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How hip-hop gravitated toward religion

Written by on May 27, 2016

How hip-hop gravitated toward religion


DMX performs during the BET Hip Hop Awards in Atlanta on Oct. 1, 2011.
DMX performs during the BET Hip Hop Awards in Atlanta on Oct. 1, 2011.
(Associated Press)

After capturing the allegiance of generations of urban young people, a growing crew of hip-hop artists are taking their penchant for in-your-face narratives into the world of amazing grace

Snoop Dogg went from rapping about partying all night to producing a double album of praise songs about God.

The late DMX, survived by 15 children from nine women, catapulted from rapping graphically about women (for whom he used the b-word) to rapping about giving it all to Jesus.

And Kanye West, purveyor of f-bomb-laden lyrics, launched a series of Sunday services and a choir to sing in them.

Hip-hop, a counter-culture genre born on the Black and Latino streets of the Bronx in the 1970s, has gotten religion.

It even has a name: holy hip-hop.

After capturing the allegiance of generations of urban young people, a growing crew of hip-hop artists are taking their penchant for in-your-face narratives into the world of amazing grace.

How on earth did this happen? The answer is pretty simple, offers hip-hop scholar and fan Roy Whitaker.

“The underlying foundations and institutions of Black people and music in the Western world, including hip-hop, are rooted in religion,” says Whitaker, an associate professor of religion at San Diego State University.


Whitaker, who grew up in Culver City listening to hip-hop in the 1980s and ‘90s, argues that holy hip-hop is, in its own way, “reconnecting in despair and in hope to something and/or someone larger than oneself.”

Hip-hop historians note that in the early days, many artists were influenced by Malcolm X, the Nation of Islam and even some Rastafarians. But there’s been a migration toward Christianity — with a hip-hop worldview that mixes social irreverence with born-again reverence.

A photo of Snoop Dogg
Snoop Dogg
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Snoop, in a not-so-veiled swipe at the Christian Bible, whose Old and New Testaments contain stories of wrath, retribution and violence, described his 2018 gospel project this way: “We’re preaching from a different Bible. We’re not preaching from the Bible of hate and love. We’re preaching from the Bible of straight love.”

Christian hip-hop artist Lecrae, the first in his genre to take home a Grammy for Best Gospel Album, calls out the church’s hypocrisy in his music, covering such topics as what is — and isn’t — considered appropriate church clothes to holier-than-thou attitudes. His 2012 album “Gravity,” which won that first crossover Grammy, includes this line from the title track: The pastor is so corrupt, it’s hard to ride with his message.

Pushback, acceptance

From the onset, some churches and pastors were so incensed with the language, misogyny and hyper-sexuality of hip-hop that they burned the CDs as part of their denouncements. One of its most vocal opponents, G. Craige Lewis, pastor of a Pentecostal church in Texas, holds altar calls to pray the hip-hop out of the souls of tattooed believers.

But Whitaker, a theologian who teaches a class on hip-hop and religion at SDSU, suggests that much of hip-hop is misunderstood.

Take the late Tupac Shakur, who was killed in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas in 1996. Boldly inked across Tupac’s stomach were the words, “Thug Life.”

“You would think, when you think of thug life, ‘Oh my goodness, this person is going to rampage, pillage, take over,’ ” Whitaker says. “But it had nothing to do with that.”

Instead, it was coded language for this: “The Hate You Give Little Infants F – – – s Everyone.” Translation, says Whitaker: “The hate you give the most vulnerable in society, there is going to be pushback.”

He’s a believer in hip-hop’s ability to deliver powerful testimony about where our society falls short and what needs to be done about it. Its effectiveness took center stage earlier this year in the get-out-the-vote rallies in Georgia, where hip-hop artists campaigned forcefully and successfully for the Democrats, including a Baptist pastor, in that state’s U.S. Senate race.

“It is no wonder that a predominantly Black controversial art form that challenges everything and everyone — much like blues and jazz at their inception — has taken awhile to become respected and received in sectors of American mainstream society for the ability to speak spiritual truth in uncomfortable ways,” Whitaker points out.

Actually, it’s been more than accepted. By the end of 2017, hip-hop surpassed rock music to become the most popular genre in the country.

It also became firmly ensconced in many contemporary church services seeking to draw in a younger, more diverse congregation by finding ways to marry their own faith messages with the beats that resonated with hip-hop audiences. Among these houses of worship: the Rock, San Diego’s largest church and one of the largest in the country.

A positive spin

While professor Whitaker was growing up with hip-hop in Culver City, Danny Barragan was doing likewise in National City. “There was something they were saying that not everyone was saying,” remembers Barragan, who is the lead worship pastor at the Rock Church.

Barragan says it was only natural to eventually bring it into their services.

“The congregation loves it,” he says. Well, maybe not everyone, he later adds. But he thinks having hip-hop in the service not only makes the service more relevant but also helps open the minds of the reticent.

“Some people may walk in, and to be really honest, they get really uncomfortable hearing hip-hop in a church,” Barragan says. “But I think it’s a safe place for them to be in tension with that a little bit. And the hope would be that they would say, ‘Hey, this is being done positively. This is celebrating someone’s upbringing and culture and expression and you know what? I need to be a little more open-minded to that.’ ’’

Barragan’s worship team will often put their own words to the beat or act it out with a dance. He doesn’t think this distorts the culture of hip-hop. “Maybe it came from something that had pain or rebelliousness associated with it, but let’s use that now to call people into positivity.”

When asked how gangster rappers got religion, he suggests it may be simply a testimony to getting older. Snoop is 49 years old. Kanye is 43. DMX was 50.

“I think we live our life one way for so long and when it continues to give you the same results, you realize I need to change something. I need to grow up a little bit, and I need to mature in the way I approach life. And I think a lot of those guys realized that.”

Barragan, who is the same age as Kanye, can relate. “I just realized that I need to move on from all that aggression and being so upset. I need to start looking at life through a different lens. And I think the church is a great way to do that.”

Looking forward

DMX died April 9 from a heart attack reportedly triggered by a drug overdose. Snoop memorialized his friend on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” talking about how much fun they had working together on a podcast.

“We had God in the building with us that night, and that makes me feel good about DMX’s transition, to know that he’s off to a better place and he’s finally got his angel wings,” Snoop told Fallon.

While his death may be a reminder of the lifestyle tension between hip-hop and holiness, the musical blending appears to be here to stay.

Whitaker’s forecast: “Will hip-hop have the same power as gospel?Will people be listening to hip-hop in congregations 20 years from now? I would say the answer to that question is yes.”

Dolbee is the former religion and ethics editor of The San Diego Union-Tribune and a former president of the Religion News Association. Email: