I Bling Because I'm Happy
There's a disconnect between the New Black Church and the hip-hop generation. Money, however, is the language preached from both sides.
In a desperate attempt to avoid everything related to Live 8, I found myself at home on a recent Saturday afternoon flipping through television channels in search of a diversion. After a few minutes of searching, I stopped at one of the local public access stations, which was re-broadcasting a Sunday service from one of the area's largest and most popular churches. By the time I tuned in, a middle-aged preacher was nearing the climax of his sermon entitled "The Lost Generation". "Kids growing up today don't care about nothin' and nobody," he insisted while dabbing a silk handkerchief against his chin to save his Armani suit from his own sweat, "All they want to do is party and have fun".
In spite of my own instincts, I continued to listen as he enumerated the faults of the current generation of "hip-hoppers" who have apparently cornered the market on sin. "Hedonistic", "selfish", "materialistic", and "lazy" were just a few of the labels that the preacher assigned to my generational cohort. After a few minutes, I could no longer suffer his rhetorical assault and changed the channel. Still, I continued to replay the comments in my mind throughout the ensuing week, struggling to figure out why I was so unsettled by them. After all, everyone from Harold Bloom to George Will to Cornel West to my own momma has publicly lamented the moral status of youth culture. Why would I care so much about a random preacher? After a few days of reflection, the answer hit me.
According to much of America's ostensible moral leadership, both religious and secular, the hip-hop generation (those born between 1965 and 1984) is no longer in possession of the values, beliefs, and traditions that have sustained our predecessors. In its place, it is argued, stands a selfish and hedonistic individualism that militates against our moral and social development. Unlike many of my peers, I can accept the legitimacy of that analysis on its face, although I tend to resist the romantic version of the past upon which it is often grounded. What troubled me so much, however, was the fact that the stance was articulated by a preacher who was representing the perspectives and interests of the "New Black Church".
By "New Black Church", I am referring to the current configuration of mainline black Christianity. The New Black Church, which has taken its current shape over the past two decades, is the progeny of civil rights era movements but can be distinguished by its increased materialism, questionable theology, and dubious politics. While this description is certainly not exhaustive � the erasure of denominational boundaries and resurgence of neo-Pentecostalism are also critical features of the New Black Church � it speaks directly to the contradictions between the New Black Church's own practices and its critiques of the hip-hop generation, which have been used to fuel the current moral panic.
As a full-fledged member of the hip-hop generation, the shibboleth of "keepin' it real" that informs my worldview made it difficult for me to accept the preacher's commentary because I knew that it was coming from a profoundly hypocritical place. Who was he, or anyone from the New Black Church for that matter, to diss us for having strayed from the supposed path? Of course, I am not suggesting that the truth-value of the New Black Church's critiques is necessarily compromised by its own contradictions. To do so would not only be a logical fallacy, but also ignores the fact that Christian faith is grounded in the belief that flawed messengers can send right and exact messages. Although the Black Church's claims to moral authority are certainly betrayed by these contradictions, the larger issue is about its role in replicating, reiterating, and resonating the same ideologies and practices that its critiques are intended to disrupt. This suggests that the hip-hop generation is not as directionless as others would have us believe. Rather, we are following the flawed moral compass of the very people who are waging generational war against us.
Money Ain't a Thing
Since the beginning of hip-hop's "ice age", circa 1994, showboating has been a linchpin of the culture. In today's industry, no commercial rapper worth their salt appears in a video without the necessary accoutrements: shiny jewelry, expensive cars, designer clothes, and large homes. Hip-hop's baller elite have even graduated to mainstream commerce, selling everything from sneakers to energy drinks. To be sure, such decadence lends legitimacy to claims of wanton materialism and consumerism among the hip-hop generation. Yet, a brief survey of the New Black Church's leadership would yield a remarkably similar conclusion.
Hip-hop's obsession with "flossing" and "stunting" is matched only by the New Black Church's flair for the ostentatious. Many of today's superstar preachers are similarly lavish in their public appearances. For example, televangelist Creflo Dollar (real name!) drives a Bentley and owns a five million dollar private jet. T.D. Jakes, the Russell Simmons of the New Black Church, owns several multimillion-dollar estates. While this is certainly not a new phenomenon � preachers have been driving Cadillacs and wearing expensive clothes since the first amen corner was built � the stakes have grown considerably higher given the increased amount of revenue generated by the New Black Church. Best-selling books, tapes, seminars, and mainstream films have all created new sources of wealth for today's preachers by turning them into household names.
The most profitable project for the New Black Church has been the development of the "mega-church". Founded on corporate business models, these super-sized sanctuaries draw tens of thousands of parishioners per week and hundreds of millions of dollars per year. Additionally, mega-churches create huge stages for superstar preachers to perform for their congregations, which include politicians, athletes, actors, and rappers. Despite the remarkable wealth of mega-church congregations (or perhaps because of it), it is no surprise that the most bedazzling "Jesus pieces" in the building can often be found around the necks of the people giving the Sunday sermon.
Thou Shalt Not Be Poor
Few would argue that hip-hop's hedonistic impulses are at least partially rooted in the belief that financial prosperity is the ultimate measure of successful living. Given this market-driven logic, it is no wonder that hip-hop narratives abound with rags to riches stories that celebrate the individual over the collective and the material over the spiritual. Artists such as Notorious B.I.G., who once rapped that "God meant me to drive a Bentley", argue that their enormous wealth is a divine reward, or what Jay-Z has termed "pro-jetic justice" for their impoverished pasts. From where would they get such convoluted values? A look at the New Black Church, whose good news has been reduced to "God wants you to be rich", will provide a viable answer.
