Kendrick Lamar's 2015 album To Pimp A Butterfly tackled issues of race, mental health and institutional discrimination, as well as the contradictions he has had to come to terms with as a result of his own success. Technically, God Is Gangsta came out in the final hours of 2015, and it acts as a music video for two tracks from To Pimp A Butterfly. In the short film's opening track, "u," we see Lamar's battle within himself come to the forefront; he screams the words "Loving you is complicated" while sitting alone in a room with a bottle of liquor. The imagery itself is striking, but what makes this section of the music video hit home is how openly Lamar presents his personal battles with depression, an issue that often gets pushed aside in the African-American community.
While the first half of the video focuses on mental health issues, the second act ("For Sale?") offers insight into the often-misconstrued notion that with success comes happiness. Placing religious symbolism alongside the secular imagery of a night spent inside a strip club, Lamar alludes to the idea that with success and fame come temptation and troubles. Never one to present a message without a purpose, Lamar leaves his audience with something to ponder when the seven-minute video finally comes to a close.
Directed by the little homies, Jack Bergert and PANAMAERA.
Hip Hop and Religion: Gangsta Rap’s Christian Rhetoric [Full version below]
“This article has since been published in the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 25:3 Fall 2013. The published version can be found at:
Abstract: This article analyzes gangsta rap’s religious ethos through the lens of rhetorical studies. The religious rhetorical output of many gangsta rappers, both textual and visual, points to the religious ethos embraced by many marginalized inner city individuals who see the discourse of gangsta rap as containing a form of religious phronesis (practical wisdom). This output focuses on some telling characteristics: solidarity with Jesus formed through the common theme of suffering; a belief that the social order is to blame for much/most of the suffering; a strong hope that one day the suffering and marginalized will experience redemption; a mistrust of organized religion; and a psycho-social battle between good and evil. Several textual and visual examples from a number of rappers are discussed.
Indeed, gangsta rap’s in-your-face style may do more to force our nation to confront crucial social problems than countless sermons or political speeches.
– Michael Eric Dyson
Religiosity is an influential part of individual and social identity. The pervasiveness of religious thought, rhetoric, and symbolism is seen in its deep-rooted connections to historical, social, political, and popular discourse and action. In Hip Hop culture important and telling connections exist between that culture’s discourse and religious thinking and symbolism—connections that extend into the realms of social justice and individual and cultural identity. In studying it we also begin to understand that “music is…implicated in the formulation of life; …it is something that is a formative, albeit often unrecognized, resource of social agency” (DeNora 152-253). This resource of social agency, in this case rap, can both be revealing and formative.
Hip Hop music and culture are telling sources of identity for myriad of people in the United States and beyond and can teach us much about the religious beliefs of those who produce and closely identify with them. More intriguing is the fact that a sub-genre of rap music, gangsta rap, known mainly for its crude and violent rhetoric, also contains a vast amount of religious discourse and imagery. Religious discourse in gangsta rap may be seen as an incompatible paradox but rhetorical analysis reveals a complicated and layered paradox in which the producers of gangsta rap, and those who strongly identify with its message, attempt to reconcile personal and social marginalization with religious thought. The paradox of religious discourse and “gangsta” discourse is then played out under the umbrella of a community—the gangsta Hip Hop community—which struggles within a socially and economically marginalized realm and one which has been born from communities that stress hope through religion.
Gangsta rappers, and those who closely identify with their message, most often come from poor, inner city neighborhoods and are usually African American or Latino/a. In fact, the very few Caucasian gangsta rappers who have been successful and “accepted” by Hip Hop culture have had their gangsta ethos legitimized by the fact that they came from poor, minority neighborhoods. The African American and Latino/a communities in the United States are highly religious and many within those communities use religion (mainly Christianity) as a means to understanding, and getting through, life and social ordeals. This is not to say that gangsta rappers are highly religious, but there is ample evidence in textual and visual form to show that religion does indeed play a role in their worldviews.
The religious rhetorical output of gangsta rap displays key characteristics of the religious ethos of marginalized inner city communities, especially of those who strongly identify with the message of gangsta rap. One characteristic is a strong solidarity with Jesus Christ and an embracing of Him as a symbol of suffering and marginalization. On a basic level, gangsta rappers predominantly embrace the life of Jesus because, as aforementioned, Christianity is the predominant religion of African American and Latino/a communities in the United States. On a more important level, Jesus, and His life story, are also embraced because they point to suffering caused by an unjust society and because they represent meaning-in-suffering and hope beyond suffering. As Cornel West points out, one of Hip Hop music’s aims is to “forge new ways of escaping social misery” (xi) so it is not surprising that gangsta rap rhetoric and culture—a particular type of Hip Hop—would connect to a figure whose life was surrounded by much social misery and suffering. It is Jesus, among the most recognizable religious figure-heads, who most represents suffering and is predominantly who gangsta rappers most identify with in the religious realm.
Another characteristic of gangsta rap’s religious rhetoric is that while it glorifies the life and suffering of Jesus it simultaneously expresses a deep mistrust of organized religion. For the gangsta rapper, and his/her followers, religion gets in the way of God and the message of Jesus and can be part of the social order that has marginalized many poor, often minority, individuals and communities. Finally, gangsta rap seems to fully embrace the notion that good and evil exist simultaneously within individuals and society.
These characteristics are displayed by vast amounts of textual and visual rhetoric, some of which will be discussed here, and in the lived experiences of many gangsta rappers. Some of these rappers include Tupac, Notorious B.I.G., Nas, South Park Mexican, DMX, and Mase. Importantly, these gangsta rappers are not insignificant figures in the rap industry, but artists who have sold millions of albums and discursively connected with thousands of inner city individuals, particularly African Americans and Latino/as. They are “philosophers…pondering the truths of inner-city life” (Mills) and often use religious rhetoric to do so. Their religious rhetoric is an important piece of the rhetorical landscape and the terrain of religious scholarship and one that should not be trivialized or ignored.
