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Ralph Basui Watkins (PhD, University of Pittsburgh) is associate professor of evangelism and church growth at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, and the author of several books, including From Jay-Z to Jesus and The Gospel Remix. He previously was assistant dean of the African American church studies program and associate professor of society, religion, and Africana studies at Fuller Theological Seminary.
My Story and the Story of Hip-Hop
So, when did you fall in love with hip-hop? Sidney Shaw, Brown Sugar For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. John 3:16–17
An Extended Track
The movie Brown Sugar opens with Sanaa Lathan's character, Sidney Shaw, a journalist, asking the question, "So, when did you fall in love with hip-hop?" Then a series of famous hip-hop personalities answer the question. I fell in love with this movie, and the opening of the movie provides a model to open this book. The opening is a series of jump cuts from one scene to the next. Hip-hop is like jump cuts, abrupt starts and stops, that are woven into a tapestry we call hip-hop culture. Hip-hop is a mixture of the old that has been made new in the remix. I begin this book with a series of jump cuts as I share how my life and hip-hop intersect while speaking of the revelations and transformations that came along the way. Yes, I love hip-hop, and this has been a love affair. I believe my job—much like that of Jesus—isn't to condemn hip-hop or condemn the world. Jesus came in love and with love. This is a love story. My love story with hip-hop goes like this.
As much as I love hip-hop, I will always come to hip-hop as an outsider. I am an African American in his mid-forties. I was raised on rhythm and blues with a touch of jazz. I am a child of that lonely AM radio station at the end of the dial that played the music of my people and went off the air at 6:00 p.m. When hip-hop emerged, my musical taste and cultural worldview were already formed. I start with this confession or positioning of myself because, as you read, I ask you to listen with who I am in mind. This book would sound different if I were thirty years old and thoroughly hip-hop. I accept the fact that I am a member of the "bridge generation"—the ones who birthed hip-hop as adults but soon thereafter handed it off to the next generation, which was bred, born, and raised thoroughly hip-hop. Bakari Kitwana describes the bridge generation: "Those folks, who were right at the cusp, were too young to be defined by civil rights/ Black power and too old to be deemed hip-hop generationers. Nonetheless, they have played a pivotal role in this generation's development by linking both."
As much as my generation has something to say about hip-hop as we engage the culture and the life, you should also be encouraged to engage children of the hip-hop nation. These are people like my daughters, who were raised on hip-hop and embrace the culture in a deep way that I will never be able to reach. I readily respect and admire their oneness with hip-hop. The things I share in this book are yet another remix (putting things together again) of my life with hip-hop as I live it with those who are hip-hop. Therefore, I start with myself and my story, because the voice of the storyteller as situated in history is as important as the story.
I was raised during the last throes of the civil rights movement. I was one of those children of the dream—one of those who were to inherit the blessings from the struggle of our elders. The first evidence of the progress our elders had fought for appeared when I began the third grade in 1971. A small band of kids and I were transferred from Hungerford Elementary School in Eatonville, Florida, to Lake Sybellia Elementary School in Maitland, Florida. We were bused, but bused with an attitude (BWA). We were to become what Todd Boyd would later call the New Black Aesthetic, or the NBA generation. We were going to Lake Sybellia to get access to the power that had been denied our parents. Boyd says, "The NBA have grown up in the post–civil rights era and see individual power and access to the means of representation as significant goals." We epitomized what Boyd describes in his work: we went to that white school with the mission to get power and education and use them as a means to represent blackness on our terms. My mother and her friends drilled into my head that I was to go to that school to get all they had to offer. I was to be a success for my people. I worked hard while priding myself on being a pint-size revolutionary. So there I was—a bright child, one of the few black kids in that school, all the time listening to soul music with a revolutionary zeal fed, supported, and developed by my elders.
This era was also characterized by the infusion of disco music. My generation saw a move from rhythm and blues to music that, with an infusion of disco, would morph into rap. In my teen years, my brother, Victor Watkins, turned me on to conscious music. Conscious music was politically motivated, socially aware, and raised issues relevant to the continuing struggles of poor and brown people. My friends and I listened to Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson. The song "Rapper's Delight" didn't introduce me to rap music; Gil Scott-Heron introduced me to rap. I can't give you an exact date when I first heard him rap over beats or recite his poems in time. I do remember that my commitment to the liberation struggle of African Americans was linked to the early rap I heard on records and from my mother's friends. "Mother" Earlene Watkins, a community organizer/ political activist, raised me, and she frequently held meetings of her friends at our house. I was the little revolutionary, like Michael on the show Good Times. I idolized Malcolm X early on; Martin Luther King Jr. became a hero of mine later in life. Scott-Heron helped me hear and posit my thinking in real time with real issues. It had to be around the late-1970s that I heard "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" by Scott-Heron. That was the beginning of my love affair with rap music and what would later be labeled hip-hop by DJ Hollywood.
