Hip-Hop and Hymns

April 25th, 2012
Image © Fozzman | Flickr | Creative Commons

Sitting in a crowded Atlanta airport-music blasting through my earphones, I was approached by my pastor. He stated, “You must be listening to Jay Z?” I replied, “No, I am actually listening to T.I. this morning. He paused, smiled, and said, “What am I going to do with this generation? You all know hip-hop, but you don’t know a hymn.”

After his statement, I immediately felt convicted—convicted in the sense that it was true—I do know more hip-hop lyrics than I do church hymns.

A few weeks later I begin to examine the “why” of this. Why is it that I know more hip-hop lyrics than I do hymns? I begin question the validity of my Christian walk-am I less saved, hypocritical, or a secular being pretending to be Christian? However, as I was doing spiritual acrobatics in my mind I discovered two things; One, I was never taught hymns, and in addition, I found that many of the hip-hop songs that I listened to, spoke to my experience, and personal walk with God. In essence, I relate more to hip-hop lyrics than I do hymns.

Why is this? I grew up in an environment where the hustler was more visible than the prophet. The hustler was the common man; he was the approachable one. The prophet was the one who was revered. We were scared to speak to the pastor, the prophet, because we were taught to fear God, and these men were the closest vessel to God-so no interaction. Therefore, my encounter with the hustler was normal, and I embraced every moment of the interactions. I embraced the hustler, because the messages he/she projected were those of the hip-hop movement.

See, hip-hop is the combination of two separate slang terms—“hip,” used in African American Vernacular English (AAVE) as early as 1898, meaning current or in the know, and “hop,” for the hopping movement. Thus, the hip-hop movement spoke on facts—what people saw, and how to exist in that environment. The pastor, prophet spoke on what they knew based on their faith. So for me, it was a clash between facts and faith. Therefore, as a kid, facts were more important than faith-so I adapted to two of my senses, what I could see, and hear. With that being said, as I grew in my faith I became curious as to how to integrate both worlds.

After studying faith, religion, and completing divinity school I realized that hymns and hip-hop were similar in this regard. They both spoke to individual experiences that lead them to a belief. Hymns point to God and a life to live as Christ, and hip-hop points to how one can engage in a cruel society where oppression, subjection, and depression rest.

We are now engaged in two worlds.  One, a text that directs you to live as Christ, and the other that causes you to examine what Christ disliked.

Hip-hop culture became a way of dealing with the hardships of life as minorities within America, and an outlet to deal with violence and gang culture. Hip hop gave young African Americans a voice to let their issues be heard. As Manthia Diawara writes in In Search of Africa, "Like rock-and-roll, hip-hop is vigorously opposed by conservatives because it romanticizes violence, law-breaking, and gangs". It also gave young blacks a chance for financial gain by "reducing the rest of the world to consumers of its social concerns."

Therefore, the issue is not so much as hip-hop over against hymns as it is the expression of belief. Though many of the hip-hop lyrics wont directly point me to Jesus; with my faith as I listen-it gives me greater clarity on how I should live like Jesus. For Jesus declared his mission in Luke 4:18:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.”

Thus, it is my response to this that I must live out his mission by bringing healing and wholeness to a broken people and a broken society.

Now the issue with hymns is that no one taught me them. I assume that as kids we’re supposed to catch on, and eventually these lyrics will be embedded into our souls like our foundational Christian beliefs. Yet, they were not, so I turned to what I could understand. Maybe we lost the fabric of our tradition in the African-American church, which was an oral tradition. Maybe we forgot to pass down traditions that sustain a people during hard times?

The African-American culture has always passed down important information to this next generation. African-based oral traditions became the primary means of preserving history, mores, and other cultural information among the people. This was consistent with the griot practices of oral history in many African and other cultures that did not rely on the written word. Many of these cultural elements have been passed from generation to generation through storytelling. Yet, I never learned hymns as I did scripture. We always had Bible quiz bowls, but never hymn quizzes. Therefore, how would I know unless I had a strong desire to learn them for myself?

Nevertheless, there is no one to blame unless, somehow, someway, I knowing more hip-hop than hymns misrepresent the Church and the Christian faith.  If this is the case, and I am misrepresenting my faith then let us examine the origin of a hymn over against hip-hop lyrics.

Hymns are defined as a type of song, usually religious, specifically written for the purpose of praise, adoration or prayer, and typically addressed to a deity or deities, or to a prominent figure or personification. The word hymn derives from Greek hymnos, which means "a song of praise." If these are songs of adoration, and praise to God, does one lose their Christian rights if I embraced T.I.’s lyrics in his song “Praying for Help,” when he recites:

“I know it’s only one king, one thing, one being only something I believe without seeing

And with all my faith

I pray somehow, some way, regardless of what anyone say

I believe one day

That Ima change my life, get right, start living like Christ, to the end of my fight”

Is there something wrong if I identify with his lyrics more so than these below?

“He’s the Lily of the Valley, the Bright and Morning Star, He’s the fairest of ten thousand to my soul.”

Contextually, what if I have no idea what a lily is, and my valley is an alley where homelessness and poverty exist, a place where I made money selling narcotics? Then one could see how I could identify with the former lyrics more than the latter. One of the challenges with hymns is that we are relegated to singing songs with no context of the individuals who wrote them or the experiences that lead them to write the hymn. The life of a hip-hop artist is always on display, negatively or positively. Thus, we as consumers or fans watch these artists evolve or dissolve. The church is hidden. We won’t share our stories or experiences that have lead us to Christ or stories that help to empower and inspire people.

My argument therefore is this, if the church’s desire is to have productive dialogue and great worship practices with this new generation She has to become transparent and more vulnerable in expressing God. I agree with F. Douglas Powe Jr, when he says:

 “The evangelistic crisis they (churches) face is their inability to embody the good news of Jesus Christ in a way that speaks to those in the post-civil rights generations. Hip-hop does not have a problem saying I sinned, as a matter of fact, their sin is on display. The church must admit that we are imperfect, and are constantly working out or salvation with trembling and fear.” 

Finally, the church is the place where the community of believers gathers in unity to celebrate the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The church is where Jesus is met, where bodily historical graces and reconciliation are now shown. Christ’s resurrection moved mountains of oppression, and valleys of injustice. This gratuitous act, gives humanity the opportunity to walk, talk, and be together as one body in Christ dependent upon one another. In essence, the crucified Christ is received as a personal act of faith through the witnesses of its believers. If we are to be the true church, we have to meet our next generation where they are, and bridge the gap of understanding our faith-through their lens as well as our own. When this happens, I believe we can be true change agents for Christ.

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