Web Essays

God and Hip-Hop

Finding the sacred in the profane

By Alejandro Nava | April 9, 2022
Kendrick Lamar performing at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts, on the The DAMN. Tour, 2017 (Wikimedia Commons)
Kendrick Lamar performing at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts, on the The DAMN. Tour, 2017 (Wikimedia Commons)

My earliest, and most indelible, memory of hip-hop’s magnetic pull on my attention dates back to 1983 or so, when I was in high school and my brother’s break-dancing crew, the Royal Rockers, battled for preeminence in this fledgling culture of music and style. The group was a motley collective of Latino and Black kids in Tucson, Arizona, all determined to showcase their prowess on the dance floor, their mastery of rhythm, their wit with the mic. In lieu of street fights or gang battles, these youth waged aesthetic campaigns, using their bodies and tongues as weapons, and skating rinks, parks, and pizza parlors as their canvases.

My brother and I both studied Shaolin kung fu at the time, so many of the break-dancer’s acrobatic moves came quickly to him, especially the kick-up, windmills, back bridges, sweeping kicks, pretzel-like twists, and the thumping flip on one’s back called a suicide. All members of the crew had their own special expertise: some were good at one-handed freezes, pikes, or head-spins, others at the rippling, undulating moves of a centipede. Almost all of them were capable of contorting their torsos at improbable angles, legs fluttering in the air, weaving arabesque lines with arms, legs, and feet. Popping was my favorite: the move started at the extremities of the hands, folding in at the joints of the fingers, and then rippling inward, like the thawing of a frozen lake in springtime.

And, while each dancer would have to compete individually, flaunting his or her skill like a strutting peacock, the Royal Rockers usually ended their routine with some crazy coda that gathered everyone into one cathedral-like structure, each member assigned a part—a flying buttress, intersecting transept, soaring tower, or menacing gargoyle—to shore it up. I recall one routine, choreographed to the robotic melody of “Egypt, Egypt” by Egyptian Lover, that resembled a ziggurat. Once the dancers were in place, they began to rotate and turn as if the terraced structure had suddenly metamorphosed into an alien spacecraft. It was imaginative, grand, and soaring, the b-boying equivalent of the high-flying rhetoric of rappers.

Even at the time, I suspected that there was something spiritual, even mystical, at the bottom of these dances and routines, something that connected breaking with the more intangible pulses of the soul. Though grounded in the hard streets of the barrio and ghetto, b-boying, as I quickly learned, called for combinations of physical strength and stylistic aplomb, the earthbound attack of a hawk with the floating grace of a butterfly. As Jeff Chang writes in his book Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, “break-dancing was about unleashing youth style as an expression of the soul, unmediated by corporate money, unauthorized by the powerful, protected and enclosed by almost monastic rites, codes, and orders.” For full initiation into the closely guarded subculture, there were gnostic elements to be learned: a history of the forms and movements, breathing techniques, strategies for improvising, a general understanding of dance, the injunction—inspired by the hip-hop awareness group Zulu Nation—to know thyself, and so on.

The “break,” however, is the fundamental building block of both breaking and rap music: the percussive and rhythmic core of the song, the section stripped of all extraneous vocals and instruments. The break is the explosive moment of a song when the drumbeat or bass line attacks the listener with big wallops of sound, picking up force as it spins round and round, exhilarating the senses and jarring the hips loose.

In my experience, Black and Latin music is almost always kinetic and dance-centric in such ways, lifting the body and soul alike. The music of my own religious tradition, by contrast, rarely equals this kind of soul-force. The beauty of Catholicism is more visual than aural, a splendor that can be seen and felt in the grandeur of church architecture, in extravagant images and statuary, in perfumed rituals, in other words, in all the incarnate forms of beauty. Liturgical music, on the other hand, seldom achieves the same radiance, its ethereal melodies lacking the pulse necessary to light a fire in the flesh. There are exceptions, of course: I think of the Mariachi Mass, for instance, when the church integrates Mexican folk customs into the regular liturgy. With the strings tearing at one’s heart, the brass sounding like the Angel Gabriel’s trumpet, and the vocals, orotund and operatic, traveling through the air like voltage, the music suggests a reality richer and more mysterious than meets the eye. It has a way of convincing one, in the words of Emily Dickinson, that “this world is not conclusion / A Species stands beyond / Invisible, as music / But positive, as sound.”

