Hip Hop and Religion: Gangsta Rap's Christian Rhetoric

By Tinajero, Robert | Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

Hip Hop and Religion: Gangsta Rap's Christian Rhetoric


Tinajero, Robert, Journal of Religion and Popular Culture


Indeed, gangsta rap's in-your-face style may do more to force our nation to confront crucial social problems than countless sermons or political speeches.

--Michael Eric Dyson (2008, 181)

Religiosity (1) is an important part of individual and social identity. The pervasiveness of religious thought, rhetoric, and symbolism is seen in its deep-rooted connections to historical, social, political, and popular discourse and action. In hip hop culture, important and telling connections exist between that culture's discourse and religious thinking and symbolism. This resource of social agency, in this case rap, can both be revealing and formative. Hip hop music and culture are telling sources of religious identity and can teach us much about the religious ethos of those who produce and closely identify with them.

More specifically and intriguingly, a subgenre of rap music, gangsta rap, known mainly for its crude and violent rhetoric, also contains a vast amount of religious discourse and imagery. Religious discourse and gangsta rap may be seen as an incompatible paradox to some, but rhetorical analysis reveals a complicated and layered connection in which the producers of gangsta rap, and those who strongly identify with its message, attempt to reconcile personal and social marginalization with aspects of religious thought. This paradox of religious discourse and gangsta discourse is played out under the umbrella of a community--the gangsta hip hop community--that struggles within a socially and economically marginalized realm while being connected to communities that stress hope through religion.

It is important to first establish a working definition of the term "gangsta rap." Here, it will be defined as the subgenre (and subculture) of hip hop that is dominated by rebellion and an outlaw mentality, and has the common elements of violence, drugs and drug dealing, sex and misogyny, and an unrelenting fight for physical and linguistic respect. Furthermore, gangsta rappers, and those who closely identify with their message, most often come from poor, inner-city neighbourhoods and are usually African American or Latino/Latina. In fact, the very few Caucasian gangsta rappers who have been successful and accepted within hip hop culture have had their gangsta ethos legitimized by the fact that they came from poor, minority neighbourhoods. (2) Central to the discussion here is that gangsta rappers, coming from African American and Latino/Latina communities, are brought up in environments where many use religion (mainly Christianity) as a means of understanding and getting through life and social ordeals. This is not to say that gangsta rappers are very religious, in the sense that they are connected to organized religious activities, but there is ample evidence in textual and visual form to show that religion does indeed play a role in their worldviews.

It is in this religious rhetorical output of gangsta rap where a religious ethos is revealed--an ethos containing three main characteristics. One characteristic is a strong solidarity with Jesus Christ and an embracing of Him as a symbol of suffering and marginalization. On a basic level, gangsta rappers predominantly embrace the life of Jesus because, simply put, Christianity is the predominant religion of African American and Latino/Latina communities in the United States. On a more profound level, Jesus and His life story are embraced because they point to suffering caused by a seemingly unjust society and because they represent meaning in suffering and hope beyond suffering. A second dominant characteristic of gangsta rap's religious ethos is that while it glorifies the life and suffering of Jesus, it simultaneously expresses a deep mistrust of organized religion. For the gangsta rapper and his/her followers, religion gets in the way of God and the message of Jesus, and can be part of the social order that has marginalized many poor, often minority, individuals and communities. …

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