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Religion and hip-hop: Encounters

In 1977, just months after looting had broken out in New York’s poorest suburbs
during a substantial power cut, President Jimmy Carter’s motorcade passed
through the South Bronx to ‘survey the damage of the last five years’ (Rose
1994:33). The national media quickly dubbed this disadvantaged area of New
York a ‘symbol of America’s woes’ (ibid.). For many, both insiders and outsiders,
the South Bronx represented a lawless and stagnant wasteland thanks, largely, to
the development of the Cross-Bronx Expressway that ripped through the
community during the 1960s and 70s. Marshall Berman describes the fate of
area: ‘Thus depopulated, economically depleted, emotionally shattered, the
Bronx was ripe for all the dreaded spirals of urban blight.’ (Berman 1982:290)
What no one—least of all Carter and the popular press—could have realised at
the time was that 1970s South Bronx was soon to become enshrined within
countless narratives as the birthplace of a cultural movement that would change
the face of Black expression around the world.
Even before Carter’s visit, the youth of the South Bronx were hard at work
refashioning what it meant to come from the area. Frustrated by being
represented as the embodiment of all that was wrong with America, they started
to express themselves in a variety of novel ways that, together, are now known
as hip-hop. ‘Hiphoppas’ formed into crews or posses through which they
articulated their hip-hop identity by performing as emcees (rapping), deejays, b-
boys and b-girls (break-dancers) and graffiti artists. The young, poor and
predominantly Black residents of the South Bronx were redefining both their
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neighbourhood and themselves as African Americans in a post-civil rights era;
the streets were no longer a site of destruction but a source of creativity.
Decades later, hip-hop looks very different. What began in parks and
street corners has moved into arenas, festivals and clubs, ubiquitously onto
television and into shops as clothing fashion. Hip-hop has exchanged local
particularity for global popularity and, in the process, the scope of hip-hop has
expanded massively. The specificity of hip-hop identity has grown to span socio-
economic divides, with some ‘hiphoppas’ living in inner-city housing projects
like they did in the seventies and eighties, and others living in mansions on the
hills around Los Angeles or in Manhattan penthouses, travelling between them
by private jet.
None of this would have been possible had hip-hop not entered the
marketplace. In 1979, The Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’ was released by
Sugarhill Records, a record company whose owner aimed to ‘capitalise on what
she saw as a potentially lucrative musical trend’ (Jennings 2003:9). Many were
introduced to hip-hop culture by this song (ibid. 8) but what few realised was
that hip-hop’s venture into the consciousness of the masses created a dilemma.
David Toop describes the reaction of the hip-hop community to ‘Rapper’s
Delight’ as ‘a contradictory mixture of resentment and a desire to get in on the
action’ (2000:16). Hip-hop had been bottled and sold, and this presented
hiphoppas with a problem: shaping hip-hop culture and the constitution of a hip-
hop identity was no longer just the concern of hiphoppas themselves; those who
positioned themselves outside of hip-hop culture also wanted a stake. Ever since,
hip-hop has been the site of a complex conflict of interests, a battlefield in a
struggle for self-representation.
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This essay aims to examine how religion and hip-hop interact. Religion—
as a descriptive category and as networks of institutions, beliefs and practices
that are deemed to fall within that category—has found its identities expressed
through the medium of hip-hop, but only more recently has this been reversed,
with religious concepts forming the means through which hip-hop identities are
conveyed. The most extreme example of this is renowned hip-hop artist KRS-
One’s 2009 publication The Gospel of Hip Hop in which he frames hip-hop as
being a religion in its own right. ‘HIP HOP IS THE PROMISED LAND,’ he
proclaims. (2009:46, 47, 48). Other works take a more nuanced approach, such
as Wu-Tang Clan member Rza’s book The Tao of Wu (2009) or Ralph Basui
Watkins’ Hip-Hop Redemption (2011).
It is my claim that encounters between hip-hop and religion such as these
can be understood as being part of two larger struggles. One is fought between
hiphoppas and external commercial agents that have incongruous interests. Both
groups wish to stake financial and epistemological claims over hip-hop. Here,
religious discourses function to assign a kind of ultimate authority to hip-hop,
not just because ‘God’ is brought into the discussion but also because of the
institutional power that organised religion holds in America in particular. The
other struggle is the result of hip-hop’s socio-historical context. In the post-civil
rights era, racially discriminatory structures continued to dictate the lives of
African Americans but the religious institutions that had provided a space to
destabilise racial inequality prior to the emergence of hip-hop were becoming
more and more irrelevant to poor, black inner-city residents (Hutchinson
2012:15). Hip-hop provided a way for young African-Americans to fill the space
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left by religious institutions, and this is demonstrated by the religious ideas that
are present in hip-hop.
To argue this claim, the essay is structured as follows: in the first section, I
explore the various ways in which religion and hip-hop have confronted and
employed one another in the discourse of publications and academia, as well as
song lyrics and interviews. Following this is an examination of the development
of hip-hop culture and the context in which hip-hop has evolved, tracing the
social relations with which it is bound up and following its transformation into a
lucrative investment opportunity that has lead to the stakes becoming ever
higher for those whose identities are defined in terms of hip-hop. Finally, I draw
out some of the wider implications that this investigation has for our
understandings of identity and the Study of Religions in general.

