Holy Hip Hop in the City of Angels

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Christina Zanfagna
Music of the African Diaspora
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , August
     208 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


They changed “Baby Got Back” to “Baby Got Book,” translated “BYOB” from “Bring Your Own Booze” to “Bring Your Own Bible,” and reinterpreted “MC” to stand for “Minister of Christ” rather than “Master of Ceremonies.” In this ethnographic study of self-identified holy hip hoppers in Los Angeles (LA), Christina Zanfagna offers a richly detailed account of how African American evangelicals transformed the lyrical forms and performative expressions of hip hop into a missionary medium and religious practice. 

In five chapters, Holy Hip Hop in the City of Angels argues that the sanctification of hip hop as holy hip hop in LA “illustrates how conversion—as a religious, musical, and spatial practice—enables pathways and possibilities for black Angelenos amidst the radical postindustrial transformations, environmental cataclysms, and culture wars of Los Angeles in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries” (6). While most scholarship on hip hop is focused on lyrical analysis, Zanfagna takes the sanctifying process of lyrical conversion in holy hip hop and situates it within the religious, cultural, and physical landscapes of LA. This book is not just about Protestant Christians who convert scripture into hip hop lyrics or gangsta rap into praise songs, but black Protestants who do this in their cars, on the streets, in neighborhoods, as well as in “roaming offices, record stores, and music studios.” Zanfagna foregrounds what others might consider backdrop to personal conversion stories, the what and the where that is sacralized in the performance of lyrical conversions, the “nonhuman entities, material objects, sonic resources, and urban spaces” (6). This book, then, is about the “musical and spiritual practices” of the lyrical expressions of “belief and personal testimony” that define holy hip hop.

The research methods for this book are based in urban studies, critical human geography, and ethnomusicology. Key interlocutors, for example, include Mike Davis, Henri Lefebvre, Michel De Certeau, and Doreen Massey. In an extended footnote, Zanfagna acknowledges that the book is in conversation with religious studies scholarship on hip hop, but intentionally grounds the book’s theoretical approach outside that literature, finding “scholarship of anthropologists and cultural theorists” more helpful. While some readers may agree with Zanfagna that scholarship in Religious Studies on hip hop could benefit from a sustained engagement with the theories and methods of anthropology and cultural studies, others might note that there already is a substantial amount of scholarship within the discipline, more broadly, that does do that—particularly in areas that directly relate to the scope of the book, such as religious sound, histories of religion, race, and music in the United States, ethnographies of evangelicalism and Pentecostalism, and ethnographies of space and place. Zanfagna, perhaps, misses an opportunity to intervene in the critical study of religion and hip hop by not engaging works in Religious Studies more broadly, such as Luis Leon’s essay, “Born Again in East LA: The Congregation as Border Space,” (in Gatherings in Diaspora: Religion Communities and the New Immigration, Temple University Press, 1998), Eliane Pena’s, Performing Piety (University of California Press, 2011), Isaac Weiner’s Religion Out Loud (New York University Press, 2013), or Jason Bivin’s Spirits Rejoice!: Jazz and American Religion (Oxford University Press, 2015).

What the book does well—and why it is worth reading—is in showing how race and evangelical Protestantism are intertwined in holy hip hop, and how holy hip hoppers are often caught between the racial and religious politics of hip hop more broadly. In the United States, Islam has been the religious identity generally associated with racial authenticity in hip hop, and scholarship on religion and hip hop has emphasized the transnational influence of Islam, focusing on the role of the Five Percenters in shaping rap and hip hop in the northeast. By providing a detailed ethnographic account of black evangelical Protestants and hip hop in Los Angeles, Zanfagna offers a major contribution to the study of religion and hip hop by giving attention to this relatively unexplored area, and offering a point of comparison for future research. Zanfagna provides an innovative model for interdisciplinary research on the complex relationship between institutional religion and popular culture, showing in subtle detail how holy hip hoppers transform the urban landscape even as they “find themselves in a triple bind: considered musical mavericks in the church, corny Bible-thumpers in the streets, and criminal youth by law enforcement in the hyper-ghettos of L.A.” (10). In sum, Holy Hip Hop in the City of Angels is a thorough and engaging account of race, religion, and personal striving for musical authenticity and spiritual movement within and across spaces that historically have denied and constrained both.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Chad Seales is Associate Professor of Religion at the University of Texas at Austin.

Date of Review: 
June 25, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christina Zanfagna is associate professor of ethnomusicology and ethnic studies at Santa Clara University.


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