**The following is a paper that I, Abril Peña, wrote for my English 2250 class in the Spring 2015 semester.**
Since the release of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, the strength (or lack thereof) that religion has on young people and the hip-hop industry has sparked interesting conversation amongst hip-hop heads. In this piece, I discuss how some artists use religion to get their message across.
Hip-hop has come a long way since its emergence from South Bronx, New York in the early 70’s. It began when DJ Kool Herc, home from a recent trip to his motherland of Jamaica, was DJ-ing his first gig at his sister’s birthday party, during which he said the magical words “hippity hop”. Shortly after, hip-hop was born. (Freestyle: The Art of Ryme)
Hip-hop is composed of rapping, DJ-ing, breakdancing and graffiti art. What once was a unique outlet of expression has now become a powerhouse of trend-setting, economic success, and social evolution. Like much of the music genres that emerged from the black community, hip-hop was something that unified people from all corners of the world. While beats, samples, and instrumentals are continuously changing, hip-hop still maintains its religious roots. Rap music in particular held a lot of religious context. Both religion and rap “gave voice to the oppressed.” (Tinajero) Poverty-stricken, crime-infested neighborhoods were the birthplace of many rap legends, like Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. These seemingly hopeless people found salvation: through church and through rap. Now, they utilize this spiritual platform to create their own faithful message.
Religion and rap music are synonymous for many reasons. Firstly, rap music has foundations within Christian faiths. Secondly, they share many messages – both the good and the bad. Lastly, they offer room for interpretation.
An element within the genre of hip-hop, rapping is a tool in between song and speech that was inspired by passionate pastors giving sermons in church. Simply speaking verses from the Bible was a lonely act. By adding a rhythm and using real-time, spontaneous inspiration the audience was encouraged to be more involved in the spiritually moving performance while excited to hear more. This evolved into rapping, and has become such a wide phenomenon beyond church walls. (Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme)
Why was religion so talked about in hip-hop and rap? South Bronx has always been predominantly populated by black and Latino families – even today over 40 years later – facing hardships between crumbling building projects and gang-infested streets. Religion, most commonly Christianity, was the only thing that brought people together in worship instead of war. In a journal article about the correlation between gangsta rap and Christian rhetoric, Robert Tinajero quotes a lyric from the Scripture explaining the importance of religion in underdeveloped neighborhoods: “Jesus is to be found in those places where people suffer and die.” When people, no matter what race, creed, or color, are in a position of endless adversity, they look for religion; and with religion comes community. Community is an important aspect of rap music in its early years because without someone to make a beat, to rap, to battle, or to listen, you were simply on your own. Rapping often focused around the experiences of daily life, making it something that people in similar situations could relate to. (Tickner) Neighborhoods that were once isolated or even rivaling came together for some healthy freestyling and dancing and DJ-ing, enjoying each other’s company in the common interest of music. What may have looked violent and intimidating at first glance was actually a release of negative energy that allowed for happier communities. In the documentary Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme, rapper Medusa explained rap battling as a “great emotional outlet. Better than stabbing and shooting each other.”
Contrary to popular belief, rappers come in many flavors. Some are gangsta rappers, some are alternative, some are West Coast, some are East Coast. Even if the topics overlap – struggling in ghettos, being involved in gang activity, exposure to drugs and sex – each rapper has a different style, a different sound, and a different message they want to convey with their music. They each want to evoke a sense of community, to let their fans know that they are not alone. Of course, it’s inevitable to come across some shallow, mainstream rappers – as inevitable it is to come across some tasteless pop sensations or homogeneous EDM bands. In this paper, we will look at different rappers with different styles and how they each in their own way give their music an extra dimension by using religious references.
With albums titled Ready to Die, Life After Death, and Born Again, it’s obvious that Notorious B.I.G. didn’t tiptoe around his religious agenda. He is referred to as “Brooklyn’s Jesus,” which isn’t just an endearing compliment on behalf of his enormous talent – he has suffered tremendously living in the projects of Brooklyn dealing drugs and running from the police, which later led to his untimely death. Hip-hop heads, whether they were a fan of Biggie or not, can agree that his life story, though not as seemingly pure and wholesome, can be associated with that of Jesus Christ.
Sharing similar life and death stories is just the beginning of the relationship between Biggie and Jesus. All throughout his music, Biggie has made Christianity a reoccurring theme, like in his song Ten Crack Commandments. This satirical spin on the Ten Commandments, from Exodus 20, takes the original guidelines to living a happy, faithful life and adjusts it to make it applicable to the lives of people like Biggie – people stuck in the slums. Though much of Biggie’s music surrounds the topics of his everyday life as a drug dealer and a criminal trying to make it to another day, his “commandments” are really more about protecting oneself in a situation like his, not necessarily going out and causing trouble. In fact, his rules can be compared to some of the original commandments, such as:
Number 9 shoulda been Number 1 to me: Number 9:
If you ain’t gettin’ bagged stay the fuck from police You shall not bear false
If niggas think you snitchin’ they ain’t trying to listen witness against your
They be sittin’ in your kitchen, waiting to start hittin’ neighbor.