Identities and encounters
The Study of Religions is an inter-disciplinary field of scholarship that takes a
multi-disciplinary approach (Connolly 1999:7). This means that although it can
be seen historically as being derived from theology (Alles 2010:39), there are no
formally or informally defined approaches and methods that have developed
within, or are unique to, the field of study. This is due, in part, to the fact that
‘religion’ is a particularly aporetic category, the coordinates of which have been
mapped in a wide variety of ways. As such, works that locate religion as their
object of study have borrowed their methodologies from many other disciplines,
resulting in anthropological, historical, psychological, sociological and
philosophical approaches to the Study of Religion, to name just a few. This has
also meant that studies of religion are regularly combined with other subjects.
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Rather than just examining a religion, they study an aspect of a religion or its
relationship with ‘non-religious’ phenomena; for example, there may be studies
on ‘The Politics of Catholicism’, ‘A History of Shi’a Islam’, or ‘Art in Shan
Buddhism’.
The emergence of hip-hop in scholarship is far more recent, but there are
some similarities with the Study of Religion in the way that it fits into the
academy. Again, there is no set methodology and hip-hop is not often studied as
a sui generis phenomenon. It can be found in disciplines and fields such as,
Cultural Studies, History and Music, taught in a steadily expanding range of
degree courses (Hip Hop Archive n.d.).
However, despite both fields of study being structured in such a way that
would invite the two to cross paths, there is relatively little in the way of
scholarship on hip-hop and religion. What does exist is a handful of journal
articles and a few publications such as the collection of essays entitled Noise and
Spirit (2003), whose editor, Anthony Pinn, also began teaching a course on
‘Religion and Hip Hop’ in 2011 with rapper Bun B at Rice University, Texas.
Although these resources provide some very useful insight into encounters
between religion and hip-hop, none provide a thorough analysis in which
contemporary issues around identity formation are taken into consideration. In
the small amount that is written so far, either religious identities, hip-hop
identities or both are conceptualised as being a priori to the discussion. Although
interesting observations can be made in this way, such as Juan Floyd-Thomas’s
considerations of the way that American Islam has evolved through its
expression in hip-hop (2003:66), or James Perkinson’s reflections on hip-hop’s
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relationship with notions of death (2003:148-149), much can be missed by
conceptualising these identities as fixed.
Identity has become a major focus for study in recent times, but this is
largely because it has been subjected to deconstructive critiques (ibid. 1). We can
no longer speak of identities as if they are solid, concrete objects that exist out of
historical and social context, but at the same time identities are still crucial in
determining our realities (ibid.). In order for individuals to act or for groups to
act collectively, they must first form a stable notion of who they are, and this is
why identity is an important conceptual category of analysis. While identities
constitute ‘points of temporary attachment to the subject positions which
discursive practices construct for us’ (Hall 1996:6) they only exist in and of their
articulation and performance, which makes identity a mode of ‘doing’ rather
than ‘being’ (Butler 1990:25). From this perspective, it becomes both possible
and necessary to understand what is at stake when identities are articulated in
particular ways, by examining performances and knowledge formations that are
tied up with them.
Broadly speaking, when considering encounters between religion and
hip-hop, two trends can be observed. In some instances, hip-hop provides the
structure within which religious identities are articulated; hip-hop sets the stage
for religious performance. In other cases, this is the other way around and hip-
hop is, as Erykah Badu says in ‘The Healer’, ‘bigger than religion’ (2008). Here,
religious notions and ideas form the platform upon which hip-hop identities may
be enunciated.

Religious identities on the hip-hop stage
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For the religiously adherent, hip-hop culture provides very fertile ground on
which to express their religious beliefs and reflections. Probably the most
obvious way in which this is done through is a simple proclamation of faith. In
his song ‘Jesus Walks’, Kanye West says, ‘God show me the way because the Devil
trying to break me down’ against a repetitively sung—almost chanted—hook,
‘Jesus walks, Jesus walks with me’ (West 2004). Lupe Fiasco begins his album
Food & Liquor by reciting a Muslim prayer in Arabic that translates roughly as ‘I
seek refuge with Allah from Satan the rejected, in the name of Allah the most
gracious, ever merciful’ (Lupe Fiasco 2006: ‘Intro’). Others use their creative
space to criticize religious belief. Jay-Z takes a shot at Christian salvation when
he raps, ‘Jesus can’t save you, life starts when the church ends’ (Jay-Z and Keys
2009: ‘Empire State of Mind’), while Nas refers to Jesus as the ‘Nazareth savage’
(Nas 2004: ‘Nazareth Savage’).
However, religious concepts are often explored in greater detail by
hiphoppas, especially when hip-hop is overtly adopted as a tool for articulating
religious faith to become what Omoniyi calls ‘holy hip-hop’ (2010:205). In Noise
and Spirit, Baker-Fletcher explores ‘African American Christian Rap’. Therein, he
finds that Christian hip-hop artists such as Lil’ Raskell, Knowdaverbs and E-Roc
largely aim to represent the ‘truth’ of the Gospel, and they do this in three ways:
1) as a redemptive alternative to the evils of life on ‘da streetz’; 2) as a force that
has the power to unify those who feud across ethnic and cultural lines; and 3) as
a path to individual salvation through Jesus (Baker-Fletcher 2003:44-45). On
each of these levels, hip-hop practices and themes are adopted and moulded by
Christian belief. In this way, it can be seen that this ‘holy hip-hop’ approach
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treats hip-hop as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself (Omoniyi
2010:214).
It is not only Christians who have used hip-hop for larger religious
objectives; other beliefs also find their expression. The Nation Of Islam (NOI) is
particularly popular amongst hiphoppas because of the role it played in the
African American Civil Rights movement and because it was once lead by
Malcolm X, a figure who is endowed with legendary status among many African
Americans. Public Enemy are particularly renowned for their references to NOI
doctrines and rhetoric (Floyd-Thomas 2003:51) and can be heard paying
homage to its founder in ‘Party for Your Right to Fight’ (Public Enemy 1988). The
group are generally considered to be one of the most politically outspoken hip-
hop acts of their time and the torchbearers for Malcolm X’s legacy in their post-
civil rights context (Floyd-Thomas 2003:51-52). Along with others such as De La
Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and Ice Cube, Public Enemy promoted a kind of Black
Nationalism and Afrocentrism that was advanced by NOI.
In the 1960s, a student of Malcolm X called Clarence X broke away from
NOI on theological grounds and formed a new organisation called The Nation of
Gods and Earths, or more commonly know as the Five Percenters. This
organisation is also particularly popular among hiphoppas. They believe that 85
per cent of people are ignorant of the truth of existence, whilst 10 per cent know
this truth but work to keep the 85 per cent ignorant in order to manipulate them.
The remaining 5 per cent also know this truth but work to enlighten the rest of
humanity. These beliefs are manifested in various ways within hip-hop with Nas,
Poor Righteous Teachers and Rakim being particular renowned for invoking Five
Percenter themes (Floyd-Thomas 2003:58-59). When Rakim, for example, raps,
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‘I’m God / G is the seventh letter made’ (Eric B. & Rakim 1988: ‘No Competition’),
he is making reference both to the Five Percenter idea that the 5 per cent are
Gods and to the elaborate Five Percenter system of meanings attached to letters
and numbers. It is from this that the popular slang term ‘G’, used by hiphoppas to
refer to one another, has emerged. Naeem Mohaiemen claims that Five Percenter
doctrines are responsible for a many popular phrases and slang terms found in
hip-hop culture, such as ‘peace’, ‘represent’ and ‘break it down’ (2008).
Hip-hop can also be seen as a space in which religious interpretations and
theological positions are posited. Anthony Pinn points to the like of KRS-One and
Arrested Development to highlight instances whereby humanist and
humanitarian reconfigurations of (mainly Christian) scripture have been
expressed. Pinn claims that KRS-One configures the notion of accountability in
tension between humanity and divinity in a way that offers ‘a human-centred
theistic orientation’ (Pinn 2003:89). This is particularly clear, Pinn states, in his
song ‘Why Is That’, in which he highlights the Eurocentrism of typical biblical
interpretations and questions why race—Blackness in particular—is always left
out of these accounts (ibid.; Boogie Down Productions 1989). Likewise, Speech
from Arrested Development can also be seen as advancing a humanist theology
in their song ‘Fishin’ for Religion’ by criticising the passivity that he finds rife in
the Baptist Church and promoting human action over submission to God’s will
(Pinn 2003:91; Arrested Development 1992).

