Bling and Blessings: Thoughts on the Intersections of Rap Music and Religious Meaning

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There is a long relationship between music and religious concerns, the former often serving as a vehicle for the articulation of the latter. What is more, one need not sing explicitly about heaven and hell in order for one's music to wrestle with deeply religious themes and concerns. Equating religious concern to traditional categories of theological investigation such as heaven and hell, or to think strictly in terms of easily identified institutional forms of expression, is to miss subtle and pervasive signs, symbols, and questions. With this statement, I am simply suggesting that the questions and concerns regarding human existence and meaning are played out in many "secular" modes of expression, including music, and that attention to this mode of cultural expression is vital. Scholars and other interested parties have recognized the truth of this assertion with respect to musical forms such as the blues; yet, rap music, an infamous (or famous, depending on one's perspective) modes of cultural expression has not been embraced so readily as part of the study of religion.

There should be no wondering about the birth of rap music as a vital-and often troubled and troubling-mode of musical expression. Critic George Nelson notes: "In retrospect, rap or something like it should have been predicted. Each decade since World War II has seen the emergence of some new approach to black dance music [and more I suspect]. The 1940s brought forth rhythm & blues, the 1950s rock & roll, the 1960s soul, the 1970s funk and disco. Something was due in the 1980s...." (1) This "something due" expressed in clear terms the hybridization of music through a bold and creative manipulation of established genres. It brought together without apology jazz, disco, rhythm & blues, and so on; and in the process, through high-tech conjuration, presented musical ancestors within a new context.

The lyrical wing of a larger movement, referred to as hip hop culture (which includes dance, the visual arts, and an aesthetic displayed through creative clothing choices), rap would grow and multiple into a variety of styles, with a complex typology-progressive, gangsta, and so on. Many assumed it was a fade, a stylistic virus easily contained and ended; but instead rap artists have grown in stature, developing production companies, record labels, and have moved into other areas of popular culture. These artists have used technological advances to signify the American vision of life and labor, and in so doing captured the imagination and dollars of an eager public.

As pop artists such as Andy Warhol produced work that raised philosophical questions concerning the nature of the visual arts, rap music raised a host of questions concerning the form and content of musical expression. Some, like the abstract expressionists with pop art, lamented the substitution of "music" for "noise," while more insightful listeners recognized the musical creativity and compelling (though often troubling) presentation of socio-historical and psychological realities and fantasies of life in the post-civil rights years. At its best, rap music provided and continues to provide listeners with critical insights "as energetically productive as those manned by our most celebrated black critics and award-winning writers." (2) But we must also acknowledge that when not at its best, rap music provides a celebration of radical individualism and nihilism over community and hope.

As one might imagine, reviews on rap music have been mixed. Some like Rev. Calvin Butts thought it so foul that only a steamroller could adequately deal with the "music." There's no doubt that the music is raw, but is not it possible that these rap artists are modern griots, as Houston Baker and Michael Dyson argue, in keeping with the earlier traditions of the spirituals and the blues? Is not it possible that these artists are continuing a tradition of social critique using an "organic" vocabulary? …


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