Religion in Hip Hop

Mapping the New Terrain in the US

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Editor(s): 
Monica R. Miller, Anthony B. Pinn, Bernard "Bun B" Freeman
Bloomsbury Studies in Religion and Popular Music
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , April
     2015.
     296 pages.
     $34.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781472509079.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Religion in Hip Hop: Mapping the New Terrain in the U.S. showcases a new approach to the burgeoning discourse on hip-hop and religion in the academy. It shifts the discussion toward recognizing that hip-hop culture possesses its own intrinsic religiosity as opposed to believing that the religiosity of hip-hop culture is derived from outside sources. The text furthers Monica R. Miller’s assertion that hip-hop culture, in its Feuerbachian human/istic constructions and deconstructions of paramount meaning for individuals and collectives, fulfills, in the words of Pinn and Miller, “a way by means of which humans parse out and explore the social world, the self, and human experience…”

The text is divided into three sections, with the first addressing hip-hop’s religious search for and creation/affirmation of the embodied self; the second dealing with hip-hop’s constructions of the “other”; and the third considering quasi-esoteric and humanistic appropriations of world religious language in rap lyrics and ways of being. Let’s take a quick stroll through the text:  In section 1, Margarita Simon Gilroy delivers an Afrofuturistic look at hip-hop/neosoul artist Erykah Badu’s reconstruction of her own identity in meaningful ways that use hip-hop bio strategies to be separate from the demands of what it means to be “Black” while being unified with it through her self-proclaimed diversity. In the same section, Julius D. Bailey, through the lens of Sartre and Nietzsche, shows how MCs such as deceased rap icon Tupac Shakur and legendary MC/mogul Jay-Z have created a dogma-less hip-hop religiosity by transforming the terms of confessional religions into humanistic signposts. In section 2, James Perkinson delivers a phenomenology of Afrodiasporic hip-hop ways of being that are ingressed into European and Eurodiasporic Euro diasporic power dynamics and become a hegemonic tool of eroticization. In section 3, Anthony B. Pinn grapples with the notion that the construct of an “African-American” is one of death and the absence of meaning, and argues via Camus that rapper Kanye West’s “blasphemous” assertion of himself as God gives life/meaning to a “zombie” that has none. If this brief overview of the volume doesn’t draw you into the powerful essays that compose the realm of nuances, norms, and disturbances that converge to etch out what we call “hip-hop culture,” what will?

In short, all of the writers in this volume have stretched themselves to give insight into the academic study of hip-hop in religion, opening up several streams of discourse for the reader to build on as they take it upon themselves to continue this new tradition of critical approaches to one of the most influential and infectious subgenres of the past century. The text’s greatest strength is its ability to display through rigorous discourse the complexities of religion in hip-hop culture, complexities that are as rigorous as any other discourse in the academy without the need of validation for its rhetorical strategies from the ivory tower. In the words of Joseph Winters from his essay in the book on the subversive use of Frankfort school theory to disseminate the literary devices of Chicago MC (rapper) Lupe Fiasco, this text aims to “…demonstrate not only the political and ethical relevance of critical theory but also to show hip-hop’s layered complexity, especially in a juncture when this complexity is often difficult to hear” (168). Another strength is the fact that one of the editors of the volume, Bun B, is not only a Distinguished Lecturer in the Humanities department at Rice University in Houston, but also a world renowned MC who was once in the Texas group UGK. Bun’s presence adds a thick, authentic, and convoluted dimension to the discussion, as displayed in his chapter in the text and his afterword. It’s super dope to see him as a part of this discourse, and it’s wonderful how the brother “keeps it real.” The greatest oversights of this edited work are its tendency to further the impression common to the academic study of hip-hop that hip-hop and rap are synonymous (rap is implicitly showcased as the focal point and in many instances the only element of culture); and an assumed intrinsic/primary/homocentric relationship between hip-hop culture and the Afrodiasporic  experience (especially in the United States). Such a critique is not at all a diss to Religion in Hip Hop, for the scholarship in this fantastic collection needed to be done. However, in the absence of a serious recognition of the ethno-cultural diversity and equality that is the foundation and reality of hip-hop culture and extensive work on other elements such as graffiti, DJing, and breakdancing (traditionally called “B-Girling” or “B-Boying”) and their deep religiosity, a terrain is “mapped” for other volumes of Religion in Hip Hop to do important work. Peace.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jon Gill is a Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy of Religion and Theology at Claremont Graduate University and teaches at California State University, Long Beach.

Date of Review: 
August 21, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Monica R. Miller is Assistant Professor of Religion & Africana Studies, Director of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Lehigh University, USA. 

Anthony B. Pinn is Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities, Professor of Religious Studies, and Director of the Center for Engaged Research and Collaborative Learning (CERCL) at Rice University, USA.

Bernard "Bun B" Freeman is an American rapper and songwriter. 

Keywords: 

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