Hustling Religion: Rap and the Religious Flava of T.I. and Jay-Z

Hustling Religion: Rap and the Religious Flava of T.I. and Jay-Z July 22, 2012

by Sharon Lauricella and Samuel Kyereme

R3 Contributors
*A extended version of this post is in press with the Journal of Religion and Society.

“God give new beginnings, you can start right now” — T.I., A Better Day, 2008

Like those who listen to it, rap music, together with Motown, blues, and music brought to North America from West Africa, embodies both the sacred and the secular in surprising and meaningful ways. In rap music, and also in other traditionally Black music genres, the “profane” – that is, the secular – can and does coexist with the “holy” – references to God or the Divine (Reed, 2003). For example, rap music fuses religious, spiritual, or sacred messages together with references to drugs and crime, objectification of women, or aggression. As our fellow contributor Ebony Utley (2012) eloquently suggests, the “gangsta’s God” is a “socially constructed deity whose purpose is to provide meaning and power in a world of chaos and disenfranchisement” (p. 9).

The coexistence of the holy and profane in rap music is at first blush as surprising as the lion lying down with the lamb. However, references to the holy and profane in hip hop can be found in analyses of Lil’ Wayne (Lauricella & Alexander, 2011), Tupac Shakur (Reed, 203, 148-160), and even M. C. Hammer (Sorett, 2010). Then the holy profane in hip hop music works; while the religious and secular appear paradoxical, the two work together in ways that resonate with both the performer and the audience.

Two hip hop artists in particular are meaningful examples of the coexistence and cooperation of the holy and profane in hip hop, though their approaches to the juxtaposition of the holy and profane are markedly different. T.I. (or, T.I.P.), a former drug dealer and prison inmate, openly embraces spirituality and Christianity, especially in his recent recordings. He embraces the notion of a theistic figure more powerful than himself to whom he prays and worships. Jay-Z, widely recognized as a forerunner in the rap scene (so recognized, in fact, that he appeared on Oprah), considers himself holy, or the embodiment of both the holy and profane in one entity — the rapper. Utley suggests that Jay-Z combines both secular and sacred legends to portray himself as both a rebel (the secular) and a selfless Jesus-like figure (the sacred). Utley takes Reed’s holy/profane dichotomy a step further by describing God in rap as either “out there” or “down here” – this sophisticated analysis lends further depth to our understanding of religion amongst the disenfranchised as a whole.

In the context of the holy and profane in rap music, we consider T.I. and Jay-Z’s music and personal circumstances as concurrent narratives (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000). It is suggested – not surprisingly – that personal experiences of each hip hop artist directly informed their lyrics. To our knowledge, no academic work on rap music and religion/ spirituality makes note of the religious/spiritual contributions of T.I., and though several studies give mention to Jay-Z (Dimitriadis, 2009; Rose, 2008), particularly with mention to his seemingly effortless rhymes (Bradley, 2009), none takes particular note of the important distinction that he makes of himself: the Deity, or God, of rap.

T.I., T.I.P., or Clifford Joseph Harris

Clifford Joseph Harris, more popularly recognized by the monikers T.I. or T.I.P., was raised in poverty in Atlanta, Georgia. The young Harris took to selling drugs on the streets at age 14 to make do while pursuing a high school education. Similar to many of his colleagues in hip hop (including 50 Cent, Rick Ross, and Jay-Z), T. I. possessed a combination of the “hustler” lifestyle of selling drugs and other crime, as well as a gift for charismatic musical delivery in the form of rap rhymes.

Harris was signed to Laface Records in 1999, after gaining prominence through the mixtape circuit. His gift of articulation through the spoken word was not readily accepted in the popular rap scene, which led to his subsequent separation from the label. Over a five year period, however, various projects such as Trap Muzik (2003), Urban Legend (2004) and King (2006) were released through Grand Hustle Records, a subsidiary of Atlantic Records. The rapper’s chronicling of victories with women, drug deals, creating wealth and raising a family led to praise from both industry heavyweights and fans. King was so well received that T.I. was honoured with a Grammy in (2006) for the street anthem, “What You Know” (

Lyrics in T.I.’s tracks in the early 2000’s indicate his emotional and economic place at the time; “I’m Serious” (2001) showed a vain, arrogant personality that referenced growing up in a disadvantaged, single parent home. “Still Ain’t Forgave myself” offers a glimpse into the rapper’s childhood as he states, ” My daddy sends me clothes and always tell me come and see him” following with, “Then I started rebellin’ began crack
sellin… Now my momma findin’ rocks [crack] in my socks, glocks [guns] in my socks.” The album to follow, Trap Muzik (2003), echoed the same sentiments with the use of catchy hooks to captivate audiences, such as “Rubber band man/ wild as the Taliban” (Rubber Band Man, 2003).