Gangsta Rap and Christian Rhetoric: Between Religion and the Jesus Trope
The stone which the builders rejected, The same was made head of the corner;
This was from the Lord, And it is marvelous in our eyes? -Matt. 21:42-
On the surface, gangsta rap’s connection to religion may seem superficial—large diamond, gold, and silver crucifix necklaces around the necks of many rappers and references to being a god of rap. Lil Wayne stating “ask ya reverend ‘bout me, I’m the young god” and Jay-Z regularly referring to himself as Jay-Hova or Hova are but two examples. Yet, a deeper study of religious rhetoric and imagery in gangsta rap music reveals a complex connection between the identity of those who produce and strongly identify with the musical genre and the religious figure of Jesus Christ. This connection is forged mainly through two themes that are central to both—struggle and marginalization. It is not surprising that a musical genre born from a marginalized community, and a sub-genre (gangsta rap) which often focuses on the “struggle in the streets,” often highlight the image and life of the suffering servant of Yahweh.
This emphasis on Jesus may be seen by some as a simple extension or re-use of the Jesus trope in pop culture and entertainment. Others may see it as a sign that gangsta rappers are truly religious figures and “pastors of the street.” I argue that the use of religious rhetoric by gangsta rappers places them somewhere in the middle of these poles. On one hand, gangsta rappers are not merely identifying with Jesus for entertainment value or to simply tell an interesting story. This is the case with recent uses of the Jesus trope in movies such as The Matrix, The Lion King, Braveheart, Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe and Harry Potter, just to name a few. Gangsta rappers are in fact “real people” born of “real situations” telling “real stories” about their life experiences. They connect their identity with the suffering in Jesus’ life and are not fictionalizing this connection for entertainment value. On the other hand, gangsta rappers are not highly religious in the sense of living lives centered on religious practices and creeds. Gangsta rap is still predominantly materialistic, violent, and misogynistic—all characteristics which run counter to the message and practices of organized religion. Gangsta rap in fact looks upon organized religion with strong suspicion, which will be discussed later in the article.
Thus, for gangsta rappers, identifying with Jesus is not trivial or simply a storytelling trope, it in fact seems to be an important piece of many of their identities and the identities of many inner city minorities. This identification, though, seems to stop at the doors of the church. It is one which is simultaneously bound up in the image of Jesus-as-suffer and with a strong indifference and/or mistrust of organized religion. Their focus on Jesus is less religious and more meaningful, practical, and identity showing and telling.
Identifying with Jesus the Sufferer
As theologian Luis G. Pedraja states about how marginalized groups experience God, “it is an embodied and empirical experience that acknowledges…particular experiences” and is connected to important contexts (49). These contexts for those that produce and strongly connect to gangsta rap include the potent presence of cultural, economic, social, historical, and ideological struggle and marginalization. This is not surprising considering that a vast majority of this music, and the gangsta rap ethos, is created by poor racial minorities, especially African Americans and Latinos. These individuals, especially those who actually write the song lyrics, are members of groups who have been socially and economically marginalized by a historical process of racialization. This process is connected to economic, sociological, political, and ideological developments (Hall) and is constituted by racial projects that work within the web of cultural hegemony (Omi and Winant). These complex and complicated circumstances have led to the creation of a genre with a textual and visual rhetorical output that both understands and perpetuates the experience of marginalization. And because of this marginalization, those individuals accept the notion that God deeply understands their historical context. This notion is born from an understanding that “Jesus came from a place at the margin of society and [that] he identifies with those who were rejected and marginalized by society” and empowers marginalized individuals and communities to claim Jesus as their own (Pedraja 50).
The ultimate image of Jesus’ suffering is the crucifix, which has a prominent place in gangsta raps symbology. This visual rhetoric is often displayed by rappers on large necklaces and has adorned the necks of some of gangsta raps most popular and influential artists: Tupac, Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, 50 Cent, and DMX, just to name a very few. The notion that Jesus understands the suffering of these individuals and the community they look to represent—poor minorities—is the reason that the crucifix plays such an important role in many rappers telling of their life experiences. And while it cannot be ignored that gangsta rap includes numerous references to drug use, misplaced violence, and misogyny—which tends to be the only focus of many social pundits—much of the focus of gangsta rap music is actually on the social circumstances of poor minorities in the United States. As Anthony B. Pinn asks, “is it not possible that rappers are modern griots…who are continuing a tradition of social critique using an ‘organic’ vocabulary?” (1). It is not only possible; it is in fact true. Because these circumstances have created a marginalized group, it is not surprising that they use one of their most powerful discursive mediums—Hip Hop—to express the experience of economic and social marginalization and that this medium often highlights the life of the suffering Jesus Christ.
Beyond the crucifix being displayed on jewelry, some gangsta rappers have directly integrated the image of the crucified Jesus with their own image on album covers and in music videos. Some of the most popular of these images include Tupac’s image of himself as Jesus on the cross on the cover of his album Makaveli, rapper Nas being crucified in the video “Hate Me Now,” and Mase standing with a crown of thorns and bloody neck garb on the cover of his mixtape 10 Years of Hate. These rappers, like many in their community, not only feel solidarity with the suffering Jesus but actually see themselves as Jesus-figures in that they encounter suffering, injustice, and persecution by an unjust society. While the merits of this connection can be argued at length and may be found by many to be inaccurate or blasphemous, the fact that gangsta rap embraces and perpetuates this suffering identity in lyrical stories and images, and the fact that this identity is born out of real-life social and historical circumstances, is undeniable.