I continued to listen to Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson, but as hip-hop grew, so did my attention to hip-hop culture. Scott-Heron and the Last Poets were rap to me. But then the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" saw the light of day in 1979, and that year marked a move for me and hip-hop culture as we found a new life together. Hip-hop was moving away from the conscious to the playful. The Sugarhill Gang was birthed in 1979 by Sylvia Robinson of Sugar Hill Records. They weren't like the Last Poets or Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson. (Interesting that Robinson chose to call them a gang.) The early groups grew up together, performed together as a part of living in the community. This move from an organic aesthetic, in which groups developed communally, to a new wave or new type of rap artist began with Sugar Hill Records and the Sugarhill Gang.
The American roots of this hip-hop culture were in the South Bronx party culture. DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and their disciples were more concerned with having fun than they were with stimulating political revolution or thought. Interestingly, this shift occurred on the eve of the Reagan administration inauguration, and the sociocontextualization of the growth of hip-hop is central to this study. It was during the Regan era that civil rights would go into retrenchment, inner cities would fall into decay, and the trickle-down theory of economics would prevail but never trickle to the 'hood. As Regan took the throne, hip-hop stood up to cry out from the city.
During the eight years from 1980 to 1988, hip-hop culture came of age, with many twists and turns. The recording and release of Kurtis Blow's "The Breaks," from his album Kurtis Blow, marked a break (pun intended) from the party/dance music that was emerging from hip-hop culture. "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five was another blip on the screen, as it, like "The Breaks," was a conscious rap song. "The Message," ironically, was a song the group didn't want to record, and it was a song they didn't write. Sylvia Robinson acquired the song and presented it to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, who thought it wasn't a party-type song and felt it would hurt their relationship with their party audience. In the end, however, they recorded the song, and it was well received by the hip-hop nation.
As much as early rap was party rap, when you explore the narratives of early rap, you can hear the story of struggle from inner-city streets. This evolution and history of hip-hop are central to this work: if we are to understand and appreciate hip-hop culture, we must get a sense of both the larger sociocultural history that surrounds hip-hop and the specific circumstances in which hip-hop culture developed. In other words, we must be conscious of the context out of which hip-hop evolved. The biography of hip-hop is bolstered by the stories of the artists, which help us hear the truth, redemption, theology, and liberation that is in hip-hop. Our quest is for the redemptive and theological implications embedded in hip-hop culture.
In many ways, my relationship with hip-hop follows the ebb and flow of the culture. I moved away from the more party hip-hop and gravitated toward the more conscious rap music. Party hip-hop was only marginally related to my life in the early 1980s, because I was trying hard to be a good African Methodist Episcopal Church preacher, and my wife and I were raising young children. I was lost in church and out of touch with the larger world for the most part. In the late 1980s, I took off for seminary and found hip-hop again. I went to seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, not far from Chicago, Illinois. Many of the African American students came to Dubuque from the inner city of Chicago. As director of minority student affairs and a hall director of a male residence hall for the University of Dubuque, I was in contact with undergraduates daily. They listened to hip-hop and watched Black Entertainment Television (BET), and I established a connection with them through hip-hop. I found myself in hip-hop and hip-hop in me as I returned to it in the late 1980s.
The most memorable albums for me during this time were Boogie Down Productions' Criminal Minded and Ghetto Music: The Blueprint of Hip-Hop and Public Enemy's two classic albums, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet. These four albums were good hip-hop. Listen to my value judgment here. These albums were revolutionary. These albums weren't held hostage by the party culture, overt sexism, or misogyny that were beginning to dominate hip-hop. I could listen with black intellectual and Christian pride. I thought I could discard the other hip-hop. Some would say I was a hip-hop schizophrenic, while others would say I was just being a wise Christian. After all, I was growing in my faith, was a seminary student, and was becoming much more selective about what I listened to.
I continued to listen to hip-hop, justifying it as a way of getting to know my students. The truth is, I enjoyed the music, though I didn't care a whole lot for some of the videos. I enjoyed the fun in hip-hop. I liked the songs that made you move, the songs you just couldn't fight, the songs that made you nod your head. Even when you tried not to move, they would make you move. Over time, my listening extended to include the breadth and depth of hip-hop. Though I was still caught in the dilemma of how ethical it was to enjoy songs like "Baby Got Back" or "Wild Thang" or "Funky Cold Medina" or "I Need Love," I must confess I enjoyed them. I was drawn to the beauty of hip-hop culture. At times I was haunted by the questions, what am I doing? and what should I be doing? but I was not alone. Saul Williams, a poet, musician, child of hip-hop, and son of a Pentecostal minister, described his struggles listening to hip-hop in the mid-1990s as well: "I couldn't listen to hip-hop the same way. I felt personally attacked whenever an emcee was misusing his power. I grew angry at the way capitalism and violence was being romanticized." I shared Williams's sentiments, but I continued to listen and watch. I was judging hip-hop while enjoying hip-hop. As my daughters and my son were growing up, I wondered what they were getting from the music as they watched music videos with their babysitter, who always arrived with headphones on and immediately turned the television to BET.
