Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Shout-Outs to the Creator: The Use of Biblical Themes in Rap Lyrics

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Shout-Outs to the Creator: The Use of Biblical Themes in Rap Lyrics

Article excerpt

Christopher Lasch once diagnosed modern America as a "culture of narcissism," with one of its primary ailments being spiritual malaise, a "resigned worldview," and we are still suffering (Lasch 1979). Surely any religious expression would have its work cut out for it in such a culture, since it predicates belief in another, a higher other beyond narcissistic scope. Giving voice to notions of transcendence beyond the culture enables a freedom to negotiate a space between being steeped in a cultural narcissism and wanting to resist it. One cultural site of both resistance and spiritual sustenance occurs in rap lyrics that reckon with life in America, "where money talks and love stutters" (Common 2011). My thesis is that there is a vital strain in rap that offers defence and nourishment for the human spirit caught in these cultural conditions and, further, that scholars of religion have thus far neglected this emergence of street faith.

This article proceeds first with a general discussion on the nature of rap and its communicative power. Then, it examines four essential biblical themes that recur in rap lyrics with some frequency and from a variety of artists. These are prophetic realism, redemption, incarnation, and resurrection. There is no doubt that other religious themes, such as sin, forgiveness, worship, and so on, receive lyrical attention as well, particularly from self-consciously religious rappers of various traditions. Evangelical Christian rap, for instance, is an ever-growing genre, represented most notably by LeCrae, Da Truth, The Grits, The Ambassador, and Gospel Gangstaz. Its content has a pronounced focus on Christ's atonement, the Rapture, and living "in Christ." Muslim rappers, such as Rhymefest, Lupe Fiasco, and Freeway, express spiritual deliverance through study of the Koran and submission to the dietary and ethical laws of Islam (Mikayawa 2005). Matisyahu is a successful Orthodox Jewish rapper who blends Hebrew with English and offers lyrical portraits of loving the Torah, Temple, and Jerusalem until the Messiah comes. Religious rappers address the four essential biblical themes alongside content specific to their respective faith traditions. Before turning to these themes, let us first discuss in general terms the cultural power of rap and its spiritual potential.

Rap music's poetic conventions, raging creativity, and omnivorous "sampling" (borrowing) of previous sound works--be these verses, beats, speeches, commercial jingles, and so on--betray an urgent expressive culture wrestling with the very meanings of life played out in the street (Chang 2005; Ogbar 2009; Forman and Neal 2011). It flows forth with bullet speed, bypassing musical conventions such as harmony, melody, singing, and instruments, preferring instead rapid-fire lyrics and turning turntables into primary instruments to be scratch-played. Rap is, in Russell Potter's fine phrase, a "spectacular vernacular" (Potter 1995). Its packed lyricism manifests the chaos because it is free-form creativity, an improvisation impossible to trace, copy, or put into intellectual abstractions. It is radically eclectic, and when extant material doesn't quite work, rappers create heady neologisms and gleefully butchered syntax. Other musicians' records get scratched and spliced onto other bits of recorded sound and recycled into new forms, where the "break"--that is, the rupture of the previous sound--becomes all-important. With rap poetry, images are woven from the Bible, sociology, news, and so on, all without attribution. The robust sampling demonstrates a playfulness and appreciation for the destabilizing onslaught of meanings. It becomes impossible to claim which part of a song is borrowed and which is owned by copyright because street theft has taught rappers that one cannot hold on to anything. Rap is street smart, turbulent poetry in ambient chaos. The listener is challenged to know his or her culture through rap's collages. Hence, tradition and cultural literacy are transmitted by way of creative recyclings. …

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