I used to love hip-hop.
I don't remember the day I fell out of love, but one day it suddenly didn't matter that I knew who DJ Kool Herc was, or that like some hip-hop griot I could explain how sampling was born, or expound on the anger and angst that fueled a graffiti artist's civic rebellion. One day I woke up (Spike Lee style) and didn't care what mix tape was about to drop, which album leaked or who the Source awarded 5 mics to.
I do however remember fighting for hip-hop. I remember trying to justify its contradictions, and like many women I tried to stay in love with its "potential" despite its flagrantly abusive qualities. But at the end of the day, our love affair ended. (I've learned that it's hard to save something or someone that doesn't want to be saved).
After much reflection I realized that I was in love with hip-hop before I knew what "Big Pimpin'" really meant. I was in love with hip-hop before I accepted that when rappers were addressing women as "bitches and hoes" they were actually talking to me (and my sisters). I loved hip-hop before the vulgarity of Lil' Kim's Hardcore album cover was ascribed feminist power. Before the unrealistic photo-shopped and saline injected bodies adorned covers of hip-hop magazines. I was in love before I read Their Eyes Were Watching God, Delores Williams and Alice Walker. I loved all of hip-hop before my seminary classes with Dr. Carpenter, Dr. Bellis, Dr. Saunders and Dr. Wiley.
In short, I was in love with hip-hop before I recognized my female self to be a reflection of the Divine.
Sadly, many of my male peers seemingly never make that theological step. And because they do not, they (un)consciously excuse the misogyny of hip-hop as a minor blemish upon the face of this genre and, dare I add, personally offend "the God in me."
A few weeks ago a colleague, Rev. Michael Waters wrote a piece entitled "An Odd Future for Faith in Hip Hop" in which he detailed his concern regarding the current influx of religiously blasphemous hip-hop artists. As a religious scholar and Christian preacher I too am offended by such artists' defamation of sacred Christian imagery and heretical lyrics. However, I am also offended by hip-hop's running promulgation of misogyny. In fact, I contend that both offenses are one in the same.
Thus, I take issue with Rev. Waters' dismissal of the misogyny in hip-hop when he writes, "Now, the hip-hop of my youth was far from Sunday School material. Some of it was replete with misogyny, violence and rampant drug use. Yet, despite these vices, there was still a certain reverence for the Divine." (Emphasis added). This reasoning is problematic.
When a person, or particular genre of music debases the humanity of another, the Divine -- God's self -- has been blasphemed. Hip-hop's violence, abusive language and prejudice against women (men and non-heterosexuals) dehumanize the rapper, subject and listener. It oppresses and therefore is quite the opposite of reverence. If we as clergy and ministers are to uphold and preach that we are all made in the image and likeness of God -- any debasing of a "Child of God" is an attack on the Divine. And so, whether an artist is denigrating the high Christological symbols of Jesus, or Brenda from around the way (pun intended) a defamation of God, equally as egregious has occurred.
To be clear, by juxtaposing the denigration of Christ and the Divine to the denigration of women I am not claiming that God is a woman. I do not ascribe any anthropomorphic qualities onto God -- as far as I understand, God is genderless. Conversely, I am not claiming that women are God. But if you'd prefer to call God a "she" for your own spiritual gratification, by all means please do so.
What I am attempting to do is to call my brothers and male colleagues to a place of accountability. Until young male clergy and academics accept mainstream hip-hop's misogyny as an affront to the Divine it will be and will inherently remain an irrelevant and an insufficient tool for positive transformation in our community and spiritual lives. While we must continue to engage hip-hop because our communities and particularly our youth do -- it would be foolish to revere it while it glorifies themes opposite to the gospel commandments.
Perhaps I should channel my inner MC Michael Eric Dyson to make this plain: We can no longer allow the violence against the "dime piece" to be a minor piece just because the man wears a "Jesus piece."
(I'm obliged to add this caveat: not every rapper is a heathen. I do not need to list each respectful and theologically relevant artist to prove this. Let's just say, "How I Got Over" by the Legendary Roots Crew is a gospel album. My gripe is primarily with mainstream hip-hop culture as a whole and when my male colleagues fail to differentiate "conscious" rap from the mainstream I'm left to assume them as silent accessories to the crime of the latter.)
And so like the rapper Common, I used to love H.E.R -- or perhaps I should say "H.I.M." since I used to love hip-hop in spite of its misogyny. My hope is that one day soon all of us will be able to recognize the divine reflected in all of humanity, rappers and clergy alike. Now, faith in that future is rather bright.