Perhaps, serving as testament to its power and its ubiquity, Hip Hop music is quite possibly the most heavily scrutinized art form in history. At times, its staunchest critics are found within the culture; in the eyes of Hip Hop’s internal critics, tattered album covers and CD booklets are vestiges of a genre that once was. Hip Hop’s traditionalists insist the days of KRS-One, Rakim, and Tupac are long gone and far out of reach. This sentiment, at times, echoes down Water Street in Brooklyn, New York—this sentiment barrels across the intersection of Wilmington and 107th Street in Los Angeles, California—this sentiment sweeps throughout the streets of Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward. This is the ongoing, internal debate about Hip Hop’s direction, and it is a debate entirely different from that which occurs outside of the Hip Hop community. The external debate about Hip Hop typically revolves around its suggestiveness, and is typically peppered with language about the genre’s “sanctity” or “secularism”. Thus, there are two debates: An internal debate questioning whether Hip Hop is real enough, and an external debate questioning whether Hip Hop is too real and ungodly. The result is Hip Hop, a genre fashioned as a voice for the lowest, the least, and the left-out, often being placed at odds with religion. It is important, then, to analyze the role of religion in Hip Hop beyond the glistening Jesus piece a rapper may don across his chest.
In the 1970s, The Bronx was a crucible…quite literally, actually. Tensions in the borough heightened with the poverty rate, amounting to a string of arsons which afflicted the area. But a sound soon descended upon The Bronx—by many accounts, through an act of God. It was a sound that would vocalize the distress of the borough’s residents and breathe a sense of cultural identity into an area devoid of much else. Through ash, rubble, and char, two turntables and a microphone were seen as The Bronx’ holy grail.
Hip Hop music has played a similar role for similar communities ever since its sprout in the ghettos of New York City. The genre has infiltrated every crevasse of the globe, acting as a conduit for the message of the poor—the oppressed—the ostracized; and in serving such a role, messages voiced through Hip Hop have occasionally been raw, earthy, or even offensive. But that messages voiced through Hip Hop are occasionally suggestive does not dismiss it as an accurate or necessary reflection of the world. A number of holy books recollect the warfare, misogyny, and vanity of our world’s history, though mentioning these things does not detract from their holiness. Hip Hop music, then, as a window through which one can view our world, may be deserving of similar treatment.
Music and religion have traditionally been interrelated, in the African American community. “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me” carried souls through the doldrums of slavery, and gospel queen Mahalia Jackson’s smooth contralto uplifted oppressed people of color during the Civil Rights era. But Hip Hop is not without its channels to the spiritual world. KRS One, a member of Hip Hop’s royal court, prefaces his song “You Must Learn” with reference to Genesis 11:10; Hip Hop legend Rakim implemented Quranic writings into his videos and, in his song “In the Ghetto”, acknowledges the Islamic holy lands of Mecca and Medina; The iconic Tupac Shakur spoke of his euphoria taking the shape of a destination in the afterlife called “Thugz Mansion”; Before the world, Kanye West recounted his walk with Jesus; Matisyahu merged Hip Hop music with Judaism; the late Adam “MCA” Yauch used his standing as a member of the famed Beastie Boys to project his Buddhist ideals; all this to illustrate a genre not at odds with religion, but rather a genre entwined with religion.
In fact, Hip Hop’s life cycle suggests the genre may have become a religion in itself. In it, there are deities, there are dissenters, there are messengers, there are persecutors, and there is a power source; that power source being air. Just as organized religion needs faith to exist, Hip Hop needs air to exist. So long as there is air, Hip Hop will never die. Hip Hop is an entity; an entity not formed in spite of religion, but an entity inspired by religion.