By Blake Collier 

Straight Outta Texas

I grew up in the Panhandle of Texas where the cultural and ethnic makeup was much less than diverse.  90s country and classic rock satisfied my musical appetite along with the occasional Neil Diamond record my mom would play.  My first taste of hip-hop was as a senior in high school when my friend plugged in N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton, which is and always will be the go-to, edgy hip-hop record for suburban white youth to use as a tool for rebellion against their parents.  When I first heard the album, I recall vacillating between finding the album to be unlistenable–both in music and lyrics–and being actively apathetic towards it and, ultimately, from that point on, all hip-hop. Thinking about it now, I think I didn’t like it and didn’t “get it” because I had no desire to remove myself from the safety of the social context and culture that I was expected to partake in, or, simply put, I didn’t want to like it or to “get it.”  And I had nothing in my own largely white, Republican social context to interpret, let alone enjoy hip-hop, especially an album like Straight Outta Compton.

During seven years of college, I found myself ripped from the safe culture that I had grown accustomed to and placed–I would say, divinely–in various cultural contexts that were new to me.  I found myself rooming and interacting with, at various times, African-Americans, diverse Asian populations (especially at Univ. of Texas at Arlington), three Jordanians, Muslim high schoolers–that’s an interesting story in and of itself–, a Syrian refugee, the Indian family of one of my close friends, and a small community of Hispanic peers. All of which opened my myopic eyes to a much bigger world. I was brought into various situations where I learned to love people and cultures that, if I had remained in the Panhandle of Texas, I would not have been concerned with at all.  And along the way, I learned to appreciate much of their music because I was invested in the friendships I had. Admittedly, it was not always an easy road for me.  I am sure each of my friends could probably relay moments when I was being insensitive to their cultural perspectives or holding my own as superior.

After I finished grad school and moved back to the Texas Panhandle, I became acquainted with a guy at my church who was raised in Lubbock, TX–about an hour and half south of my hometown–but had a significantly different youth, one that involved much hip-hop. We recognized that we both loved music and could talk on the subject for hours.  My friend loved hip-hop so much that, ultimately, every conversation would land on the subject and I would be ill-prepared to join in on the conversation at that point. Even though I had been opened to various different genres of music during my college days, hip-hop was still unfamiliar; it was like the sucking black hole in my music knowledge.  And, because he wanted to share the knowledge and love of a culture and music that was such a significant part of his youth, he challenged me to drop everything I was listening to for a year–including, painfully, my favorite band–and listen to nothing but hip-hop.  He gave me a list of about 60-70 classic hip/hop albums, mostly from the late 80s to mid-90s, and I chose 52 albums and listened to one album a week and blogged about each album as I went.

The first three months were difficult for me because hip-hop has a different set of instruments and a different set of rules.  Instead of guitars, bass guitars and drums, which I was accustomed to, I was brought into a world of turntables, loops, and beat machines.  Going into the challenge, I was skeptical that hip-hop could even be legitimately considered as music.  I went into it, subconsciously or not, thinking that other genres were more creative because they started from scratch and created new, original compositions with actual instruments.  It didn’t seem to me that sampling other people’s music over a beat while some dude talked over it was musical by its very nature.  It wasn’t really until I heard De La Soul’s Buhloone Mindstate and, specifically, the song “I Be Blowin’” that things started to change and that I was actually moved by a hip-hop composition, that I actually found it to be musical in all the ways I had considered other genres.

The song featured a sample from Lou Rawls’ “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy” and the saxophone work of Maceo Parker of Parliament-Funkadelic fame, and the way Maseo, De La’s DJ, weaved those samples together over some light percussive beats was just gorgeous.  I remember listening to it in my room after midnight and replaying it two or three times before I moved on to the rest of the album. It captured me.  I had enjoyed various songs from the previous three months of hip-hop listening, but this song and this album was just so full of beauty, and I would argue that it contains some of De La Soul’s best wordplay.