Hip-hop identities on the stage of religion
KRS-One’s Gospel of Hip Hop constitutes an extraordinary example of the kind of
interaction in which religion provides the basis for hip-hop identity formations.
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The publication adopts a huge variety of themes, forms, techniques and ideas
from the doctrines and traditions of a wide range of organised religions. On first
glance, it could be mistaken for a copy of the Bible: at more than 800 pages long
the book is quite thick, its hard cover is brown with a worn effect and the text on
the cover is printed in a gothic typeface using a gold-leaf effect and framed by a
decorative golden trim. Inside, the chapters are listed as an Order of
‘Overstandings’—a slang term that signifies a greater mastery of an idea than a
mere understanding—of which there are eighteen (KRS-One 2009:2-3). KRS-One
begins the tome by declaring hip-hop to be a new covenant, that hip-hop is God’s
love because it ‘saved us from self-destruction’ (ibid. 9). ‘What we are dealing
with here,’ he claims, ‘is the rediscovery of our ancient birthright, our original
culture which is our true religion’ (ibid. 15). A Christian influence is clearly
present here, and rather than expressing them as they are, KRS-One uses
Christian concepts as the foundations upon which to articulate hip-hop culture
as a religion in its own right.
This is further exemplified by the description that KRS-One provides of
the history of hip-hop. He organises the development of hip-hop culture into eras
that are ten years in length, starting with the ‘Dark Age’ from 1961 and moving
into the ‘Light Age’, the ‘Golden Age’, the ‘Platinum Age’ and the ‘Information Age’
(ibid. 123-125). He also points to artists such as Kool DJ Herc—a DJ that helped
begin the trend for free street parties in the 1970s—and calls him ‘the
recognised Father of Hip Hop’ (ibid. 92). He says, ‘Approaching Kool Herc (the
Father) historically as simply a DJ is like approaching Jesus (the Christ)
historically as simply a carpenter (ibid.).
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It is also obvious that the author has also been influenced by other
religious traditions. KRS-One infuses words and ideas with a whole host of
meanings in a way that resonates with Five Percenter doctrines, and he is
particularly keen on turning key words into meaningful acronyms. Hip-hop, for
example, stands for ‘Holy Integrated People Having Omni-present Power’ (ibid.
70). He also urges hiphoppas to follow a set of practices to heighten their
spiritual life within hip-hop, such as fasting or restricting their diet to certain
foods on particular days of the year (ibid. 386). Moreover, he provides a list of
365 affirmations to be spoken out loud—one for every day of the year (ibid. 390-
437).
KRS-One is not alone in adopting these kinds of doctrines and structures
for hip-hop. Rza’s The Tao of Wu is clearly influenced by Cha’an Buddhism,
Taoism, Islam and the Five Percenters, and its blurb describes it as ‘a nonfiction
Siddhartha for the hip-hop generation’. The book’s title is a play on Benjamin
Hoffman’s 1982 publication The Tao of Pooh, an introduction to Taoism written
for Western audiences. After an introduction and a foreword from Founder and
Abbot of the USA Shaolin Temple, Sifu Shi Yan Ming, The Tao of Wu’s chapters are
structured into seven ‘pillars of wisdom’. Each of these begins with a quote from
the likes of Lao-Tzu and Aristotle and is followed by an autobiographical section.
Rza then ends each chapter with some thoughts and poetry based on the
philosophical lessons he has learned from a life lived in hip-hop. Although very
different from KRS-One’s Gospel of Hip Hop, Rza offers the reader an insight into
the spiritual journey of a hiphoppa by adopting various ideas put forward within
a variety of religious traditions.
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Well-known hip-hop artists are not alone in expounding these kinds of
encounter between religion and hip-hop. African Methodist Episcopal pastor,
professor of Evangelism and Church Growth, and self-professed hiphoppa Ralph
Watkins claims that hip-hop is redemptive because it has ‘theological resources’
(2011: E-book location 166). In Hip-Hop Redemption, Watkins talks about hip-
hop as ‘a way of being, knowing and living’, (ibid. 1158) and refers to a ‘hip-hop
nation’ consisting of those who ‘subscribe to hip-hop as a way of life’ (ibid. 1114).
These ideas, he says, began to form in his mind after attending a KRS-One
concert that he describes as being like a ‘spiritual journey’ (ibid. 437). ‘We went
to church that night’, he declares, ‘up and down we bounced as the Spirit gave
utterance’ (ibid.). Again, religious concepts are used to frame this discourse on
hip-hop: Watkins explores the work of rapper DMX, pondering whether his work
can be considered sacred text (ibid. 2150), and like KRS-One he talks about early
hiphoppas such as Afrika Bambaataa as ‘spiritual fathers’ of hip-hop (ibid. 620).