Biggie’s 9th Crack Commandment advises you to stay away from law enforcement if you don’t want to end up on bad terms with the people in your neighborhood because they will assume you were snitching. Snitching is the ultimate sign of disloyalty in the community Biggie comes from, and therefore a snitch cannot be trusted. The original 9th Commandment states that you should not lie (“bear false witness”). This can be translated close to what Biggie was saying, which is don’t give others the opportunity to think you’re dishonest. If you don’t cooperate, life will be hell.
When people make the argument that rap music is homogeneous because it mostly revolves around drugs, sex, and violence, it’s true to an extent. As Jay Z would say, “do you fools listen to music or just skim through it?” Yes, much of the lyrics in a rap song will refer back to drugs, sex, and violence, but its done purposely to give listeners a taste of what a day in the life is like for them, and maybe a portion of the listeners will relate to these experiences. A quote by Jeffery D. Jones about storytelling as a form of religious identity states:
“Faith stories aren’t just about success. They are about people seeking to find faithful ways of being and doing in the world. Sometimes they struggle; sometimes they succeed; sometimes they just hang on. Often they do this in an invironment that is hostile. Often they are uncertain about what God is up to.” (Tinajero)
Retelling these stories that will identify with people, whether in good ways or not, is important for building a community, like I mentioned before. When you have people struggling to get by, thinking they are alone will make their lives that much harder. By proving that you have been in their position and have made it out of the hood successfully gives the suppressed reason for hope. The Bible retold stories of Jesus Christ and the situations he encountered in his everyday life as well. The purpose of all these stories, in rap music and in the Bible, was to provide their believers with a foundation of possibilities that life may hand them and with that, an idea of how to respond to the situation and still be a good person.
Am I A God?
Since Biggie’s legacy, rappers have been trying to acquire the holy title that he still holds within the rap game. One of the most notable rappers that have, in many people’s opinions, achieved this hip-hop enlightenment is Kanye West.
Kanye West is a particularly interesting case when it comes to his hip-hop persona. He is an award-winning multitalented producer, rapper, and fashion icon – and he makes sure we know it. Christianity has had a strong hold on Kanye because it played a big part of his life during his childhood and continued into his adulthood. His most recent album, Yeezus, gained so much criticism because people believed that Kanye was trying to represent himself as Jesus Christ in a way that has never been done before in mainstream music. He makes it clear in a New Zealand press conference that despite his Christian background, he doesn’t want to “be Christ-like” because he can never live up to that title and he would rather live up to his own title, as Yeezus. (Tardio)
Kanye West is known to be extremely controversial, uncensored, and unfiltered. He does this, not for the sake of getting people riled up, but to be as honest and blunt as he possibly can to wake people up from the injustices and realities that happen before him. Kanye also embraces human flaws in his music, usually around his own. He admits to his own faults almost as if he was confessing his sins, and then he is washed over with this sense of relief and continues being his unapologetic, proud self, which we see in the song Everything I Am when he says:
People talking shit, but when shit hit the fan
Everything I’m not made me everything I am
Kanye is an important figure when speaking about religion and rap because we have seen Jesus Christ affect his all throughout his career, from the passing of his beloved mother to the controversial Yeezus. Kanye’s overall message states that you can be imperfect, impure, and flawed and still be perfect before the eyes of God. As stated in Corinthians 12:9, “And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness ” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”
The most interesting character trait that Kanye owns is his extreme pride in himself. It’s truly fascinating because so many artists are expected to be humble and get trampled on throughout their career, then are praised for their work when they die. Kanye sees no point in waiting for his crucifixion to be praised for the legend he is. This is especially important to do as a rapper because they get the most hate from the public eye and are constantly stereotyped into the same pool of ignorance. The album Yeezus depicts just that – Kanye’s absolute hubris. Because he had songs like I Am A God, people argued that he was going against Christianity because the Ten Commandments state “You shall have no other gods before Me.” However, as I mentioned before, Kanye West is not trying to be Jesus Christ – he’s trying to be the powerful, creative, almighty Kanye West. Ebony A. Utley wrote in her book “Rap and Religion: Understanding the Gangsta’s God” that there are several types of relationships that rappers have with God in order to try to understand them:
- “Only God can judge me”
- “Dear God, please don’t let me die tonight”
- “Dear God, I wonder can you save me”
- “I was born a God”
Kanye falls under the last one. By believing he is invincible like a God, not as God, he can focus on getting closer to God without worrying about his imperfections or letting his flaws get in the way. (Utley)
We have met the Jesus and the congregation; now it’s time to meet the priest.
Kendrick Lamar gained much praise when his first album good kid m.A.A.d. city was released in 2012. The album was spoken through the perspective of adolescent Kendrick Lamar, living in Compton, California and engulfed by peer pressure while trying to stay in touch with religion. Kendrick’s album quickly receive wonderful reviews because it was so relatable – whether you are a white teen from the suburbs or a black man in the projects – as well as vulnerable, because he was confessing all these deep inner conflicts he experienced while trying to keep up his reputation among his friends.
