Faith and hip-hop: Finding religion in the church of hip-hop artistry
Written by Pablo "Paul" Pitcher
February - March 2006
March 1, 2006
Geffen Records hip-hop artist Common incorporates many elements of his faith journey into his lyrics.
I'm sure that I am not the first person to write about the connection between hip-hop and faith. Of course, I'd like to think I'm the first Southside Chicago-bred white boy who has connected the dots and found the roots of my faith written into the rhythmically crafted lyrics, but I'm almost positive that I'm not. Whatever the case, hip-hop has affected my faith.
Faith and spirituality are two elements that can be found in all nooks and crannies of life. But as I see it, quite a few people have struggled for so long with or against religion that they have given up. And who am I to tell them anything different?
I live and work in a land where faith and life go hand in hand. In Guatemala, my friends, my family and my co-workers have the faith that each day will move them forward, that each day will bring a new light, and that each day will come to a close. This has led me to a whole new realm of realizations.
Popular mainstream music - of every sort - always has been sprinkled with hints and allusions to religion and faith, but most of the time it comes in veiled references. Now and then, it's an off-hand thanking of God. Occasionally, it relates to some form of belief.
But on the whole, mainstream music is a barren wasteland in relation to lyrics specifically targeted at faith, belief and God.
Kanye West, a hip-hop artist from Chicago who won three Grammies last year with his song "Jesus Walks," writes, quite accurately, that: "They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus / That means guns, sex, lies, video tapes / But if I talk about God my record won't get played Huh?"
But for years now, it has been hip-hop music that has brought me a message about faith. So my question is how the church can look to hip-hop - to mainstream culture - to help us examine our faith?
I spend many hours in a place I call "my church." It's my own personal sanctuary. My church's pews are the torn leather seats found on a Guatemalan bus. Along with the 70 other members of the "congregation" who try to find a small piece of leather on which to park their tired bodies, we gallop down the two-lane roads of Guatemala, along with other buses, weaving and battling with the montage of pickups full of egg flats, enormous bull cows with their skin flapping off their scrawny bodies, emaciated dogs who decided to take a nap on the road. We are mad tubs of metal screeching through the countryside.
At times in my "church," I look for a lesson, frequently I just meditate, and on occasion I write. More often than not you will find me with my headphones on and some muddled blend of folk, rock, pop, jazz, Latin, or hip-hop music infiltrating my head through one ear - since only one side of my earpiece works. On one of my various trips I got much more than I bargained for. My eyes were focused out the grimy pane of glass that could have used a few squirts of Windex and a rag. But still, through that smudged portal, I was watching the countryside fl y by. Suddenly, I realized that a message was streaming through my one ear; a sermon speaking to me by way of music and setting.
I was listening to Common, another hip-hop artist from Chicago's Southside. The song is called "G.O.D." (Gaining One's Definition.), and I started paying close attention to the lyrics. So, let me now invite you to join me in my church:
"Please rise for the reading."
I fight, with myself in the ring of doubt and fear
The rain ain't gone, but I can still see clear
As a child, given religion with no answer to why
Just told believe in Jesus cuz for me he did die
Curiosity killed the catechism
Understanding and wisdom became the rhythm that I played to
And became a slave to master self
A rich man is one with knowledge, happiness and his health
My mind had dealt with the books of Zen,
Tao the lessons
Koran and the Bible, to me they all vital
And got truth within 'em, gotta read them boys
You just can't skim 'em, different branches of belief
But one root that stem 'em, but people of the venom try to trim 'em
And use religion as an emblem
When it should be a natural way of life
Who am I or they to say to whom you pray ain't right
That's who got you doin' right and got you this far
Whether you say, "in Jesus name" or
Long as you know it's a bein' that's supreme to you
You let that show towards others in the things you do
"The word of G.O.D."
Common's rap represents a huge part of what I have struggled through with religion and what I continue to question every day. In these lines, the complexity of my faith journey is dissected like a frog in eighth-grade science lab. It's taken apart piece by piece, it's examined from every angle, and I learn from it. It's given a beat, wrapped into the soul, and spit back out again with incredible clarity.
Look, see what can be found
I still fi ght religion in many ways. I still have so many doubts, so many fears about taking down the barrier that I set up years and year ago. I see that many people my age have that same issue. We were given religion as children, but not told why we needed to believe just that we had to believe. All we were told was to wear our Sunday best and sit still for two hours.
But over the last few years I have really looked into religion, and there has always one underlying principle in my search: I was going to do it my way. I was going to figure out my own religion and spirituality without letting anyone tell me what to believe. Yet, all the while, I would do this allowing people, books, music, a walk in the woods, etc., to guide me. I would see what I found along the way.
I continue to explore my own sense of spirituality, my relationship with the figure of Christ and what that represents, the fact that religion is a way of life practiced in many different forms, and that faith is a driving force, something that can rip people apart or bring them close together.
I have listened to so many different perspectives. I have watched people of diverse faiths united in common prayer in languages as varied as the dishes at a potluck dinner. On the other end, I have been told that there is only one way to worship God.
But in Common's lyrics, encased in a song, is exactly how I feel: "Who am I or they to say to whom you pray ain't right." And the beat goes on.
Faith is a journey that never ends, an adventure that we continually add to piece by piece. From what I have seen while living here in Central America and traveling around its countryside, the presence of faith, of any sort, guides and drives peoples' lives.
In the face of extreme depression, poverty, sadness and challenges, faith can act as a catalyst, a channel by which people can keep taking two steps forward even after that one step back.
I don't say that people have to believe in God or believe as I do, I would never say that. That's not my style. But what I hope to provide here is another approach to finding faith in every day life, on the streets of whatever town you live in, in the eyes of the people around you, in the most unlikely of places, even in hip hop. And to utilize that faith, that spirituality, that religion, that "anything you want to call it" that is found in everyday life. You can take it or leave it.
As Common says, "Long as you know it's a bein' that's supreme to you /
You let that show towards others in the things you do."
And let the people say, "Amen."
Pablo "Paul" Pitcher, 27, is a UCC/Disciples missionary in Guatemala, where he has served as a communications and youth worker with Christian Action of Guatemala since 2004. He is pictured here with his eight-year-old friend, Hector.