These numerous and varied encounters between religion and hip-hop are
interesting, but in and of themselves they are mere observations that do not
mean very much. But when we take a step back and look at some of the wider
social and political developments around hip-hop it becomes possible to locate
some possible explanations as to why religion and hip-hop have combined in
such ways.

In historical perspective: hip-hop enters the marketplace
As KRS-One demonstrated when he referred to him as the ‘father of hip-hop’, the
arrival of Jamaican DJ Kool Herc in the Bronx is often described as signalling the
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beginning if hip-hop culture (Neate 2003:9). Kool Herc is credited with
developing some of the hip-hop modes of expression (Rose 1994:51-52). Firstly,
he played his music out on the streets freely for all to hear so that anyone could
join in the party. Although certainly not the first to play music outside on stereo
speakers, his ‘Herculord’ sound system was so loud and of such high quality that
they could replicate a club atmosphere (ibid.). This was a significant feature of
early hip-hop and almost certainly a crucial component for the formation of a
strong hip-hop cultural identity. Live music was, as it is in most cities, mostly
performed in clubs that were too expensive for some people to visit regularly, so
block parties became a place for the young and poor of the area to have fun.
Furthermore, the fact that the Bronx had come to embody the decaying edges of
American society meant that street jams were also a way for locals to find a new
pride in being from the area. Kool Herc’s second major contribution to the
movement was his creative mixing of the records he played. Most DJs at the time
would carefully blend one song into the next to make sure that the music never
stopped and the beat was constant (Toop 2000:12), but Kool Herc changed
things up. He noticed that people were dancing hardest during parts of songs at
which the vocals and melody broke down to give the rhythm section some space.
To maintain this hype he would loop this section of the song over and over
(Neate 2003:9-10), effectively creating an entirely new piece of music through
his novel use of turntables.
As DJs replicated and developed his style, hip-hop culture began to take
its recognisable form. Grandmaster Flash, the DJ who pioneered the use of
scratching, asked his friends to perform verbal ‘boasts’ at some of his shows in
order to keep the crowd moving and dancing rather than watching him DJ (Rose
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1994:54). This quickly turned into an open mic session with people stepping up
to entertain the crowd over the music with short rhymes using innovative slang
and rhythmic execution that later developed into the complex rap routines for
which hip-hop MCs are famed (ibid.). But while rapping began as a supplement to
the music, it soon became the focus of hip-hop because of the hard-hitting
messages and stories that rappers would tell about life in the neighbourhood.
Melle Mel, one of the first hip-hop MCs, exhibits this in Grandmaster Flash and
the Furious Five’s 1982 song ‘The Message’. Here, he vividly describes the
claustraphobic poverty of his daily life and his feeling of liminality, warning the
listener, ‘don’t push me cos I’m close to the edge’ (Grandmaster Flash and the
Furious Five 1982: ‘The Message’). Melle Mel had set a standard and many were
inspired to adopt his creative ‘style of speak’ while striving to say something
important (ibid. 54-55).
The ten years or so following the release of ‘The Message’ have been
regularly described as hip-hop’s ‘golden age’ (Neate 2003:10). Most popular at
this time was a kind of ‘conscious’ hip-hop that dealt with the socio-economic
and political issues of the post-civil rights era, and it found its expression in
various ways. The likes of Public Enemy and KRS-One were overt in their
criticism of the police, the government and other oppressive institutions and
structures, whereas other such as De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and Queen
Latifah promoted forms of Afrocentrism and Black pride that derived from the
more moderate Black Power philosophies. Hip-hop expression also maintained a
kind of unity of its various forms. Hiphoppas not only DJed and MCed, they also
often took part in break-dancing, beat-boxing and grafitti art too, as these were
strongly tied to the hip-hop identity (Rose 1994:34). Moreover, hiphoppas were
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still very much bound to specific localities. As Rose describes it, hip-hop
identities were forged through ‘an attachment to and status in a local group or
alternative family’, usually structured around crews and posses (ibid.).
However, this was changing rapidly. Hip-hop was expanding out of New
York with centres of creative expression developing particularly on the West
coast in Los Angeles and in parts of the South. West coast hip-hop in particular
was forming its own distinct and infamous style of ‘gangsta rap’, epitomised by
the likes of N.W.A (Niggaz Wit Attitudes), Compton’s Most Wanted and Snoop
Doggy Dog (ibid.59). The lyrics of gangsta rap of are often explicitly violent and
misogynist, portraying gang crime, drug use, cop killing and female
dismemberment while blurring the line between artistic representation and
promotion (ibid. 1; Sylvan 2011:294). It was in the wake of gangsta rap that hip-
hop began to move from the confines of underground reverence to gain
mainstream success (Sylvan 2011:294). Although The Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s
Delight’ marked the beginning of hip-hop’s legacy as a marketable product, Peter
Watrous at the New York Times hailed the release of Run-D.M.C’s album Tougher
Than Leather in 1988 as rap’s entrance into ‘the mainstream commercial music
world’ (Watrous 1988). Before this, rap was rarely played on the radio or sold in
record shops because it only appealed to a limited audience of young black
people (ibid.). Now that it was achieving greater mass appeal, artists started
signing deals with major record labels. Independent record labels that had
formed alongside hip-hop culture were also being bought up by their larger
rivals.
This process of incorporation and commercialisation—often referred to
in lyrics as ‘crossing over’—was a bittersweet moment in hip-hop’s history. On
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the one hand, artists were given access to greater resources with which to make
and perform their music. They also had the opportunity to make vast sums of
money and leave the oppressive environment of the ‘hood. However, crossing
over also meant relinquishing a large amount of creative control to label
executives whose primary aim was to make sure that records and concert tickets
would sell to the masses. Carmen Ashurst, a former president of Def Jam
Recordings, notes that the widespread purchase of hip-hop record labels by the
major companies corresponded with the emergence of gangsta rap’s popularity.
‘The music became less conscious as it gained a wider platform,’ she says, adding,
‘and I don’t think that’s a coincidence’ (Quoted in Hurt 2006: 45:02-45:13). As a
result, the public perception of hip-hop and, by extension, the young African-
Americans whose identities were tied up with hip-hop, became centred on
outraged media reactions to the violent lyrics of gangsta rap.
At the same time, hip-hop’s audience was undergoing massive change and
expansion. In 2000, N. R. Kleinfield of The New York Times claimed that middle-
class white people made up seventy per cent of rap music sales (Kleinfield 2000).
(Although figures such as this have been strongly refuted, particularly by hip-
hop journalist Davey D (2006), many artists, Pep Love of Hieroglyphics for
example (The Company Man 2012), have commented on the steady increase in
the proportion of white people at their concerts.) What this meant was that large
companies, run predominantly by white people (Katz quoted in Hurt 2006
52:10-52:28), were capitalising on representations of black otherness that could
be sold to well-off white people. In effect, they were gaining control over the way
that young African Americans could represent themselves within the public eye
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through hip-hop, and they did this by exploiting stereotypes and prejudices that
exist along racial lines.
Byron Hurt provides some excellent examples of this process in his
thought-provoking documentary Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, which
discusses masculine performativity in hip-hop. Hurt runs into a host of young
aspiring rappers who convene outside big concerts and industry conventions,
and questions them about their violent, misogynistic lyrics. After rapping to the
camera about murder and rape, they talk about their view of ‘conscious’ and
‘righteous’ lyrics such as KRS-One’s ‘Self Destruction’. One man says, ‘they [the
record companies] don’t wanna hear that; they think we don’t wanna hear that’
(Hurt 2006: 41:45-43:15). ‘The media … don’t wanna portray us as good fathers,
hard workers…’ explains another (ibid.). Later on, Hurt interviews a group of
young, white hip-hop fans, asking them what it is about the music that draws
them in. One woman says, ‘I grew up in white middle-class suburbia … I’ve never
had to worry about drive-by shootings and the stuff in the music, it appeals to
our sense of learning about other cultures’ (ibid. 48:20-48:48).

