The neo-secular sacred . . . in its search for deeper meaning to life, embraces the not-so-perfect aspects to life that often seem to come up when we least expect them to. The neo-secular sacred is the fine line that exists within most people that forms the quirks, idiosyncrasies, peculiarities, oddities, “bad sides,” and sinful natures which, as my good friend Ron Hammer would say, make us all lovable by God. – Daniel White Hodge, The Soul of Hip Hop: Rims, Timbs, and a Cultural Theology, p. 181
White Hodge’s book is so well-done, so clear, yet so full, it seems a crime to try and write a single blog post about three chapters. Yet, there are threads connecting the three chapters, “Jesuz Is Hip Hop”, “Tupac’s Nit Grit ‘Hood Gospel”, and “Finding Jesus in the Shadows”. The first and most obvious appears above – the near omnipresence of rapper Tupac Shakur. Along with Tupac showing up, in what I consider a related vein, is what he calls above “neo-secular sacred”, a view of the world in which it is Jesus who blurs the line between sacred and profane; it is Hip Hop that follows Jesus by not following the institutional Church in keeping that line too clear; and that it is precisely in the authenticity of Hip Hop – rapping about life, including its ugliness, the use of vulgarity, not so much the valorization but demonstrating the equivocal nature of life on the streets that bring Hip Hop and Christianity close together.
In Tupac, White Hodge finds what many others have found – a figure whose life, whose questioning, who desire for justice even in the midst of a life tortured by paranoia and violence at the end, mirrors in many respects that of Jesus. He includes a long passage from a speech Shakur gave at a 1992 Malcolm X dinner banquet in Atlanta:
It ain’t time to cool out, and chill out . . . banquets all that . . . it’s still on! It’s still on . . . just like it was on when you was young, . . . So how come now when I’m twenty-one years old and ready to start some shit and do some shit everybody’s tellin’ me to calm down, don’t curse, you know . . . go to college . . . We had colleges for a while now, OK, and there still Brendas out there and niggas is still trapped . . . it gets me irked. . . . It’s not gonna stop until we stop it and it’s not just White men that’s doing this. . . it’s Black. We have to find the new African in all of us . . . because if we still running around saying who got the best dashiki on and best colors on, excuse my language but we all gonna get fucked! What I want you to take seriously is what we have to do for the youth because we comin up in a totally different world. . . . This is not the 60’s, this is not that. . . . You all came up in BC – before crack; . . . right there that oughta say it all. . . . Its about you taking care of these children. . . . The piumps and pushers are the ones who’s raising our kids, cuzz you all not foing it! I’m sorry but you’re not so if you gotta problem with way we was raised it’s because they was doing it. . . . I’m sorry, but you can’t be more offended of my language than what’s going on out there in the ‘hood. . . . If you don’t put shit into this, then don’t get made when it all just blows up!(p.146)
Here is the whole thing: a Messianic figure speaking hard truth to religious authorities; a theology from below that demands not only justice, but accountability from an older generation that is failing in its duty to see the signs of the times; a fearless blurring of the sacred and profane in a passionate desire to make clear that the world is not what it should be. While White Hodge is clear enough that Tupac is not Jesus, he nevertheless makes clear that, theologically speaking, it is Tupac Shakur, for all his faults, who follows the prophetic example of Christ, even calling for a Jesus who smokes his chronic, is tatted up, and down with the rest of the real folk on the corner.
White Hodge is clear enough that this approach to theology and the Christian life is controversial. More than controversial, the combination of the more dubious aspects of Hip Hop – its misogyny, its hypersexuality, its valorization of a kind of machismo and violence that excludes the possibility of a more full humanity – and the way some devotees of the genre mimic these worst aspects make both it as a musical style and those who love it non grata in many churches, particularly African-American churches. At the same time, focusing too much on the vulgarity and profanity without listening to what informs it not only alienates the very youth who might be turning to the church for help. It also does not echo the way God used some of the very same kinds of people to be vehicles of grace within the stories of the Bible.
Hip Hop at its best understands Jesus as part of what White Hodge consistently calls “the ‘hood”, not afraid of the pimps and dealers and hookers, but rather sitting at table with them. In the songs of rappers as diverse as Tupac, DMX, Lauryn Hill, and others we hear both the stories of the streets and the desire for an authentic experience of God, or better, an affirmation of their experience of God in the midst of the world, a world the Bible says God loves. Taking up that challenge, Hip Hop dares both the churches and the world to hear the stories without judgment, and recognize the voice of the Spirit calling together authentic communities of faith. Perhaps not the dogmatic faith of the historic churches; nevertheless, communities united by the Spirit that speaks to them through the rhymes and beats of Hip Hop.