The visual rhetoric of rappers-as-Jesus-figures is powerful and telling and because it represents real people and their real-life struggles it moves rappers beyond any simplified view of the use of the Jesus trope for story-telling purposes. J. Anthony Blair in “The Rhetoric of Visual Arguments” states that “the narratives we formulate for ourselves from visual images can easily shape our attitudes” (43). Not only are narratives formulated and followed, and attitudes shaped, from the religious images espoused by gangsta rappers but these images are formed from specific social circumstances. A recursive cycle of image formation and image influence is at work. Gangsta rappers incorporate images of the crucified Christ in their ethos because of their life experiences, and these images in turn affect the attitudes and psyche of those who connect to the visual and textual message of gangsta rap’s religiosity—many of whom are, not surprisingly, poor urban minorities. Ultimately, these images are didactic narratives (Blair 52)–they teach us something about the psychological makeup of some/many urban minorities who see suffering and marginalization as central characteristics of their personhood and community. These narratives also, along with textual rhetoric, display the religious ethos espoused by gangsta rap.
As Jeffrey D. Jones states about the power of stories to convey and form religious identity:
Faith stories aren’t just about success. They are about people seeking to find faithful ways of being and doing in the world. Sometimes they struggle; sometimes they succeed; sometimes they just hang on. Often they do this in an environment that is hostile. Often they are uncertain about what God is up to. (7)
Gangsta rappers, like many in society, seek to understand the world and use religion to do so. What makes their situation different is that many of them come from a world full of economic, racial, and cultural marginalization and from hostile/violent neighborhoods. Interestingly, they simultaneously see themselves as suffering figures and triumphant figures. They are looking at their particular social context, understanding that struggle is a big part of that context, and embracing a figure they feel understands their situation and provides meaning. After all, in Scripture, “Jesus is to be found in those places where people suffer and die” (Pedraja 50), characteristics common in poor inner city neighborhoods, but he is also ultimately seen as a triumphant martyr. This leads to textual and visual rhetoric that finds solidarity with the figure of Christ. This “story” of suffering, solidarity, and occasional triumph, is conveyed visually in the wearing of crucifixes and in the images of rapper-as-Jesus-figures, and textually/verbally in numerous song lyrics and interviews. It is as if these gangsta rappers tell their real-life stories in order to connect their stories to the “grander story that is God’s” (Jones 8). But these “stories,” once again, are not stories about characters in a novel or film, they are the all too common narratives poor inner city peoples who feel that Jesus understand their specific social situations and suffering.
In the song “Lord Give Me a Sign” rapper DMX writes:
I know you’re here with us now
I know you’re still with us now
Keep it real with us now
I wanna feel, show me how
Let me take your hand, guide me
I’ll walk slow, but stay right beside me
Devil’s trying to find me
Hide me—hold up, I take that back
Protect me and give me the strength to fight back
The rapper is expressing the common sentiment in gangsta rap that Jesus understands the plight of those struggling and does not abandon those in need (“I know you’re still with us now”). He also states “keep it real with us now” which is a way of asking Jesus to not be fake in His claims of solidarity with the downtrodden and to allow the truth of His message to connect directly with the real-life situations faced by the rapper and the community he wishes to represent. And finally, DMX changes his request of Jesus from one of fear from evil (“hide me”) to a more forceful request—“give me the strength to fight back.” This final request is reminiscent of the Hip Hop and gangsta rap ethos which emphasizes strength in the face of adversity and highlights the fact that while gangsta rappers see themselves as victims of oppressive and violent social circumstances they, and their religious identity, are not to be labeled weak or neutered. Physical strength and spiritual strength, in the form of a mental and emotional solidarity with Christ, carry them through life.
This sense of solidarity is also seen in a song entitled “My Life” by The Game and Lil’ Wayne where the rappers express their feelings about life “on the streets” and offer up a sort of prayer to God. The most telling lines are delivered in the first section of the song:
From a block close to where Biggie was crucified
That was Brooklyn’s Jesus
Shot for no fuckin’ reason
And you wonder why Kanye wears Jesus pieces?
‘cause that Jesus people
And The Game, he’s the equal
First, the references to “Biggie” (Notorious B.I.G.), “Kanye” (rapper Kanye West), and “The Game” (the one rapping) are ones that would be easily recognizable to those familiar with rap music and show a very direct and kairotic connection between the stories being told by gangsta rappers and real, everyday life. In “keeping it real” these rappers do not look to reference mythic and historical literature, figures, and texts, but instead want to tell the stories of struggle, injustice, and survival in terms of their particular social circumstances. As Robin Sylvan puts it, the religious world view of rappers “refuses to take refuge in the hope of otherworldly salvation but, rather, tells the truth about the harsh reality…of oppression” (281). The focus on Jesus-as-sufferer is not necessarily spiritual but meaningful and practical.
When The Game states he is from the same area where “Biggie was crucified” there is the layered understanding of who Biggie is and the circumstances of his death. Notorious B.I.G. is a pillar of rap music and was a native of Brooklyn, New York, who was gunned down in 1997. What is especially interesting, and very telling in regards to the social and religious identity of many poor Black and Latino/a communities, is how the death of Biggie is perceived. For privileged non-minorities, the death of a rapper who often rapped about sex, drugs, and violence was nothing important and happened simply because he chose to live a life, and follow a career path, that was surrounded by those very things he often rapped about. But, for many disadvantaged minorities, especially Blacks and Latino/as, Biggie was/is seen as “Brooklyn’s Jesus”—a Christ-figure in that he suffered in life and died at the hands of senseless evil and injustice (“shot for no fuckin’ reason”). Some may argue that Jesus, on the other hand, was not killed for “no reason” but in fact for the salvation of humanity. But that would be a misreading of the sentiment of Biggie’s message. Biggie, and Jesus, being killed “for no reason” stresses the senselessness of the killing and the fact that, like Jesus, society did not have to kill, but did. And for those strongly identify with DMX’s message, if Biggie rapped about sex, drugs, and violence, it was because those were central characteristics of the life that was handed him; they were characteristics born from the same society that might eventually kill them. As Michael Eric Dyson puts it in “Gangsta Rap and American Culture,” while misogyny, violence, and materialism are common characteristics of gangsta rap, they are not its exclusive domain—“at its best, [gangsta rap] draws attention to complex dimensions of ghetto life ignored by many Americans” (179). This includes the use of religious rhetoric to “aggressively narrate the pains and possibilities, the fantasies and fears” of urban youth (179). While not every disadvantaged minority would rush to label Biggie a Jesus-figure, there is an understanding by disadvantaged urban communities, especially by those who strongly connect to gangsta rap, of how a gunned-down rapper could be equated to the suffering Christ. Conversely, this occurrence would, at best, be labeled as misguided by many in the dominant culture and, at worst, disrespectful and sacrilegious.
