‘Ghetto Gospel’: Life lessons from street scriptures
At first glance, God and hip-hop must seem like odd bedfellows, like mixing together the sacred and profane, the sublime and the vulgar. If we dig deeper, however, there are some surprising points of compatibility, especially when considered in light of the Christian story, where God appears sub contrariis, at the “opposite” of the world’s expectations and values. Like Christianity in its earliest beginnings, or the blues in American life, hip-hop is proof that God can appear in unsuspecting locations, in swamps and ghettos as much as churches.
While many of the rebukes of rap music are necessary and appropriate—depending, naturally, on the artist and song in question—there are times when these criticisms seem to sample and rehearse the denunciations of black music throughout the 20th century. Slander was often tossed at blues, jazz, R&B and soul music: the blues for its exuberant sexuality; jazz for coming out of the red-light district of New Orleans; R&B and soul for stealing the rhythms and ecstasies of gospel music. In each instance, there was an inquisitional strategy at work that sought to censure, if not excommunicate, these styles of art from American life, with glaring, if largely unspoken, prejudices about the people who created the music.
In some cases, African-American musicians were depicted as Faust-like figures who gave their souls to the devil and received sorcery-like powers to mesmerize or hypnotize their listeners in return. In numerous legends, these genres were cast as forms of black magic that could spell doom for pious folk, that could bring a hellish, charring fire to Americans who were better off with a simmering music of decorum and composure, not this boiling cauldron of grunts and grinds. Coming into contact with this music was like handling a radioactive isotope or playing with hazardous material; it could poison you with its toxic energy, rock your small, white world.
While hip-hop flirts more aggressively with the profane than its forerunners, it nonetheless belongs to the same orbit of sound and feels the same gravitational pull of the heavens as the blues, jazz and R&B before it. I do not deny that the music can have a very vulgar pitch to it and, at times, circles the drain in displays of prodigal excess, from hedonistic revelry to swaggering curses. And yet, even in the thick mud of this wild prodigality, there remains a concurrent flow of the deepest spiritual tributaries, one that taps into subterranean springs from black history and adds a mournful, blues-like trickle to the more raging waters of rap’s hollers, shouts and boasts. In these instances, hip-hop can strike a note that is thoroughly baptized in spiritual waters, in rivers that roll like the Jordan and bleed like the Red Sea. In the best of hip-hop, there is spiritual profundity and brooding depth in its beats and lyrics, and it can be powerful witness to the process of “soul-making” as described by John Keats: the schooling of the intelligence by the pains and troubles of the world.
Hip-Hop Theology 101
Hip-hop first came to me in childhood with all the mystery and thrill of a first love (to use the rapper Common’s metaphor). I fell for her because of her big, fat, apple-bottom beats, bewitching flows and bombastic wiles. As the years went on, hip-hop would change and ripen, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, but whatever the case, I remained a loyal listener. I began graduate school at the University of Chicago in religious studies in the 1990s, the decade of some of hip-hop’s most brilliant creations. Tupac Shakur burst onto the stage of hip-hop wearing multiple masks—villain and saint, pimp and preacher, street hustler and prophet—and many others would follow suit.
Even when playing the part of these former characters, Tupac remained haunted and hounded by God and would frequently interrupt his raps with prayers, supplications, wails and Job-like protests unto God. “Shed So Many Tears,” for example, combines a description of raw anguish with a desperate longing for God’s presence: “Lord, I suffered through the years, and shed so many tears/ Lord, I lost so many peers, and shed so many tears.” “I Ain’t Mad at Cha” grieves in this same vein and dreams of a ghetto heaven that would give rest and redemption to the most vulnerable of our world: “I beg God to make a way for our ghetto kids to breathe/ Show a sign, make us all believe.” Many other songs, including “I Wonder if Heaven Got a Ghetto,” “Black Jesus,” “Ghetto Gospel,” “Only God Can Judge Me,” “Hail Mary” and “Are You Still Down?” echo similar themes, as Tupac makes his voice swing between ethereal highs and mournful lows, searching for the right frequency to reach God. And Tupac is not a lone theological voice in rap: Bone Thugs–N–Harmony turns the infamous crossroads of blues narratives into a place where God is encountered instead of the devil; Nas cries out for the “Holy Spirit to save me.... Cause my eyes have seen too much suffering”; and Lauryn Hill, to summon this remarkable female voice, raps about “change the focus/ From the richest to the brokest.... Let God redeem you/ keep your deen true.”
Needless to say, as a student of religion I was particularly intrigued by rappers who would wantonly traverse the borders of the sacred and profane in this way. The list was a long catalog of the most distinguished rappers: Tupac, Nas, Lauryn Hill, Public Enemy, The Geto Boys, Common, Mos Def, KRS-One, the Fugees, Bone Thugs–N–Harmony, Wu-Tang Clan and numerous others. These figures created music that was earthy and coarse but laced with unmistakable notes of transcendence. The result was often a more mature, if tortured, spirituality than could be found in many churches, a thug’s theology so to speak. Instead of a view of God from the pulpits or the ivory towers of the universities, artists in this vein were rapping about God out of the baritone depths of the human soul. From these guttural regions, they would sometimes reach surprising heights of sublimity as they wrestled with the crushing weight of suffering, the pits of despair, the darkness of God, and somehow came out kicking.
