Souls of Black Folk: Reconciling Gospel Music and Hip-Hop
It was a spring afternoon and I was returning home from a pretty good day in high school. I got a smile from my crush, popped some lunch table jokes off at my friends’ expense, and my all-white Forces stayed clean. I was winding down the day with my ritual of sinking into my headphones on the bus ride home, then walking a quarter mile.
Arriving home, I took my headphones off and walked in the front door of my house. I instantly knew something wasn’t right. As I walked closer to the living room, a deep fear rose in my chest. I passed the threshold, turned the corner, and my terror was confirmed: there was my mom sitting on the edge of the couch near the stereo. She was BLASTING my DMX album: “It’s Dark and Hell is Hot.”
Please don’t misinterpret the scene; she wasn’t enjoying herself. When I turned that corner, I was met with the coldest death stare imaginable. The song “X Is Coming” was playing and it was the most graphic and “demonic” song on the album, and my mom was on 100000 holiness mode.
We went to a serious Pentecostal church where the word holiness meant more than a positional reality in Christ. It meant you aren’t doing anything that even barely resembles the world. The closest my house had come to playing rap to that point was either “Time to Make That Change” by the Winans, the rap part from Sister Act 2 (y’all know) or the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song. I knew what time it was in that living room.
My mom sang in the choir at my church, and as one of the leading soloists, she would, as the old saints said: “sing heaven down.” My dad was the lead choir director and was one of the most enthusiastic, demonstrable directors you’d see. I had to endure the snickers of my church friends as they performed their impressions of him going extra hard directing the choir (kids are savage).
These were my parents’ visible roles in the local church, and at home, the river that flowed from that stereo lapped the waters of gospel music. It was all day gospel music: John P. Kee, Milton Brunson, Walter Hawkins, and their respective community choirs. Hezikiah Walker even played basketball once in our backyard with my dad while in town for a music workshop our church hosted. Donnie McClurkin did an entire concert with our choir for our annual church musical. My dad also had his own gospel group that traveled the country singing.
Needless to say, when my mom “found” this CD in my room (she ransacked my room), she was not pleased. When my dad got home from work to this report, he listened to about 2 minutes of the song. He looked me in my eye and said: “Don’t you EVER bring this mess into my house again,” and for dramatic effect, he took the CD out and broke it in half with his hands.
Parents Just Don’t Understand
I didn’t grow up a hip-hop guy, but I grew into one. As you could probably gather, I was pretty sheltered when it came to hip-hop. The first artist I actually became a true fan of was Puff Daddy. I was mesmerized by the “Mo Money Mo Problems” video and memorized every lyric of the song. I used to sneak to listen to the hip-hop station in my room at a volume only myself or a dog could hear.
One day, one of my cousins took it upon himself to invite me over his house to school me on hip-hop. He couldn’t take my obsession with Puffy any more. He sat me down, lit up his leaf of choice, and played consecutive albums from Notorious BIG, Jay-Z, and Nas. I was never the same after that day.
Hip-hop had my love, and shortly after, I did what most hip-hop lovers do—I started trying to write rhymes. Time passed and my brother started writing with me, and before long, we started a group with one of my best friends. We had started to discover and listen to groups like LPG and Cross Movement, but we listened to “Parental Advisory” hip-hop on the low.
I’m telling you this because eventually, the two worlds would have to collide. My parents’ love of gospel music and my love for hip-hop were destined to meet. Much like what I discovered at home, I soon realized there wasn’t a lot of love for hip-hop or rap in the Black Pentecostal church.
The movement wasn’t looked upon favorably, as it had appeared to steal the attention and affections of the youth. Hip-hop had us wearing exponentially over-sized clothing and growing out our respectable tight fades into braids and singles. Hip-hop seemed to impact how we spoke to adults, how we acted in school, and how we became disinterested in church. So when I first told my dad I wanted to start rapping, he acted like I was talking through a plastic cup from across town.