Furthermore, in the song lyrics, The Game adds “and you wonder why Kanye wears Jesus pieces? / ‘cause that Jesus people / and The Game, he’s the equal.” Here, the rapper stresses the fact that rappers—like Kanye West and himself—wear crucifix necklaces (“Jesus pieces”) because they are members of Jesus’ community and connected to the suffering that Jesus experienced in life and in death. Once again, solidarity with Christ is created and displayed through the discourse of gangsta rap and highlights a religious identity that focuses on the martyrdom of Christ. This same sense of struggle, marginalization, and meaning-in-suffering can be seen in numerous lyrics by gangsta rappers:
“Jesus loves me, he told me so / that’s why when it gets ugly, he hugs me / ‘cause he knows me, yo.” DMX in “Jesus Loves Me”
“On Sundays I kneel / on my knees to Jesus / please seize us / cuz my boy’s in trouble / and he needs us” South Park Mexican in “H-Town G-Funk”
“The other day I spoke to the reverend / to see if he said that Mexican’s could go to heaven /
[in heaven]… is minimum wage all they offer my people? / does my uncle gotta marry someone just to be legal? / will he get dirty looks ‘cause he can’t speak English?”
South Park Mexican in “Mexican Heaven”
“With me it’s not just bars and music / I walk with God / I got the scar to prove it”
Mase in “Jesus Walks”
“Man, I gotta get my soul right / I gotta get these devils outta my life”
Jay-Z in “Lucifer”
“I’m the boss, and I don’t follow no person. I follow Jesus.”
Snoop Dogg in “Gangsta Ride”
“God is who we praise / even though the devil’s all up in my face.”
Bone Thugs-N-Harmony in “Tha Crossroads”
“Come from the land that Jesus walked through / sacrifice my life…”
Lil Wayne in “Intro: This is Why I’m Hot”
“Tell Jesus I said thanks for the blessings he sending / please ask him to forgive me for the sins I commit / just let him know I’m still young and at risk”
Lil Wayne in “Everything”
“God’s the seamstress who tailor-fitted my pain / I got scriptures in my brain”
50 Cent in “Patiently Waiting”
“God love us hood niggaz / ‘cause he be with us in the prisons and he take time to listen / God love us hood niggaz / ‘cause next to Jesus on the cross was the crook niggaz / but he forgive us”
Nas in “God Love Us”
In these lyrics we see the complex mixture of suffering, calls for help, solidarity, and the presence of specific realities. The rappers pull God in to their situations and theology from the realm of theory into the space of their lives. And because this space is often filled with suffering and marginalization, minority urban youth do not simply “cling on” to Jesus, but raise Him as a symbol of their very identity and find meaning in their lives and a will to persevere in the face of social, ideological, historical, and economic marginalization. So, it is not only in their death—as in the case of Biggie’s martyrdom—but in their lives that suffering is present.
As theologian Karl Barth stresses in Dogmatics in Outline, Jesus’ crucifixion was merely one part of His suffering. Barth writes, “I should think that there is involved in the whole of Jesus’ life the thing that takes its beginning in the article ‘He suffered’” (101)—a statement which runs in opposition to much religious exegesis, from Calvin to the Apostles to many contemporary religious leaders, which emphasizes Jesus’ suffering only in the Passion. For Barth, and seemingly for many gangsta rappers, “the whole life of Jesus comes under the heading ‘suffered’” (102). It is no simple coincidence that a marginalized community would discursively and visually connect to the life of Jesus—a life that included being born in a stable, becoming a stranger among ones family and nation and a stranger in the realms of government, Church, and civilization, and a life lived full of loneliness and temptation, which involved betrayal by one’s closest followers, and a life that ended by being sent to be crucified by a judge and vengeful community. It was an entire life lived in the shadow of the Cross (103).
Thus, when gangsta rappers invoke the life and name of Jesus, when they wear the crucifix, or when they display themselves as crucified Jesus-figures, they are expressing a deep connection between the totality of their lives and the totality of Jesus’ life. This is made apparent in an interview with Tupac Shakur, one of gangsta raps most prominent voices. Tupac often used religious imagery in his music and was displayed as a crucified figure on the cover of his album Makaveli, his final album release before he was gunned down in 1996. In an interview with Vibe magazine the rapper states, “We get crucified. The Bible’s telling us…all these people suffered so much. That’s what makes them special people. I got shot five times.” He then proceeds to equate his five gunshot wounds with the stigmata of Christ by outstretching his arms and legs and continues with:
I got crucified to the media, and I walked through with the thorns on and I had shit thrown on me and…I’m not saying I’m Jesus be we go through that type of thing everyday. We don’t part the Red Sea but we walk through the ‘hood without getting shot. We don’t turn water in to wine but we turn dope fiends into productive citizens of society. We turn words into money. What greater gift can there be? So I believe God blessed us. I believe God blesses those who hustle and those who use their mind and who, overall, are righteous… God put us in the ghetto because He’s testing us even more. That makes sense.
This religious discourse by a central gangsta rap figure points to the complicated religious identity embraced and espoused by many who see gangstra rap as the soundtrack to their lives. They see the miracle of Jesus manifested in the “miracle” of surviving harsh social conditions and violence. They see blessings mixed in with suffering, and they see themselves walking in the footsteps of Christ. It is for them natural and theologically sound to equate their suffering to Christ’s suffering and to understand that suffering in a social context. Tupac and many other gangsta rappers often see their suffering in connection to the evil present in society. Poverty, an unjust legal system, racism, decrepit social conditions, the media, and political pundits are just a few of the reasons, according to rappers, why individuals and communities are marginalized.