The battle for self-representation
A schism had formed in hip-hop. Watkins describes the mood as follows: ‘there
was a tension in hip-hop then just as there is now. There were those who saw
hip-hop as a political vehicle from the streets meant to save the streets, and there
were others who saw hip-hop as a means off the streets into the corporate suites’
(2011: E-book location 865). While, hip-hop continued to be a space for
expressions of blackness, there was now a question of ownership that presented
hiphoppas with a difficult choice. Commericial hip-hop provided disadvantaged
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African-Americans with the opportunity to transcend the oppressive conditions
of poverty in which many of them existed, but it also meant them trading in their
control over popular representations of themselves and, ultimately, sustaining
the structures that oppressed them in the first place. On the other hand, by
performing non-commericial hip-hop, disadvantaged African-Americans could
attempt to reconfigure those power structures by formulating stable identities,
undermining racial stereotypes and prejudices, and promoting education and
political activism. As such, these two forms of hip-hop—commercial and non-
commercial—struggled against one another. One perpetuated the structural
subjugation of African-Americans, the other worked to destabilise such
processes.
Interestingly, up until only quite recently, religious ideas were only ever
explored within the boundaries of non-commercial hip-hop.
1
The likes of KRS-
One, Public Enemy and Arrested Development, all of whom employed notions of
religion in one way or another, quickly slipped out of the limelight after the
corporate takeover of the record labels, despite continuing to produce music.
This isn’t a coincidence. Non-commercial hiphoppas were invoking religious
discourses in such a way that they became weapons in their struggle against
oppressive power structures and their battle for self-representation. This can be
observed in the way that the use of religious ideas and concepts imbues hip-hop
culture with a level of discursive legitimacy and authority that they would not
have otherwise had. This kind of legitimacy enables hiphoppas and hip-hop
narratives to be taken seriously within their wider social and political context.

1
Kanye West bemoans this state of affairs in ‘Jesus Walks’ (2004) when he says, ‘They say you
can rap about anything except for Jesus / That means guns, sex, lies, video tapes / But if I talk
about God my record won't get played’. In doing so, he simultaneously helped to bring religion
back into the realms of commercial hip-hop.
ISP: Religion and hip-hop: Encounters Samuel Murray 258134

19
What is interesting is that both forms of encounter—hip-hop as a means for
articulating religious identities and vice versa—functioned towards the same
ends.
Firstly, for holy hiphoppas as well as others who speak of their adherence
to particular traditions within their lyrics, religious proclamations allow them to
transcend racial lines that typically frame hip-hop, and to carve out a space for
expression within the wider social landscape. American identities are often very
closely tied to religion, so expressions of faith frequently have the power to
determine a person’s ability to take part in political dialogue (Gallup 2009). By
establishing common religious ground with outsiders, hiphoppas who invoke
religion get closer to the discussion table where their views are more likely to be
acknowledged and taken seriously by society at large. This common ground is
formed in terms of a fundamental understanding around the ordering of the
universe—a belief in a higher power, for example—but also, and more
importantly, in terms of beliefs that determine human action, such as systems of
morality and ethics. Encounters between people that are based upon shared
conceptions of the fundamental nature of their existence are often positive, but
even more so are encounters between those whose notions of morality and
ethics coincide. Watkins demonstrates this particularly well because he is in a
prime position to represent hip-hop and religion in an authoritative way. As a
professor, pastor and a hiphoppa, he spans identities, professions and social
groups that often oppose one another. He forms a syncretism in Hip Hop
Redemption that takes hip-hop seriously whilst taking religious ideas as given
and in doing so he pulls up a chair for hip-hop at the table of the discursively
powerful. He does this by talking in Christian theological terms that are familiar
ISP: Religion and hip-hop: Encounters Samuel Murray 258134

