PORTLAND, Ore. — Hip-hop’s all the rage at universities and seminaries these days. Scholars parse its angry and often violent language. They sift out refrains of religious redemption or clever critiques of modern culture. In some traditionally African-American divinity schools, the rise and fall of response and call, old-school black preaching, is giving way to intricately rhyming rap.
Dozens of pop culture books have been written about using hip-hop to evangelize young people, to relate to their lives and bring them into the organized church. But Monica R. Miller, a visiting professor of religion and popular culture at Lewis & Clark College, warns that looking for religion in hip-hop is a risky proposition.
“Seeing isn’t believing,” she says. Listeners who point to religious words in lyrics and assume their meaning, or those who spend hours trying to discern some artist’s systematic theology, may be wasting their time and effort.
Her new book, “Religion and Hip Hop,” argues that shared vocabulary doesn’t equal shared meaning, and religious language sometimes sells rather than saves. In an interview, Miller talks about religion, hip-hop, and whether and how they overlap. Her answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Why write this book now?
A: Hip-hop has been on the humanities map in academia for a while now, but we lack a comprehensive text that brings theory, method and data together. We have missed the mark with our methodology, which has primarily been occupied with searching for religion in hip-hop.
The main approach used in the field is … trying to isolate the meaning of religious language, or apologetic, when rappers talk about confessing something about their own beliefs. The all too common cookie-cutter approach to religion in hip-hop is often couched within a Christian frame of analysis and within a certain understanding of religious language as belief and confessionality.
Q: What’s wrong with the question, “What is religious about hip-hop culture?”
A: That very question, “what is religious,” already assumes we’re all on the same page. We all know what religion is, that we can pluck it out like we’d pick an apple from a tree. We don’t. We can’t.
We assume hip-hop artists are making meaning for themselves through the use of religious language. We can call that exploration of meaning “religious” in nature. But some scholars are giving religion too much credit. We need to scale it back. Let’s conceive of religion as a way of talking about the world. We need not be so focused on searching for belief or a god “out there.”
Q: You write that it’s almost impossible to lay out a systematic understanding of belief based on the religious language of a single performer. Can you give me an example?
A: We have so much scholarship on Tupac (Shakur). In his music, he hinted at many things about religion, one of them being a certain kind of black liberation theology, Jesus doing something prophetic in the world. In other instances, he talked about feeling God’s hand on his head when he wrote his rhymes, that he got inspiration from a higher power.
But when he was in jail, he said he talked to gods every night, the idea that black men are gods, then seemingly mocked the idea that humans lack power to break free from jail. In an interview, he said if you take one “o’’ out of “good,” you’ve got “God,” and if you add a “d’’ to “evil,” you’ve got devil. In this moment, he understands religion as a conspiracy, a human fabrication.
What I’m getting at is, if you’re looking for a very neat religious or theological system of belief in his work, it’s not going to make sense. He represents human complexity.
Q: Why use religious language and imagery if you’re not making a religious point? Who would do that and why?
A: In 2009, rapper 50 Cent and self-help writer Robert Greene collaborated on a book called “The 50th Law.” The whole aesthetic of the book is like a Bible: black leather cover, gold inscription, that little ribbon that goes inside. If you saw the book sitting on a table, you’d think it was a Bible. It’s a predominant assumption that religions say something of value, and one might assume at first glance that this book has something religious, in the traditional sense, in mind.
But ask this rarely asked but more interesting question: “What does this use of religion accomplish?” I suggest that it’s a marketing technique, a form of social capital. This is a self-help book about the gangsta ethic: “I’ve been shot nine times. I am a fearless individual. Fear nothing. You can do anything if you put your mind to it.”
We find another example in rapper KRS ONE, who wrote the “The Gospel of Hip Hop” in 2009. Again, fashioned after a Bible: hardback, it’s got that silk ribbon, and he wrote it like scripture. He says that in the next hundred years, hip-hop will be a new religion on earth. This looks like a religious production (in the traditional sense), but I argue he just makes use of religious language and aesthetics to sell himself as the leader or prophet in this new spiritual movement that attempts to get (a certain kind of hip-hop) back to its fundamental roots.
It’s marketing through the use of religion, whether KRS ONE is conscious of it or not. He’s really not selling religion here; he is selling his own investment in a certain kind of romantic view of hip-hop and shrouding it as a new religious option.
Q: Is some of the religious language used in hip-hop almost coincidental? Don’t some artists grow up surrounded by the vocabulary and images of Christianity, rooted in the black church?
A; Yes, both. It’s half play in the service of entertainment, wit and power and also a certain kind of unconscious familial inheritance of religious rhetoric. But the listening public always assumes a certain kind of intentionality or belief when this sort of language is used. We don’t think “habit” or “cultural inheritance.” We get really bent out of shape and hold rappers accountable for their “blasphemy.”
Q: What do you make of avowedly Christian hip-hop?
A: It’s definitely making its mark. You have folk trying to reconcile being a part of the hip-hop generation while also trying to be explicit about their faith. I think many in this genre feel that religion, or their faith, trumps the pathology or nihilism of hip-hop, and they often attempt to clean it up through religiosity.
The reality is we just have a hard time coming to terms with the often confusing and seemingly contradictory ways that religion, sex, money and so on are so comfortably held in tension in rap music. It’s not a contradiction, it’s life. Hip-hop is OK with complexity. It doesn’t have to be either/or.
(Nancy Haught writes for The Oregonian).
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