Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Building "Zyon" in Babylon: Holy Hip Hop and Geographies of Conversion

Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Building "Zyon" in Babylon: Holy Hip Hop and Geographies of Conversion

Article excerpt

Khanchuz (pronounced "conscious") locks the doors of his metallic beige Cadillac and swaggers slowly up the side street towards Los Angeles's Leimert Park Village, his faux diamond cross swinging gently across his chest. Formerly known as "Sleep" in his early days as a secular rapper, his eyes are wide and awake, drinking in the dark night's surroundings. We walk down the street and pass Sonny's Spot--a tiny cavern of a jazz club. The walls are tagged with layers of writing and papered with old posters and paintings of jazz musicians. We lean against a black-and-white photograph of King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band as the pianist solos on "Nina's Dream." Our final destination is Kaotic Sound--home to the infamous weekly underground hip hop open-mic Project Blowed. Tonight we are here for something else--a monthly Christian hip hop open mic called Klub Zyon. Zyon, the open mic's founders explain, is where we are going--the ultimate place, a spiritual homeland for wandering travelers. A decade earlier, Khanchuz was at Project Blowed rapping in street-corner battles about slingin' drugs, pimpin' women, and gang bangin . Now he raps for Christ. His first God-inspired rap was delivered in a jail cell in Colorado to the rhythm of metal spoons clanking against the bars. As we approach the front door of Klub Zyon, Khanchuz steps back and reflects on the conversion of both his sold and this place.

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In this essay, I investigate how holy hip hop practitioners, through their musical practices and discourses, work with and on what I refer to as the living architecture of the city to create sites of gospel rap production. Specifically, I am interested in how gospel rappers perceive and perform place as a converting body and a site for the potential conversion of religious subjects, as well as how they undergo and enact conversion as both a spiritual transformation and a spatial practice. By spatial practices, I am referring to the manifold ways in which people move through, use, alter, and make meaning out of space.

Holy hip hop (a.k.a. gospel rap or Christian rap) represents a highly complex field of practices comprised of music labels, localized scenes, ministries, radio programs, award shows, artistic crews, and collectives that function in an astonishing variety of buildings and locations, deemed both religious and nonreligious. Sometimes considered musical mavericks in the church, corny Bible-thumpers in the streets or in hip hop clubs, and criminal youth by law enforcement in the so-called ghettos of Los Angeles, gospel rappers are often strained by accusations that their ways of being and expressing are blasphemous and/or inauthentic. These competing critiques constitute the triple bind of holy hip hop's multif ronted struggle to uphold their contingent positioning and find a spiritual/musical dwelling place--to find "Zyon." In fact, holy hip hop is one of the few religiomusical movements and genres in African-American culture where the church--often referred to as the Body of Christ by both Catholics and Protestants--is not the primary location of power and performance. But the early history of predominantly black religious gatherings in the "invisible churches" of brush harbors shows us that when the traditional church is not available or displaced, other possibilities are actualized--the Body of Christ refigured.

I ask, how does the space of a church, street corner, or club, reworked by the musical and lyrical practices of gospel rap, serve as a site for the creation of new kinds of places of activity and interaction, as well as new kinds of religious subjects? How do the lived and imagined geographies of holy hip hoppers in Los Angeles inform, define, and disrupt the socially constructed and policed boundaries between the sacred and the profane, Christianity and hip hop, ministry and entertainment, the church and the streets? I focus on three critical, alternative sites of gospel rap performance in Los Angeles that aim to integrate believers and nonbelievers: The Row, a street corner on L. …

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