What is African American spirituality? Based on numerous hours of class discussions it almost appears as if what is termed African American spirituality is an enigma. It seems as if the definition in itself would be an easy one to construct. Spirituality is simply defined by Dictionary.com as “the state or quality of being dedicated to God, religion, or spiritual things or values, esp. as contrasted with material or temporal ones.” In addition an African American is simply an individual of African descent. If it were that easy we could combine the two definitions and there would be no need for discussion books or hours of class time exploring the true meaning. But of course it isn’t that easy, reason being our first observation of Africana/African American spirituality is that it is organic, a living thing (class discussion). Thus although black spirituality will always have some similarities it will have a huge potential of looking and feeling different based on the time period it is being observed in. Today we live in a society where the Hip-Hop culture, a culture birthed by those of African descent is a dominant force. To see the culture’s influence take Nick Jr.’s (Television Network) Yo Gabba Gabba, a popular children’s television show where the main character is a host named DJ Lance Rock. But is there any spirituality in the Hip-Hop culture? At first glance most would say no. Because of what is glorified in the media the spiritual aspect of Hip-Hop is almost invisible. But there is spirituality in the Hip-Hop culture. In the following pages I will affirm the African American Spirituality in a Hip-Hop culture.
The Definition of Hip-Hop
Before I continue I must define the term Hip-Hop. Often times the term is seen as synonymous with rap music but this is incorrect. Hip-Hop is an artistic culture birthed out of the African culture. The main artistic elements of the culture are deejaying, rapping, graffiti, and break dancing. Often seen as being established in the 1970’s, the four elements aided to a way in which a society was being shaped. The way people dressed, talked and carried themselves could be traced back to any of the four elements. But this is nothing unique to the black culture. “Black people were not allowed to be themselves in the larger society, so they created idioms and nuances of culture that would able them to find, create, and sustain themselves through the praxis of spirituality and culture (Stewart III, 72).” As stated by Steward, blacks have a creative soul force that it always seeking freedom. This creative soul force moves in all realms whether a church revival or block party on a summer day. This same spirit that we observed as being organic, holistic, communal, cognitive, affective, rhythmic and transformational exists in and helped to birth the Hip-Hop culture because it exist in us the people who defined the culture.
The Turn Table vs The Piano
In terms of music outside of the voice of a soloist the spirit of God can be felt in the melody being strummed out by the pianist. The piano whether finely tuned or so out of tune the notes being played sound as if the pianist is playing a different song has been a staple in the black church. The keyboard is often used to invoke the spirit whether in a high pace praise and worship in a tempo well over 125 beats per minute or a mellow pace that reminds us of the pain of our ancestors. In many black churches even moments of silence are not conducted in pure silence. Melodies are always played usually leading to shouts of HALLEJUA, PRAISE THE LORD, and THANK YOU JESUS. For those engrained in the Hip-Hop culture, before all of the innovative technology/computers the DJ used the turn tables/record players as their musical instrument to provoke crowds to dance, bob their heads or even scream out the words to the songs being played. In the documentary Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, Q-Tip (a member of the group) is quoted as saying “We didn’t have or couldn’t afford instruments, so we used what we had (to make music).” What they had was a turn table and their parent’s old records. In the 1970’s, with the addition of a second turn table, DJ Cool Herc would isolate sections of a particular record looping back particular arrangement or melody thus creating what seemed like another song. This is nothing new for the African American though. All we have to do is look back to our slave ancestry to see how we made gourmet meals from the left over scraps of a pig. The technique of looping would then evolve to sampling other songs to make new music. In my viewing of the documentary in a dimly lit movie theater, I was only able to see shadows of those who were in the theater with me. But as soon as a familiar Tribe Called Quest instrumental vibrated through the speakers everyone in the theater began to sway side to side and nod their heads. Some would even let out grunts and turn to each other and nod their heads up and down to one another. In a split second our spirits were joined and a rhythmic community was formed although only for minutes at a time. Had there been a mention of God or Jesus praise and worship was liable to break out.
