[Eternal] Hip Hop, Religion and Spirituality

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In breaking news: Hip Hop icon and activist KRS-One is slated to release a 600 page hip hop bible entitled The Gospel of Hip Hop: The First Instrument. In other news, Texas rapper Bun-B will teach a Hip Hop and Religion course at Rice University in the Spring of 2010. This may sound ridiculous to some, but many of us who are currently or were at one time immersed in hip hop culture are very familiar with the relationship between hip hop, religion and spirituality.

When hip hop originated in the basement house parties and outdoors in the parks, there was no tangible connection to religion or spirituality present. However, in its very raw inceptions, hip hop adopted many spiritual aspects dating back to practices which originated in Africa. The ancient sound of the drum which was used for everything from basic communication to calling the village together for spiritual gatherings and celebrations became the thunderous boom bap of the TR 808- the basis upon which the original hip hop sound was founded. Every cut started with a heavy bass beat, and emcees with the most prowess didn’t even need music to rip the mic- all they needed was a beat. Whether that boom bap came from your brother DJing in the basement or someone else’s car stereo, people would run up the block to heed the call.

One early form of hip hop was the party record. The party record entailed the emcee narrating a story about an awesome party and making you wish you were there. It was definitely the most engaging and interactive format at that time, because the audience had to participate in the call and response portion of the song, i.e., ìWhen I say hey, you say ho- Hey!, Ho!, Hey!, Ho! Or the infamous, ìSomebody, anybody, everybody SCREEEEAAAMMMMM!!! and you know what happens next. The art of call and response also has African roots which eventually evolved into a ritual of the early African- American churches. In many traditional churches even today, the pastor will not continue the sermon until he or she gets an ìAmen!î or a ìPreach!î. The choir cannot sing ìJesus on the Mainline…î if there is no congregation to respond with ìTell him what you want!

There are a number of religious or spiritual movements closely associated with hip hop. In the 1980s, many emcees such as Rakim of Eric B and Rakim and Guru formerly of Gangstarr, openly professed their affiliation with the Five Percent Nation of Gods and Earths in their music with mentions of the number 7 and crescents. An onslaught of youth who began to refer to themselves as Gods (males) and Earths (females).

Christian or Gospel Rap groups like DC Talk gained notoriety in the 1990s as a alternative to the increasing presence of the increasingly graphic and violent lyrics of mainstream rap. Artists like Mason ‘Mase’ Betha of Bad Boy turned his back on hip hop, and gave himself over to the Lord. He started Mason Betha Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia – only to attempt to return to hip hop in 2004 and again in 2009. Kanye West’s Jesus Walks peaked at number 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2004 and won a Grammy award for the Best Rap Song that same year.

American Hasidic Jewish rock, reggae and beat boxer Matisyahu, debuted his music with the CD Shake Off the Dust…Arise in 2004. He gained notoriety on the Billboard charts in 2006 as Top Reggae Artist. If you’ve never experienced his music, one might describe it as a fusion of rap, dancehall and traditional Jewish prayer.

It should also be noted that like religion and spirituality, hip hop also demonstrates its faith through the art of dance. If you’ve ever been to a rap concert, you’ve most certainly seen the emcee ìmove the crowdî in the traditional left-to-right two step of a choir. You’ve probably ìwaved your hand in the airî similar to those who signify they are in agreement with the pastor at church, or they are lifting up a prayer to God. Break dancing and krumping are two examples of hip hop associated dance with both faith-based and African-based origins.