The Relationship Between Religion and Hip-Hop
By: Sarah Wright,
Public & Global Affairs Intern
Ever since hip-hop originated in the South Bronx in the mid-1970’s, the music genre has transformed the ways in which modern music is seen in America and across the world. To many, hip-hop is the music that defines and documents streetlife and gives it an authentic voice, which is then translated into a global language that speaks to social injustices, racial divides, and inequality. More than just songs on a track, hip-hop encompasses an artform, a philosophy, and a political worldview that speaks about the way the world is and the way the world could become. While their messages may often seem contrary to each other, on their fundamental level, both religion and hip-hop aim to spread a relatable message and mission that have local roots that are globally applicable. Religion, and often the Christian Church, provides a language through which the hip-hop artists are able to provide social commentary through language that the Church has domesticated. In the BBC show Beyond Belief, Chris Shannahan argues that the domesticated Psalms in the Hebrew Bible, are, in sorts, a shaking of a fist at God. In parallel, modern hip-hop can be considered a shaking of a fist at social inequality, similarly to the hebrew prophets. He then goes on to claim that out of this connection with religion and hip-hop a new, contemporary Holy Trinity has emerged between Tupac Shakur, Malcom X, and the figure of Jesus as a “brother or one of us” not as a saviour or son of God. This ‘Holy Trinity’ exemplifies the relationship between rap music, racial inequality, and their relation to religion.
While hip-hop may have first appeared in New York, Chicago has its own special relationship with hip-hop and its religious affiliation. Kanye West, a world famous Chicago-born rapper often quotes the bible and other Christian prayers in his music. For example in one of his performances on Saturday Night Live, West began by singing a riff on the Prayer of St. Francis: Deliver us serenity/ Deliver us peace/ Deliver us loving/ We know we need it. Rap has taken a more religious turn in the past couple years after holy lyricism and Gospel were popularised by artists like Sir the Baptist. Sir the Baptist’s father was a preacher and he says that his music is, “ an open letter to both communities — the hip-hop community and the religious community,” he says in a later interview. “It’s like what Jesus did when he turned the tables over (of the money collectors) in the temple. It’s saying things aren’t what they should be in either place.” Gospel, which finds its roots in Chicago, shaped the civil rights movement and now, gospel and rap is shaping today’s modern day Black Lives Matter movement, once again giving a voice to those who feel forgotten.