Black Preaching/The Preacher vs Rapping/The Rapper (or MC)
In The Soul of Black Folks, W.E.B. Du Bios is quoted as calling the black preacher “a leader, a politician, an orator, a ‘boss’ an intriguer an idealist.” When asked if rap music a “rhetorical form in the same manner that preaching has been to the black church”, Eric Michael Dyson replied by saying, “rap certainly is the rhetorical form that is most emblematic of hip hop culture. (Thomas 92). Dyson also goes on to explain that rap functions with the hip hop culture the same way preaching does with the black religious culture. According to Dyson rap deploys rhetoric as a means of critiquing the social aspects of society, it deploys rhetoric as a means of self-expression, and it deploys rhetoric as a means of making assertions about how life should be, thus linking preaching and rapping. “Rappin” as coined by Carlyle Fielding Stewart is the black linguistic freedom of the speaker to tell it like it is (Stewart 55 -56), here Fielding is speaking of preching. This idea of telling it like it is couldn’t be more apparent than in rap music. When we hear rappers like the Notorious BIG aka Biggie Smalls speak something like “either you slinging crack rocks or you have a wicket jump shot” we should not be moved be becoming immediately offended, we should view him as telling it like it is. From Biggie’s view or reality the only avenues where an African American males can be successful is if they are playing sports or selling drugs or rapping, an unfortunate view of African American males which is often seconded by how we are portrayed in the media. The Wu-Tang Clan’s record “C.R.E.A.M. Cash Rules Everything Around Me”, explains that homes are fatherless and that the stress of not having money makes us do crazy things whether it be using or selling drugs to our own people. Often times those outside of the hip hop culture and outside of the impoverished communities frown our faces upon music like this, but let’s not forget they are just “rappin” or telling it like it is. For those of us who wake up every day of our lives in these impoverished communities we want out of these situations, we want our story told, and we want to be heard immediately. As stated by Chuck D of Public Enemy “most of our heroes don’t appear on no stamp.” Through this rhetoric of creating rap music we then tell our own stories and become/create our own heroes and move our way out of the ghetto environments.
If we further dive into the skill sets of both the rapper and the black preacher you will see an overlap in skills needed to be highly effective in both arenas. Often times preachers are asked to give corporate extemporaneous prayers. In the black tradition these impromptu prayers are often poetically recited as if the prayer had been previously rehearsed. During extemporaneous prayer the preacher speaks not only on God’s mercy and grace, but often also may pray on what is currently happening in society, whether it is prayers for the president or prayers for those who have suffered from natural disaster. On the same hand the rapper may be asked to recite an extemporaneous rap often referred to in slang form as spitting off of the top or free styling. Here too we see the same poetic mastery putting words together only this time in a rhyme format. In both the extemporaneous prayer and the freestyle our current story and life situations are addressed. Although it be for different purposes both can move the hearts and souls of the congregation or the crowd to shout for joy.
Next we can explore the power of call and response. In the African American community call and response is known for inciting mutual dialogue between the leader and the audience, and it serves as a catalyst for establishing community and solidarity (Stewart 65, 66). Again both the black church and the Hip-Hop culture share another characteristic. During a church service or a hip-hop concert the words of the speaker are affirmed by the audience. In the church you may hear someone shot out “PREACH” or “AMEN” or if reciting a verse from a hymn the preacher will say the first part and the congregants will say the next. In a rap concert when a certain part of the song is reached to establish the community the artist will rap one line and the audience will rap the following line. Steward raises an excellent point by saying that “Perhaps the practice of call and response in black oral culture and communications has done more to reinforce expectations of black unity, community and solidarity than other social pattern in African American life (Stewart 67).” Whether it is a revival or a Jay Z concert, the black soul desires and craves this form of community established in by either the preacher or the MC.
The Problem and The Solution
At first and even second glance rap music is vulgar and misogynistic, but this isn’t always the case. In comparison the Blues was viewed in the same manner. When observed with a fine tooth comb both the Blues and Rap Music depict a secular dimension of the black experience (Cone 97). But as the popularity of the Hip-Hop culture grew so did its profitability. As time passed on the music began to lose its soul. Instead of putting music out to stop the violence or let us know as black people we are headed for self-destruction music became focused on who sold the most drugs and who had the most women. For those outside of the African American community rap music, the musical expression of the Hip-Hop culture became big business. So in order for us to be heard and make a living in a culture that we created and that we live in, we then had to over exaggerate our stories in order to be presented with record deals. Lauren Hill said it best when she sang “I thought art was supposed to edify and inspire, and what you do doesn’t take me higher (Thomas 95).” No longer were the most popular rap songs to be artistic or inspirational. No longer were you going to hear lyrics on the Radio from KRS- One’s song entitled Self Destruction like:
“Well, today’s topic, self destruction
It really ain’t the rap audience that’s buggin
It’s one or two suckas, ignorant brothers
Trying to rob and steal from one another
You get caught in the mid
So to crush the stereotype here’s what we did
We got ourselves together
so that you could unite and fight for what’s right
Not negative ’cause the way we live is positive
We don’t kill our relatives
But instead on the radio we here Drake’s Successful which equates success to obtaining money, women, cars and clothes:
I want the money,
Money and the cars,
Cars and the clothes,
I just wanna be,
I just wanna be,
I just wanna be,
I just wanna be,
I just wanna be,
I just wanna be,
