Why We Need Hip-Hop (Pt. 4)

Here we go again with another piece in the God Loves Hip-Hop series. We are happy to have Dr. Delroy Brooks to add his expertise to our conversation. Dr. Brooks holds degrees from Oakwood University, Andrews University, and Fuller Theological Seminary. As a missiology specialist he demonstrates special commitment to evangelizing youth. He currently pastors the Juniper Avenue SDA Church in Fontana, California. Follow him on twitter @Dayufpasta.

"Hip-Hop is 'Street News.' It keeps us 
abreast and accountable to what's going on in the hood."

            In it’s now forty years of existence, Hip-Hop has gone through numerous phases. It started out as party music with the creation of the break beat DJs, break-dancers, and graffiti artists coming together to build a culture that would embrace all the hope, pain, potential and promise of inner city youths. Hip-Hop has not just become a vehicle to reach black young people, but all young people (George 1998). Hip-Hop has always been the vehicle for those who felt they had no voice. I remember listening to Melle Mel’s staccato ramblings on “The Message:”

Don’t push me cause I’m close to the edge
I’m trying not to lose my head
It’s like a jungle sometimes it makes me wonder
how I keep from going under
The Message, Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five

            I didn’t grow up in the ghetto. I grew up in a working class neighborhood in Springfield, Queens (on the Q3 bus line); just a few stops from the famed Hollis and Jamaica Queens that produced Hip-Hop heavyweights like, Run DMC, LL Cool J, A Tribe Called Quest, and others. And even though I didn’t live in the tight quarters of 40 projects or any housing project of the Bronx, I was very familiar with the realities of "The Message." There were days that I felt like I could be "close to the edge" walking to middle school or riding the bus to high school. His words were musical markers of my route when he said:

Broken glass everywhere
People pissin in the stairs you know they just don’t care
I can’t take the smell can’t take the noise
I got no money to move out I guess I got no choice.
Rats in the front room roaches in the back
Junkies in the alley with a baseball bat
I tried to get away but I couldn’t get far
Cause a man with a tow truck repossessed my car

It was as though he and the countless other Hip-Hop artists were there with me in the midst of that environment. He obviously could identify firsthand with the struggles of urban life and poor people. The soundtrack of my early adolescence and high school years would be filled with the sounds of the hip-hop, reggae, and even British pop, but it’s the music of Hip-Hop artists that taught me about my community, its struggles, and the unrealized dreams of my peers.

At its best, hip-hop identifies the ugly realities of urban communities under assault by poverty, violence, and racial injustice. At its worst, it seems to celebrate the horrors of gang violence, rape, and misogyny, hostility toward gays and immigrants, and an anarchic gun culture. The controversial "edge" of hip-hop can be recognized from such songs as N.W.A.'s calls to kill police to Snoop Dogg's explicit portrayal of women as sexual playthings to rapper Tyler, the Creator's jarring lyrics, controversial even in the hip-hop community: "Come take a stab at it faggot; I pre-ordered your casket."(Moore 2013)

            There are many ills that are a part of city life. Hip-Hop is our man on the street, giving us the 411 on what’s happening on the corner.  Hip-Hop and it’s itinerant group of beat reporters share the news of what’s going on in the urban neighborhoods; allowing a now global village to tap in to a hopelessness and rage that can only be known by people who have been oppressed. These beat reporters are the griots of the postmodern age, a new caste that uses the mediums of lyrics, graffiti and dance to create oral and aural catalogues of the local and globally local (glocal) community. Representing history within the reach of those who seize the opportunity to speak for themselves, to represent their own interests at all costs (Dyson 1996). According to seminal rapper Chuck D, rap has been referred to as “the CNN of the streets” and theologian Cornel West believes it [rap] to be “the last form of transcendence available to young black ghetto dwellers.” (Gutierrez 2008)

Reporters keep us aware of events in our community.
Likewise, rappers give us updates from the ghetto.
            In the midst of economic crisis and the loss of jobs in every sector of the economy, many inner city blacks, latinos and even whites are drawn to the informal underground economy that is portrayed in Hip-Hop lyrics. Every aspect of the black market, be it the trafficking and sale of illegal narcotics and pharmaceuticals, robberies and thefts, and the sale of counterfeit goods, etc. are all responses to economic issues. Furthermore, at their inception, gangs and gang activities were responses to social and familial dysfunctions. At the same time, those artists that espouse the more spiritual/positive side of hip hop also share a message among this class of city dwellers. Kurtis Blow reminds us that, “In the beginning it was really spiritual. It came out of a cry from an oppressed people. And it was beautiful” (Gutierrez 2008). These are those who despite the pain that they face, have determined to make deep meaning and positive values from their surroundings.

            This ability to tell a well-crafted story of the ills of the ghetto and street life cannot be lost on the local church. In the same manner that a pastor can get up in front of a congregation to share the good news of the gospel, Hip-Hop is reminding the church about the realities of sin and the need for grace—and returning the Hip-Hop community to its prophetic roots (Moore 2013). It is important for pastors and people of faith to tap into the CNN of the streets to stay acquainted with the issues of the underclass, the under-served, the under-aged, and the under-reported. It’s time for the church to listen to what the streets are saying and reach for all those young men and women who are so close to the edge that they feel like they may be falling. It’s time for the church to hear what they are saying and cultivate relationships that will allow entry into a world with which we are not familiar.

            We need these urban reporters of the inner city to keep reporting the information from the streets. We need their guidance to know how to reach out to them, and how to do so in ways that are relevant as well as redemptive. They are writing the roadmaps to the disenfranchised and the disaffected, the broken and the bruised, the helpless and the voiceless. If we do not listen and hear their hurt, pain, and perspective, then how will we know how to locate them? How will we know how to apply the salve of God’s grace to their struggles and needs? We as the church need to listen to the report and create the methods and ministries that can take action to affect our communities for the cause of Christ.