The Perkins Perspective | Features | Autumn 2013
The Resurrection: A Shared Journey of Faith, Race, and Hip-Hop
By Edward Carson
The great debate, or post-modern question, is this: Who is Jesus Christ?
Believers will tell you he is the Son of God, part of a complex matrix called the Trinity. Others will tell you that he was a great prophet who told moral tales in times of strife and chaos. Historians look at Christ through multiple frames.
A topic of interest today is the impact of slave religion on modern culture. In examining the anthropological and historical impact of Jesus Christ on both hip-hop and rap music, one finds a connection to the historical roots of Nat Turner and Harriet Tubman.
Before the rise of the hip-hop artist, who served as a vanguard and messenger of the black condition in America, others, such as civil rights activist and black intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois and abolitionist Harriet Tubman, also addressed religion in their writings and actions. They too, sought to disseminate a message regarding faith, race, and suffering.
In 1930, Du Bois published the short story “The Gospel According to Mary Brown” in Crisis magazine. In the story, Joshua, the son of Mary Brown, represents the black Jesus Christ. He finds comfort among those who were societal outcasts, marching with the poor, sinners, and communists. Yet the white South lynched this Christ because they could not accept a Christ who accepted all people, especially the American Negro.
This story, along with much of the historical literature, paints a deeply racist American South, in which Christians often attended church in the morning, only to lynch blacks in the evening. Countee Cullen also made this connection in two of his poems:
The South is crucifying Christ again
Christ’s awful wrong is that he’s dark of hue
The sin for which no blamelessness atones;
But lest the sameness of the cross should tire,
They kill him now with famished tongues of fire,
And while he burns, good men, and women, too,
Shout, battling for his black and brittle bones.
The Black Christ
O Form immaculately born,
Betrayed a thousand times each morn,
As many times each night denied,
Surrendered, tortured, crucified!
That love which has no boundary;
Our eyes have looked on Calvary.
Sounding a Sense of Frustration
During the 1980s, blacks used hip-hop and rap music to proclaim their political message. Much like Du Bois did with his Crisis publication, the hip-hop artist used this genre of lyrics to sound a sense of frustration regarding the plight of black suffering. Urban blacks felt oppressed by a conservative government looking to enrich the wealthy, while impoverishing the poor at an alarming rate.
Hip-hop artists and rappers portrayed lyrics about the racial brutality imposed on them by the police, and rap music quickly conflated the role of gangs and religion. Jesus Christ was depicted as the head of gangs, such as the Crips and the Bloods. Hip-hop rapper Jayceon Taylor, who also goes by the name, The Game, released Jesus Piece in 2012. This album denotes his religious convictions for living a righteous life, while referencing his former ties to his Compton-based gang ties with the bloods.
Taylor articulated the problems of his past and how they contradicted a moral lifestyle. Keeping the focus on faith, this former gang member transitioned away from the gang side of Messiah leadership and reflected a more sincere approach to leading urban youths. After all, street gangs personified a bond far greater than the traditional family and the church to many urban youths.
Gang leadership has always been a part of the black underclass. And hence, an immediate association transpired between black male gang leaders who united young black men into a collective religious disciple kinmanship, similar to Christ and his followers. The followers of Christ, particularly the 12 apostles, were those who struggled and needed guidance. With the absence of black fathers in the lives of many young black urban youths, gang leaders filled the vacuum. Gang leaders would rescue the youth from their enslavement of American racism, much like Du Bois’ Joshua would return to save a race of disenfranchised blacks.
In addition, both the message of hip-hop and the message of Jesus Christ are drawn together through a sense of spiritual reconciliation. Christians contend that the infallible words of the Bible offer hope to the lost. Hip-hop artists contend their lyrics offer a sense of salvation to those suffering from the harsh realities of urban street life.
To many black urban youths, Tupac Shakur and other commercialized celebrities in the hip-hop industry became symbolic of Christ figures. Though dead to many, artists live and walk the earth by way of biblical lyrics. Blacks praised Tupac for his lyrical style, often found in the confines of the church assembly. A devout Christian, Tupac addressed suffering in his music, using his lyrics as a form of prayer. Note the lines from this rap song from the 2000 Reverend Run Album: The Rose That Grew From Concrete Vol. 1:
When I was alone, and had nothing
I asked for a friend to help me bear the pain
No one came, except God
When I needed a breath to rise, from my sleep
No one could help me ... except God
When all I saw was sadness, and I needed answers
No one heard me, except God
So when I’m asked … who I give my
unconditional love to?
I look for no other name, except God.
Like that of Jesus Christ, Tupac and other hip-hop artists created loyal disciples of their message. After predicting his death and eventual resurrection, Tupac’s cult lives well into the 21st century, like that of Christ.
Both rap artists and hymn leaders within the black church have drawn from the historical suffering of black folks. Whereas the white church asks Christ to make them as white as snow, the black church asks him to save them from their suffering. Too often hip-hop music’s themes of moral integrity, bonds, and human suffering are dismissed. However, by focusing on the lyrical styles of hip-hop artist in the same way as the writings of literary figures or the sermons from ministers, a sense of understanding would open minds to the challenges faced by urban youth.
Edward Carson, MEd, is a history faculty member at the Brooks School in North Andover, Massachusetts. He has written and presented multiple papers on topics related to African-American studies, religion, and the process of teaching history. He blogs at ecarson.wordpress.com/.
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