The reason De La Soul stuck in my mind as the beginning of my conversion to hip-hop is because they, though socially-conscious like most of the hip-hop of the late 80s and early 90s, were willing to have fun with their music; they were playful and used samples from music that I was accustomed to already.  They even used 80s music–which I was more knowledgeable about at that time–in their composition.  There is nothing more fun than listening to a hip-hop cut with Hall & Oates singing “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” around the flows of Posdnous and Trugoy.  De La Soul showed me not only that hip-hop could be fun and interesting, but that they actually appreciated various genres of music that preceded them, so much so that they paid homage to that music in their own albums with the samples they used–for they were not arbitrary selections.  I learned that this was the case with most hip-hop.  This was a genre that was embedded in the history of music.  They were lovers of music.  So I came to the conclusion that maybe hip-hop musicians were not starting from scratch (in the strict sense), but were making new compositions–creative, fun and beautiful, in their own right–, instead, from a scratch.

The other thing that happened during that time was that I didn’t just begin to love hip/hop, but I began to love the culture and history that surrounded it.  I began to enjoy the graffiti, breakdancing, b-boys and b-girls, etc.  I became interested in the history of hip-hop as a response to the abandonment and desperation that made up the inner-city narrative.  I began to see the reasons why the hip/hop culture was created and who its authors were, people like DJ Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa.  They were addressing a lack of community within the inner cities, a youth that had lost their identity and been abandoned in situations where hope was hard-fought.  Hip-hop was a suggested solution to social ills in the city–including gang violence–and unlike many “solutions,” it met several facets of the problem in which it found itself. One example of this is Afrika Bambaataa, or “Zulu,” who saw the recession of gang violence and a new direction for the youth of the inner cities.  Jeff Chang writes in Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation:

As the gang days were receding, Bambaataa saw the future before anyone else. Each of the housing projects had its own gangs, sometimes turning the two-block distance between them into a no-man’s land.  But he was ready to take people across borders that they didn’t know they could cross, into projects they weren’t sure they could be in.  Bambaataa…would lead them where they didn’t know they were ready to go.  (Chang, 89)

In order for community to be formed and developed and for the negative influences of gangs and their violence to start to be overcome, there had to be leaders who provided a different vision and identity for those in the inner city to embrace.  For Afrika Bambaataa, a significant aspect of that was developing identity and community around the block parties where DJs scratched and MCs spoke to the people. It gave the people in the projects hope that they were not forgotten and that they were valuable for who they were, not hated for who they weren’t.

That is not to say that it completely fixed the problem or that it didn’t have its own weaknesses, but it was a solution that gave an identity to communities and people that had been largely forgotten in the cities after the suburbanization of the cities began.  Hip-hop in one sense replaced gang territories with territories defined by DJs, and that too could become sectional and separate people, just not with as much violence.  Within hip-hop there were also negative aspects of the party culture; swagger and bragging became all-too important, among other elements of the culture.  But on the whole, it brought large inner-city communities together better than anything the local governments were able to do, when they were willing to do anything at all.  As I learned about all of the history and started to embrace the culture and the music that came from it, this white guy from white-middle-America began to care for and learn from a culture that was all too different from his own.  And things that mattered to those communities and peoples began to matter to me.

Christian Critics put Hip-Hop on Blast

Because of my history with hip-hop, when I watched the NCFIC panel on Holy Hip-Hop, I was angered by it.  I was angered by it because in those five men I saw myself back in high school when I shunned a culture that wasn’t my preference and saw it as inferior as a result.  Hearing the comments from those men placed a mirror in front of me and I saw who I was before I opened myself up to learning and listening to the hip-hop culture.  These men would benefit from opening themselves up to hip-hop for a season, if for no other reason than to have a deeper understanding of what they spoke so cavalierly about.

I wish I could say that their critiques of hip-hop were only found in certain isolated corners of Christendom, but that is not the case. This issue is broader and more ingrained in American Christianity than just a few comments from some panel. Nor is the reasoning undergirding these panelists’ views lodged only at hip-hop music. Within Christian culture, heavy metal, punk and other genres that display any kind of anti-authoritarian bent have come under severe scrutiny throughout the years.  However, with hip-hop’s prominence in the music industry right now, it makes sense that most of the recent criticism has been directed toward it.

