Saturday, October 5, 2013

Religion in Rap Music

I grew up in rural Nebraska, yet somehow I fell in love with rap music. By the time I graduated high school, I had listened to as many of the classic hip hop albums as possible and I can still quote line and verse from most of the classic songs. Now that I'm all grown up with responsibilities and a family and fantasy basketball to worry about, I don't have as much time to keep up with everything going on in hip hop. But I still try to listen to the major new releases, and there is still no more powerful form of music for me than rap.

Meanwhile, my graduate studies have caused me to increasingly become aware of the ever-present forms of religious discourse within American culture. Given how much I still listen to rap, it was inevitable that I would start to consider how some of my favorite rap artists discuss and understand religion in their music. I've already broached this theme once, when I discussed the ways that rappers tend to appropriate powerful religious titles for themselves as part of the competitive nature of rhyming. Here, I wanted to do something a little different. I've compiled a list of some of the most interesting (to me) mainstream-ish rap songs in which religion is a major and obvious theme within the lyrics. This is not an exhaustive or a "best of" list. Instead, think of it as a starting point for looking at the many ways that rappers understand and discuss religion in their music.

Common - G.O.D. (Gaining One's Definition)
from One Day It'll All Make Sense (1997)

Common could be the spokesman for the "spiritual but not religious" demographic (which, despite its name is still very much concerned with religion). Just check out the lyrics: "As a child, given religion with no answer to why" he raps, "Just told believe in Jesus cause for me he did die." But, for Common, "curiosity killed the catechism." Whether Jesus, Allah, or any other sacred name, "who am I or they to say to whom you pray ain't right?" Common is fully comfortable exploring religious ideas in ways that most establishment Christians or Muslims would find troublesome. For example, he speculates in this song that God might be black, and on other songs, Common wonders if God might be female. He's fully comfortable incorporating elements of Islam, Christianity, and traditional African religions with any other religious concept that he finds worthwhile.