What can hip-hop teach the church?

Published: January 16, 2018

AMBS MLK Jr. Day event focuses on Christianity, White supremacy, Black liberation and hip-hop

By Annette Brill Bergstresser

ELKHART, Indiana — The interplay among the sacred, the secular and the profane elements of hip-hop music and culture is what urban youth culture expert Daniel White Hodge, Ph.D., finds compelling as he considers what the genre has to teach the church in America today.

“I find a lot of Christianity at the intersection of those environments,” the urban youth culture expert and author told around 90 attendees during a Jan. 14 public lecture on “The Soul of Hip-Hop and the Church in America” at the Historic Roosevelt Center in Elkhart. The Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) Intercultural Competence and Undoing Racism team hosted the event in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day.

Abe Medellin (Burgundy) and Dr. Daniel White Hodge. (Credit: J. Tyler Klassen)At the event, White Hodge, associate professor of intercultural communications at North Park University in Chicago, highlighted various qualities that hip-hop music models for the church: it gives voice to people who are suffering and builds connections among them; it points out issues of inequity and injustice, speaking truth to power; and it urges listeners to engage culture critically and to find God in the nitty-gritty.

At its core, hip-hop uses rap music, dance, music production, emceeing and allegory as vehicles to send and fund its message of social, cultural and political resistance to oppressive dominant structures and norms, he said. From his perspective, hip-hop provides space for religious expression that is often missing in society’s traditional religious institutions.

“How do we talk about our pain?” he asked. “So often we want to pray things away. We want to just say ‘God’s got it’ and never actually deal with the real mess. But that’s problematic. Hip-hop says we’re going to engage it.”

White Hodge shared from his research for his book Hip Hop’s Hostile Gospel: A Post Soul Theological Exploration (Brill Academic 2017), for which he studied 8,500 songs and conducted numerous interviews with people in the hip-hop community. He explained the framework he uses to evaluate the music, considering its expression of consciousness, self-awareness, community, spirituality, unity, and love of God and self.

Dr. Daniel White Hodge (Credit: J. Tyler Klassen)As an illustration of hip-hop theology and how artists engage the tension between the sacred and the profane, he referenced the cover of Kendrick Lamar’s Section.80 album, which features an image containing various controversial objects along with a Bible.

“Kendrick is trying to get you to understand that life — and spiritual attainment — are not that simple; all of us are tempted,” he said. “At the end of the day, how then does God show up in those spaces? The messier it gets, the more God has a chance to show up.”

White Hodge also played a video clip of a 1994 MTV interview with the late hip-hop artist Tupac Amaru Shakur in which he expressed his sense of rage over injustice. Shakur described a scenario in which hungry people see a lavish party at a hotel and ask to be let in but are denied. As they continue to ask, only to face exclusion for years, it stands to reason that they would eventually demand justice by breaking down the door.

White Hodge reviewed the major cultural shifts in the U.S. from World War II to the present, giving the context out of which hip-hop came into being around 1971 and exploring the “culture of terrorism” following Sept. 11, 2001.

“Ultimately, we are in a state now when we have White nationalism, White fear and a White Christian state,” he said. “That’s where we’re headed with some of these laws, and hip-hop is speaking to that right now.”

He named the irony of the genre having been appropriated by the dominant culture, recalling racist responses he witnessed by White youth pastors to the September 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
“I find it fascinating that we can popularize and consume blackness, but when it comes to the actual worth of black bodies, we tend to put that to the side,” he reflected.

NNekeisha Alayna Alexis (Credit: J. Tyler Klassen)ekeisha Alayna Alexis, Intercultural Competence and Undoing Racism coordinator at AMBS and an organizer of the event, affirmed that hip-hop is complicated and controversial, even among those like her who are passionate about it.

“There are strong, critical debates within the movement about the way the industry limits and depicts women; about the dominant characterizations of Blackness and masculinity; about the value of its narratives around street economics and addiction and violence; about who’s real and who’s fake and who does or doesn’t get to decide,” she told listeners at the event.

Those in attendance were treated to a sampling of hip-hop culture by freestyle hip-hop dancers from Epic Dance Studios, a nonprofit dance education program in Elkhart; and DJ Nikki Nyce (Lashawndra Gates). Emcee Burgundy (Goshen [Indiana] College junior Abe Medellin) performed two songs he was inspired to write while serving as a summer camp counselor at Camp Friedenswald in Cassopolis, Michigan.

During AMBS’s weekend of events honoring Dr. King, the seminary also hosted a book drive for the Tolson Center in Elkhart, collecting 159 books for the community center’s library; and an interactive workshop with White Hodge on Jan. 15: “Intercultural Competencies in an Era of Trump and Fake News.” Learn more: ambs.edu/mlkday 


At left, Goshen College student and hip-hop artist Abe Medellin (known as Burgundy) talks with Dr. Daniel White Hodge, associate professor of intercultural communications at North Park University in Chicago and featured speaker for Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary’s Jan. 14–15 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day events. (Credit: J. Tyler Klassen)

Daniel White Hodge, Ph.D., author of The Soul of Hip Hop: Rims, Timbs and a Cultural Theology (IVP 2010) and Homeland Insecurity: A Hip-Hop Missiology for the Post-Civil Rights Context (IVP Academic, 2018), gives a presentation on “The Soul of Hip-Hop and the Church in America” Jan. 14 as part of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day events sponsored by Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart. (Credit: J. Tyler Klassen)

Nekeisha Alayna Alexis, Intercultural Competence and Undoing Racism coordinator at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and an organizer of the seminary’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day events, welcomes listeners to “The Soul of Hip-Hop and the Church in America” Jan. 14 at the Historic Roosevelt Center in Elkhart. (Credit: J. Tyler Klassen)

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