It is notable that the “trap” is a reference to all aspects of the drug trade – the purchase, sale, and subsequent attempt(s) to stop using drugs – thus the nomenclature of this album references T.I.’s criminal activity. The upcoming arrival of a son along with a reality check from producers motivated T.I.’s change in occupation from drug dealer to full-time rapper. Despite obvious bitterness about his criminal past, glimmers of positivity are found in this album. For example, in “Be better than me” (2003), T.I. encourages his listeners to seek paths that are different from his own: “Don’t be lookin at me listenin to dope boys and trap n**gas thinkin it’s just like that…don’t be like me be better than me.” Urban Legend, released a year later in 2004, featured tracks pointing toward a more spiritually oriented approach to T.I.’s life struggles. After numerous mentions of personal attributes that separate him from the rest, T.I. states, “But back to reality G.O. D. Still carryin’ me, n**ga I run this…if God with me who could be against me sucka? Can’t make me suffer just make me tougher.”

The most poignant of T.I.’s tracks which demonstrate the coexistence of the holy and profane is “Prayin for help” (2004). The track begins with an emotional plea by reciting the Christian prayer “Our Father” amidst an ongoing fight in the background. The first 31 seconds of this track (visible via are not only a lyrical representation of the manifestation of the holy and profane, but also visual evidence of the holy and profane at once. The “Prayin for help” track includes lyrics and chorus lines which are charged with references to Jesus Christ (“That Ima change my life, get right, start livin like Christ, to tha end of my fight”), the desire to live right (“If it take till I’m a hundred years old/Bet I’m reaching every one of my goals”) and for the artist’s desire to help his community (“The ones that don even pray they got me”). Similar to keeping a diary of one’s thoughts and activities, T.I’s lyrics act as a narrative gateway to the narrative of his personal experiences.

T.I’s sixth studio album, Paper Trail (2008), was made with intention. By this time, T.I. was sentenced to prison for an undefined time period (ultimately about seven months) on U.S federal weapons charges. As a keepsake for fans and well wishers as he prepared to enter prison, the album expresses regret and remorse at his prison sentence. In this new direction, T.I. became a mentor of sorts, providing wisdom to his fans on how to approach adversity. The album recounts how the death of his bodyguard and lifelong friend Philant Johnson, along with the oncoming loss of personal freedom, instilled significant changes.

Religious and spiritual references are observable in nearly every track on Paper Trail. For example, the hit single “Live your life” featuring pop sensation Rihanna echoes the role of the divine in T.I.’s daily experience ( When speaking of those in his neighbourhood he says, “I pray for patience but they make me wanna melt they face away.” By this the rapper means the pressures of dealing with those from his immediate surroundings who are not supportive of his success prompts the search for patience from the Divine. Additional spiritual references in this highly successful track – it reached #1 on the Billboard Charts – include T.I.’s comparison of himself to other mainstream rappers by observing, “Your values is a disarray, prioritizin’ horribly, unhappy with the riches ‘cause you piss poor morally.”

Scholarship on religion/spirituality clearly shows that the religious/spiritual element in one’s life is heightened in times of personal crisis or challenge. Religious/spiritual practices such as prayer are reported to be helpful in coping with a life challenge (Bade & Cook, 2008; Carver et al., 1989; Pargament, 2007) such as a health crisis (Baesler et al, 2003) or economic hardship (Clark & Lelkes, 2005). Imprisonment on drug charges is quite clearly a life crisis, therefore T.I.’s lyrical narrative shows a clear identification with religion and spirituality. For this rapper, religion and spirituality brought strength and courage, while also offering inspiration to fans.

Jay-Z, or Shawn Corey Carter

Shawn Carter, more widely recognized as Jay-Z, currently boasts 11 albums having sold over 50 million copies worldwide (Greenburg, 2011). Carter, however, had his humble beginning as the youngest of three children in a single parent home in the Brooklyn projects. Carter began rapping in the 1980’s as a teenager, writing rhymes and battling other rappers from his area and surrounding high schools. After appearing in his first video with local artist Jaz, Carter’s desire for recognition went into overdrive. When he failed to get signed with a major record label, the hopeful rapper turned to drug dealing as a means of income, foregoing both school and rap. After continual pressure from friends and family members (Carter, 2010), he decided to give rap one more try, at which point he became associated with Damon Dash, a well known figure in Harlem Rap. He and Dash pioneered Rocafella Records in 1996 in which Jay-Z’s first major release, Reasonable Doubt, was produced. The album was a chronicle of the hustler lifestyle (selling drugs, attracting women, and buying expensive items). This work established Jay-Z’s audience whose support catapulted him to widespread acclaim and popularity with hits including “Hard Knock Life” (1999) and “Money Ain’t a Thang (1998). At this point, spirituality or references to any sort of Divinity were not present in Carter’s work.