20
and acceptable to those who are opposed to, or merely outside of, the hip-hop
community.
Secondly, those who articulate a hip-hop identity through the use of
religious concepts also bestow hip-hop with a kind of authority in the face of
public consternation. The Gospel of Hip Hop provides a good example. KRS-One’s
claim that hip-hop is a religion is a bold attempt to align the hip-hop identity
with ultimate and divine powers and turn it into a transcendent form. However,
while it would be hard to argue that he has managed to establish widely accepted
understanding of hip-hop as a religion, the Gospel should be understand as acting
in a more indirect way on hip-hop’s discursive power. KRS-One places great
emphasis upon self-knowledge in the Gospel as well as in his songs (KRS-One
2001: ‘Hip Hop Knowledge’). He says, ‘this is what we are missing—
KNOWLEDGE OF OURSELVES! With no such knowledge we have no way of
controlling and/or directing ourselves’ (2009:60). This is a particularly
Foucauldian insight that, when applied to the Gospel in general, demonstrates
how expressions of hip-hop identity that are formed through religious structures
work to move power in the direction of hiphoppas. For Foucault, knowledge is
power (Foucault 1979:27), so discursive processes of knowledge formation are
inseparable from the workings of power. By reifying hip-hop and the hip-hop
identity in religious terms, KRS-One is attempting to empower the hip-hop
community to act in a unified manner through the grace of God so as to
counteract outside forces.
Religious encounters in hip-hop can therefore be seen as part of a
struggle for self-representation. The incursion of the music industry in the 1990s
meant that outsiders were taking control of the ways in which hip-hop,
ISP: Religion and hip-hop: Encounters Samuel Murray 258134

21
hiphoppas and, consequently, forms of Blackness could be represented in the
wider public sphere. Portrayals of violence and highly sexualised misogynist
black masculinity very often capitalised upon moral intrigue and outrage.
Hiphoppas became widely depicted as the epitome of amorality, a kind of anti-
Christ that served to uphold racial inequality, to delegitimise black expression
and to sustain the moral righteousness of those outside of the hip-hop
community. Non-commercial, ‘conscious’ hip-hop undermines this process. By
articulating religious identities hiphoppas move towards reconciling their self-
representations with wider social norms with the aim of challenging and
destabilising depictions of hip-hop that are controlled and propagated by outside
commercial powers. They also do this by utilising religious concepts in order to
strengthen a hip-hop identity, enabling strong, stable and coherent self-
representations to be propagated in its name.

While the struggle for self-representation on the part of hiphoppas in the face of
outsider hegemony constitutes one way to explain the various convergences
between religion and hip-hop, it is not the only one. By looking at some of the
wider social and historical processes that have framed hip-hop culture, other
reasons can also be identified.

In historical perspective: African-American history and religiosity
Hip-hop did not develop in a bubble but is the direct result of socio-economic
relations. These relations have played a part in determining the various conflicts
in which hiphoppas are engaged. To understand the implications of the
encounters between religion and hip-hop it is first necessary to explore the
ISP: Religion and hip-hop: Encounters Samuel Murray 258134

22
social history that frames the African-American experience and the history of the
Black church in America.
Tricia Rose claims that ‘a large and significant element in rap’s discursive
territory is engaged in symbolic and ideological warfare with institutions and
groups that symbolically, ideologically, and materially oppress African-
Americans’ (1994:100-101). The history of America has been shaped hugely by
racial groupings and their interactions and the African-American legacy begins
with inequality in its most pure form. From 1492 until 1865 and the signing of
the 13
th
Amendment at the end of the American Civil War, being Black in
America was almost synonymous with slavery. Although the long and hard-
fought abolitionist campaign had freed them of their chains, African Americans
would still not acquire legal equality until more than 100 years later. In fact, only
a few decades after the abolition of slavery the Jim Crow laws that segregated
Blacks from Whites in public places were implemented. Although racial
segregation was largely the norm before Jim Crow was passed (Hine et al.
2011:358), the laws made it a crime for the races to mix, and despite the Plessy
vs. Ferguson law of 1896 that upheld the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’,
segregation severely reduced the freedoms of African Americans only (ibid. 360).
At the same time, they were subjected to extreme violence, particularly lynching
and rape in the South, some of which was perpetrated by white supremacist
groups and all of which was legitimised by the idea that Black people were of an
inferior race (ibid. 362).
This legacy of legal inequality lasted until a series of laws were passed in
the 1960s and 70s. Such a development was the result of the tireless efforts of
the civil rights movement, a broad and decentralised set of national, regional and
ISP: Religion and hip-hop: Encounters Samuel Murray 258134

