Hip Hop was born into the dysfunction we now call the ghetto, whose postindustrial conditions reflect the shift detailed by Daniel Bell from an industrial to a postindustrial society. The middle economic section of urban communities collapsed, displacing many and enemploying thousands. Hip Hoppers managed to find meaning in the misery and pain of inner-city living.
“Hip-hoppers joined pleasure and rage while turning the details of their difficult lives into craft and capital. This is the world Hip Hop would come to represent: privileged persons speaking for less visible or vocal peers.”Michael Eric Dyson, Between God and Gangsta Rap, quoted in Daniel White Hodge, The Soul of Hip Hop: Rims, Timbs, and a Cultural Theology, p.47
A big switch now, from Theodor Adorno contemplating the music of the concert hall to Daniel White Hodge contemplating the theological significance of Hip Hop. Yet, not so different, really. Both Adorno and Hodge are concerned with how music reflects certain social and cultural values. Both cull the best of the music which informs their lives for a way to navigate the contradictions of late capitalist society. Both understand the limitations even of the best of the music they love. Finally, both are seeking meaning within an art form in which meaning is equivocal, enigmatic, and always in dispute.
For Hodge, Hip Hop spoke to him as nothing else had. Once he heard Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight”, it became more than something he loved. It became an obsession because it said what he thought, in a way that was clear. It offered a voice to a voiceless teenager who felt all the rage and confusion of being young and black in a racist society that nevertheless preferred the music from African-American culture. Moreover, unlike the soul, funk, and rhythm and blues of the older community, Hip Hop was something for young people. It was from them and for them.
The roots of Hip Hop lay in African-American party and disco culture of the early to mid 1970’s. The MC, originally emcee, was the person who talked, or “rapped”, between numbers, while the DJ’s, with better and better equipment for mixing songs, cued up the records they would mix together to keep the dance floor packed longer. Usually associated with local street gangs, most Hip Hop groups included taggers, who spread the word of the newest and best MCs, the location of parties, legal and otherwise, by spraypainting pseudonyms that became stage names before too long. Much as jazz was birthed in rent parties during the depression, so, too, was Hip Hop nursed on the same kind of party circuit, as the emcee morphed slowly into freestyle poets, rhythmically chanting their poetry over the beats controlled by the DJ.
The best of the early Hip Hop artists, using their social setting for material, did not shy away from social commentary. Thus, one of the first huge Hip Hop hits was Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Fives’s “The Message”, spreading the word about the crumbling urban social and physical infrastructure, particularly in the Bronx and northern Manhattan. From the outset, then, not only was Hop Hop conscious of its uniqueness, its indebtedness both to funk and rock which preceded it and which provided the beats over which the MCs rapped; it was aware of that old chestnut, “Write what you know.” Therefore, there was always an edge of political and social commentary within Hip Hop.
Hodge is also clear that the relationship between Hip Hop and the African-American churches was never easy, and occasionally hostile. After going through a religious conversion, Hodge himself left Hip Hop behind for several years, until he was forced out of a church because he was in an interracial marriage. Moving out of one church environment into another, he found Hip Hop not only thriving, but continuing to speak about and for the community from which he emerged and that he served and loved. Like white churches and their struggles over contemporary Christian praise music, the African-American churches segregate Hip Hop, often having a “Hip Hop Sunday” once in a while without ever acknowledging the spiritual and theological depth of the music they continue to sideline.
Moving through Hodge’s book should be interesting, enlightening, and fun. Most of all, I celebrate the fact that Hip Hop continues to mature, having moved through several early phases to which I paid more or less close attention. Then, at some point, it no longer became a music to which I listened because it wasn’t music for me. Like so much else in popular culture, it is designed and aimed at younger and younger audiences. And that is what I celebrate. That the current state of Hip Hop, in flux as usual, speaks to people my children’s age. It is their music, for them to mine, to listen to and celebrate, to find meaning and even spiritual and theological depth. The church is more and more the place for youth and young adults, people for whom Hip Hop is a given, a music that has shaped them largely without them being aware of its ubiquity. It is to them and through them the music will shape the church of the future. For this reason, I’m looking forward to more of Daniel White Hodge.