However, in 1999, Jay-Z dropped Vol 3: The Life and Times of S. Carter. There was a sense of finality and pride on this album, particularly in the opening track, “Hova Song.” “Hova,” a shortened form of “Jehovah,” is an alternative rendering of the word “God” in Abrahamic traditions. Jay-Z’s new moniker was a bold declaration of his belief that he had risen to the level of “Rap God” in just three years as a signed act. The tracks on this collection revealed Jay-Z’s entrenchment in the streets, his reputation as a ladies’ man and ultimately being dubbed the best artist in rap. The track “S. Carter” features a glimpse into this new image where Jay-Z says of himself, “Hustler, n**ga move weight like Oprah/ Drive wide body, twenty-inch big motor/ No tints
, make no mistake y’all it’s Hova/ I stay sportin’ played Jordan’s before Jordan.” The album ends with a “Hova Song” outro where Jay-Z proclaims, “I’m the illest n**ga doin it til y’all prove me wrong/Do you believe?/It’s Hova the God, uhh, uhh, uhh.” Utley shows that each of Jay-Z’s iterations of his new monikers (“Hov,” “King Hov,” and “Hovito”) reiterates his self-identification with God (p. 141).

Since Jay-Z self-appointed himself “Hova” in the 1999, his sonic creations contain the refrain of the rapper’s belief that beyond being the best in rap, he had ascended into the realm of being revered. The ode “Izzo (H.O.V.A)” (2001), from The Blueprint is saturated with the moniker “Hova,” in which the chorus spells out the remarkably catchy, “H to the izz-O, V to the izz-A.” ( The reference to Jay-Z as the Jehovah (“Hova”) or God of rap is highly identifiable throughout subsequent material. 2003`s “What More Can I Say” from The Black Album is a discussion of Jay-Z’s greatness from the first person point of view. After continual discussion of his various attributes and contributions to the rap game Jay-Z exclaims, “Young Hova the God blast for me.” This line is significant seeing as the rapper calls on the listener to celebrate his presence. Jay-Z continues his proclamations of his status as rap’s God in 2006`s “Kingdom Come” with the chorus, “Without the boy H.O.V. (I will be, I will be)/ Not only N.Y.C. / I’m hip hop’s savior (Yeah).” Jay-Z therefore declares himself not only the God of hip hop but also its saviour. Jay-Z continues the parade of his place as rap deity in 2009’s “Run This Town” featuring Kanye West and Rihanna on The Blueprint 3. “Run This Town” features Jay-Z`s declaration of his takeover, “It’s the return of the God Peace God.” While this may not be an explicit reference to the name Jehovah, the implications are just as meaningful; Jay-Z announces his place as “the God,” prompting listeners to dismiss any other potential rappers challenging his Divine status.

T.I. and Jay-Z in the context of rap and religion

Given its recognized place in popular culture, rap provides a framework of realism that allows the uninhibited expression of references to life experiences, including religiosity and spirituality. Hip hop allows religious and spiritual utterances in a framework of authenticity and candor, for there is no singular or right way to be religious spiritual in hip hop. While some scholarship on hip hop and religion/spirituality is Christian in nature (Gooch, 1996; Hatch, 2002), Pinn and Miller (2009) suggest that spiritual analyses of hip hop need not be doctrine specific, and Pinn further suggests that rap music is more about being understood as a “terrain for the articulation of religious struggle and redemption” (Pinn, 2009, 106). This narrative analysis of two hip hop artists clearly demonstrates markedly different manifestations of the religious and spiritual in hip hop, and shows how two different artists, when faced with personal struggle, manifest religion and spirituality in different ways.

Struggle and redemption, as suggested by Pinn (2009), is a defining element in hip hop, as in other traditions of black music from the post-Civil war period to Motown (Reed, 2003). The notion of struggle is clearly identified in historical (Chang, 2005) and political (Kelley, 1994) analyses of rap music. In this narrative analysis of two highly successful – and markedly different – rap artists, both T.I. and Jay-Z identify with personal struggle. Such struggle is the “profanity” in hip hop — criminal activity, selling drugs, womanizing and weapons charges all offer a clear representation of the “hustle,” or the secular struggle so often referenced in rap lyrics.