23
local organisations such as the National Association for the Advancement of
Colored People (NAACP) (Newman 2004:1). These groups worked together with
the aim of ending segregation and institutional racism, campaigning for rights by
putting pressure on the government, protesting and educating.
None of this would have been possible had it not been for the existence of
Black religious institutions and organisations. African-Americans are
significantly more religious than any other ethnic group in America, with 79%
stating in a 2007 poll that religion is ‘very important in their life’ compared with
56% overall (Pew Forum 2009). The religious history of African-Americans
begins with their arrival. Although various West African beliefs and practices
were maintained for a long while (Hine et al. 2011:72), African-Americans
gradually adopted Christianity across the country. Many were prevented from
doing so by slave owners who saw conversion as a potential threat to the
master-slave hierarchy, and even when they were allowed to attend church black
members were often segregated and preached to in a derogatory manner (ibid.
73-74). As a result, it became common for African-American communities to set
up their own churches in which they could develop independent communal
religious identities that would reflect their socio-historical circumstances. With
the Baptist denomination being by far the most frequently established, the Black
church became a site of refuge and autonomy. Hine et al. describe these 19
th
and
20
th
Century institutions as ‘sources of spiritual comfort and centres of social
activity’ in which clergymen became ‘the most influential members of the black
community’ (2011:387).
In this respect, it is easy to see why they played such an important role in
the civil right movement. As C. Eric Lincoln explains, ‘for the black believer, the
ISP: Religion and hip-hop: Encounters Samuel Murray 258134

24
Black Church was not only a symbol of God’s intention that all men should be
free, it was also the instrument of God’s continuing revelation of that intent’
(Lincoln 1999:63). The Black church nurtured many powerful leaders that
fought for social change and black freedom, including Nat Turner who led a slave
rebellion in 1831, Adam Clayton Powell who was the first African-American
congressman, and most famous of all Martin Luther King Jr. who led the
influential Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) (ibid. 95). It became
obvious to these leaders and their congregations that what they had built up
constituted a powerful force for change. By employing religious discourses, civil
rights activists could appeal to sensibilities that transcended racial boundaries.
Lincoln describes the movement as being ‘both instructive and embarrassing to
the American religious establishment’ because in many ways it was a ‘perfect
example of elemental Christian ethics put into practice’ (1999:98). African-
American appeals to biblical doctrines and their nonviolent reactions to vicious
incitements highlighted the hypocrisy of an American religious establishment
that was preaching those very values whilst upholding their very opposites
(ibid.).
However, Christianity was not alone in playing a key role in gaining civil
rights for African Americans. Although Muslims only made up a very small
minority of the black population, the influence of Islamic organisations and
principles upon the movement was disproportionate in comparison. This is
mainly because of how closely linked it was to the Black Power political ideology
that began to make a contentious appearance towards the end of the civil rights
era. Supporters of Black Power were often disillusioned by the huge amount of
effort that civil right movement had put in to making relatively small social gains
ISP: Religion and hip-hop: Encounters Samuel Murray 258134

25
(Newman 2004:116). They began to embrace a wide and often conflicting range
of agendas ranging from the extremes of black nationalism and separatism to
more moderate notions of black pride and empowerment. Some of these ideas
are very much associated with the legendary figure of Malcolm X who became a
prominent figure as a member of the Nation of Islam. At first, he spoke widely
and articulately in support of the more extreme forms of Black Power that were
compatible with some of the religious doctrines that he observed, and because of
this garnered fascination and enchantment among poor, mainly young, black
people. Although he later renounced his adherence to the Nation of Islam,
converted to a more orthodox form of Sunni Islam and adopted a more moderate
form of Black Power ideology, his legacy within the Nation of Islam has had a
powerful impact upon black American identities and beliefs.

From civil rights to hip-hop
The civil rights era ended with the gradual provision of legal freedoms and
equalities that came into place after the deaths of Martin Luther King and
Malcolm X. It was out of this historical context that hip-hop began to develop as a
predominantly African-American form of cultural expression. Two features of
the post-civil rights era and the emergence of the ‘hip-hop generation’ can help
explain why hip-hop and religion converge in the ways that they do: the first is
the reconfiguration of racial inequality and the second is the formation of a sharp
generational socio-economic divide among African Americans.
Patricia Hill Collins argues that after civil rights were gained, racism in
America shifted from being colour-conscious to adopting a kind of colour-blind
form that ‘promised equal opportunities yet provided no lasting avenues for
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26
African American advancement’ (2006:3). She explains that in 2006 black youth
poverty was almost twice as high as the national level and this was tied up with
the fact that black youth are highly represented in the media while
simultaneously ignored in wider public discourse (ibid. 3-4). Levels of racial
inequality to this day remain high, with a 2011 study showing that black people
in America maintain just 71.5% of the socio-economic status held by white
Americans, a level of inequality even greater than the previous year (CNN 2011).
While American laws no longer overtly discriminate based on skin colour, latent
social structures have meant that since civil rights were gained in 1968 African
Americans have remained socio-economically subjugated.
Secondly, the way the civil rights era generation and the hip-hop
generation have been defined separately has often served to highlight feelings of
animosity between the two. Todd Boyd defines the hip-hop generation as the
‘New Black Aesthetic (NBA) generation’ and describes them as seeing ‘individual
power and access to the means of representation as significant goals’ (1997:17).
These objectives were, of a course, a logical extension of the civil right
movement; the new generation were making claims on their new-found rights.
However, due to the lingering structures of inequality, which were compounded
further by the Reagan administration, many young African Americans were not
able to raise themselves out of the conditions of poverty and oppression in the
ways that the movement had promised. Furthermore, there was no longer a
structure through which to express and combat these issues. As Watkins
explains, the black church had achieved its goals of civil rights and subsequently
began the process of removing itself from the inner city and out into the suburbs.
The African American church, he says, ‘became a bastion for middle-class African
ISP: Religion and hip-hop: Encounters Samuel Murray 258134

