Beef just got sanctified. Philly rapper Meek Mill’s hit song “Amen” was called out as blasphemous by Philly based pastor Jomo Johnson. Johnson called Philly radio stations to boycott Mill’s song because of its vulgarity and distortion of church and religion. Meek Mill’s response? The ever ready, “I’m out here feeding my family.” To (seemingly) add insult to injury, Mill also ‘comes out’ as an atheist. His spiritual coming out parallels that of Frank Ocean’s own admittance to bisexuality, refusing the limiting (hetero)normative discourses organized religion impedes on society, especially the African American community. Intersecting discourses of race and religion in rap is not new. When receiving an award or interviewing, rappers nearly always make sure Jesus makes an appearance right after mama in their acceptance speech. KRS-One’s Hip Hop manifesto The Gospel of Hip Hop (2009) borrows style from the Christian bible and likens hip hop culture to religious faith and practice. I’m intrigued, however, by the increasingly prevalent role of enterprise in which these discourses currently exist. To borrow from Jay and ‘Ye, is hip hop religion’s latest manifestation of a church in the (capitalistic) wild?
It’s important to note that organized religion plays a dual role in establishing hip hop’s image as a ‘black thang’ and authenticating its narrative as marginalized, oppositional, and representative of (working class) blacks. Felicia Miyakawa’s work Five Percenter Rap (2005) and Ebony Utley’s just released Rap and Religion (2012) are great references that examine the shifting ideals of religion in hip hop. My current interests, however, exist at the intersection of black liberation theory, rap, and capitalism. Commercial rap exists there as well. I’d argue that the treatment of organized religion, especially Christianity, in rap music offer an outlet of redefining black liberatory discourse. The challenge, however, is identifying similarly shifting representations of what black liberation means in a historical moment where blacks are believed to be free from racial angst and discrimination. This is where the black church’s iconography settles.
The black church’s foundation lies in its historical signification of black struggle and liberation. Its iconicity is framed by historic bouts with slavery and Jim Crow and sustained by a defunct understanding of black liberation discourse in (black) American popular imagination. The markers that framed black (church) identity in the Jim Crow era are sliding and changing form. What does the black church look like in a postracial United States framed by capitalist enterprise? Megachurches. Tyler Perry. Enterprise in this current moment of the black church is more hustle than missionary work or the building fund. As a direct reflection of its current place in the black popular imagination, the black church as a space of empowerment too is sliding. How do we as blacks empower ourselves when our identity is tethered to commodification? Because of the blurring boundaries of sacred and secular, missionary work and self-serving, rappers and religion find common ground in the black popular imagination as a commodified space. Rappers, like churches, are as relevant as their following and the deals they ink.
The intentions of using religion in rap, however, are starting to quake.
Of particular interest for this discussion is the antithetical treatment of Christian iconography that currently saturates much of commercial rap music. Nicki Minaj’s “exorcism” of her alter ego Roman during her performance of “Roman’s Holiday” at the 2012 Grammys turned an eye towards secularizing the Catholic Church. Jay-Z and Kanye West question organized religion in “No Church in the Wild.” Much of commercial raps’ antithetical response is in an attempt to establish an individualism and acknowledgement of money that Christianity frowns upon. The title of Rick Ross’ soon-to-be-released album God Forgives I Don’t, for example, subverts Christ’s indoctrination. One ad on the back of XXL magazine shows the torso of Ross covered in diamond encrusted Jesus pieces. This ad suggests Ross’ punning of Christ as the sacrificial lamb for the world’s sins, opting instead to take care of only himself. Ross, however, is not the first to subvert the Christ figure in rap. Nas and Diddy crucified themselves in “Hate Me Now” (1999). Tupac Shakur puns and visualizes the crucifixtion of Jesus Christ in the cover art of his last record Don Killuminati: the 7 Day Theory (1997). Shakur’s sacrifice visualizes his struggles with his success as a commercial artist and obligations of racial responsibility rooted in his black nationalist background. Where Christ resurrected from the dead in three days, Shakur promises resurrection in seven days and the immortality of his soul lasting in his music. Shakur’s music stands as his gospel, his (sonic) imprint of confronting his own mortality and the commercialization of his blackness.
This most recent outburst of (sac)religious offense by Meek Mill and Jomo Johnson only further registers the distemperment of a shifting post-Civil Rights black experience. There are definite connections between the religious anxieties displayed in hip hop and this current social-cultural landscape. Much of that anxiety is rooted in American capitalist discourse. Further complicating this shifty social-religious agenda, however, is the profitability of complicit black rappers and consumers in sliding dichotomies of sacredness and secularity. How does black complicity contribute to this current state of race and religion in the popular imagination?
Is hip hop a church in the (non)religious wild?