Through their curious readings of Bible scriptures, depictions of Jesus as wealthy, and belief that people are poor because they "ain't living right", the New Black Church reinforces the tired conservative argument that the problems of the disadvantaged are self-inflicted. While gospels of prosperity (also known as word-faith movements) have always been commonplace within the black religious tradition � leaders from Sweet Daddy Grace to Elijah Muhammad have, to varying degrees, promised wealth as a consequence of religious devotion � "name it and claim it" mantras have moved from the margins to the center of the New Black Church community. Word-faith pastors no longer preach the virtues of struggle, sacrifice, or redemptive suffering, instead exhorting the poor to "get right" with God by accumulating capital for themselves. As word-faith preacher Creflo Dollar explains on his website, "When you find out how to live your life according to the word of God you will become a money magnet."
Of course, becoming a money magnet requires the congregant to share their bounty with the church. Dollar tells his congregation, "God is not coming back to a church in debt. [T]hat would be against his word" ("Changing Your World", 27 March, 2000). In other words, salvation comes with a price. To ensure that the people pay it, many New Black Church pastors are beginning to ask their members to bring in tax returns to guarantee appropriate tithing. Others request that members submit their entire checks and allow the church to manage their finances in order to certify that they are appropriately sharing God's grace with their spiritual shepherds. Can anyone say Suge Knight?
The connection between New Black Church theology and hip-hop's materialism became no more apparent than when rapper Mase staged his 2004 comeback. As one of the pioneers of the shiny suit era, Mase was the poster child for hip-hop's bling-bling agenda. Disillusioned with the immoral underside of the music industry after becoming born-again, Mase retired from music to devote his entire life to the ministry that he built and modeled after his mentor and pastor, Creflo Dollar. After being called back to the game (by God or his accountant, depending on who you ask), Mase dropped the disappointing Welcome Back LP. While the album was devoid of profanity, violence, and sex, it remained chock full of pro forma references to his wealth of money, cars, homes, and jewelry. Although it was a commercial flop, the album was celebrated by the gospel community for its "positive message", which can be summed up by the final line to his verse on Kanye West's "Jesus Walks" remix: "I'm healed, I'm delivered, I'm rich. And it's all because of Him."
When the Wu-Tang Clan released the single "C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rules Everything Around Me)", the song reflected the hip-hop generation's developing profit-driven consciousness. It is this belief system that substantiates many critiques of the hip-hop generation with regard to its lack of political focus and activity. Despite the culture's ability to galvanize millions of youth, American hip-hop has become increasingly divorced from concrete political action. With the exception of the intriguing but shortsighted "Vote or Die" campaign, the hip-hop generation has failed to live up to its political potential and muster a legitimate large-scale movement in the interest of social justice. Of course, comparable claims can be made about the New Black Church, which has grown increasingly detached from politics except under very opportunistic circumstances.
Since the days of slavery, the black church has been a fecund site for political organization and mobilization. Although its politics have never been radical, particularly with regard to issues of gender and sexuality, the church has always been a counter-public space committed to spotlighting and allaying the worst forms of social misery. Over the past few decades, however, the church has grown increasingly unresponsive to the social conditions of its members. With annual revenues skyrocketing but less than 10 percent of the nation's black churches considered activist in nature, the New Black Church seems to have gained the whole world and lost its soul.
The development of the mega-church has created enormous possibilities for large-scale forms of social activism. Unfortunately, mega-church leadership often deliberately sidesteps controversial politics by not organizing rallies and marches or publicly supporting political candidates. Such moves, clearly done in order to avoid alienating particular segments of their congregations and losing revenue, are reminiscent of the notorious political coward Michael Jordan, who once refused to support a presidential candidate because both Democrats and Republicans buy his sneakers.
One of the more disappointing examples of the New Black Church's profit-driven cowardice came in January 2005 when President George W. Bush spoke to the First Baptist Church of Glenarden, a mega-church in Maryland. Pastor John Jenkins, an affirmative action advocate, refused to publicly challenge the President's stance on the subject because he considered it inappropriate to take a political stand against the President's policy from the pulpit. Bishop Eddie Long, who pastors a 25,000 member mega-church in Lithonia, Georgia, encourages his members to "forgive, forbear, and forget" racism on the grounds that "we're already in the promised land" (Atlanta Journal & Constitution 15 February 2005). By eliminating political protest from the church's agenda, these leaders effectively strip the church of its transformative potential while enhancing their own earning capacity.
While some observers have attributed the New Black Church's political passivity to the neo-Pentecostal focus on individual spiritual connectedness, the New Black Church has demonstrated that it is willing to join the political fray when the economic stakes are sufficiently high. The best example of this came in light of the faith-based initiatives introduced by the Bush administration in 2000. In order to better position themselves to grab the money dangled in front of them, these churches have moved too close for comfort to white evangelicals on ostensible "moral issues", while endorsing horrific public policy initiatives, such as privatization of social security and the No Child Left Behind Act, that ultimately undermine the long-term prosperity of its membership. This proved particularly disastrous during the 2004 elections, when President Bush wooed several mega-church leaders with extremely slippery faith-based funds, ultimately convincing them to support his successful re-election bid. At least "hip-hoppers" have sold on their own terms.
Don't hate the playa . . .
My point here is not to excuse the troubling condition of the hip-hop generation. Clearly, we have moral and ethical issues that must be resolved in order to approximate the level of service rendered by our foreparents. I also do not intend to isolate or vilify the New Black Church, as they are not the first nor the only institution that fails to fully practice what it preaches. Rather, I am responding to a pressing need to protect my generation from the feelings of moral alienation and historical exceptionalism that inevitably accompany the New Black Church's self-righteous onslaught. Hopefully, this defense will inspire the type of self-criticism and humility that is requisite for social change.