While the rise of gangsta’ rap to national prominence in the late 1980s led some critics to claim that hip-hop suffered from a nihilistic crisis, those who have followed the music more closely remained unmoved in their insistence that hip-hop’s spiritual core maintained a steadfast strength. Over its history, including its public evolution from rap music to hip-hop culture—or vice versa depending upon whose telling the story—religious and spiritual themes have continued to occupy a central place in this now global phenomenon. From MC Hammer’s gospel tribute “Son of the King” on his first album, through the Afrocentric musings of X-Clan, the Nation of Islam-informed lens of Public Enemy, the five-percent philosophies of Brand Nubian, the Islamic orthodoxy of Mos Def, and the return of explicitly Christian content in the words of DMX and Kanye West, religious diversity has been the rule of rap music.
The complexities of hip-hop’s religious vision crystallized most dramatically in its two most iconic figures and most memorable martyrs, Tupac and Biggie, both known as much for their nihilistic meditation on thug and drug life as for their apparent penchants for prophesying their own deaths. While the five percent strand of Islam arguably played the greatest religious role in the formation of the culture, Christianity has apparently ascended to hip-hop’s throne. Even it’s most recent Muslim MC of choice, Lupe Fiasco, leans in this direction by giving shout-outs to a Christian pastor, Creflo Dollar, and two gospel music stars, Yolanda Adams and Smokie Norful, on his underground re-mix of the famous Kanye track, titled “Muhammad Walks.”
In its 30s now, hip-hop has only witnessed a couple of written works that attend directly to its spiritual substance. Felicia Miyakawa’s Five-Percenter Rap is a monograph on hip-hop’s Islamic influences and Anthony Pinn’s anthology Noise and Spirit offers a survey of the theological terrain that is addressed specifically to a religious studies audience. However, 20 years after the release of the first commercially distributed Christian rap CD, Stephen Wiley’s Bible Break, an evangelical publishing house, Intervarsity Press, has released the first book to substantively explore the contestations that arise at the intersections of church and hip-hop. Efrem Smith and Phil Jackson’s The Hip Hop Church: Connecting with the Movement Shaping Our Culture is an overdue introduction to the topic.
While the content of The Hip Hop Church leaves much to be desired in terms of analytical clarity (a host of terms beg for explanation—i.e. postmodern, emerging, Afrocentric) and editorial interventions (grammatical and spelling errors), it is still a valuable contribution to conversations that have been brewing across the country for several years. Both Smith and Jackson are pastors of hip-hop congregations and they draw on a wealth of experience, along with historical and theological reflections, to shed light on their subject. On one hand, as rap music loyalists, Smith and Jackson attend to preaching the gospel of hip-hop to church folk—lay and clergy, black and white. While on the other hand, as preachers they are equally concerned with spreading the Christian Gospel to hip-hop devotees. It is the former group that Smith and Jackson most hope to reach with the book, and the latter—young, non-churchgoing hip-hop heads—who the book is intended to help the reader reach. In fact, as framed by the authors, the development of a hip-hop church is an essential task if faith communities are to survive the current era in which hip-hop has been crowned king. Their book, then, might be understood as The Purpose Driven Life series meets generation hip-hop.
Having cast an extremely wide net, The Hip Hop Church is held together by the three central tasks that structure the book. First, Smith and Jackson begin by making the case that any church that is genuinely concerned with young people must take hip-hop seriously. Second, the authors articulate hip-hop’s fundamentals—both its elements and historical origins—to those unfamiliar (read: older church folk). Third, and finally, The Hip Hop Church provides a model of hip-hop ministry, methods for building a hip-hop church, and myriad resources for individuals concerned with both.
While the book is a valuable tool for anyone concerned with questions about the intersections of Christianity, or religion more broadly, and youth culture—with which hip-hop is often conflated—it leaves the reader with as many questions as answers. Rather than a persuasive apologetic or blueprint for hip-hop ministries, The Hip Hop Church encapsulates much of the confusion that continues to plague many efforts to bring hip-hop and Christianity into conversation. Moving beyond the legendary steamrolling of Gangsta’ rap by the Reverend Calvin Butts (circa 1991) and the refusal of the Christian music industry to recognize Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks” as gospel, Smith and Jackson have nonetheless provided a valuable starting point for further research and discussion of hip-hop’s impact on religious traditions around the globe in a manner that respects both sides of the equation.