But these exceptions aside, I have known more touches of transcendence in profane music like the blues, soul, R&B, salsa, rap, and reggaeton than in church music. And heresy this is not: God is, after all, uncontainable and omnipresent in Catholic theology, capable of appearing, as Thomas Merton’s famous street epiphany proved, in unsuspecting places, and consequently transforming everyday life into something sacramental. Merton’s epiphany, so his account goes, occurred at the corner of 4th and Walton in Louisville: the walls that separated him, a monk, from the ordinary and profane world came crashing down, and he realized that he was one with the common man and woman. Similar revelations have occurred to me time and time again through the sounds and sensibilities of rap and reggaeton, reminding me, a professor behind the walls of academia, of my ties with the struggles of the poor, the outcast, and the deprived—as if, to paraphrase Merton again, waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation.

I don’t deny that these genres are flawed and ambiguous, and sometimes deserve their reputation as “devil’s music”—as when they promote toxic masculinity, sexism, violence, gross materialism, nihilism, and a culture of drug use. But what may seem predictable and uniform to a distant observer, like a view of the ocean from above, can contain remarkable depth, variety, and idiosyncrasy. From this perspective, I suspect that a listener may come away with what I have known: the genre’s bursting joy and inventiveness, its thrilling beats, its love of rhyme and rhetorical extravagance, its portraits of racial injustice, its longing for freedom and equality, its pining for God.

Spirituality is the secret element of hip-hop, the ultimate source of its genius. And though I didn’t have the exact words for it in childhood, I felt it to be true. If my brother was drawn by the kinetic energy of b-boying, I was fixated on the beats, poetics, social consciousness, and spirituality of rap music. I didn’t grow up surrounded by books (I was the first in my Mexican-American family to graduate from college), so rappers were the first to enchant me with words, their rhymes and incantations like some kind of magical spell. They introduced me to the rich possibilities of language, how vowels can be stretched or swallowed, how meaning can exist on the surface of the sound alone, how alliteration, assonance, or onomatopoeia can add flavor to plain or predictable content, how words can flow and move together like a school of fish. And they introduced me, long before I read the words of Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, to the presumption that God could be found in surprising and unexpected locations, that the word of God could carry in the wind and fall on one’s ears like a “shout in the street.”

Over the years, as I began to scrutinize the bars and verses more carefully, I started to notice how frequently the subject of God surfaced in the music. Mirroring the religious appetites of African Americans and Latinos in general (a Pew Forum study in 2007 found that African Americans ranked as “the most religiously committed racial or ethnic group in the nation,” with Latinos not far behind), religious desires and themes—whether orthodox or unorthodox, Christian or Islamic, Western or Eastern—are less a passing storm than a consistent weather pattern in hip-hop. Starting in graduate school, where I studied religion, I began to pay greater attention to how rappers tussled with God, how they turned profane verses into sanctified oratory, whooping and discoursing like inspired preachers.

Two decades ago, I began teaching a class at the University of Arizona called “Rap, Culture, and God.” If God can be found in all things, as Ignatius of Loyola supposed, and Black music was regularly suffused with gospel shouts, sweet soul swoops, and emotions that resembled rapture, the crosscurrents of the sacred and the profane shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise, but still I found myself amazed by the reach of religion in the music. Hidden in plain sight, it was a major affair of countless rappers, from many of the classic emcees of the ’80s and ’90s—say, in Rakim and Eric B’s “Don’t Sweat the Technique” (1992), DMX’s “It’s Dark and Hell is Hot” (1998), and Lauryn Hill’s “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” (1998)—to many of the luminaries of the new millennium: Kanye West’s “The Life of Pablo” (2016), or “Jesus is King” (2019), Chance the Rapper’s “The Coloring Book” (2016), Jay Electronica’s “A Written Testimony” (2020), Kendrick Lamar’s entire discography, and even reggatoneros, notorious for their indulgent and party-heavy flavors, like Vico C’s “La Recta Final” (1989), or Bad Bunny’s “Oasis” (2019).

Rapper RZA, who was the mastermind behind the acclaimed hip-hop group the Wu-Tang Clan, came to see the Eastern principle of the Tao, or the Way, turning up in a variety of religions. Even when words fail us, we are all grasping and groping, he concluded, for communion with others and communion with God. “And this basic principle,” he says in his book The Tao of Wu, “is really the same for Taoism, Buddhism, and Mathematics—to be one with the universe, one with God. They are all the Way.” His cousin, GZA, introduced RZA to the Lessons (of the Five-Percenters, an offshoot of the Nation of Islam and a popular clique among many East Coast rappers), and the effect, he tells us, was jolting, setting him on a path in search of righteousness. “God, God, God,” his testimony goes, rang and reverberated in his mind until it began to sink deeply into his flesh, helping him come to the revolutionary realization that he had divine worth and dignity. He began to share such teachings with others in the projects and ghettos, too, using his music and words like scriptural texts.