The critiques, though, have not necessarily changed from decade to decade. We all have made our musical preferences into something more akin to doctrine than personal taste at some level.  We have shunned heavy metal because “it’s just sounds like a bunch of loud noise” or we look at pop music as “sugary-sweet, but with not much substance.”  Like I said before, one of my major hang-ups on hip-hop was the view that they didn’t actually make music, “but just stole from others’ compositions” in order to cut them up and make something disjointed out of them.  The production of hip-hop did not fit my conception of what constituted “making music.”  Pick your musical poison; hating on specific genres of music goes a long way in developing our self-sure identities and allows us to find communities where our assumptions are not challenged.

To understand the criticism of hip-hop, It’s important to see that many critiques, especially critiques from within the Christian community, are based on, perhaps subconsciously, a high-low culture distinction. I believe that this was one of the presuppositions working underneath the comments made toward Holy Hip-Hop by those on the NCFIC panel, as well as critics elsewhere in Christendom.  This distinction has been and is still being pushed by many inside and outside the Christian community.  One major Christian proponent of this distinction is Kenneth Myers in his book, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes.  He makes the case that high culture, or “traditional culture,” would “encourage a healthy Christian participation in a common culture, as well as a more humane culture existence for unbelievers.” (Myers, 121)  So, the more we embrace high culture (classical music, literature, etc.), the more the corrosion of popular culture will lose its power.  However, as Ted Turnau states in his book, Popologetics: Popular Culture in Christian Perspective, this distinction is largely arbitrary and has its roots in some rather un-Christian racial conceptions.

According to Turnau, those who hold this perspective take for granted that categories of “high culture” and “low culture” are set and eternal. Turnau shows how popular culture—in opposition to high culture—was something that the elites saw as a corrupting force, a force that was brought into American society by the influx of immigrants in the 1800s.  It was those immigrants who were corrupting the set and eternal high culture.  So the elites began “to spread the gospel of real culture in order to save the immigrants from themselves.  The Victorian elites could serve as cultural missionaries and demonstrate the inferiority of the immigrant culture simultaneously” (Turnau, 113).  Turnau goes even further to say that the very language of high and low culture had “from its beginning contained implicit racial and class prejudices.  Even the terms highbrow and lowbrow derive from the Darwinistic pseudoscience of phrenology: reading someone’s intelligence and character from the shape of his or her skull” (Turnau, 113).  Ultimately, the very distinction of high and low culture developed out of the fear of immigrants and the culture that was brought with them.  A fear of the “melting pot.”

It seems that the fear of culture that is not white or European, at its base, is still not far from attitudes in the present day.  Unfortunately, I think these fears play into much of the suspicions and criticism surrounding hip-hop and especially its use within the ministry of Gospel proclamation.  Even though the eighties were nearly three decades ago, it appears that the general stance of white evangelicals in America is one of isolating their own from potential “outside” cultures instead of doing the work of the kingdom and attempting to redeem all things for God’s glory.  Hip-hop is not perfect, ask any of the Christian rappers out there about the culture by which they are surrounded, but it can be redeemed because it was made by image-bearers of God.  God is pleased to see hip-hop culture used to spread the gospel and to reconcile people back to him.  After all, God is no respecter of persons; he does not show favoritism to a race, a culture, a people and, I would say, a music genre.

Turnau shows the very nature of the high/low distinction by looking at jazz—which along with soul and funk have made up the major sample base of hip/hop DJs.  The black community developed jazz on American soil, but, during the late 1800s, Victorian Americans only viewed European culture as true culture and immigrant and black forms of music were seen as mere entertainment, hardly art.  However, as jazz musicians began to hone their melodies and rhythms and experiment with their compositions, over the years, jazz slowly became accepted within the catalogs of high culture by the elites.  This shows that making such distinctions is, at best, arbitrary and temporal.  Turnau ends his perceptive critique and denouement of the high/low culture distinction with a warning to Christians:

I believe that we as Christians should be very hesitant to embrace the categories of high culture versus low culture.  They are not fixed in the heavens—they are social constructions.  And they are social constructions that have a particularly nasty history interlaced with ethnic prejudice and social oppression.  Furthermore, that history persists, albeit in subtler tones, into the present day (Turnau, 117).

In light of Turnau’s critique, it is hard not to see this distinction and the fears that underlie it coming into play in the presuppositions of recent Christian hip-hop critics.

