Religion in Hip-Hop: Reconciling Rap and Religion

The art form of hip-hop music and Christianity are often viewed by scholars and skeptics as polar opposites. Rappers employ the art of rhyme to communicate specific and unspecific messages to their audience that sometimes include Christian terminology. Scholars often hear Christian terms used by rappers and identify that artist with Christianity, which sometimes leads to pastors holding secular artists accountable to the standards of the faith.

However, this analysis is inaccurate, according to Dr. Monica R. Miller, visiting Assistant Professor for Religious Studies at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore. Miller recently released a book titled "Religion and Hip-Hop" that examines the relationship of the art form and the faith more closely. Miller challenges her peers to stop studying hip-hop through the lens of Christianity, and to view rappers more as products of their own environment. Miller's ultimate goal is to find a different approach towards the study of the two, and break down the man-made separation between them.

The Christian Post recently interviewed Miller in attempts to tackle some of the tough questions related to the study of religion and hip-hop and the separation between the two.

CP: Why do you think that many rappers use religious or Christian terms in hip-hop music?

Miller: I think that more often than not [rappers use of religious terms in music] is highly unconscious … it is a part of entertainment. Also, [there] are definitely cultural expressions that are of familial inheritance of particular aspects of religion. … They use the language that they are at home with to make certain points about their own human interests.

CP: Could you provide me with an example of this?

Miller: In 2009 … three books [were released] by rappers that all made use of religion in really interesting ways and also figure that KRS-One [released] Gospel of Hip-Hop. Here's this 600-page book called The Gospel of Hip-Hop and what's fascinating to me is [that] it's fashioned after a Bible. Is he selling hip-hop as a religion? Is he selling Christianity? … It almost can be read as him selling Christianity using hip-hop as a way to draw people in. … The book makes use of Christian theological themes and signifiers.

I'm not fully persuaded that [KRS-One] is trying to make a religious statement. What I'm interested in is why do religious uses of religion proliferate [in hip-hop.] And they are usually Christian in nature, but they are not used in traditional ways.

For example, scholars in religious studies who work within the Christian tradition, they'll look at such uses [of religion in hip-hop] and they'll say that Christianity might be the number one religion in hip-hop. But is [that statement valid]?

CP: Do you think that Christianity is the most popular religion within hip-hop?

Miller: I'm not exactly sure. I think that [rappers] make use of Christian terms, ideas and resurrection stories. [You have the creation of Black Jesus] and then [rappers] using him as a kind of human comparative with the ways in which black men struggle in the projects [and rappers talking about] wearing the Jesus Piece [and they also] reinterpret themselves through the life and story of Jesus.

I think the reason why these uses proliferate, especially the Christian uses, is because the story really sells. We don't have to persuade people in the United States [to embrace Christian themes]. Christianity holds an immense amount of political, social and cultural weight in our society. So if you want to sell a particular human idea or an idea about yourself, what better way to do it than to read yourself through the Christian story?

CP: On your website you make a statement saying the question, "Can the church be hip-hop?" is flawed, and that it is rooted in the spirit of market maintenance. Can you elaborate on the meaning of market maintenance and this statement in general?

Miller: Market maintenance is a theme that I developed in "Religion and Hip-Hop." When I developed that concept of market maintenance … what I was trying to do was read the ways that scholars in religious studies and theology in particular have dealt with the cultural data of hip-hop as it relates to religion and theology.

One of the things that I find problematic about the current scholarship that we do have in religion and hip-hop is … [all] analysis is done within a Christian theological perspective. … There's this kind of theological domination on the study of religion in hip-hop, and I don't think the academic study of religion should be confined to theology.

I also think that most of the scholars writing about religion in hip-hop are they themselves personally Christian, and so they read their own Christian experience and their Christian theological understanding into the way that they analyze religion in hip-hop. … It's a growing trend among certain scholars of color who happen to be ministers and also Ph.Ds at the same time. … They raise a question in the work, [which is] "How can the church be hip-hop?"

That brand of engagement [which is] looking at religion in hip-hop from a black church paradigm fashions faith-based institutions hierarchically. It puts faith based institutions over more "deviant" cultural productions like hip-hop. [The church doesn't want to] understand hip-hop. [They want to] increase the market of young people [for them, and] … get more young people in the church.

I call that approach market maintenance. Their primary motivation is not to understand the uses of religion in hip-hop- [they care about] the black church more so than a rigorous academic analysis of religious uses in hip-hop.

When scholar's primary interests are in the spirit of market maintenance … what they do is they sanitize hip-hop, and they clean it up, so they make a separation between the sacred and the profane and that's one of my biggest issues [with their analyses].

I didn't specifically develop [this] idea as a critique against churches necessarily, churches on the ground trying to struggle with a changing religious economy when it comes to young people's participation in religion. Certainly we [also] have the proliferation of hip-hop churches- pastors who used to be rappers … whose churches are by default "hip-hop" in some kind of way.

CP: How do you feel about artists, who create "Christian hip-hop," who are basically communicating their faith through the art form?

Miller: What interests me ... is not necessarily the artist, but [how the public receives them]. I think Time Magazine just [wrote a piece] on Lecrae and the rise of Christian rap music and one of the things that really fascinates people is how Lecrae is able to maintain a very mainstream sound while also still holding on to his faith in a way that perhaps they might argue Tupac did.

I think there are many people who are able to hold on to their faith [in hip-hop]. … With that kind of phenomenon rising in our contemporary society, is there a certain way to properly [keep] one's faith while also being a participator in or an artist of hip-hop culture? I think Tupac does it in just similar brilliant ways that Lecrae does it … [Lecrae's] a little bit more theologically conservative than someone like Tupac. … Tupac did talk about faith a lot, but Tupac was a complex individual.

CP: Do you think that the rappers of the 1980s and 1990s had more of a respect for religion or God than some of today's more popular hip-hop artists?

Miller: Let's take Meek Mill's case, for example.

Meek Mill is a mainstream rapper whose song "Amen" had religious themes that were considered blasphemous and offensive by some critics. A local Philadelphia pastor urged him to apologize for the song and repent for his actions in a live radio interview. Mill refused.

I honestly think that [this was totally uncalled for]. … I do think that there is a connection between the economy and the kind of in your face [delivery by rappers] in rap music that sells. It might seem that it's getting a little bit more disrespectful, but I think that to say that it's becoming more fully disrespectful is to say that also the beginnings of hip-hop were more conscious, more political and now we're kind of moving into this complete fleshly domain of rap music that just completely disregards all domains of human life including religiosity.

I don't think that it's getting worse or better. I think that it's just a reflection of our changing historical moment, where people have a different relationship to and with religion.

For more information on Dr. Monica R. Miller click here.

To purchase "Religion and Hip-Hop," click here.

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