When Tupac Goes To Church

12/30/2016 03:24 pm ET Updated Dec 30, 2016
Tim Mosenfelder via Getty Images

The late Tupac Amaru Shakur has experienced a recent resurgence in news coverage this year. On May 2, his mother, Afeni Shakur, died. Among Tupac’s most heralded compositions is his 1995 song “Dear Mama,” now enshrined in the United States Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry among works deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important… in the United States.” The Library describes Tupac’s song as “a moving and eloquent homage to both the murdered rapper’s own mother and all mothers struggling to maintain a family in the face of addiction, poverty and societal indifference.”

This month, Tupac’s massive contributions to music history resulted in his posthumously induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, only the sixth hip hop artist to be so honored. However, Tupac’s most recent foray into the news limelight was most unanticipated. During a Sri Lankan Christmas Carol service co-organized by the Archdiocese of Colombo, Tupac’s lyrics were mistakenly included as part of the liturgy. Father Da Silva of the archdiocese offered that a young boy charged with printing the program downloaded Tupac’s 1996 song “Hail Mary” as opposed to the “Ave Marie,” the traditional Catholic prayer requesting intercession by Mary, Mother of Jesus. Once the mistake was realized, the service was paused and the 1,000 programs that were disbursed were retrieved with apologies.

When I first became aware of this incident, I took to social media. I wrote “While this may have been an accident, I think there would have been real value in exegeting this text as a part of the Mass. Tupac was unquestionably one of the greatest theologians of the 20th Century, a street prophet without peer.” Not long after my post, I received a comment that simply placed a line from Tupac’s song followed by a question mark, a line that included, among several of the song’s lyrics, some profanity.

I immediately responded that the commenter was guilty of proof-texting, “The practice of using isolated, out-of-context quotations from a document to establish a proposition in isegesis.” Certainly, if the presence of vulgarities alone deems an artistic work unworthy of fruitful engagement, then the works of Shakespeare should have long been banned. In context, Tupac’s “Hail Mary” includes elements that, too, sing as a prayer, a prayer seeking the active presence of God amid the overwhelming violence seeking to overtake Tupac from without and from within, along with the strong pull of addiction and the ever-present threat of being entangled in the prison industrial complex via the infamous War on Drugs.

Tupac’s earnest prayer is one echoed globally among many communities that face poverty and oppression. Given that the Sri Lankan service was billed as “a fund-raiser for poverty alleviation,” Tupac’s liturgical inclusion, though unintended, was not a reach. Throughout his musical career, Tupac placed a spotlight upon the poor and vulnerable. In his 1991 song “Keep Ya Head Up,” Tupac powerfully rhymed, “We have money for wars, but can’t feed the poor.”

As a cultural artifact, hip hop was born of poverty and oppression. Its staying power – now over four decades strong – is largely attributed to the fact that hip hop serves as an essential voice for generations born in struggle. Hip hop historian Nelson George notes that “Hip hop…chronicles a generation coming of age at a moment of extreme racial confusion…who have been grappling with what equality means during the worst economic conditions for the underclass since the Depression.”

What proves true of hip hop is likewise true of the Gospels, which are written with the backdrop of poverty and oppression pulsating throughout. Some theologians have even claimed that the Gospels reveal a “preferential option” for the poor. It is quite possible that Jesus’ concern for the poor arose from his inclusion among their ranks.

Jesus’ entire birth narrative is framed by poverty and the threat of violence, themes that also framed Tupac’s upbringing and that were often the hallmark of his artistry. Mary was a teenage mother like Tupac’s Brenda in his 1991 song “Brenda’s Got A Baby.” Brenda gave birth in a public restroom. Mary gave birth while exposed to the elements and surrounded by animals. Mary then wrapped her newborn in rags and used a feeding trough as a crib.

Like children from Aleppo to Chicago, Mary’s baby was surrounded by violence. Fleeing from this state-sanctioned violence, Mary and her newborn became refugees. Tupac’s life surrounded by the threat of violence was cut short in a hail of bullets. Jesus’ life surrounded by violence was cut short by a public lynching on a tree. Jesus’ ministry was so focused on improving the lot of the poor and venerable that when announcing the commencement of his ministry, Jesus read these words from the Isaiah scroll:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come (Luke 4:18-19).

The artistry of Tupac can be a powerful compliment to the church’s ministry. Five years ago, my doctoral work placed Tupac in conversation with the Gospels over six weeks at my church. The result was immediate and mind-blowing. Our worship attendance skyrocketed along with new members and professions of faith. One new member remarked that he had not attended church in over a decade, but Tupac’s artistry spoke to his experience. He was compelled to witness how Tupac’s works would be engaged.

Unexpectedly, the news media also began to call. I sat for numerous interviews discussing the intersections of faith and hip hop, including an interview on the BBC’s Newshour on the church and hip hop music. Also, I have been afforded opportunities to lecture at universities and conferences about hip hop’s power to contextualize and strengthen faith. My first book, Freestyle: Reflections on Faith, Family, Justice, and Pop Culture, was written in the hip hop aesthetic, and my upcoming book, Stakes Is High: Race, Faith, and Hope for America, is quoted by my publisher Chalice Press as a work that “blends hip-hop lyricism and social justice leadership, creating an urgent voice demanding that America listen to the suffering if it hopes to redeem its soul.”

Although Christmas Day has now come and gone, and our caroling ceased, I pray that the next time Tupac Shakur is heard in worship, it won’t be by mistake. He should be invited to church more often. In this and every season, the church must work to elevate the voices of the poor and to bring to the fore their daily plight. The church must also respond to the poor with continuous acts of compassion while, too, forcefully opposing every corrupt system that keeps God’s people impoverished and vulnerable around the world. Making room for Tupac, and for other essential voices in hip hop culture, would aid significantly in this regard. In so doing, we will better serve Christ who spoke “I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink.”

And that’s lit!

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