfect rhyme pattern or the sheer ecstasy of music, hip-hop has always been freeing and liberating, an unfettering of the soul. And while many of these things may be subtle and personal in their redemptive sway, there are countless figures in the culture of hip-hop, past and present, who have employed the genre as a prophetic medium, using their words, images and gestures as weapons of the powerless against the strong, David’s slingshot against the behemoth Goliath. These figures come from the same mold as the biblical prophets: They share their love of the spoken word, their identification with the plight of the poor and downtrodden, their rage for justice, their dream of a better future.

Hip-hop can be, in such cases, an instance of one of liberation theology’s central tenets, nicely described by the theologian Leo Guardado: “The key principle of liberation theology is the ‘preferential option for the poor.’ This is a commitment to prioritize the material needs of the poor, as well as their knowledge, experience and spirituality. This principle is grounded in the conviction that God is not neutral, but is always on the side of those who most struggle to live.” Whatever else hip-hop is—and it is true that it is wildly incongruent—it has almost always prioritized the knowledge, experience and artistic expressions of the poor and disenfranchised, throwing itself on the side of those who most struggle to live. These traits run throughout the history of the genre, sometimes trickling, sometimes seething and storming.

Kendrick Lamar

Consider the case of Kendrick Lamar, one of the most skillful of today’s M.C.s. Part-wordsmith, part-griot, part-street sage, Lamar raps with the fervor and grace of an inspired preacher, uniting compulsive music with a meaningful message, verbal acrobatics with sharp stinging truths. His entire discography bleeds with a sense of solemnity and higher purpose, the verses often written in the imperative mood of the prophets, demanding action, sparking awareness, saving souls.

One of my favorites of his raps, a parable of God’s surprising appearance in the guise of a beggar, titled “How Much a Dollar Cost,” comes from his 2015 album “To Pimp a Butterfly.” In my reading, this rap builds on one of the most influential songs on the album—“Alright,” the anthem for Black Lives Matter and hip-hop’s equivalent of “We Shall Overcome”—but swerves directly toward theological matters.

Sonically speaking, the music here doesn’t burst out of the speakers as in other raps (“Blacker the Berry,” for instance); it bubbles and fizzes instead, a softer mixture of tambourine, piano and pensive warbles with classic boom-bap percussion. Delivered in the first person, the rap describes an interaction with a beggar whom the rapper is tempted to dismiss and belittle. (The song is based on Lamar’s encounter with a homeless man during his trip to South Africa.) Once Lamar gets past his first impression of the man, he hears him invoke the Bible: “Have you ever opened up Exodus 14/ A humble man is all we ever need.” Exodus 14, recall, details the episode of the Red Sea, with the Pharaoh’s army on the heels of the fleeing Israelites. Drunk with his power and privilege, the Pharaoh sends his army to re-enslave the Israelites—until God intervenes. Instead of identifying himself with the Israelites of the story, however, Lamar makes himself out to be the villain, equating his own cruel and hard heart with the Pharaoh.

The beggar, conversely, turns out to be the Messiah, his appearance a theophany in the guise of a vagabond: “Know the truth,” he remarks, “it’ll set you free/ You’re looking at the Messiah, the son of Jehovah, the higher truth/ the choir that spoke the word, the Holy Spirit/ the nerve of Nazareth, and I’ll tell you just how much a dollar cost/ The price of having a spot in heaven, embrace your loss, I am God.”

In essence, the rap is a midrash of Exodus and the Gospels, reading the Scriptures in light of ghetto predicaments and possibilities, reading them in solidarity with the poor and outcasts of the modern world. His rap aspires to the condition of sacred poetry, what Kaveh Akbar in The Penguin Book of Spiritual Verse calls “earnest, musical language meant to thin the partition between a person and the divine.” It looks for God’s presence among the unclean and ostracized, just as Bartolomeo de las Casas once discovered the crucified Christ in the lives of Native peoples.

In my own work with refugees in Tucson (at Casa Alitas, an offshoot of Catholic Community Services), I always keep Lamar’s song in mind, letting it resound in my ears. It encourages me to see the strangers and migrants in my midst with the eyes of faith. It gives me hope for what hip-hop can be, his words resonating with my own beliefs and convictions. I find myself nodding and bobbing my head to his beats and rhymes, relating to his restless and pensive inner life, his passion for justice, his willingness to change and grow, his quest for God. I hear in his music a rich reserve of Gospel truths, revelations that combine meaningful messages with dope beats and crafty rhymes, revelations that rhyme with fundamental themes in liberation theology.

And while hip-hop may not have exactly changed the world, as a new PBS documentary narrated by Public Enemy’s Chuck D argues, I think that the genre has given us a fresh vision of it, seen through the eyes of disenfranchised youth. It is, in this way, a wayward cousin of liberation theology.

Listen next: Finding God in hip-hop and liberation theology

More: Theology / Music

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