Theologically, rappers are rhetorically expressing the fact that, like Jesus, they and their communities are bearing the sin of the whole human race; a sentiment that moves their identification with Jesus beyond a simple artistic trope. They suffer mostly not out of individual choices or decisions, but because the world is structured in a way that marginalizes poor racial minorities. The link between economic poverty and racial marginalization is made by Stuart Hall who writes that modern capitalist production has produced a classed and racialized work force—one that has perpetuated black laboring classes and a class system that is structured in race (61-63). This system is very much alive in contemporary times and not only negatively affects the Black community but also the Latino/a community. Thus, the realities of economics and race form communities that understandable produce discourse—in this case gangsta rap—which carries a message of suffering at the hands of an unjust social order. This parallels Jesus who suffered because of a lost and sinful society—“from Bethlehem to the Cross He was abandoned by the world that surrounded Him, repudiated, persecuted, finally accused, condemned and crucified” (Barth 104). From individuals who forsake them, to an unforgiving society they are born in to, to an unjust legal system and death at the hands of society, there are parallels made and romanticized by gangsta rappers who use Jesus and His suffering to find meaning and forge a religious identity.
Not surprisingly, Tupac, in the same interview, expresses notions of heaven and hell in very down-to-earth terms. This is not suprising considering gangsta rappers produce religious discourse that sees suffering in the context of real-life situations. For Tupac, heaven and hell are kairotic matters—in the here-and-now of social circumstances. They are not floating somewhere in the ether but connected to the realities of life on the streets:
Heaven and hell are here [on earth]. What do you got there that we don’t have here? What? Are you gonna, [in hell], walk around aimlessly, zombied? Nigga, that’s here! Have you been on the streets lately? Heaven is now, here. Look (gesturing to the expensive room he is sitting in). We sittin’ up here with big screens. This is heaven, for the moment. I mean, hell is jail. I’ve seen that one.
This notion is directly connected to the common gangsta rap theme of materialism. While critics of gangsta rap see the ultra-materialism of the genre as fickle, short-sighted, and selfish, a more complex look at the situation points to the fact that money, cars, jewelry, and fame are small pieces of “heaven” for individuals who many times grow up in poverty-stricken areas. If hell can be here on earth in the form of poverty, violence, crime, and marginalization, then heaven can be here as well. So for many gangsta rappers, and for those that closely relate to its rhetoric, there is a seeming dichotomy in the way they view heaven and redemption.
In a sense, the meek shall inherit the earth in two possible ways. Heaven and redemption may come in the form of material wealth for those that are either lucky, or “hustle” their way out of marginalization, or it may come at the end of time when God rightfully judges those who have not lived up to the calling of Matthew 25 and “helped thy neighbor” and who have created social conditions that have led to the “crucifixion” of poor minorities. For many gangsta rappers, there is hope that in some way “the stone which the builders rejected, the same [will be] made the head of the corner” (Matt. 21:42a). That is, discarded individuals/communities, as many gangsta rappers feel they represent, may become the center of God’s heavenly kingdom. All this may upset and baffle privileged people and leave them asking, “And is it marvelous in our eyes?” (Matt.21:42b)—a question that can reflect confusion and anger in the fact that the world’s marginalized may, in God’s eyes, actually be the corner stone of heaven. Then, in fact, rappers are not simply using the Jesus trope for simplified entertainment or storytelling purposes but identify themselves and their communities with Jesus the sufferer and with those that will find some sort of justice and redemption.
Embracing Jesus, but not organized religion
An interesting aspect of gangsta rap’s religious rhetoric is that while it embraces the life of Jesus and aspects central to religious thought such as heaven, hell, justice, redemption, and meaning-in-suffering, there is a strong mistrust of organized and established religion. Gangsta rap’s theology, therefore, is centered on the person of Christ, specifically on His suffering, but not religion-centered. That is to say, while many gangsta rappers embrace the life and suffering of Jesus—and often display this attitude through visual and textual rhetoric—they do not embrace the entity of religion nor live what most would recognize as religious lives.
This dynamic is partially laid out by rapper South Park Mexican when he states in “The System,” “without peace there can be no happiness / I wear a cross around my neck like the Catholics / I’m not sure exactly what my religion is / I just know I thank God for my little kids.” The rapper displays the attitude that while God is an important part of his life and psychology, religion itself causes an attitude of indifference. This attitude reaches the ears of many and can shape the religious attitudes of those that connect to the message. As one fan of South Park Mexican stated on an online message board directed at the rapper, “like it said in da story, Ur not da most Christian in da world. Me neither, but I do believe in God and his Son Jesus. I’m glad U have Christian beliefs now and more importantly that U speak about it freely” (Martinez).
Most gangsta rappers who mention religion go beyond South Park Mexican’s indifference and openly attack organized religion. Talib Kweli writes in “Beautiful Struggle,” “you go to church to find you some religion / and all you hear is connivin’ and gossip and contradiction.” For Kweli, religion is full of hypocrisy and un-Godly things. So while God, and particularly the life of Jesus, are good and useful presences in history and the world, the entities that purport to carry Their message is extremely flawed in the eyes of these individuals and many of those who strongly connect with gangsta rap.