Track 1: Confronted by Tupac
When I left seminary and went to work at Clarion University in Clarion, Pennsylvania, as director of minority student affairs, I was hit smack in the face with hip-hop again. I was now dealing with hardcore East Coast rap in all its manifestations. Once again I had to listen in to communicate effectively with college students.
From Clarion University I went to inner-city Pittsburgh to pastor Trinity African Methodist Episcopal Church and evangelize working-class African Americans. The young men and women of the Hill District of Pittsburgh pushed me to listen to hip-hop. Tone, a young teenager from the Hill District, said, "Yo, Rev. If you want to know wassup, you got to get to Tupac." I confronted Tone and his friends about their embrace of Tupac and other rappers of the day, but in the end they convinced me to listen with them and to interact with hip-hop in my sermons and Bible studies. I learned from them not only that Tupac had something to say to them but also that Tupac and hip-hop had something to say to me and the church. I resonated with the edginess and hardness of hip-hop. I began to rap or freestyle from the pulpit. The crowd would go wild when I would break out in rhyme. During those moments in the pulpit, I began to feel a positive spiritual power in hip-hop, as if God was in hip-hop.
As a young pastor, I was out of the loop, but hip-hop put me back in the loop and in touch with the culture of the working-class African American community I was trying to serve. I wasn't the normal pastor in our denomination. We did street witnessing and club evangelism. We even took the pews out of the church and put them in the streets to preach the gospel. Yes, this was me and is me. I will never forget the major turning point in my life as it relates to the power of hip-hop and my ministry. This major turning point was the seed that produced what we are now listening to, writing, and rewriting together. Remember that this book is a remix. As you read, you are cutting and scratching on the ones and twos (turntables). As you process and reconfigure, outline, highlight, and write your notes in the margin, they blend with the mix that I, along with the Holy Spirit, have produced in this book. Hip-hop is never a completed work; it is always a work calling to be remixed. Please do your remix.
The major turning point for me and hip-hop as it relates to my ministry took place in 1996. To be exact, it was the week of September 9, 1996. It was one of the longest weeks in hip-hop history. Tupac was shot four times in Las Vegas and was admitted to the hospital. As the week progressed, the reports indicated that our never-say-die brother was on the ropes. On Wednesday night, the youth turned out as always for the weekly Bible study. The church was packed, and the topic on the minds of the young brothers and sisters was Tupac. By this time I had embraced Tupac and hip-hop. I lifted up a prayer for Tupac and his family. At the end of the night, a few of the young brothers hung around to talk to me. One was Tone, who had no address and no real home but was hungry for love. Tone and his peers loved Tupac, and their love was expressed that night in the form of anticipatory grief.
On Friday evening, September 13, 1996, Tupac died. I, like so many, couldn't believe he was dead. I watched the television news story over and over in disbelief. Tupac was our hero; he was the one who had been shot and had appeared in court the next day. He was no mere mortal; he had already come back from the dead. As I moved to accept the fact that Tupac was dead, I immediately began to rework my sermon for Sunday. I knew that this week I had to preach to the balcony—the place where most of my teenagers sat. I also knew that many of the people who sat on the floor were peers of Tupac as well.
That Sunday I went to church early and prayed. As the service began, I noticed that many of the young brothers who were the biggest Tupac followers weren't there. When the church van returned from the second run, the driver reported that they hadn't been waiting at the stop. I immediately told my assistant minister to keep the service going until I got back. I got in my van and found those brothers. They came with me with no resistance. They were broken and in mourning. I had to have a word that day, but the word didn't come from me; it came from God through Tupac. This was the revelatory moment I needed.
Excerpted from hip-hop redemption by Ralph Basui Watkins Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Basui Watkins. Excerpted by permission of Baker Academic. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted July 22, 2012
The medium browned skinned fifteen year old comes in wearing a white lion skinned top revealing her belly and one shoulder strap on her right shoulder, and a short white lionskin skirt. She wears a bow and a sheath of arrows on her back, the arrows made of sharpened lions teeth. She spies a target up high and quickly climbs up a tree. When she gets high enough she loads her bow, holding on with only her knees, and shoots the arrow. It goes right through the center of te bullseye of the target, then bounces off something and goes directy into the ceoter of a target on the ground. She smiles at her shot and clikbs out of the tree. ~ Fatalonie
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Posted July 24, 2012
I walk into the training center and look around. I cant see fatalonie. She mustve left. Oh well. I might as well show what district 6 can do!
I grab a short, double edged sword, my best weapon, and completly masacre the dummies. I hear a bit of applause, and look up to see some of the gamemakers smiling down at me. I smile back, then grab a knife. I take a step back and hurtle it at the last dummy standing. Crack! I had sliced the head off! I couldnt believe i had done that good. I looked up at the gamemakers again. Now i had everyones attention, including seneca cranes. This was going great! Now if only i was able to get fatalonie as an ally... ~Delphi
Posted July 21, 2012