Hip-Hop and the Gospel

The reason why I love hip/hop and think it can have profound and significant power in proclamation of the Gospel is because it is a music which has astounding prophetic power.  I have written elsewhere about the prophetic nature of hip-hop and how it can be the Jeremiah in the midst of an increasingly blind and deaf “post-Christian” culture and society.  A significant part of the history of hip-hop has surrounded telling people what its like in the ghettos, hoods and streets of the inner cities.  It is a narrative of hard times and hard living.  Hip-hop has largely been concerned with telling it the way it is, or, at least, the way they perceive it.  Ralph Basui Watkins writes in Hip-Hop Redemption: Finding God in the Rhythm and the Rhyme picks up on this ghetto reportage:

One frame or situation is that of the emcee as the watcher, one who speaks from what he or she has seen, retells a story with which he or she is familiar.  In this position, the emcee serves as a reporter.  In this position, the emcee is a reporter.  In the role of participant, the emcee testifies to personal experiences in life.  As the teller of a fable or allegory, the emcee take a large story and uses it as a metaphor with an embedded truth that speaks to the values and norms of hip-hop.  In the end, emcees are trying to speak truth.  They are trying to speak truth about what they have seen or experienced, or they are trying to speak truth in the context of a larger story (Watkins, 55).

In this way, hip-hop provides fertile ground for Gospel proclamation. As emcees in the Holy Hip-Hop movement, the form of the music allows for them to look at society and culture and, much like the prophets of the Old Testament, call out the corruption and dishonesties of their context and speak Gospel truth to it. It also allows them the opportunity to speak personally and experientially of how the Gospel has moved in their own lives as a testament of its power, as Curtis Allen attests to in his own life, for one example.  It also allows for them to be creative, taking the metanarrative of the Gospel and speaking it to the beat in analogous and metaphorical ways.

It doesn’t hurt that by its very nature, hip-hop shares another element that connects to the jeremiads of the books of Jeremiah and Lamentations: hip-hop is poetic and finds a delivery of descriptive and prescriptive truth in images, allusions, and clever wordplay.  As a matter of fact, if one were to look at the first couple of verses of Lamentations 1, it would not be a far stretch to see the similarities between the two genres:

How lonely sits the city
That was full of people!
How like a widow is she,
Who was great among the nations!
The princess among the provinces
Has become a slave!
She weeps bitterly in the night,
Her tears are on her cheeks;
Among all her lovers
She has none to comfort her.
All her friends have dealt treacherously with her;
They have become her enemies. (Lam. 1:1-2 NKJV)

The jeremiads are mournful, descriptive poems about the plight of a people.  They describe in metaphors and images the hard living going on in the world and how darkness surrounds us from all sides.  As I read these verses, I see what could have been a rather plain references to the New York or Los Angeles of the 1980s and 90s and the people who inhabited their inner cities.  Hip-hop is not meant to be a theological or doctrinal or academic essay put to a beat–though some Holy Hip-Hop does cross that line at times.  The jeremiads were definitely not so forthright with their rhetoric.  Hip-hop, instead, is meant to be an especially poetic and musical expression that allows for heavy truths to be laid down on the track in creative wordplay and imagery.

The ultimate irony of hip-hop music is that a severely word-heavy music is finding increasing appeal in a society and culture that is becoming more and more visually-oriented.  One wonders why that is the case.  Maybe being an image-bearer of a God who speaks is something that can’t fully be suppressed, as one commenter proposed on another piece I wrote about hip-hop. With its increasing appeal and its rise as a specifically immanent product of pop culture, it is in a position for Christians who are called to hip-hop as a form of ministry to work towards redeeming the form and content so that the Gospel might be proclaimed and hip-hop heads, like myself, might be brought to their knees and reconciled back to the God who created all things good.

Blake Collier has a Masters degree in British Imperial history from Texas Tech University and is a contributor for Mockingbird. Blake is currently finding out what he want to do when he grows up: right now that means working part-time with Barnes & Noble and part-time with the family business, until something more substantial comes along that, also, probably won’t use his History degree. Loves horror films and hip-hop, stouts and IPAs, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, and British TV and films.

Feature illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out Seth’s graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.