This mistrust of religion is layered and complex considering the fact that religion plays a large role in the lives of many racial minorities. Looking specifically at the African American and Latino/a communities in the United States, two communities that have a large following in gangstra rap, Protestantism and Catholicism often play central roles in the families and communities of these groups. Yet, in gangsta rap, there is the overwhelming notion of mistrust of religion. This—a point that needs to be re-emphasized—is within a rhetoric that reveres the life of the suffering Christ. Thus, the theology of gangsta raps, unknowingly, points to the complex history of Biblical interpretation and racialization. While the ancient authors of Biblical texts were aware of color, this awareness “was by no means a political or ideological basis for enslaving, oppressing, on in any way demeaning other people” (Felder). Centrally, an awareness of color, as a physiological characteristic, was not to say that these author’s were racializing society—for the social construct of “race” did not come about until the late 17th and early 18th century through the writing of natural historians (West). It has been the long history of Biblical exegesis that has racialized many Biblical events and led, in many cases, to the diminution of racial minorities.
Cain Hope Felder, in “Race, Racism, and the Biblical Narratives,” shows some ways in which Biblical interpretation has subjugated “colored” people—specifically those of African descent. One instance is in the interpretation of the Biblical story usually referred to as The Curse of Ham or Curse of Cannan (Gen. 9:18-27). Ham was a son of Noah and he (actually the land of Canaan) was cursed by Noah for disrespecting his father by not doing the proper thing and covering up his father’s nakedness. Though there is much ambiguity in the connection between Ham/Canaan and Africans, the fact that there is some seeming connection between Ham/Canaan and the peoples of Africa/Egypt, has led some “Bible interpreters to justify their particular history, culture, and race by developing self-serving theological constructs. In one instance the Canaanite’s ‘deserve’ subjugation; in another instance, the Hamites ‘deserve’ to be hewers of wood and drawers of water”—two lower occupations.
Furthermore, Felder points out that racism is present in the Midrashim (the teachings on/of the Bible and Biblical exegesis):
In the fifth-century Midrash (C.E.) [it states that] Noah says to Ham: “You have prevented me from doing something in the dark (cohabitation), therefore your seed will be ugly and dark-skinned.”
The Babylonian Talmud (sixth century C.E.) states that “the descendants of Ham are cursed by being Black and are sinful with a degenerate progeny.”
Into the seventeenth century the idea persisted that the blackness of Africans was due to a curse, and that idea reinforced and sanctioned the enslavement of blacks. (132)
There was a clear link made and perpetuated, through religious discourse, between blackness and unpleasing aesthetics, blackness and sinfulness, and blackness and evil. It is a link that has had a powerful historical influence and which can be connected to the “genealogy of modern racism” (West). It is a genealogy that includes in its ideological ancestry scientists, artists, and philosophers and traces the history of racism in the West, a racism that is alive and well in the minds and experiences of many inner city minorities. This connection between blackness and evil, prevalent in early Biblical hermeneutics, lives on today in religious circles in more subtle ways.
Even today in such versions of Holy Scripture as Dake’s Annotated Reference Bible one finds a so-called great racial prophecy with following racist hermeneutic: “…after the flood. All men were white up to this point, for there was only one family line—that of Noah who was white and in the line of Christ…and his son Shem would be a chosen race and have a peculiar relationship with God…His descendants constitute the leading nations of civilization. (Felder 132)
Today, there are also those who tend to exclude black people from any role in the Christian origins…[as when] Luke’s editorializing results in the circumstantial de-emphasis of a Nubian (African) in favor of an Italian (European) and enable Europeans thereby to claim that the text of Acts demonstrates some divine preference for Europeans. (142-143)
Though gangsta rappers are presumably not scholars of historical racial Biblical exegesis, they point to an understandable mistrust by some racial minorities of Biblical interpretation and the largest purveyor of that exegesis—religion. This mistrust permeates the discourse of gangsta rappers and is usually expressed in a way that dispays the notion that the church is out of touch with the marginalized. As rapper Tupac once opined, “If the church would give half of what they’re making and give it back to the community, we would be all right. Have you seen some of these god damn churches lately? There are ones that take up the whole block. Trust me, all this religion stuff is to control you.” So while the life of Jesus, and particularly his suffering, is a central theme in gangsta rap there is also the deep mistrust of organized religion, especially by young, poor, racial minorities—the most common producers of gangsta rap discourse.
This mistrust, when looked upon from a historical perspective, is fascinating and also didactic in that it teaches us about important connections between religion, economics, race, ideology and popular discourse such as rap music. All these connections emphasize the notion that music’s presence “is clearly political, in every sense the political can be conceived” and that, as one genre of music, gangsta rap—including its religious discourse—can serve as a powerful medium of social understanding and social critique (DeNora 163).
Living Out the Paradox: The Conflicted Spirituality of DMX and Mase
From its very inception, the human race has been condemned to exist within the eternal division [of good and evil], always moving between those two opposing poles.
Any analysis of religious rhetoric in gangsta rap music must include a discussion of the discourse and lives of rappers DMX (Earl Simmons) and Mase (Mason Betha). Both rappers reached the height of their popularity and commercial success in the 1990s, called by some the “golden age” of gangsta rap music, and remain central figures in the history of rap culture. What makes these two rappers unique, and pertinent to the discussion of this essay, is the fact that both have openly and discursively embodied a struggle between a “gangsta” lifestyle and a life of spirituality. They have often dealt with this struggle rhetorically and have lived lives that make this struggle clear. DMX and Mase embody the paradox of gangsta discourse and religious discourse within the life of one person and display a struggle between using the life and message of Jesus in a seemingly haphazard manner and actually taking up the mantel of serving Christ through the avenue of organized religion.
It is important to establish that DMX and Mase fall into the realm of gangsta rap. Much of their lyrical discourse focuses on themes common in this genre: sex, materialism, misogyny, violence, drugs, respect, struggle, and marginalization. DMX and Mase are by no means gospel/Christian rappers—a genre of its own—but are rappers who followed the path towards gangsta rap, a path fueled by a life surrounded by those very themes of gangsta rap. These rappers, like many inner city minorities, are influenced by this musical genre which was born from a marginalized social environment. This environment, in turn, is influenced by the music and the individuals who connect with it. It is a recursive cycle of “gangsta-ness”—a gangsta-ness that can be violent and crude but which also is linked to complex social and historical events that teach us much about the psyche of many individuals and their communities. The following lyrics provide examples that place these two rappers squarely in the realm of gangta rap:
I resort to violence, my niggaz move in silence / like you don’t know what our style is /
New York niggaz the wildest / my niggaz is wit it / you want it? Come and get it /
Took it then we split it / you fuckin’ right we did it / what the fuck you gonna do when we run up on you?
