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.

Talib Kweli - Around My Way
from The Beautiful Struggle (2004)

Talib Kweli's approach to religion is not unlike Common's. "People let me paint a picture," he raps, "You know I ain't a Christian. I ain't a Muslim, ain't a Jew, I'm losing my religion." But despite his rejection of institutional religion, he goes on: "I speak to God directly, I know my God respects me. 'Cause He let me breathe His air and He really bless me." Just as in Common's case, the fact that Talib Kweli claims to have a very individualized notion of religion does not mean that he came to those ideas independent of outside influences. There is a religious genealogy here that would be interesting to trace.  (see lyrics here)

Mos Def - Fear Not of Man
from Black on Both Sides (1999)

This song is an articulation of how Mos Def's (now Yasiin Bey's) Muslim faith informs his political dissent. He is particularly concerned here with the question "How do people get better?" To Mos Def, "people get better when they start to understand that they are valuable. And they are not valuable because they got a whole lot of money, or cause someone thinks they're sexy. They're valuable because they've been created by God." Yet, (Mos Def says) some people reject the humility that comes from submitting to the Creator, and instead "try to be God." In particular, Mos Def criticizes those governments and societies that have a "God complex." But even though "the world is overrun with the wealth and the wicked" Mos believes that "God is sufficient in disposing of affairs." (see lyrics here)

The Roots - Dear God 2.0
from How I Got Over (2010)

"Dear God 2.0" is a remake of a Monsters of Folk song by the same name (in fact, this song actually features Monsters of Folk on the hook). Throughout, Black Thought wonders "Why is the world ugly when you made it in your image?" With "terrorists, crime sprees, assaults, and robberies," not to mention the "corporate monopoly, weak world economy," Black Thought asks God to "show me a sign please." The vibe here seems to be one of sympathetic skepticism. (see lyrics here)

Lecrae - Take Me As I Am
from Real Talk  (2004)

The capitalistic structures of the evangelical Christian subculture helped lead to the creation of the rap music subgenre in Christian music. This "Christian" form of rap music is mostly isolated from mainstream hip hop because most Christian rappers are expected to remain separated from the sexualized and materialistic world of mainstream rap. Of all the Christian rappers, Lecrae is the most successful, and (in my opinion) one of the few legitimately talented rappers in the Christian rap subgenre (Mars Ill, LA Symphony are/were other exceptions). This particular song comes across like it was written at the anxious bench itself. It's a rap penned in the heat of the born again moment: "I thought at first I had to clean up my life. Now I'm hearin I just need to cling to the light. I'm ready to do it, Lord I pray you understand. My life is a mess, will you take me as I am." (see lyrics here)  

Kanye West - Jesus Walks
from College Dropout (2004)

There was nothing on the radio like this in 2004. Leave it to Kanye to break down barriers simply by dropping the generic "God" and using "Jesus" instead (there's something to be said here about what popular music tells us about American civil religion, but that's for another time): "So here goes my single, dog, radio needs this. They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus." This song reads like "Dear God" in a lot of ways, as Kanye raps about the many problems in the world. But this song tends to focus more on Kanye's internal struggle: "God show me the way because the Devil is trying to break me down." Instead of facing uncertainty with more questions, as Black Thought did in "Dear God," Kanye takes a more assertive approach, claiming that through it all, Jesus walks with him and gives him strength. See lyrics here.

Lupe Fiasco - Muhammad Walks
from Muhammad Walks (2007?)

Although many rappers are Muslim (Yasiin Bey, members of Jurassic Five, Rakim, etc.) few overtly Muslim songs have been made by mainstream rappers. This one, by Lupe Fiasco, was released as a mixtape instead of a major record label, but it carries the legitimacy of Lupe Fiasco's name. Obviously, the song was a direct response and remake of Kanye's song. In a lot of ways, the song is a primer of basic tenets of Islam. The Zakat, Ramadan, and Hajj all get a shout-out, and Lupe elaborates on rules regarding unclean food and drink and instructions for the proper way Muslims should live and behave. Lupe also tries to portray a message of Muslim unity, despite sectarian differences: "We all trying to get to where the suffering ends. In front of the most high, being judged for our sins."  See lyrics here.

Jay-Z feat. Eminem - Renegade
from The Blueprint (2001)

Jay-Z rarely, if ever, discusses religion or God. Unless he is trying to give himself a new moniker, that is. The same goes for Eminem, which is what makes this song a rarity. Eminem's second verse directly attacks religious groups who criticize him and see him a "scatter-brained atheist." "While I'm having the pistol at 60 Christians against me," he raps, "go to war with the Mormons, take a bath with the Catholics in holy water - no wonder they tried to hold me under longer." For Eminem, religion represents hypocrisy and (ironically) creates bitter reactions against him that then feed his very popularity. See lyrics here.

David Banner - Cadillac on 22's
from Mississippi: The Album (2003)

David Banner, a southern rapper if there ever was one, explains this song as "a musical letter to God explaining to him that despite it all, I am still his child and no matter how hard I stray in the streets, or how crazy I may get on a record, I am still aspiring to do God's work." He also compares his musical approach to "a bible with a Playboy cover on it" because he gives listeners songs they want (usually focused on wealth, prosperity, and sex) while mixing in "a message they need to listen to." As Banner raps here, "God I know I should talk about more in all my songs. I know these kids are listening, I know I'm here for a mission. But it's so hard to get 'em when 22'' rims are glistening." See lyrics here.