Saturday, September 26, 2009

Hip Hop Has Saved My Soul (and Spirituality)

Hey folks,
Here is a reflection from Bao Yun Cheng, a good friend of mine and someone I've been organizing with for several years. My buddy Krisna posted it over at Democracy and Hip Hop Project. Krisna's intro is in italics below.
When I read this, it brought tears to my eyes - it is some of the freshest theology I've read in years. I've studied academic liberation theology, and Yun Cheng and I have practiced the arts of liberation in the streets but it's been hard to bring those two worlds together. Sometimes the most eloquent shouts of liberation aren't obviously theological and usually liberal-progressive academic theology just simply isn't liberating. I agree with Yun Cheng about hip hop though - it is probably one of the clearest expressions of deep currents of American liberation theology, remixing and sampling earlier traditions running back through soul, gospel, the classic spirituals, the music of Black Power back through the abolitionists back to that original creative fusion of radical reformation, African, and indigenous spirituality that has always chanted down Babylon here in the Americas.



I'm reposting this note that I was tagged in from my Facebook page. It is from a very good friend of mine in Seattle, BYC, who I and LBoogie also collaborate with (among several other good folks) on a new blog calledGathering Forces which I hope all of you will read and participate in too.

This is a very introspective and striking essay that means a lot to me on a very personal level. Personal, because everyone has their own story of how hip-hop has transformed them. In the case of BYC, as a conservative youth evangelist who was repelled from hip-hop due to its apparent violence and patriarchy, to his process of becoming a revolutionary who finds within hip-hop a deep sense of spirituality and struggle and not the cartoonish and proselytizing forms we see with Jin, Toby Mac, or still worse manifestations.

My history and sense of alienation from Christianity as a youth for its missionary vibe, its judgmental predisposition, and its straight-up racism, found legitimation in the lyrics of hip-hop music which many times raged against the contradictions and historical crimes of official Christianity. Through it I've found that hip-hop has sent up, in an uneven and contradictory way, the from-below tradition of spirituality (including within Islam, NOI, 5% NOI) that saw saving one's soul as engaging in the fight against injustice. Over time, as my own politics and perspectives matured and deepened, hip-hop went with me expressing a vast range of conflicting ideas and sensibilities and each time I found a way to make it relevant to my specific place in life.

Read and digest this essay carefully for it is one of the most original contributions to hip-hop that I have ever read.


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I know this is long but I hope everyone tagged will read this and forward if they want.

As insomnia kicks in, another profound post (I hope) is produced. I only get exciting ideas to write about in the middle of my sleep- surely, it’s divinely inspired. It’s like the Tupac line from Ghetto Gospel, “Never forget, that God isn’t finished with me yet//When I write rhymes, I go blind, and let the Lord do his thing.”

I dedicate this entry to all my friends and family from Seattle Chinese Alliance Church. It’s hard to write this and not think about the past five years of what could have been had I continued ‘growing in Christ’ with you all. I ask that you will be patient as you read this, as I’m sure much if not all of this note will provoke some kind of offense, and genuinely welcome and encourage your comments at the end.

A second audience I want to address here are some of my progressive friends who do listen to hip hop, but intentionally limit their listening to ‘underground’, ‘political’, and ‘socially conscious’ rap—artists like the Blue Scholars, Immortal Technique, Dead Prez, Talib Kweli, Mos Def.

I think the title of this note is really fitting, because I wish to say that hip hop, in its entirety, including its most violent incarnations (i.e. gangsta rap, horrorcore), has rekindled my spirituality when I had completely abandoned God by providing me an alternative conception of Christianity and faith that was understood and embraced by people struggling against a system that had marginalized them from the political process and from economic opportunities. Hip hop has also taught me so much about the world and has given me so much purpose to what I do as a community organizer.

Recently, I’ve become very annoyed with Jin the emcee. I used to love him in his battle rapping days on BET’s 106 & Park and followed him closely when he moved to Hong Kong and rapped in Cantonese. In fact, he was the only rapper that I could listen to with my family (not to mention my grandparents too), as he produced a lot of family-friendly, humorous tracks innocently portraying the landscape of HK or touching on lite-themes like dim sum dishes. Recently, though, he’s abandoned all of this and turned pretty staunchly into an evangelistic ‘Christian’ rapper. I won’t be surprised if his next album hits Christian stores alongside established ‘Christian’ rappers like Toby Mac, John Reuben, Grits, and T-Bone (whom I think is probably the only technically sophisticated ‘Christian’ rapper) or played on spirit 105.3 (actually, I would be surprised if Jin got airtime, since spirit 105.3 likes to play white artists). Jin’s latest two songs, “The Light Club” and “The Best”, really capture an aspect that I really hate about Christianity and Christians today. The dominant notion of Christianity today says that if you want to be identified and accepted as a Christian rapper, there are certain moral and thematic parameters by which you must abide. Jin captures this sentiment very well in “The Light Club,” with lyrics like “you want raps about pimpin’ killin’ snitchin’ ballin’?//You won’t get ‘em from me, naw that’s not my callin’//God Almighty reached out I mean this sincerely//He spoke to me like Morgan Freeman did to Jim Carey.”