Religious sentiments, pace the secular skeptics, did not remain confined to the hip-hop of the ’80s and ’90s; they continued to seethe and bubble in the music of the 2000s, reaching a feverish pitch and artistic summit in Kendrick Lamar. While Lamar doesn’t share the same Five-Percenter vocabulary as RZA, the burning appetite for transcendence is palpable in his music and lyricism, the beats and rhymes almost always journeys within and without, introspective and metaphysical at once. Lamar underwent a spiritual transformation vaguely similar to RZA’s: somewhere between his mixtapes and his 2012 album, good kid, m.A.A.d city, God began to occupy his thoughts and emotions more than ever, and it shows on each of his albums thereafter.

Consider the intriguing case of “GOD.,” from his existentially accented album, DAMN. The track is flush with otherworldly significance, the equivalent of a beatific experience. Fittingly, then, Lamar’s entire demeanor is transfigured on the track: where other songs on DAMN. are about crisis and mortal reckoning, his soul undone by angst, this rap is euphoric and epiphanic. Ironically, the lyrics are not particularly theological; it’s one of those rare songs in Lamar’s repertoire where the meaning of the song is more apparent in the surface of the sound rather than in the lyrics, in the pure musicality and mellifluousness of the verses. The chorus is the hermetic key, with Lamar singing in a honeyed voice, “This what God feels like, huh, heah / Laughin’ to the bank like, Ah-haa, huh, heah / Flex on swole like, Ah-haa, huh, heah / You feel some type of way, then A-haa / huh, heah (a-ha-ha,a-ha-ha).” The website Rap Genius will tell you that the words suggest what it feels like to be God, swollen with confidence, flexing your clout, joyful in your command of life. Maybe that’s part of it, but it misses the key point: that the vibes and emotions that the song elicits—exhilaration, serenity, bliss—are what it feels like to experience God, to be carried away by transcendent waves of emotion, caught up into the heavens like St. Paul.

Looking back from the other side of my graduate studies, I see that hip-hop filled some crucial voids in my education. It made me and my brother and all our homies feel seen, acknowledged, appreciated—just as it did for other Black and brown kids, giving them a stage to articulate their joys, grievances, and sorrows. And by way of religion, it introduced to me—long before I read the biblical prophets, or their descendants in Dr. King, Malcolm X, James Cone, Archbishop Oscar Romero, or Gustavo Gutiérrez—to the raw and guttural eloquence of the emcee, a voice crying out on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised like a modern-day prophet. The churches could learn from such voices—at any rate, learn what it’s like to dwell in dilapidated projects, poverty-stricken favelas, and confining blocks. They might even find themselves moved by the powerful testimonies—sometimes angry and defiant, sometimes spiritual and mournful, almost always exhilarating—of a Tupac Shakur, Lauryn Hill, De La Soul, DMX, Jay Electronica, Chance the Rapper, Kendrick Lamar, Bad Bunny, and many others.

As the years have passed, and hip-hop suddenly finds itself approaching the ripe age of 50 (the halftime show of the 2022 Superbowl, with 50-year-old rappers and Kendrick Lamar in his prime, took the occasion to bask in hip-hop’s overwhelming influence on the pop music world), I have come to appreciate the way it has ventured into the unknown, searching for wisdom, wrestling with God, decrying injustice, playing and reveling in fun, and always improvising with language, music, and dance. If the scathing voice of the prophets has been the louder note in hip-hop for many observers (especially in the age of Black Lives Matter), there are also still and hushed voices in the music that echo with mystical phenomena, voices that bear messages from beyond familiar shores, like the murmur of the ocean in a seashell. They bear witness, these voices out of the whirlwind, to an element of hip-hop that remains touched by the sacred; they bear witness to the conviction that man does not live by bread alone, and that there are intangible realities—call it the Tao or God—that not only can leave one speechless, but possibly changed and enlarged, which in the end is what religion is all about.

This essay is a revised excerpt from the book Street Scriptures: Between God and Hip-Hop, University of Chicago Press, 2022.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

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