In response to a prison sentence on weapons charges, a realization of personal responsibility, and the desire to make a turn for the positive, T.I. openly embraces Divinity and makes explicit mentions of God in his work. His references to God are identifiably Christian, and the aforementioned audio overlay of The Lord’s Prayer and a street fight is a poignant representation of T.I.’s spiritual (holy) response to the street life (the profane). This response is a clear articulation of what Reed (2003) describes in her suggestion that the holy and profane are inextricably combined in rap music.

By contrast, Jay-Z responded to his hustler past by both quickly and unabashedly dubbing himself, “Hova,” an abbreviated form of “Jehovah,” or the Judeo-Christian “God.” This, too, is a “holy” response to his profane, personal struggle. Jay-Z’s own “divinity” puts a new perspective to religion and spirituality in hip hop, for Jay-Z does not embrace a dualistic God. Rather, he considers himself to be the embodiment or representative of God in the hip hop arena – this is what Utley refers to as the God “down here.” While other rappers such as Tupac Shakur and Lauryn Hill (Kirk-Duggan, 2009) and Lil’ Wayne (Lauricella & Alexander, 2012) embrace a Christian representation of Divinity, Jay-Z considers himself the manifestation of the Divine. While both rappers identify with the concept of Divinity, their approach to the coexistence of the holy and profane is different; T.I. promotes worship of a Christian God, while Jay-Z wants to be worshipped as a human incarnation of the holy in rap.


To date, the notion of the holy and profane in hip hop has focused primarily on the coexistence of profane lyrics and sentiments (such as crime, drugs, misogyny) while in the same context, insinuating religious/spiritual concepts such as Biblical verses, prayer, and the culture of struggle and redemption. Thus, scholarship on rap and religion/spirituality has focused primarily on finding a spiritual solution (regardless of orthodoxy or denomination) to personal challenge. We considered the personal history of each rapper, together with lyrics in tracks relative to spirituality, as concurrent narratives illustrating both the holy and the profane in hip hop. The addition of T.I. (Clifford Harris) is a new contribution to the literature on hip hop and religion, and the deeper analysis of Jay-Z as a self-appointed deity adds a fuller dimension to scholarly literature considering religion/spirituality in hip hop.

We identify T.I.’s spirituality as a Christian response to a series of personal struggles. His “profane” experiences in dealing drugs, using weapons and materialism made way for a subsequent “holy” response in embodying Christian values such as honesty, surrender to God, and prayer, particularly in his work from 2003 onward. The embrace o
f a Christian response to adversity, as T.I.’s work reveals, is not a surprising response to struggle; scholarly literature on coping shows that people often turn to religion during times of personal crisis.

By contrast, Jay-Z’s response to the “profane” struggle in his life of drug dealing and hustling revealed a concept of the “holy” in hip hop which focused on himself as a God. The rapper’s proactive self reliance in overcoming the ills of childhood led to the creation of an inner idol, “Hova,” to whom Jay-Z is subject. This proclamation of divinity can be considered part of rap’s “braggadocio” – the bragging and boasting about physical prowess, brawn or bling. Or, this not-so-humble profession could be considered by some as blasphemous in itself; the self-appointment of the moniker “Hova,” and thus dubbing oneself “God” could be considered an articulation of profanity in hip hop (Utley (2011) eloquently – and we think correctly – disagrees with this sentiment). Jay-Z is, we propose, an embodiment of both the holy and profane in one character, whether considered blasphemous or not. As Reed (2003) shows, the holy and profane in hip hop work together to speak to both the artist and the community. Jay-Z, then, is one such artist who simply by means of his self-appointed moniker and rap success is the personal, earthly embodiment of the holy and profane.


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(2004) “Prayin for Help.” Urban Legend [CD]. Grand Hustle Records.

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(2008) “No Matter What.” Paper Trail [CD]. Grand Hustle Records.

(2008) “Live Your Life.” Paper Trail [CD]. Grand Hustle Records.

(2008) “Dead and Gone.” Paper Trail [CD]. Grand Hustle Records.

(2008) “Slideshow.” Paper Trail [CD]. Grand Hustle Records.


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(1999) “S. Carter.” Vol 3: The Life and Times of S. Carter [CD]. Roc-A-Fella Records.

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(2009) “Run This Town.” The Blueprint 3 [CD] Roc-A-Fella Records.

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