Between God and Hip-Hop
- ISBN: 9780226819167
- Published By: University of Chicago Press
- Published: May 2022
In his book Street Scriptures: Between God and Hip-Hop, Alejandro Nava argues that the genre of hip-hop music, along with the culture surrounding it, are part of a “street theology.” The term is coined by the author and can be defined as an extension of cultural and liberation theology that “considers a broader spectrum of voices . . . lending its ear to a diverse chorus of project dwellers, beat-makers, self-taught poets, outsiders, misfits, hustlers, and unchurched folk for thinking about the arts, culture, and God” (27).
Nava lays the groundwork of his argument by explaining that Jesus Christ walked among the lowest people of the world (as when, for example in John 8, Christ walked into the temple courts and was asked what to do with a woman who had committed adultery. He responded with a question of his own by asking who among them was free of sin. He ultimately forgave the woman, telling her to sin no more." ). Nava uses this example to show that religion is meant for the meek of heart. In this way, Christ was a spokesperson for the people, a representative of the “desperate huddled masses of the world.” (3)
Along with the term “street theology,” "Nava uses 'street scriptures' to describe the instrument used by hip-hop artists to portray their message through their lyricism and musical style.". He argues that hip-hop is about aestheticism, pushing political boundaries, and expressing one’s culture and religion without limits. Because of these elements, hip-hop itself becomes scripture. By using his knowledge of liberation theology and hip-hop, he passionately merges the two concepts into one.
Nava is successful in making his argument accessible to non-scholars and non-hip-hop enthusiasts. Unlike Nava, I didn’t grow up listening to hip-hop, but he describes elements of the musical form that helped me better understand it. Using examples from current hip-hop artists, as well as popular artists from the past, he passionately describes the blending of religion, politics, culture, and aesthetics in hip-hop music.
One of the most all-encompassing examples that he uses is Childish Gambino’s music video for “This is America.” Featuring African cultural elements in the costuming, as well as chanting and the beating of African drums, Childish Gambino places the sins of the past and present front and center. While the music is continually up-beat, Gambino is portrayed committing murder while various other crimes occur in the background. According to Nava, “This is America” is a “subversive satire of America’s addiction to guns, racism, materialism, and social media” (35). The music video exemplifies the idea of a street theology, showing representations of young African Americans minding their own business, but still ending up dead or arrested. Nava compares the video to the book of Revelation, where “Roman aggression and persecution” prevail and “corrupt merchants of economic injustice” roam the Earth and prey on the innocent (36). This persecution and destruction is illustrated throughout the music video and leaves the viewer wondering about the future of America, which is its purpose.
Along with this modern example, Nava takes the reader through the history of hip-hop, illustrating key elements of the genre and featuring artists ranging from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five on the East Coast to NWA on the West Coast. He portrays how artists were influenced by various religions, and not only Christianity. For example, Rakim was influenced by his studies of Islam, whereas RZA was more interested in Buddhism (and in particular the concept of “Tao”). Both religions greatly shaped each artist’s work and music.
Nava refers to these and other hip-hop artists as prophets of their religion. He uses Kendrick Lamar’s discography as an example and devotes an entire chapter to his work. Like prophets, Nava argues that “emcees have now assumed the mantle of prophecy… [and] rappers are today’s voices of the disenfranchised, even mouthpieces of the divine” (109-110). Starting with Lamar’s first album, Nava outlines how the life of a gangster is more tragic and human than malevolent. He equates the thirst and fright of the gangster with spiritual longing and desolation (114). Lamar himself says that the song “Keisha’s Song” represents being baptized (114). Analyzing Lamar’s first three albums, Nava finds religious themes throughout, demonstrating Kendrick Lamar’s prophetism.
Referencing historical events like the Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles and social movements like the civil rights movement, Nava demonstrates how religion, culture and history are intertwined. By articulating a street theology that features rappers and emcees as prophets, Nava fills a religious void felt by the disenfranchised and forgotten youths of modern-day America. As Nava claims in the final sentence of his book, “hip-hop responded… to the injunction of Jesus in the gospels to go to the streets and alleyways in order to welcome the people, places, and things that are unclean and disparaged [and] judged worthless.”
Kate Roberts is a graduate student in humanities at the University of Texas at Dallas.Kate RobertsDate Of Review:May 31, 2023