27
Americans’ (Watkins 2011: E-book location 1319). Critics such as Joshua
Hutchinson, argue that the Black church has increasingly become ‘an isolated
nation of wealth in the Ocean of Denial, refusing to join, address or even concern
itself with the many ills that still plague the Black community’ (2012:15). These
circumstances in which black youth were becoming disillusioned with the black
church combined with on-going inner city poverty and disadvantage meant that
the religious sentiments of the ‘NBA generation’ needed to find their
development and expression elsewhere and hip-hop provided this space.
With this in mind, it then becomes possible to form some other
explanations for the encounters between religion and hip-hop, and these are
quite varied. For some, expressing religious identities through hip-hop has
provided the space to make attempts at re-engaging religious institutions with
the pressing issues of poverty and inner city struggles that are a reality for many
African Americans. By promoting Gospel values as a path to salvation and
healing, it is generally the performers and fans of ‘holy hip-hop’ that are making
these efforts. This kind of hip-hop can be conceived as a reaction by the Black
church to hip-hop rather than the other way around. Cassandra Thornton
advocates holy hip-hop on the basis that in order to ‘successfully reach any
culture’, it is necessary to ‘know and speak the language of that culture’
(2012:115). As such, holy hip-hop functions as an instrument through which the
Black church might tackle the plight of poor African-Americans by proselytising.
However, many hiphoppas who explicitly articulate the ideas and beliefs
of religious doctrine often do so while maintaining a distance from religious
institutions. For them, hip-hop is a space for religious exploration, interpretation,
reconfiguration and synthesis, without making religious ends the purpose of
ISP: Religion and hip-hop: Encounters Samuel Murray 258134

28
their expression. In this way, hip-hop functions in some respects to replace
religious institutions as a space for performing and reconfiguring religious
identities. As such, hiphoppas are able to replicate to role that the Black church
and Nation of Islam played in the civil rights movement by forming a cohesive
community around religious expression in order to effect social change.
Moreover, expressing religious beliefs also gives hiphoppas credentials that can
be used as rebuff criticisms lodged at hip-hop by religious groups.
Finally, racial inequality and disillusionment with religious institutions
among hiphoppas also helps to explain the ways in which religious concepts
have been exploited with the aim of expressing coherent hip-hop identities. KRS-
One’s claim that hip-hop is a religion, for example, can also be understood as
conveying a radical reformulation of traditional modes of Black religiosity. He
takes established religious concepts and discursive forms, strips them of their
‘message’ and replaces it with something that reinforces a hip-hop identity. In
this way, some encounters between religion and hip-hop can be understood as a
fundamental rejection of the institutions that both negated poor African-
American youth after the civil rights era and criticised the hip-hop culture that
offered the dispossessed a platform on which to be heard.

Some wider implications
Thus far in this inquiry, I have been concerned first with underlining the
convergences between religion and hip-hop that can be empirically observed
within various kinds of discourse. I have also analysed those encounters with
reference to some social, political and historical content in order to draw out
some possible reasons for their occurrence. However, it is also worth stepping
ISP: Religion and hip-hop: Encounters Samuel Murray 258134

29
back to gain some perspective on what these evaluations might mean in terms of
our understanding of ideas such as identity and representation, as well as our
scope for talking about ideas relating to religion.
First of all, looking at religion and hip-hop in this way helps to show how
identity formations are caught up in a complex series of power dynamics.
Identities are things that we strive to firmly establish so as to secure our ability
to act in the world as coherent subjects. But at the same time, they also serve to
bind us into narrow performative roles that are determined by diffuse social
practices—what Foucault elaborates as ‘technologies’ of production, sign
systems, power and self (1994:225)—that, by their very nature, cannot be
modified simply by the free-will of the individual. This is why Hall’s definition of
identity sees subject positions as being the product of discursive formations
(1996:6). As such, subjects are in a constant battle, struggling to form identities
by performing certain roles, while fighting to gain control over what a particular
identity performance entails by directing discourse in certain directions. The
dialogue between religion and hip-hop helps to demonstrate a two things: firstly,
identities regularly conflict but they also cooperate; and secondly, by tracing the
ways that identities interact with one another and adopt each other’s
performative coordinates, it becomes possible to trace some of the power
relations that determine socio-economic and political structures of hegemony
and oppression, as well as modes of resistance. For example, by examining the
way that hiphoppas have appropriated discursive formations that are commonly
associated with discourses of religion, I have been able to highlight some of the
processes that maintain and perpetuate African American subjugation and
attempts to destabilise this.
ISP: Religion and hip-hop: Encounters Samuel Murray 258134

30
Looking at these encounters in this way also helps to demonstrate the fact
that religious ideas, whether as content or form, have a great deal of currency
within discursive environments, particularly in America. There are certainly
some deeper reasons for this: perhaps an alliance with issues relating to divinity
and the absolute functions to imbue a kind of timeless universality to the social
formations that result, which in turn grants them a level of stability. However,
this is a separate inquiry. What I think is important in this regard is the impact
that this has upon the Study of Religions in general. The development of
postmodern modes of inquiry have not only problematised established modes of
studying religion, they have also destabilised the category ‘religion’ itself. This
has lead to some deep soul-searching within the field. Paul Griffiths, for example,
argues that the future of the Study of Religion looks bleak because its formal
object of study—‘religion’—cannot be properly grasped (Griffiths 2006:66-67,
74). While postmodernity has indeed undermined the ability of scholars of
religion to do their work in various ways (Bauman 1998:57), it seems to me that
this does not entirely negate the need for the Study of Religions. Religion still
plays a very important role in determining power relations through knowledge
formations, so attempting to understand how and why this impacts upon people
lives remains as necessary as ever. This exploration of religion in hip-hop not
only demonstrates that this is the case, it is also an attempt to formulate an
approach to studying religion along such lines.

Conclusion
In following the meeting points between hip-hop and religion, a number of
things have become apparent. These convergences are numerous but they are
ISP: Religion and hip-hop: Encounters Samuel Murray 258134

31
also highly varied, with the two concepts being interacting in a range of ways. In
terms of identity formation, some expressions can be observed as the
performance of religious identity through the modes of hip-hop expression,
whereas other comprise of a hip-hop identity performance that borrows from
religious concepts. However they are formulated, when examined within the
historical context of increasing commercialisation and the reconfiguration of
experiences of being young, black and poor, such encounters appear to function
as a means of resistance to oppressive social forces. This kind of analysis is
useful because it shows some of the ways in which identity formations operate in
relation to one another. It also demonstrates why inquiry into religion is both
important and very possible within the context of postmodernity.








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