What’s God got to do with it? The religious upsurge in commercial hip hop
Written by Chief Admin on May 25, 2016
Rap artist Kanye West has incorporated religious references and iconography into his songs for over a decade.(Getty: L. Cohen)
Since the first weekend of 2019, American rap artist Kanye West has led weekly Sunday Services — sometimes at his home, other times in the woods, and once at the Californian music festival Coachella.
Judging by videos shared by celebrities in attendance, the gatherings are light on the sermons. Instead, they feature gospel-style renditions of West’s songs, such as Jesus Walks, as well as actual gospel music, performed by a predominantly black choir.
It’s an interesting step for the Chicago-born musician, who has used the moniker “Yeezus” since 2013. For many, West is known more for his god-like ego than his worship.
But West is not the only celebrity rapper to tie his music — or brand — to religiosity.
Kendrick Lamar’s critically acclaimed 2017 album DAMN. is strewn with Christian references, and hip hop mogul Jay-Z has called himself Hova, a play on Jehovah, a reference to God, since the late 1990s.
According to music and culture expert Christina Zanfagna, religion has been at the centre of hip hop for a very long time.
“That’s something that most people don’t always assume because … of it’s more well-known face of misogyny, violence and hyper-materialism,” says the associate professor from Santa Clara University.
Despite this, she says the genre is filled with moral reckoning. For instance, in many rap songs, artists attempt to make sense of gun violence and the death of loved ones.
“[There’s] a kind of spiritual grappling with questions of afterlife, or death or redemption, or evil in these moments,” she says.
From Islam to Christianity: Religion in rap
Christianity isn’t the only faith that’s been a focus of hip hop music.
As associate professor Zanfagna explains, in the late 1980s and early 90s, some of the most well-known rappers, including Ice Cube and Rakim, were influenced by Islam.
But following the September 11 terrorist attack, public perceptions of Islam began to shift, and the reverberations were felt on the music scene too.
“There was less of an impulse for hip hop artists to publicly identify with Islam,” says associate professor Zanfagna.
Around this time, she says several popular rap artists, including Mase and Kurtis Blow, converted to Christianity. This drew attention to their newfound faith.
Meanwhile, the rise of prosperity theology — the belief that material wealth reflects one’s adherence to the Christian faith — became a way for rappers to associate their hyper-materialism with their spirituality.
Commercial versus Christian hip hop
Excess liquor, flashy jewellery, luxury cars and literal wads of cash are common features in hip hop music videos of the 21st century, but not all artists want to promote lavish lifestyles.
Marcelo ‘Oakbridge’ Encina is one such rapper.
He’s the co-founder of the Sydney-based Christian hip hop group Krosswerdz and he’s critical of overtly materialistic artists.
“Some of the beats that [Kanye West] did in his early years were so innovative,” he says.
“All of a sudden, he’s having arguments about why Nike won’t let him design a shoe.”
Oakbridge started the group Krosswerdz — a nod to Jesus Christ’s cross — with fellow artist Matthew ‘Mistery’ Peet 13 years ago and, since then, they’ve expanded their Christian collective to Malaysia, Korea and Canada
The Sydney branch holds monthly hip hop church services and events for interdenominational Christians and non-traditional church attendees.
“Because of the hip hop element, often we will also attract the sort of people that may not want to go to a ‘normal’ church service,” says Oakbridge.
Mistery adds that at their events are always “family friendly.”
Genuine expression in commercial rap
Despite their criticism of Kanye West, Oakbridge and Mistery don’t view all commercial rappers in the same light.
They cite Kendrick Lamar as an artist whose music grapples with real and relatable issues, such as depression, the death of friends, faith and community.
“It’s the diary entries of someone that’s searching,” says Mistery.
“If someone is genuine, you can respect their point of view, even if you don’t agree with it,” adds Oakbridge
Secularism can’t stop the sacred
Associate professor Zanfagna thinks that religion will remain a prominent force in hip hop, despite declines in religious observance in many countries in the West.
“[Secularism] is giving rise to some really intense expressions of religiosity, particularly in urban areas that have had a lot of cultural and environmental upheaval,” she says.
“They wouldn’t say that they have some kind of clean, tidy presentation of religion in their music, but it’s a wrestling with these larger questions.”
And if the global interest in Kanye West’s Sunday services is an indication, she believes hip hop artists and fans alike still want “to touch a bit of that divine”.