The former me relates a lot to this sentiment of morality. Let me backtrack a bit. For those who don’t know my past, back in my high school days, I was almost ‘militantly’ Christian. I evangelized everywhere I went, helped establish our high school’s Christian club, and even preached to a congregation in Mexico. Kids at high school hated me for this, but I saw it as a challenge from God and accepted the mission of evangelism quite humbly. Without ever explicitly admitting this to myself because the rhetoric of church forbid Christians from judging others, I did actively judge others on a daily basis, based on the promiscuous activities that I saw and coarse language I would hear. It was subconsciously built into my system that those activities were evil, sinful, and ‘hell-sent’ (to ironically quote a song title from my favorite gangsta artist, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony). I’ll spare you the long story of how I drifted away from being this evangelist, being this type of Christian, why I left the church, and ultimately why I abandoned God (although if anyone really wants to hear it, I would be happy to lay out all the reasons in person).

One of my biggest qualms about the mainstream/dominant version of Christianity is that it makes all these indictments against activities that are commonly associated with youth of color. Growing up, probably the biggest reason why I never listened to ANY rap (let alone gangsta rap), was I heard from so many sources- my parents, my pastors, my youth counselors- that rap music was promiscuous, that it was sexist, that it was violent. Much like how I approached evangelism as a high school Christian, the church itself makes no attempt to contextualize or see youth of color according to where they’re at. Instead, evangelism itself becomes a tool of colonialism, of ‘civilizing’ the barbaric tendencies of the ghetto.

Never mind the structural inequalities of gentrification, the overcrowding of low-income people of color into a small unsanitized neighborhood, the rampant unemployment, and the homelessness that impelled the creation of hip hop in the 1970s. Never mind the structural racism that prevents youth of color from any chance of formal success in the forms of college education and high-paying jobs. With the economic crisis today and the exponential increase of tuition in universities across America, youth of color will only be further marginalized from access to colleges, pushing more and more to identify with the messages of hip hop culture. Never mind the police brutality and racial profiling that institutionalize colonial thinking among mainstream society one the one hand, and fear and resistance by victims of such on the other.
When Christians do engage the ghetto, communities of color, and the homeless in their limited way, it’s almost always in a patronizing form that reinforces white supremacy, patriarchy, homophobia, capitalism. Growing up, I was repulsed by gay people. Whenever I met someone gay, I had to force myself to talk to them by telling myself it’s not the people you hate, it’s their ways. And the typical conversation would end up with me telling them to follow Jesus and he would give them the power to rectify their sexual orientation.

I distinctly remember that one of the ‘social justice’ activities I participated in with my high school youth group was to go to Capitol Hill and feed the homeless for one night. No real connections need to be made, just give them food and hopefully they’ll take a track or listen to us attempt to proselytize them for a few minutes. It’s this shock therapy multiplied a few times with monetary and racial privilege that characterize mission trips today. Let’s go into a third world community of color, tell them (implicitly of course) that their gods are weak and poor by providing them with foreign aid and English instruction, show them the love of God through helping them build their communities, and frame this foreign aid as the outward reaching, selfless ministry of Jesus Christ. I hate to burst the bubble, but oftentimes this type of soft imperialism in the form of nonviolent priests coming into and converting entire communities was used either as a substitute for or a precursor to the violent imperialism of European colonists in the New World. Either by force or Christian/Catholic conversion, though, the natives were ultimately subjected to their own massive Exodus (this word is quite intentional) from their homelands or subservience to European empires.

While Christians busily impose their own Cultural Revolution against hip hop (term is deliberate as what Christians say about hip hop is what Mao said about all non-Mao praising culture when he imposed a massive ban on literature, films, etc) and inner city culture, I have discovered a Christianity and spirituality rising from the streets that more so exemplifies the social critic and revolutionary of Christ than any of the messages emanating from mainstream churches.

Christ was first and foremost a critic against Roman occupation. It was very telling that, in Luke 8:30, when he cast out the demons called “Legion” from the man, he drove them into pigs that rushed down a river bank and drowned themselves. At that time, the only use for the term “Legion” was to describe the Roman army. To needle the colonized Jews who saw pigs as unclean animals, the Roman army frequently called themselves swine. This example and others reinforce the anti-empire, anti-state oppression character of Christ.

In mainstream churches today, though, there is an overemphasis on being ‘apolitical’ and taking no stance on (or in the worst case, sometimes actually explicitly reinforcing the) injustices committed by Western governments and their allies. Sure, widespread abuses of China, Sudan, Iraq, and other countries that the U.S. government deems ‘evil’ can be similarly indicted at church, but when it comes to America’s own oppression and colonization of people of color in the inner city, of its own occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, or when it comes to the state of Israel occupying Palestinians, then churches have to be silent. Make no mistake, silence not only reinforces these injustices by making us complicit in them, it is ant-Christ.

