By Monica Miller, PhD
Religion and hip hop?
Gangster rapper Snoop Dogg is now Rastafarianism – his new name: Snoop Lion. Rick Ross proclaims that God Forgives, I Don’t and Kanye West, Jay-Z, and Frank Ocean declare that there is No Church in the Wild. Despite popular opinion, religion and hip hop are no strangers. Often (unconsciously) pitted against each other like two warring ideals, we have, for the most part, concocted the battle between good and evil.
Religion and hip hop: the line that binds and divides
The line that divides might at first glance, appear natural. Experts and the general public alike have worked hard to distinguish the two. Such divides keep moralizing conversations in business.
I often get asked to speak to this great gulf – the abyss – that divides religion and hip hop. To that, I simply suggest, “There is no divide. The divide is manufactured and politically motivated.”
No matter what side of debate we fall, our thinking is often confused. We find comfort in polarities; they provide stability and coherence. Opposites, after all, maintain uniqueness. No light without dark, no heaven without hell, no god without the devil, no sin without redemption.
What is religion? Religious studies scholar Russell T. McCutcheon suggests that it is simply talk about the world that organizes particular social, cultural and political interests. He asks, “Are we critics or caretakers?” Are we to keep religion around through protectionist strategies or are we called to analytically uncover the social processes that make such talk (of religion) even possible?
Will the real divide please stand up?
In a recent conversation with McCutcheon, I was struck by a line in one of his forthcoming articles, he writes, “the scholar of religion qua critic has no interest in determining which social formation is right or true or just or best and she does not practice conflict management.”
Work on religion and hip hop has maintained and relatively kept stable, religion as experiential, institutional, Christian, or God centered – a brand of scholarship McCutcheon labels the “private affair” tradition.
Fast-forward to hip hop. In Religion and Hip Hop I suggest that the commonly asked question, “what is religious about hip hop culture” perpetuates the manufactured divide. An intriguing question it is but one that is not without its limitations.
My reconciling of the sacred and profane does not however limit religion in hip hop’s ability to matter in peoples’ everyday lives. Rappers have long gestured that hip hop culture is their religion – and that hip hop has, above all, saved their lives. While churches struggle to keep young people in the pews, this demographic too, overwhelmingly clings to hip hop, unapologetically.
Loving religion and hip hop: must I choose?
Just ask Cole Brown, Minister and author of Lies Hip Hop Told Me – a book that blends his love for both Jesus and hip hop. His hope is that, “Those who love Hip Hop will read it and see that as dope as Hip Hop is Jesus offers something even better and that those who love Jesus will read it and better understand the Hip Hop culture that Jesus calls them to love and serve.” For Cole, the sacred has won the battle.
Don’t get it twisted though; Cole is no stranger to hip hop. His “life-long dream was to work in the Hip Hip industry.” At the age of 19 he landed a job working for Hip Hop/R&B producer Teddy Riley’s Interscope Records imprint and worked with the likes of the Neptunes, Jay-Z, Beanie Siegel, Eve, Ja Rule, Wreckx-N-Effect among others. He credits the original Neptunes crews’ conversion to Christianity who “Shared the gospel story of who Jesus is, what Jesus did, and what it means.”
Shout outs to religion in hip hop become headlines, punch-lines and selling points. Are religious references in hip hop contradictory? Cole has an answer: “I think Hip Hop is obsessed with religion because Hip Hop is obsessed with discovering and speaking the truth. And no question of truth is more important than the question of who God is.”
Make no mistake; this is no “hip hop church.” For Cole, “Jesus came to unite people to God and each other. So rather than being hip hop limited, we are hip hop sensitive.”
Minister Brown, like many others, sees a difference between the sacred and profane in hip hop culture.
The divide will continue –because it must
Don’t raise your hopes of a truce, the politics of distinction will continue. In the end, religion can’t stop seeing itself as something fundamentally separate from hip hop – while hip hop references religion without contradiction and with ease. All battles need sides and the stakes are high.
Where would we be without polarities, anyway? If we reconcile the sacred and profane, many will lose their balance on the beam. McCutcheon would remind us that it’s not about taking away the words themselves – but rather, understanding how these words come into being and for what purposes, means, and ends? What larger interests do they serve?
In the case of religion and hip hop – only time will tell.
Monica Miller, Ph.D.
Dr. Monica R. Miller is Visiting Assistant Professor in the department of Religious Studies at Lewis & Clark College where her research focuses on the intersections of religion & material/popular culture and author of Religion and Hip Hop (Routledge August 2012).
Miller currently serves as a Senior Research Fellow with The Institute for Humanist Studies (Washington, DC) and is co-chair of a new AAR consultation entitled Critical Approaches to the Study of Hip Hop and Religion. Miller is also principal investigator of a large scale survey project in Portland, Oregon which explores religion in youth culture. She is the author of numerous articles and book chapters, and is currently at work on a second book entitled: Blacklandia: The Subtleties of Race in Portland(www.blacklandia.net – coming soon!).