If someone tried to say what he thought of when he heard the term “hip-hop,” he probably wouldn’t respond with “spiritual matters.” But hip-hop music, for all its flaws and achievements, is actually very concerned with deeply spiritual topics—disillusionment, discrimination, aspiration and escapism, issues that run deep in the African-American communities that gave birth to hip-hop culture. Hip-hop, like gospel music that came before it, originally flourished by giving voice to the world and spirituality of oppressed African-Americans. But, despite sharing cultural DNA, the relationship between the worlds of hip-hop and gospel music has become strident and strained, leaving many rappers with one foot in the church and one in the street.
As a result, many rap albums contain an uneasy marriage of dark, gritty street tales (or profane mythologies) and stories of spiritual renewal and hope. “Most of us [rappers] grew up in church and remember these gospel records and that overtone,” says rapper Bernard “Bun B” Freeman, one half of seminal Southern hip-hop duo Underground Kingz (UGK). “It’s almost implicitly understood that, being Southern and Southern Baptist, your mom or your grandmother or someone is going to see what you’re doing and you’re going to be called out on it.”
So, where casual hip-hop fans found Kanye’s 2004 opus, “Jesus Walks,” revolutionary, it was neither surprising nor life-changing for insiders who remember artists like Ma$e, Woody Rock of Dru Hill, DMX, Cheryl “Salt” Wray of Salt-N-Pepa and Reverend Run who have all tried to explore what it might look like for committed Christians to make mainstream hip-hop. The results have been confusing at best—Rev. Run is noted for his inspirational tweets, but DMX is primarily notable for continuing troubles with the law. These artists—and other hip-hop artists who continue their legacy—beg the question: How can hip-hop musicians try to build an authentic faith somewhere between “the block” and the pulpit?