Religion and Hip-Hop in my Youth

“What do you believe in heaven or hell?  We don’t believe in heaven cuz’ we’re livin’ in hell.”—Raekwon

Lately I have been thinking a lot about religion and hip-hop.  I recently came across Dr. Monica Miller’s interview in the Washington Post about religion and hip-hop, which prompted me to write a piece of my own.  From the age of 13, when I was first introduced to hip-hop culture, to 18, when I finally opened up to other music, all I listened to were lyrics over beats.  I had an older friend named Tony—who I sadly know developed schizophrenia later in life—who taught me how to break dance (well, the 6-step at least), freestyle, and beat-box.  He also taught me how to “write” (a term that refers to tagging, drawing “pieces,” and spraying street art), gave me a name, and encouraged me to continually practice the art of hip-hop.  He was, in many ways, my hip-hop guru.  For Tony, hip-hop culture was a sacred expression of low-culture and street life.  He was a purist to the point of constantly working out to better his dancing, drinking wheat-grass and eating healthy to stay alert, and always practicing some form of hip-hop.

Hip-hop was certainly something “exotic” that I appropriated.  It was not that common for a mainly white (partly Mexican) kid from San Diego to be involved in “underground” hip-hop.  Sure, there were the Beastie Boys and House of Pain, but Eminem had yet to make it big.  I am not saying that I was not a devout “head,” or that I think it is wrong for white people to be involved in hip-hop culture.  I am saying that it was still a sub-sub-culture of white guys who could freestyle on command on the street corner.  Not to mention that for a long time—besides a few examples like Pharcyde and Souls of Mischief—gangster rap ruled the minds and airwaves of the West Coast.  San Diego is a long way from the Boogie Down Bronx.

Most of the hip-hop I enjoyed spoke often of “knowledge of self” and being your own God (hence the slang term for another person being “god”).  As Jeru the Damaja once said, “look the sky for your savoir, but he won’t save ya, he didn’ save your forefathers. Brothers, you must discover the knowledge of self” (in “Ain’t the Devil Happy”).  This kind of introspection and philosophical reflection was a way of “elevating your mind” beyond the troubles of life—troubles born out of living in a crime-filled, poverty stricken, environment.  When these mc’s stared up through the cracks between the high-rise project housing, viewing the blue sky above, they imagined a way of transcending all of the struggle and bustle of urban city life.  For many of them, various forms of black-Islam were appealing.  Guru, who often rapped about the ideas of the Five-Percent Nation (or “Nations of Gods and Earths” which was started by Clarence 13X, a former member of the Nation of Islam), found a way to combine Muslim imagery with an urban call for social justice and peace.  Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, and Wu-Tang Clan did similar things.

So while these mc’s appropriated the mystic East, I appropriated them.  It should be noted that while many of the views and usages of the East by these men were done in an “orientalist” manner, they also seemed to honestly appreciate Chinese and Japanese culture.  This made for many days watching Kung-Fu flicks, discussing the Dao de Jing, and imagining an enchanted world full of wisdom, beauty, and truth.  So while I was discovering “Asian culture” through these people, it wasn’t for the sake of discovering the East; I cared more about discovering black culture in the United States.

Looking back, I was always struck by the interesting contradictions between talking about promoting peace and unity, and the other side that spoke of killing rivals and living a hedonistic lifestyle filled with drugs, sex, and power.  This apparent contradiction is common in most of the rappers I love.  It is as if they want something more than the banal death of each other, but cannot seem to escape the language and cultural mores of their upbringing (which is understandable).  So when someone like Camron is being interviewed by Bill O’Reilly, and says something like, “I am not promoting guns, drugs, and sex, but simply reporting on it,” one begins to wonder where he draws the line.  And although he is right that you often cannot blame the reporter, what he is doing is more than just reporting—if he is doing journalism, it is some heavy version of Gonzo journalism.

So what hip-hop taught me was that I need to find my own way of navigating through life—using my intelligence, virtue, and strength.  It also reminded me that no one is a saint.  The sage with “knowledge of holy scrolls” also smoked weed and cursed.  In this sense, hip-hop transgresses clear lines drawn between the sacred and the profane.  And although I understand that hip-hop is not monolithic (there are many hip-hop’s which compete for the title of “real hip-hop”), and that, as Q-Tip once said, “hip-hop, a way of life, it doesn’t tell you how to raise a child or treat a wife,” it still lead me to certain ways of thinking about the world.

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  • Hello.

    I’m an emergent Christian too and wrote a post one week ago about a compilation of German hip-hop which touches lots of profound existential and politic topics:

    I’m well aware it is not very likely that an American will be able to understand the songs 🙂

    Best wishes from Europe and Shalom.

  • Y. A. Warren

    I have no problem with those pointing out problems as long as they have also learned and thought their ways through to workable solutions.

  • john smith

    Your lyrics quote is inaccurate, the chorus to Raekwon’s song is: “What do you believe in, heaven or hell? YOU don’t believe in heaven ‘cuz we’re living in hell.”