“Ruff Ryders Anthem”
I’m Evil, like Keneival, faggot I’ll leave you / like I shoulda did your peoples before they could conceive you / how’s a buck-fifty sound, for a quick ass cut? / here’s a flashback / I fuckin’ blow your bitch-ass up
“Don’t You Ever”
Make all my guns shoot / you let your gun loose, none o’them niggas gun proof / watch them niggas drop, when I pop one in they sunroof / and we be lead bustin’, leavin’ niggas heads gushin’
“Take What’s Yours”
And they send the trauma unit to come repair you / Now there you are, nigga, in the fuckin’ reservoir / …we don’t give a fuck…who you are
“You Aint Smart”
These lyrics, along with many others produced and performed by the two rappers, may seem ultra-crude to some but represent the norm for much gangsta rap rhetoric and highlight a piece of the gangsta rap ethos. What is most intriguing about DMX and Mase is not that they follow the mold of gangta rap but that, while having such violent and crude lyrics, they also have discourse, and life experiences, that reflect a struggle with good and evil. They also, fitting the mold of gangsta rap religiosity, continually look to God/Jesus for answers. While many gangsta rappers reflect this struggle, DMX and Mase do so most often and most poignantly.
DMX, a platinum-selling artist, in his six best-selling albums, includes a track that is a spoken-word prayer. These prayers almost always come at the end of each album—albums containing lyrics like the ones presented above and are examples of Socratic parphesia: bold, frank, and plain speech in the face of conventional morality and entrenched power (West xi). In his first prayer, DMX reflects the solidarity that he perceives God/Jesus to have with his suffering and connects his life to the life of Christ through meaning-in-suffering:
I come to you hungry and tired / …I come to you weak / you give me strength and that’s deep / you called me a sheep
Lord, why is it that, that I go through so much pain? / all I saw was black and all I felt was rain / I come to you because it’s you that knows
But it’s all good, ‘cause I didn’t expect to live long / so if it takes for me to suffer for my brother to see the light / give me pain till I die, but please Lord, treat him right
These lines reflect the notion that the Lord understands DMX’s pain and suffering and is there as a respite and savior. They also reflect the meaning-in-suffering theme discussed earlier—a theme that many gangsta rappers connect to and which is not surprising considering the suffering that many underprivileged and marginalized people experience. In DMX’s second prayer, “Ready to Meet Him,” he presents a conversation between himself and God and continues to emphasize the evil of the world around him (“Snakes still coming at me”), the fact that God is there for help (“My child, I’m here, as I’ve always been”; “My doors are not locked / …all you gotta do is knock”), and that he (DMX) has been moved by the negativity of the world and the good of God to follow Him (“After what I just saw, I’m ridin’ with the Lord”). Once again, the spirituality presented is always very kairotic in that it comes from very real life experiences and the fact that God helps people persevere in their worldly struggle. DMX is not speaking of an ideological struggle between good and evil but a struggle that permeates the very streets he was raised in and walks in.
In “Prayer III” DMX continues by labeling “Lord Jesus” as his “crutch” and describes himself as a “weakened version of Your reflection.” The former statement reflects the functional use of God/Jesus in the lives of the marginalized; it literally helps them get through life. The latter statement shows the direct connection these individuals feel they have with Jesus. Like Tupac comparing his five bullet wounds to the stigmata of Christ, DMX believes that in his life and suffering he is, or is trying to be, a reflection of Christ. “Prayer IV” emphasizes similar notions of spirituality but adds to why the rapper has become a follower of Jesus: “you gave me a love most of my life I didn’t know was there.” This short line is reminiscent of much gangsta rap that emphasizes a lack of love, and an abundance of hate/anger/violence, in the lives of marginalized inner city individuals. This may come from absent fathers, over-worked mothers, dying friends and relatives, lack of material comforts, crime, an unforgiving legal system, racism, classism, and cultural hegemony.
But the religious rhetoric of gangsta rap also stresses victory and redemption on a regular basis. Gangsta rappers connect to the Biblical notion that the hungry, hurting, and meek shall inherit the earth (Matt. 5:3-12). DMX, in “Prayer V” states, “Because of God’s favor my enemies cannot triumph over me / …I declare restoration of everything / that the devil has stolen from me” and in “Prayer VI” asks that Jesus uplift the suffering and allow their spirits to be born. DMX also references John 2:15 where Jesus angrily drove the money changers from the temple—the rappers way of showing that the world he lives in is full of those who are concerned with un-Godly activities and thus ignore those who need help in society. The reprimanding of money changers may represent, in today’s terms, the reprimanding of those who create an unjust social order which in turn marginalizes many in society—including the community that DMX represents.
Beyond lyrics, DMX, while expressing the more usual message of gangsta rap (the prayers constitute only about 10% of his tracks), has over time espoused more and more religious rhetoric and contemplated a religious life. He has more consistently spoken about God and religion even while he has been involved in criminal behavior, including drug possession, assault, and animal cruelty. Since 2003 he has been interested in pursuing a career as a preacher and, while working on a set of gangsta rap albums and completing a stint in prison in 2009, stated he would soon release a gospel rap album as well. His life is a symbol of the dichotomy between good and evil expressed by numerous gangsta rappers and lived out in the streets by a multitude of poor inner city individuals/communities. While many people experience personal battles between good and evil, in gangtsa rap we often hear a message of meaning-in-suffering, see a connection made between Evil and specific social circumstances, and witness a reaching out toward God/Jesus for hope and solidarity. DMX is one rapper that highlights these notions and Mase is another.