This wasn’t just my experience. It was understood among those of us growing up in that era of a hip-hop generation, that the black church was not trying to hear this. I’ve heard stories of rappers getting kicked out of churches, getting their mics cut off, or getting a full-on public rebuke from pastors after their performances. The church mothers were stone-faced. The deacons were mean-mugging. The parents were shaking their heads. And I was trying to make Bible verses rhyme and share testimonies.
There were some exceptions. To my parents’ credit, they began to give a little credence to their children’s foray into rap music…as long as it was for Jesus. We began rapping at different events with my dad’s gospel group. We then started rapping at churches, then eventually moved on to colleges, community events, and talent showcases. These were mostly Black church spaces, often alongside choirs and gospel groups. We ended up winning a huge talent showcase with over 50 entries, and we were the only rap group among gospel music artists. Somehow, the Black church embraced us despite the horror stories of others.
Back in my parent’s living room, I was being reprimanded by parents for daring to bring DMX into our home. Their tolerance of me rapping at this point wasn’t an acceptance of hip-hop; it was a very fragile truce at best. My faux repentance was coupled with a promise that I wouldn’t taint my Sony Discman with hip-hop again. My savvy compromise was to very openly and publicly purchase Kirk Franklin’s “New Nation Project” album, and loudly play Rodney Jerkins’ rap part on “Revolution” when I knew my parents were within earshot of my room.
What they didn’t know is that I had provided cover for my Discman, while I had also begun to develop a hidden collection of hip-hop staples switched out on the bus ride to school. I was increasing my hip-hop acumen at the same time I was writing rhymes to appease the Black church dynamic.
My point in sharing these stories is that there is a shared quality found in the art forms of gospel music and hip-hop. That quality is the Black experience.
Gospel music and hip-hop have always been related as art forms, both born from oppression and painful circumstance. Gospel music preceded hip-hop and hip-hop has expounded upon the sentiments of gospel music. Messages of hope, joy, and the overcomer’s testimony are saturated throughout both forms of expression. The content is often very different in terms of the means of obtaining deliverance, but hip-hop has never been devoid of God. The culture has always cried out to him in distress, in fear, in frustration, and in defiance. This persists even now.
Kanye West released “Jesus is King” and upon initial listens, it provokes an interesting response from many who have church backgrounds like mine. The explicit gospel music representation is evident in the presence of choirs with the complimentary musical progressions in tow. There is a sound immediately recognized, but there is also a sound within a sound. That sound is a signal to those who are looking for hope, and somehow it speaks to that desire.
As I often heard growing up, that special quality that touches us in that way is the anointing. I’m not here to parse theological terminology, but I do want to emphasize that there are places within the human conscience where only God can reach us.
Somehow gospel music has been able to touch those places and somehow hip-hop has tapped into that desire for hope beyond the struggle and oppression. The reconciliation of the two art forms is a powerful thing. They once may have stood at odds because they didn’t openly acknowledge their familial ties. “Jesus is King” stands as a formidable declaration that they should be together.
Therein a feeling is captured, a special instinct that opens you up to something greater, and the messages in the content clearly direct you to the One able to fulfill the promise. The gospel, not the genre, is a clarion call to reconciliation. Christ brings natural nemeses into familial fellowship. The artistic expression found in these art forms ascends to a new level of beauty when they complement one another.
I went to great lengths to tell my story because the other day was a watershed moment for me. My dad recently picked my wife and I up at the airport, and as he opened the door, I heard the new Kanye West album playing. Somehow this old-school, hardcore gospel choir director had decided to engage with Kanye West. The same man who broke my DMX CD was choosing to listen to a hip-hop album in his own car (an album that not made by one of his sons). This was a picture of reconciliation for me. As I got dropped off later and saw my mom, she sweetly affirmed that the album was anointed, a mind-blowing compliment from a woman who still believes holiness is THE way.
Your story may not be mine, but I hope it is a witness of reconciliatory hope. Our God brings unlikely people together with his message. What God has joined, let nobody tear apart.