Hip-Hop: The Soundtrack of the Struggle

This is my third and final year of doctoral studies, and since I began this journey I’ve done a lot of reading, writing, and reflecting on the issue of Hip-Hop culture; especially as it relates to religion, theology, the church, ministry and evangelism. There are certain things I’ve gotten used to hearing about this topic. One thing that’s clear is that whenever someone starts talking about Hip-Hop in church older church folk often either tune out or they relate directly to the negative images of rap-music videos and gangsterism that is so often streamed along the media airwaves.

Hip-Hop is the pink elephant in the room; the red-headed stepchild of the black church that no one wants to talk to or talk about. Nevertheless, Hip-Hop remains one of the preeminent cultural forms that embodies a vibrant and robust aura of creative expression and protest. The conversations about inner-city ministry and urban evangelism abound, yet ministry leaders seemingly refuse to adequately engage Hip-Hop culture. But here’s the cold, hard, truth: To do urban evangelism and spurn Hip-Hop is like doing evangelism in Cuba and refusing to speak any Spanish.

Ellen G. White said, “The lessons of humanity must be given in the language of humanity.”[1] While Ellen White was not talking about Hip-Hop. Nevertheless, she was talking about the Incarnation. It was God’s will to make manifest the essence of the Kingdom of Heaven by sending The Christ. And the Advent was not marked by some celestial alien baby in a flying saucer with special powers, but rather through a middle-eastern peasant family, located in a specific time and place. Jesus spoke Aramaic and probably often Hebrew. He didn’t speak French, Latin or German, and he definitely didn’t speak what we like to call “proper English.” His ministry would have been null and void if he did. It is because of this fact that we realize that God determines that we should be relevant and local in our ministry. After all, “all ministry is local.”[2]

Churches must learn how to effectively engage Hip-Hop culture and to speak the language of Hip-Hop. Does that mean that the church must compromise the principles of holiness, righteousness and the like? Absolutely not! Hip-Hop is a global phenomenon that was birthed from the belly of the black urban poor. This means that the Black church and Hip-Hop essentially have the same home base. Hip-Hop picked up where the Civil Rights Movement left off. Whereas after the passing of the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act and the like, the black church moved up the social strata and in many cases moved out of the hood, the central focus of Hip-Hop is still the black, urban poor.

By refusing to engage Hip-Hop we are, in reality, ignoring the poor, abandoning our base and dashing our future hopes. Poor black kids used Hip-Hop as a creative response to displacement, oppression and subjugation. They responded to the blight by painting colorful murals on the walls. They responded to the lack of safe recreational spaces by turning blacktops into dance halls. They responded to hate speech with poetry put to booming bass lines. They responded to their disjointed and interrupted lives by exaggerating them with broken acrobatic dance moves while the DJ looped break beats, mixed and scratched records on makeshift turntables. They responded to the exclusive sartorial styles of Fifth Avenue by creating their own fashions and trends. By engaging Hip-Hop, we say to them, “We see you. We hear you. We feel you. We love you.”

You can’t go anywhere these days without seeing it and hearing it, and our response has long been to censor it or avoid it altogether. These are the voices of our urban youth demanding to be heard, and if the church wants to minister to them, we must at the very least, listen to what they are saying.

This leads us to a discussion of methodology. A big lingering question after my contextual research project was conducted was, “Yeah. But how?” And herein might be an initial hint of some of our great challenges in doing this kind of outreach. History says, we love pop-tent, kit-driven, microwave ministry models. We want to know how it works and how long will it take? Will it give us the numbers we’re shooting for? If it requires any long-standing investment and sustained effort, we’re generally not interested. However this is a major key to reaching the Hip-Hop base. We’re dealing with an entire generation of abandoned youth. Abandoned by their fathers, their schools, the government, and often living in abandoned houses. One of the very pressing questions they are asking is, “Will you abandon us too?” The first order of business is to establish a sense of trust. This is not easy. This takes time.

The other issue that arises is that we have no models of engagement for the unchurched. Every Net Ninety-___ series installment, every Amazing Facts, and Breath of Life evangelistic campaign is designed to reach folks who at least have a Christian disposition. We have little to nothing designed to engage the unchurched in urban centers. And so how do we effectively engage the unchurched urban poor? This has yet to be seen. Nevertheless, what is certain is that there is no magic bullet. And again, there is no substitute for incarnational ministry: becoming one with the people as Christ did, meeting their needs, and then inviting them to discipleship.[3] This is the only way.[4]

Should we all dress in jeans, hoodies and Timberland boots when we come to church? Should we resort to ceaseless concerts in order to reach our young people? Should every church be a Hip-Hop church? Should pastors rap in their sermons? The answer to all of those questions is no, but a big shout-out to the pastors and churches who will at least try these and a number of other methods in a sincere effort to communicate the gospel in a new and fresh way.

This is exactly what Paul did on Mars Hill. I’m certain the ten and twelve generation Jews would have cringed if they heard him spouting those repulsive secular lyrics (Acts 17:28). But Paul utilized the prevailing local images to point the great Grecian minds to Christ. And this is exactly what God had promised in Isaiah 56. He said that even the outcasts and foreigners would be welcome to his eternal mountain-kingdom (Is. 56:7). He promised that even those castrated by the empire—read, black, urban poor—should be welcomed into the blessed family (Is.56:4).

It is apparent that some might be disturbed by the interchangeability and parallel drawn between Hip-Hop Culture and the urban poor. Nevertheless, ask any poor black kid what’s in his iPod and you can be certain that ninety-nine percent of the time it’s Hip-Hop. It’s not Bob Dylan, The Beatles or George Straight—it’s Hip-Hop.

Hip-Hop is the soundtrack of the struggle. Once upon a time it was field songs. Then it was the blues and jazz. Then it was Gospel. Now it’s Hip-Hop. And not simply the music, but the entire corpus of the culture that give it a full-bodied appeal to oppressed youth. The children are crying out to us. We can no longer shut them out simply because we can’t stand the beat.

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[1] Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Pub Assn, 2005), 34.

[2] Brandon O’Brien, “All Ministry Is Local,” Christianity Today, May 8, 2011, 1, accessed April 21, 2015,http://www.christianitytoday.com/parse/2011/may/all-ministry-is-local.html?paging=off.

[3] Ellen G White. The Ministry of Healing. (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 2003) 143.

[4] Ibid.