Summer 2013 could be considered “The Summer of Hip-Hop,” perceived by the multiple albums released with elements of lyricism and culture heard over the radio. Listeners could not avoid the religious references with many of the albums remixing Christian terms and Biblical allusions into their lyrics, bringing to question the motives of many hip-hop artists.
On J. Cole’s “Born Sinner” album released in June, the words “Born sinner, opposite of a winner” echo through the song “Villuminati”. Rapper Kendrick Lamar’s chart-topping track “Don’t Kill My Vibe” from his 2012 album “Good Kid M.A.D.D. City” is brought to mind. “I am a sinner, who is probably going to sin again. Lord forgive me, Lord forgive me things I don’t understand.”
Lyrics such as these have raised the question of hip-hop artists using religious contradictions in song: knowing right versus wrong, but inevitably sinning despite that knowledge. One moment they could be praising God and the next using foul and vulgar language.
Hit single “Amen” from Meek Mill’s album “Dreams and Nightmares” is a perfect example of religious contradiction. The song’s hook is said to be a diss to the church: “There’s a lot of bad b***** in the building, Amen / A couple real n***** in the building, Amen.”
After the track’s release, Mill responded to much criticism about the song’s crudeness and association with religion. He was even asked to apologize and repent by a Philadelphia pastor. In an interview with BET’s “106 & Park,” Mill defended himself against the church.
“No preacher, no church approve of any rap music ‘cause … there’s a lot of bad stuff that’s being said. But at the end of the day, it’s real life,” he said.
While religious themes may seem trendy in hip-hop as of late, literature professor Dr. Karl Martin explains that music by black artists have had connections to religion for more than half a century, dating back to the 1950s with artists like Ray Charles, Sam Cook and Aretha Franklin. They began in the church singing Gospel music, then transitioned into secular music.
Ray Charles, an American singer-songwriter, was known for fusing Rhythm and Blues, Gospel, and Pop together. In 1956, he released a song titled, “Hallelujah, I Love Her So”, which was highly controversial at the time.
“The church wasn’t happy with Ray Charles, but also people in the clubs weren’t happy with Ray Charles either because [they would say] ‘You’re bringing my Sunday morning into my Saturday night,’” said Martin, who teaches an African American literature class.
Thus, the ‘secular’ versus ‘sacred’ debate ensues. ‘Secular’ is for the time being, whereas ‘sacred’ is God’s sacred plan for all of history, according to Martin.
Secular music using Christian terms doesn’t mean it’s a Christian song, Martin said.
“These artists are secular; it doesn’t matter if they are Christian in their private lives, they are producing popular music for the world to hear — for now.”
He continues to compare this to an artist that makes no claim to faith personally, but sings Christian songs.
There are similarities to the blues and hip-hop such as instrumental beats and hip-hop artists sampling choruses from rhythm and blues tracks. Also, hip-hop takes the idea of the brag and the boast from the genre, according to Dr. Martin.
“The ‘I am the greatest in the world’ attitude comes straight from The Blues. These men were either saying that they were the best artist or the best lover,” he says.
Similarly, Kanye West’s latest album “Yeezus,” released in June, caught attention for his multiple religious references in tracks like “I am a God,” “New Slaves,” and “Black Skinhead.”
The track “I am a God” reads: “I just talked to Jesu s/ He said, “What up Yeezus?” / I said, “I’m chilling / Trying to stack these millions … I know he the most high / But I am a close high…I am a God/ I am a God.”
This could be taken to mean West is to music like Jesus is to the Christian faith.
Can we hold these secular artists to a standard of faith because they are using Christian terms and Biblical allusions?
“I think what this points to is how secular our society is and how post-Christian America is becoming,” said Kara Lyons-Purdue, PLNU theology professor. “[The rappers] still recognize that these words create more of a charge in their listeners. Saying ‘I am important’ doesn’t say nearly as much as saying ‘I am a God’, which tells us something about our culture.”
Lyons-Purdue thinks that the Jay-Z track “Heaven” from his hit album “Magna Carta Holy Grail” was the most obvious, yet she thinks he’s explicitly saying ‘Don’t hold me to those standards’ of being God-like.
Jay-Z comments on the track in a promotional video “Jay Z+ Samsung+ Magna Carter Holy Grail” saying, “This song is toying with that idea that Heaven and Hell are on earth … no matter what religion you are, you have to accept other people’s ideas because, ‘Have you ever been to Heaven? Have you ever seen the gates?’” Jay Z continues saying, “It’s just the idea that God will make you burn in eternity for free will, something that He gave you.”
Senior Nikki Holguin loves music and respects the arts, but has mixed feelings about Kanye Wests’s recent MTV Video Music Awards performance.
“It wasn’t even Kanye’s actual performance that bothered me, but the way they introduced him,” Holguin said. “They mocked the church and how we praise Jesus, not Yeezus. So to me, the fact that they allowed that shows me that my faith has become a mockery and, to some extent, has lost significance.”
Holguin also writes and sings as a hobby.
“I try to write or perform songs that are popular without being too out there. But, as a Christian, you can still sing songs, be you, and have your artistic edge without having to conform to what the world wants you to be,” she said. “It’s time we realize that.”