The popularity of his first album led to high expectations for his next one; it also exposed Kendrick to even more opportunities to “sin” than he had before. In an in-depth interview with Kendrick Lamar, Joe Coscarelli of the New York Times takes a look at Kendrick’s most recent album, To Pimp A Butterfly, how he came about creating it, and the past experiences that led him up to this point.
How was Kendrick introduced to religion? Kendrick and his friends were hanging out in the parking lot of a supermarket after one of their friends got shot. The grandmother of one of the friends was there and “had seen that we weren’t right in the head.” She saved them that night – meaning she offered them salvation through Jesus Christ – and Kendrick is grateful for it to this day. This religious experience, being baptized “with the spirit of the Lord” in a grim time for a teenager, was more powerful than simply being around religion, like we see in the former rappers discussed. The effect this had on Kendrick is evident in his music, his poise, and his humbled charm.
Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst (SAMIDOT) was by far one of the most popular songs on the album good kid, m.A.A.d. city. Typically, when a rapper creates an album, the catchy songs within it are the ones that stay with people. However, this isn’t the case with the 12-minute track that transitions in and out from song to sketch, the sketch recreating the salvation of Kendrick and his friends in the parking lot.
In the third verse of SAMIDOT, Kendrick says:
Sometimes I look in a mirror and ask myself:
Am I really scared of passing away? If it’s today, I hope I hear a
Cry out from heaven so loud it can water down a demon
With the holy ghost ’til it drown in the blood of Jesus
Here, Kendrick is debating whether or not he has done enough to get into heaven, or if the sins he is surrounded by will overcome him and lead him to hell. He hopes to hear a “cry out from heaven” loud enough to guide him out of a situation in which his demons want him to sin. This lyric is so moving because it’s not coming from a pastor, nor the Holy Bible itself. It’s coming from a teenager stuck in an institutional rut where he has to play along with the evils that trap him in order to survive. He is trying to be as good as possible (hence “good kid”) in a mad city. The title of his album comes into play at this point. In an interview with L.A. Leakers, Kendrick explains that “m.A.A.d.” has two different meanings: “My Angry Adolescence Divide” and “My Angels on Angel Dust.” Both vaguely depict the homies that Kendrick hung around, angry teens with exposure to drugs.
The phrase “dying of thirst” within the song’s title means having a lack of holy water in your life, and therefore suffering without accepting Jesus and letting him save you. In the hook of SAMIDOT, “Kendrick uses the metaphoric idea of sleep as death.” He wants to make sure that his legacy won’t die with him, and hopes someone will keep his memory alive.
When the lights shut off
And it’s my turn to settle down
My main concern
Promise that you will sing about me
Promise that you will sing about me
It’s clear that being a spiritual role model is very important to Kendrick. In the New York Times article, Kendrick states that for many fans, “I’m the closest thing to a preacher that they have.” This highlights the importance of having some kind figure to help guide oppressed people in their everyday struggle. Kendrick continues by saying, “Kids are living by my music. My word will never be as strong as God’s word. All I am is just a vessel, doing his work.” This obligation to reach out to millions of people with a religious message and share it in a non-traditional way – through mainstream rap music – speaks volumes on the necessity for holy camaraderie.
As popular music evolves and religions prosper in communities down on hope, lyrics and messages in rap songs and in Holy Scriptures will continue to be open to interpretation. The underlying theme between the two will always be unity; uniting the oppressed to finally be heard, uniting the lost to finally find direction, and uniting the people to finally end the vicious cycle of institutionalism.
- Lamar, Kendrick. “Kendrick Lamar Breaks Down The Meaning Behind Good Kid, M.A.A.D City W/ The L.A. Leakers.” Interview by L.A. Leakers. L.A., California, 19 Oct. 2012. Television.
- Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme. Dir. Kevin Fitzgerald. 2000. Hulu.com. Web.
- COSCARELLI, Joe. “Kendrick Lamar on His New Album and the Weight of Clarity.” The New York Times. N.p., 2015. Web. 02 Apr. 2015.
- Bible, Holy. “What Does It Mean To Be Saved.” Mount Pleasant Church and Ministries. N.p., 10 Nov. 2012. Web.
- Bennett, Mike. “10 Commandments List.” Life, Hope & Truth. N.p., n.d. Web.
- Tardio, Andres. “Kanye West Speaks Candidly About Mother, Religion, Rap.”HipHopDX RSS. N.p., 2 Dec. 2008. Web.
- Tickner, Arlene B. “Aquí En El Ghetto: Hip-Hop In Colombia, Cuba, And Mexico.” Latin American Politics & Society 50.3 (2008): 121-146. Business Source Complete. Web. 2 Apr. 2015.
- Tinajero, Robert. “Hip Hop and Religion: Gangsta Rap’s Christian Rhetoric.” Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 25.3 (2013): 315-32. Web.
- Utley, Ebony A. Rap and Religion: Understanding the Gangsta’s God. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2012. Print.