It is in the lyrics of Public Enemy, TuPac Shakur, and Ice Cube that I have discovered the same anti-empire, anti-state tendencies of Christ. It is in rap where I see American injustices called out and America’s hypocrisy exposed. While mainstream Christianity has the privilege of ignoring oppressions and struggles against oppressions happening right around them on a daily basis, the victims of these oppressions have been impelled to use hip hop, among other forms of struggle, to fight. Let me emphasize that ignoring oppressions is a privilege that unfortunately condemns the forms of struggle taken up by the oppressed most of the time. The hypocrisy of the church is glaring. While they focus on misogynistic images in rap videos, they overlook the sexism of the state. While they focus on the violence of gangsta rap, they overlook the fact that the state monopolizes formal violence, from the army to the police, and that these violent actors exist for the sole purpose of securing profit for a minority at the expense of the majority. If Christians are going to condemn these patriarchal and violent tendencies, why don’t they start with condemning the state? In my mind, only when a movement that pushes for a wholesale transformation of the state into one that is truly democratic, truly anti-racist, and truly anti-patriarchal arises, will we start to see forms of popular culture reflect this new reality.

It is within this context of marginalization of and institutionalized state violence against low-income, people-of color from which hip hop arises, and from which we get the ultra-violent forms of hip hop. For many youth of color, gangsta rappers speak to their reality of being caught in the game- not by choice but by the reality of being dark-skinned in America and thereby automatically disenfranchised from opportunities that I myself, other mainstream Christians, and many liberal progressives take for granted. Perhaps my favorite Christian artist, the gangsta rap group Bone Thugs-n-Harmony (yes they identify as Christian), say it best when they say “I tried so hard, can’t seem to get away from misery//I tried so hard but [I’ll] always be a victim of these streets//It ain’t my fault ‘cause I tried to get away but trouble follows me” (“I Tried” ft. Akon). Another one of my favorite Christian artists, DMX, would immediately be condemned by many mainstream Christians for being overbearingly violent and coarse in his lyrics. To all those ‘Christian’-hatas out there, he reminds you to “Look thru my eyes, see as I see, do as I do, be as I be//Walk in my shoes, hurt your feet, then know why I do dirt in the street” (“Look Thru My Eyes”). In another song “The Convo”, he casts himself in the traditional Christian poem ‘Footprints’ as the man carried on the beach by Christ. He ponders the question of many a youth stuck in the game, “I tried doin’ good, but good’s not too good for me//Misunderstood, why you chose the hood for me,” to which Christ, also played by DMX, replies, “My child, I’ve watched you grow up, And I’ve been there//Even at times you least suspected it, I was there//And look what I’ve given you, A talent to rhyme//I may not come when you call, but I’m always on time.” In spite of the systematic oppression dealt against him, DMX is able to express his faith without being overbearingly evangelistic. Because he comes from the hood, unlike many other ‘Christian’ rappers, he is never judgmental and retains his gangsta persona throughout his albums to remain relevant to youth.

While DMX expressly believes in Christ, TuPac conveys a more conflicted sense of spirituality. Throughout his lyrics, you can see him genuinely struggling between the mainstream conception of Christianity and his fate of thug livin’, which he accurately and poignantly frames as the product of a racist and capitalist system. In songs like “Life Goes On” and “Thugz Mansion,” he attempts to reconcile his gangsta life by creating a heaven for g’s- one that is stress free and one where homies can just kick it. In “Ghetto Gospel,” he challenges mainstream Christianity’s morality and exposes its inadequacy to understand the ghetto by ending the song with the line “Am I less holy, cuz I choose to puff a blunt or drink a beer with my homies?” In perhaps his greatest song criticizing mainstream Christianity, “Blasphemy,” he further exposes the irrelevancy of contemporary church leaders like the Pope and juxtaposes him with figures like Malcolm. He further breaks down church imagery of devils and hell, implicitly asking Christians what they know about each when in the hood, he inevitably fights devils on a daily basis in a living hell, a sentiment similarly echoed years later by Young Jeezy, “Tonight I can’t sleep, I’m livin’ in hell//First they gives us the work, Then they throw us in jail” (“Soul Survivor” ft. Akon).
While the violence in gangsta rap is unfortunately directed against other g’s caught in the game, it validly expresses the extreme anger and frustration of youth who are isolated from the fa├žade of the American dream. As an organizer, while I think much of this frustration needs to be channeled productively into organizations that combat systemic injustices, if you simply overlook and condemn gangsta rap, you would be doing the state’s job of invaliding youth anger due to real injustices rooted in the system itself.

The spirituality I express today is much more in line with the liberation theology of Latin America, the black theology of Africa, the min jung theology of South Korea, the hip hop theology of the American hood, and the non-white Christ who existed centuries ago. Thank you hip-hop for saving my soul by providing me with a spirituality that actively speaks out against injustice. I may not go to the same heaven as some of you tagged in this note (can I at least request “a bottle of gin, in case I don’t get in?” – TuPac in “Life Goes On”), but I’ll be more than content if I can kick it in Thugz Mansion with the likes of Billie Holiday, Malcolm, TuPac, Tech N9ne, and Bone Thugs.