Is it coincidence that walking out of the bank a Japanese kid drives by playing 50 Cent? Is it just happenstance that young boys in Ethiopia talk about the death of Tupac? Is it simply chance that the majority of songs on the billboard chart are in the hip hop/rap category?
After thirty years, the musical identity of hip hop has walked out of the ghetto and onto the nicely trimmed streets of suburbia. It has left the realm of house parties and parks to be displayed on primetime television and in corporate board rooms. Hip hop is more than just an urban music trend. It is a culture. The culture that was born out of the poverty and pain of the inner city has become a tool of self-expression and identity for millions on a global scale. So, as a Christian, the question worth asking is, “Does hip hop have a place in Christianity?”
So What Exactly Is Hip Hop?
With a closer look at the culture, hip hop can be broken down into four elements: DJing, emceeing, graffiti, and B-boying or breaking. These elements were mixed together in the atmosphere of the South Bronx in the early seventies.
The DJing element of hip hop is foundational; it is the cornerstone of the whole culture. In the early ’70’s, a Jamaican-born DJ named Kool Herc gave his signature Caribbean rhythms and flavor to the start of this worldwide movement. Back in the day, he and other DJs developed a remedy for when they ran out of music to play at house parties: they would loop (repeat continuously) their favorite part of the song. Known as the break, this became the key element in hip hop DJing and gave rise to a whole new style of dancing.
Breaking, or B-boying, is another essential element of hip hop culture. Commonly called break-dancing, it is a skillful, acrobatic display of rhythm and poise on the dance floor. Whenever the DJ would play the breaks, the B-boys, or breakers, would take center stage. The movements became so complex and competitive that the breakers would battle to see who was the best. This provided an alternative to fighting in the streets; it was a peaceful way to let out aggression and solve conflicts.
Next in the elements of hip hop is graffiti. The phenomenon of tagging has been seen as a blight on the community, but in reality it is often a street form of artistic expression. It offers a way of brightening up the dull and drab urban landscape. Graf writers, as these artists are nicknamed, have been known to paint murals that rival the works of Van Gogh or Cezanne. With the absence of inner city art programs, the Graf writers took spray cans and markers and used subway cars and playground bricks as their canvases.
Last in the four elements of hip hop is emceeing (MCing). This is the most popular of the four elements. It is more commonly called rapping and has spawned a whole musical genre. Its origin is found in the form of Jamaican toasting, MC originally standing for ‘master of ceremonies’. Originally, while the DJ spun the record, the emcee would get up and stir the crowd with a rhyme or two about the greatness of the DJ. The rhymes eventually became more about the emcee and how great he was or how many ladies liked him, etc. In essence the emcee became the life of the party.
How We Intertwine
I became acquainted with hip hop at an early age. I remember coming home from church and hearing the sound of Doug E Fresh’s “La Di Da Di” being played at a house party next door to our apartment building. From the moment I heard the first drum kick and scratch, I was drawn to the music, to the art form, and to the culture. It was raw expression. It was a new identity. When playing in the 3rd and 4th grades, I would create my own rhymes as all my friends gathered around at lunchtime to bang on the tables and imitate our favorite hip hop heroes. Interestingly enough, at the same time I was experiencing an entirely different culture on Sundays—one that included preaching on the danger and sin of rap music and hip hop culture as a whole. As time went on and I was continuously drawn to both cultures, the question arose: “Does hip hop have a place in Christianity?”
Certainly. There is a place for hip hop in Christianity, and there is also a place for Christianity in hip hop. As a culture, there are positive and negative aspects to hip hop, and just like any other culture, it can be redeemed by God for his purpose and his glory. There are a lot of ungodly things in hip hop culture that cannot be redeemed, such as the degradation of women, the glorification of violence, and the rampant materialism that are seen in today’s rap videos. But there are also many things that are positive and even very Christian, such as expression, community, and improvisation.
Expression is a very essential component in hip hop, just as it is a central component in Christianity. After all, Christ is described in John 1:1 as the Word; God is all about expression, and Jesus is expression personified. We are also described as God’s expression, or his poéma, which in Greek means artwork. He has expressed himself through his people. God is and has made us expressive, and that is what hip hop culture is founded on.
Another important piece of the hip hop Christian puzzle is community. Nothing in hip hop is done alone. Even the emcee who gets up on stage needs the crowd. This sense of community permeates every aspect of hip hop and is one of its biggest draws. As I grew up, the way I learned hip hop culture was through a group of guys in my neighborhood. They didn’t give you a course or a textbook on rhyming or B-boying. You just showed up and were part of it because you were a part of the community. One aspect of hip hop’s origin that is often overlooked is that this is a culture of improvisation. The dictionary defines the word improvise as “to make, provide, or arrange from whatever materials are readily available.” And that is exactly how and why the culture of hip hop was formed. It sprang up during a time in the history of New York City when people did not have enough, unemployment was high, crime was on the rise, and inner city programs were being pulled. Kids needed an expressive outlet, and instead of getting that outlet from the government they created one for themselves. So, with the tools that were in their hands, they built a city called hip hop from the ground up. The Bible talks about such industriousness when it says, “He who works his land will have abundant food, but the one who chases fantasies will have his fill of poverty” (Prov. 28:19, New International Version). The creators of hip hop culture did not chase after what could have been – they worked with what they had. They improvised a whole new art form and way of life.
So, hip hop has a place in Christianity. And there is also room for Christianity in hip hop. There is a generation and an entire global culture that is talented, industrious, creative—and yet godless. We should open up our hearts and reach out to these young men and women who can add so much value and life to the church. Jesus has already shown how much value they have by dying for each and every one of the people in the hip hop culture.
There is a generation and an entire global culture that is talented, industrious, creative—and yet godless.
As a result, hip hop is and can be redeemed for Him. With music acts like the Cross Movement of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, we see that Christianity can be expressed through the hip hop culture. The Cross Movement, led by William Branch (a.k.a. The Ambassador) has paved the way for quality hip hop that is also theologically sound and ministry focused. With their group and solo efforts under the banner of Cross Movement Records, people young and old can see a vision of Christ in hip hop through the sound that many have already come to love. It is a vision of hip hop, as The Ambassador’s song “The Thesis” says, “properly submitted to the glorious Lord.” There are also ministries like the youth and young adult hip-hop church called The House Covenant in Chicago, led by Pastor Phil Jackson (not the basketball coach). The House Covenant church incorporates many elements of hip hop, including emceeing, DJing and dance. This is an example of an entire ministry being geared toward connecting those in the hip hop generation with the God who is faithful to all generations – including ours.
Hip hop and Christianity can coexist—and they do. Believers from the hip hop culture have a place in the church body, and those in leadership must strive to open their hearts toward those who are a part of this culture, even if it’s foreign or unfamiliar to them. God has a place for the hip hop culture, and now we, in spite of our prejudices or stereotypes, must open up to them as well. Hip hop and Christianity are not diametrically opposed. They are just waiting for someone to bridge the gap between them.
Hip hop and Christianity are not diametrically opposed. They are just waiting for someone to bridge the gap between them.