Those in the majority don’t want those in the minority is to be inspired to do strive for the betterment of themselves and or their community. So where does this place us? It places the black soul in an invisible bondage. I reflect upon reflect upon Martin Luther King Jr.’s last speech where he called for the black community to withdraw their economic investments by not purchasing products such as Coca-Cola, Seal Test Milk and Wonder Bread. Shortly after this sermon King was assassinated. Today the artist who decides to speak out through the form of rap music such as King did are assassinated in a different way. Their music will never heard on the radio stations and the videos never be seen on MTV or BET as it is not profitable for to them if blacks were inspired to take control over their culture. Every now and then we will get a song like “Jesus Walks” from Kanye West which cannot be contained by any force. “Jesus Walks” spoke of Jesus being in relationship with everyone including hustlers, drug dealers, strippers and those on welfare. In the United States alone Kanye West’s single about Jesus sold over 500,000 copies, an astronomical number for a spiritual rap song as most often never reach the radio air waves. But for one “Jesus Walks” we’ll hear 300 songs like Drake’s “Successful”. What are we to do? Something has to be done; our souls are in danger from being fed the wrong messages. I wish it were as easy as saying well let’s just get out there and do ministry and preach against these types of degrading songs. But it isn’t that simple. We are surrounded. Perversion has engrained itself into the Hip-Hop culture making the over glorification of bad things extremely attractive, and many times profitable for some artists and even more profitable for non-minorities. I have no doubt that something can be done if not to rid Hip-Hop of over exaggerated perversion but at least balance the scales to where it wouldn’t be so hard to find or hear positive genres of rap. Two things lead me to believe something can be done. First oddly enough rappers know who God is – some usually acknowledge God when winning awards. I’m reminded of Lil Wayne accepting a BET award and stating that without God none of his success would be possible. The second thing leading me to believe that something can be done to shift the tides is that young people crave something of a different pace in the church environment. For instance as we sat in class and listened to both Marion William’s and Kim Burrell’s version of “The Lord Will Make A Way Some How,” I observed Asha a classmates daughter during both and asked her which one she liked. She replied back, “The Second One!” When asking why, she felt that Marion William’s version was too slow. Just to be certain I tested this both songs out with my wife, and yes Kim Burrell’s version was the preferred. My assessment of this is that the God is the same but those born or raised in the Hip-Hop culture move at a different pace than those generations who came before us. Though Hip-Hop was birthed out of the African American spirit it is often rare that you see aspect of the Hip-Hop culture in the church setting. My solution is to fully engrain the Hip-Hop culture into the black church setting. For those individuals not raised in church they need something they recognize and are comfortable with in order for the church to be relevant to them.
As explained in the previous sections there are a plethora of similarities but ultimately there are a few key items that would serve as helpful tool for integration. Helpful integration tools would be tempo and content. Often the black church holds on tightly to the hymns of our ancestors, as if it was afraid to lose its history. The mistake with this is that it is not taking into account a new history being shaped as we speak today. Even if we are not open to the idea of hymns with content more relevant to the Hip-Hop culture the least we can do is allow the musicians to put a Hip-Hop flare giving the old songs a more modern beat similar to what Kim Burrell was able to do. On occasion I have witnessed this type of integration on scattered Sundays through out a year. Low and behold the younger congregants are into the service more than usual. Even the older congregants get into the swing of things after taking some time to warm up to the change from what they are used to. But in order for the black church to remain relevant we have to give the younger generation what they are used to – Hip-Hop. They live and breathe it. Why not have it in its pure form infused with the church? Infusing the Hip-Hop culture into the church setting has the potential of exposing the community to a non-perverted form of the culture and life style. Maybe then will we realize that the stuff that gets the most publicity isn’t real Hip-Hop. Maybe then will the black church become more relevant to those of a younger generation who have more of a desire to listen to their IPods and sleep on Sunday mornings than they have to come and be exposed to the spirit of God within the community of the black church. Maybe then will the black church be able to feed the soul of the next generation. The church must take heed because if it isn’t feeding the soul what it needs in a way that’s comfortable and familiar, the soul will look to feed its self in other places. We can no longer afford to let the network and record company CEO’s dictate to us what the content of Hip-Hop is because our souls are at risk. And who better to care for the soul than the black church community.
The Hip-Hop culture was birthed out of the soul of a spiritual the black community. In both the church and Hip-Hop culture we see similarities between the piano and key board, the rapper and the preacher and we also see what happens if Hip-Hop is completely separated from that area of the black church. For those living in the Hip-Hop community their souls are often influenced by things not of God. So what is African American spirituality? It is the creative force that exists in us as a people that links us to God regardless of the bondage we are in whether the chains are visible or invisible. African American spirituality is also tapping into that same creativity to make something out of nothing just as God did when forming the earth. The black soul birthed the Hip-Hop culture because we lost our identity when we were removed from our native lands. Thus the Hip-Hop culture should never be removed from the church, it should remain a part of it.
Cone, J. H. (1972). The Spirituals and the Blues. New York: The Seabury Press.
Dash, I. M., Jackon, J., & Rasor, C. S. (1997). Hidden Wholeness. Clevland: United Church Press.
Graham, A. D. (Composer). (2009). Successful. [Drake, Performer]
Parker, L. K. (Composer). (1989). Self Destruction. [KRS-ONE, Performer]
Stewart, III, C. F. (1997). Soul Surviviors: An African American Spirituality. Kentucky: Westminister John Knox Press.
Thomas, F. A. (2011). An Interview with Michael Eric Dyson. The African American Pulpit, 31-36; 90-96; .
Thurman, H. (1975). Deep River The Negro Spiritual Speaks Life and Death. Richmond: Friends United Press.