The Storefront Church & Hip Hop Movements: Homiez from the Hood

By Harvell, Valeria G. | Journal of Pan African Studies, June 15, 2010 | Go to article overview

The Storefront Church & Hip Hop Movements: Homiez from the Hood


Harvell, Valeria G., Journal of Pan African Studies


Introduction

With the advent of new genres in youth culture over the past three decades, many books and articles have begun to explore the complex linkage between various components of African American religious traditions and diverse elements of the hip hop arts, particularly, rap music. Little effort has been made, however, to investigate the strong kinship between the storefront church movement--a unique development within the broader African American religious heritage--and the subsequent hip hop movement of Northern urban youth. Both are historical progenies of similar socio-economic and cultural forces and, therefore, share attributes whose origins and interplay invite further study and critical dialog. The following is one such effort.

Section One ("In the Mix") is an overview of the chief factors that influenced the emergence of both movements and steered their course in parallel directions. Section Two ("Disturb the Peace ") examines their respective use of space as a cultural arena to transverse, convert and generate expressive practices. Section Three ("U Can't Touch This") highlights the functional similarities in their musical products (Gospel and Rap), and draws attention to the dialectical use of "street experience" as a common distinguishing attribute of persona, projected from the hip hop stage with the same drama and allure as from storefront pulpits.

Conceptually, the analysis will move from examining and comparing general trends in the evolution of each movement to specific and distinguishing attributes. For several reasons, the storefront church will be used as a point of reference for profiling commonalities. As one of the earliest and longest surviving Black institutions within our urban neighborhoods, storefront churches are the socio-historical antecedent to many of the aesthetic practices manifested in the hip hop movement. Second, despite their ubiquitous presence within Black urban communities, the traditional storefront church has never been as popular (or as commercially viable) as the more recent hip hop movement. Nevertheless, its influence on young Black artists (rappers included), though subtle and elusive, is deserving of greater scrutiny and appreciation.

The term "storefront church" simply refers to "any structure used for religious activities that was once used for commercial retailing, such as stores, theatres and other house-types." (1) Although some purists may argue that "storefront churches do not constitute a substantive category," (2) the term is unambiguous and commonplace in inner city neighborhoods throughout the country and, generally, in the literature. The phrase "storefront church movement" refers to the emergence and proliferation of these institutions between the early 1900s and the mid-1930s, a phenomenon that coincided with the mass migration of African Americans from the rural South into northern urban areas: "Storefront churches may be seen as revitalization movements: they are deliberate, conscious, organized efforts of migrants to create a more satisfying mode of existence by refurbishing rural religious behavior to an urban environment." (3) Although proof certain is lacking that migrants established most storefront churches, anecdotal evidence suggests these churches first emerged "in cities wherever a sizable migrant population settled." (4)

All too often, past studies have characterized any religious group that met in a storefront as some exotic "sect" or "cult". (5) In fact, the religious adherents who pioneered these storefronts were far more diverse in their faiths, teachings, rituals and religious practices than what a critic might infer from externalities, like location and rented quarters. Quite the contrary, storefront churches represented various faith communities: Christian, quasi-Christian, Islamic, Judaic, African nationalists and a host of other faith systems often misconstrued as "fringe" sects and cults. …

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