When DMX thought of leaving the music business to pursue religious preaching, he went to seek the advice of Mase (Mason Betha). He told Mase, “I’m fed up with this rap shit. I know the Lord. I know my true calling is to preach the Word. Where do I go from here?” Mase answered, “As long as the Lord give you the talent to do what you do, do it. He’ll call you when he’s ready” (qtd. in Reid). The question and answer, and the fact that the conversation even took place, is quite remarkable considering the fact that both of these rappers have released a plethora of gangsta rap material—material usually seen as polar opposite to any religious message. Their rhetorical output is seemingly conflicted between a pursuit of righteous behavior and a glorification of negative and criminal behavior.
Mase, in a span of ten years, went from releasing gangsta rap music under the name Murda Mase to retiring from the music industry twice to serve as a Christian pastor. His second return to rapping included discourse which glorified killing and womanizing and ended, soon after, with a return to pastoral duties. In 2009 Mase was still contemplating a re-return to rap. This wavering and indecision illustrate the personal and ideological struggle between the world that gangsta rap espouses/creates and the world of spiritual righteousness. The rapper has simultaneously become a Christian preacher, worked with inner city youth, and released the gangsta mixtape albums “Mase Crucified for the Hood” and “10 Years of Hate” (the album whose cover displays Mase as a Jesus-figure). He has stated that his rapping career is incompatible with his religious beliefs and returned to his rapping career at least twice—not only his rapping career, but his gangta rapping career. Also, from this one rapper we hear in the song “Gotta Survive,” “you don’t even know success until you know him and him is Jesus” and in “300 Shots,” “put guns in niggaz mouth like ‘who you dissin?’ / …I [shoot] niggaz in the chest, they never breathe again.” Finally, in Mase’s explanation of his moment of conversion is a sincere belief that he felt his music career was “leading millions of people to hell”, yet he felt it necessary, just a few years later, to return to his early persona of Murda Mase—espousing aggressive gangsta lyrics. Part of this return could be for financial reasons but if economics was the only reason then Mase would not have left the music business in the first place. His reasoning, backed by the fact that he had in fact become a pastor, seemed based on a true mental and spiritual struggle and not simply for economic reasons.
The life and rhetorical output of Mase is revealing in that it displays a conflicted religious and spiritual ideology that is symbolic of the religious message common in gangsta rap which in turn seems to be representative of the religiosity of many inner city minorities who strongly connect with the message of the genre. This ideology is one that simultaneously struggles with good and evil and closely connects life on earth to the Christly characteristics of marginalization caused by an unjust society and meaning-in-suffering. When Mase expresses that he has been crucified for his religious beliefs and actions, the crucifixion is not taking place at the hands of inner city minorities who connect to the gangsta rap ethos; those individuals are in fact the ones who understand his message clearly. Many minority members understand how the violence and marginalization of their neighborhoods intermingle with the religious message of hope. They understand how a deep desire for material wealth, possibly an aspect of Mase’s returns to rapping, and a belief that the poor and meek shall inherit the earth (Matt. 5) can be intertwined in one individual’s psyche and message. They, unlike many in society, understand and live out the notion that good and evil are both constantly present within individuals and within the social order.
The religious rhetorical output of many gangsta rappers, both textual and visual, points to the religious ethos embraced by many marginalized inner city individuals who see the discourse of gangsta rap as containing a form of religious phronesis (practical wisdom). This output focuses on some telling characteristics: solidarity with Jesus formed through the common theme of suffering; a belief that the social order is to blame for much/most of the suffering; a strong hope that one day the suffering and marginalized will experience redemption; a mistrust of organized religion; and a psycho-social battle between good and evil. These characteristics are on display in the rhetoric of rappers Tupac, South Park Mexican, Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z, Nas, 50 Cent, and numerous others. They are also represented in the lives of DMX and Mase, two gangta rappers who have had a large impact on the formation and perpetuation of the gangsta rap religious ethos.
Importantly, this ethos is not only characteristic of a few rappers but symbolic of the religious ideology of the multitude of individuals that connect to the message. As Derrick Darby writes about rappers, “these poor righteous teachers and lyrically gifted MCs [give] their congregations a street-side perspective on biding philosophical questions concerning the nature and existence of God [and] the problem of evil” (4). Furthermore, this religious ideology does not stand alone; it is directly influenced/created by a social system and capitalistic system that has historically marginalized certain groups and individuals. In the religious discourse of gangsta rappers, and in its analysis, are deep and complex connections between history, economics, ideology, race, politics, and religion. Gangsta rap, on many levels, speaks to the mental and physical conditions of many marginalized inner city people and complicates our understanding of what it means to be religious in the world.
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 “Religiosity” will be used in this article as a general term to represent religious beliefs, actions, and/or discourse. The article will emphasize the fact that organized religion itself is not a central characteristic of gangsta rap’s culture.
 This includes Paul Wall, Shamrock and, to a certain extent, Eminem.
 Jay-Hova and Hova refer to Jehova (JHVH) which was the term used to refer to God in the Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures.
 I use the masculine “Latinos” due to the fact that a vast majority of Latin gangsta rap is produced by males.
 Mixtapes are “underground” albums that are not commercially released but which, in many instances, accomplish large distribution, especially among those who are more serious listeners of Hip Hop.
 Another common theme in gangsta rap is the vilification of the U.S. legal system (police, laws, judges). Future work could make deeper connections between this occurrence and the fact that “Jesus dies the penal death of Roman justice” (Barth 104).
 Matthew 25 tells of those who God will choose to inherit the earth—those how fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, visited the stranger, clothed the unclothed and visited those who were sick or in prison.
 Talib Kweli is not a “gangsta rapper” but many of his raps contain sentiments often found in gangsta rap—and in Hip Hop in general.
 From a UK interview with Mase at http://realtalkny.uproxx.com.topspyapps.net