During my years in graduate school, I also started listening more carefully to the wild alphabet of rap narratives, the way letters, inflections and syntax were arranged and delivered, the way notes and rhymes were made out of the dissonance and cacophony of street blocks, the way these rappers would rip up the surface of older sounds in order to make room for their own voices and emotions. I took all of this as a science of the streets, served up with delicious beats, throaty moans and lyrics that, Muhammad Ali-like, bounced, floated and boxed the listener’s ears. More and more, I wanted to see if these street scriptures had anything to add to my formal studies at the university.
Talking ‘Bout Chi-Town
While my experience in the classroom at the University of Chicago was nothing but enthralling and elevating, I was also discovering at the time new streetscapes on Chicago’s South Side that were unlike anything I knew in my hometown of Tucson, and the experience was like a surreal jolt that opened my eyes to the distressed parts of Chicago. In these neighborhoods, only a stone’s throw away from the university, streets change with great suddenness, turning from Eden-like gardens into concrete jungles where death rates are alarmingly high. This was the Chicago described by Common, Kanye West and Lupe Fiasco more than the Chicago of Nobel laureates. “I walk through the valley of the Chi were death is,” Kanye bellows, “God show me the way because the devil’s trying to break me down.” West’s Chicago is a perilous and terrifying jungle, where serpentine forces are coiled in the corners, ready to snatch and claim your soul. Another Chicagoan, Common, even gives these dangers a precise location on the South Side: “Corners leave souls opened and closed/ hoping for more/ with nowhere to go/ rolling in droves.... These are the stories told by Stony and Cottage Grove.” In these renditions, hip-hop is a testimony to all the untold stories of the corners and peripheries of America. It is testimony to a second or third world America, where the specters of segregation seem alive and well, as if Jim Crow still rises from his grave to stalk new generations of black folk like a revenant ghost.
While I felt shielded from many of these dangers when I was at the university, my academic focus on Latin American and African-American traditions imposed a set of expectations on me that required attention to the problems that surrounded the university. With some remarkable teachers like the Rev. David Tracy, Anne Carr and Homi Bhabha, my mind was encouraged to branch out and create bridges between the worlds of theory and practice, academia and the broader world. They gave me the skills and daring to cross the invisible borders that divide various disciplines and communities. They encouraged me to venture into unexplored and forbidden zones of thought and experience.
As a first-generation college graduate, I felt suddenly uprooted from my desert homeland in Arizona and planted in a garden of intellectual delights. I also had the opportunity at the time to attend a lecture by a relatively unknown professor from the Chicago Theological Seminary: Michael Eric Dyson. I didn’t know who he was, but his subject matter, “God and hip-hop,” addressed themes and issues that I recognized as revelatory in my life. Along with his focus, Professor Dyson’s lecturing style also had an effect on me: It was a fusion of preacher, professor and rapper. (His lecture inspired me to write on the topic and to develop a related class at the University of Arizona, titled “Rap, Culture and God.”)
Hip-hop has been an unmistakable tutor in my life, helping me to see parts of the American landscape that are often invisible to the official cartographers and surveyors of the body politic. With hip-hop banging in my ear, I took up my studies at the University of Chicago from a unique angle, one that helped me scrutinize higher education for its capacity, or failure, to spotlight the trials and tribulations of our world. Instead of distancing me from the figure of Jesus, hip-hop brought me closer to him. I came to see his parables as the older, wiser but not altogether different effort of rap artists to use words and beats, like a Kabbalistic incantation, to exorcize the demons of war and division, misery and despair that have always plagued the lives of the poor and oppressed. Hip-hop confirmed for me a fundamental theme in Christianity: God reveals wisdom in the ruins of history, where the young and poor are in the struggle for survival and where outcasts fight for their daily bread. The rocks and graffiti of hip-hop’s iconoclasm made me more Catholic, more attentive to the universal problems faced by people of color throughout the Americas and throughout the world. For me, it has been something like a secular riff on a theologia crucis or a memento mori on the deaths of countless young lives throughout the world. And it has helped me locate the death of Jesus—killed as an outlaw and thug by the Roman Empire—in the faces of the poor and destitute of our age.
Hip-hop also confirmed a truth found deep in the American grain: There are wilder truths, and more soulful lessons than the classroom can offer, that a whaling ship could be one’s Harvard and Yale (Melville), that the slums and tenements of New York could be the finest tutors (Stephen Crane) and that “beyond the walls of intelligence, life is defined” (Nas).