Wake Up!: Hip Hop Christianity and the Black Church

Wake Up!: Hip Hop Christianity and the Black Church

by Marlon F. Hall, Cheryl Kirk-Duggan

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First an expression of black urban youth, Hip Hop music continues to expand as a cultural expression of youth and, now, young adults more generally. As a cultural phenomenon, it has even become integral to the worship experience of a growing number of churches who are reaching out to these groups. This includes not just African American churches but churches of all


First an expression of black urban youth, Hip Hop music continues to expand as a cultural expression of youth and, now, young adults more generally. As a cultural phenomenon, it has even become integral to the worship experience of a growing number of churches who are reaching out to these groups. This includes not just African American churches but churches of all ethnic groups. Once seen as advocating violence, Hip Hop can be the Church’s agent of salvation and praise to transform society and reach youth and young adults in greater numbers.

After looking at Hip Hop’s socio-historical context including its African roots, Wake Up shows how Hip Hop has come to embody the worldview of growing numbers of youth and young adults in today’s church. The authors make the case that Hip Hop represents the angst and hope of many youth and young adults and that by examining the inherent religious themes embedded in the music, the church can help shape the culture of hip-hop by changing its own forms of preaching and worship so that it can more effectively offer a message of repentance and liberation.

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Wake Up!

Hip Hop Christianity and the Black Church

By Cheryl Kirk-Duggan, Marlon Hall

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2011 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4267-0301-0


I'm Bound to Wreck Your Body and Say Turn the Party Out

Physical Bodies and Embodiment

Hip Hop as Cultural Phenomenon

Historian Carter G. Woodson, in his classic volume Miseducation of the Negro, warned us of the generational problems and traumatic loss that occur when society and the church miseducate their own. Miseducation affords distraction, loss of focus, lack of critical thinking, and irresponsible actions or passiveness. Miseducation creates an enslaved mentality. When slave runners stole God's children from Africa and brokered in human cargo, they did not believe that the slaves had souls or could even think. So slave runners were content to limit their restraints to the physical. However, allowing enslaved persons to read or write was illegal once they were on shore in the United States. Limited and segregated life and education mades miseducation a systemic reality. Similarly, Jesus' disciples were miseducated, for they did not listen well, interpret, or process information given to them, either.

In Matthew 16, after a confrontation with the Pharisees and Sadducees, Jesus had to deal with his disciples who, yet again, did not "get Jesus" or his message; particularly, they did not understand Jesus' use of bread as a metaphor after feeding the five thousand with five loaves and two fish. Later, when Jesus took his disciples to Caesarea Philippi, he asked them about the identity of the Son of Man. They tried to dodge the question by stating what "some say." But Jesus wanted to know who they said he is. Simon Peter responded that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Jesus blessed him and recognized that divine wisdom allowed Simon Peter this knowledge. Jesus then said, "You are Peter [petros], and on this rock [petra] I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it" (Matt. 16:18).

We begin this chapter by situating how we came to Hip Hop as we reflect on Hip Hop as a cultural phenomenon. We explore the sociohistorical context in which the music began and the dynamics of East Coast/West Coast/Southern musical and sociocultural sensibilities; the emotional engagement and objectification of the body in Hip Hop; the function of physicality and rhythm; the role of violence, sexuality, and sexism in this genre; and the effect of the Internet in the development and popularity of Hip Hop. Marlon Hall speaks as one who grew up on Hip Hop. We first hear his voice as he recounts how his own sense of agency and coming-ofage parallel the birth and development of Hip Hop.

The Humanity of Hip Hop

Birthed in the 1970s on street corners and at block parties by DJs and MCs, Hip Hop went from being considered "underground" to "Top 40" when Sugarhill Gang made "Rapper's Delight." There are three key trajectories of Hip Hop. The first began in the 1970s and went into the early 1980s and was generated by Afrika Bambaataa, Cold Crush Brothers, DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, Kool Moe Dee, Kurtis Blow, Sugarhill Gang, Treacherous Three, and Ultramagnetic MCs. The gangsta rap part of this trajectory emerged from Compton, California, in 1989 and involved an outlaw script and a derrière-shaking beat. From the 1990s came the work of N.W.A., Schoolly D, Ice-T, and Too Short; then came Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eminem, Snoop Dogg, Coolio, Warren G, the Notorious B.I.G., Master P, Juvenile, Cash Money, Jay-Z, Ja Rule, Ruff Ryders, Eve, and DMX.

The second trajectory, Hip Pop, also known as Pop Hop, had risqué lyrics that at one time no black radio station would play. These Hip Pop artists included the Beastie Boys, Heavy D, Biz Markie, Will Smith, RunDMC, LL Cool J, Slick Rick, Salt-N-Pepa, TLC, Missy Elliott, Foxy Brown, Tone-Loc, MC Hammer, Young MC, Da Brat, Jermaine Dupri, Vanilla Ice, Kris Kross, Busta Rhymes, Naughty by Nature, Puff Daddy, D'Angelo, R. Kelly, Mary J. Blige, the Notorious B.I.G. (gangsta and Hip Pop), Lil' Kim, and Sisqo.

The Radicals, the third trajectory, are more revolutionary, politically engaged, and historically aware in their music, where theyview themselves doing edu-taining as opposed to entertainment. These artists include include Big Daddy Kane, Queen Latifah, EPMD, Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, Eric B. and Rakim, Tupac Shakur, Nas, Redman, Wu-Tang Clan, Raekwon, Method Man, De La Soul, Gang Starr, Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest, Leaders of the New School, Pete Rock & CL Smooth, Arrested Development, Outkast, The Roots, Erykah Badu, Black Eyed Peas, Common, Mos Def, Fugees, Lauryn Hill, and Wyclef Jean. The once-dominant New York political themes of activism in the 1980s began to diminish in the 1990s.

I (Marlon) grew up with Hip Hop, not just around it. I literally grew up with the music. The music and I were born around the same time in the 1970s, after the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Together we grew and learned to navigate our way around an ever-changing world. We were raised like second cousins, this music and me. This kindred music visited me from all over the nation, by way of my Sony Walkman and headphones, sharing stories and life experiences that would reflect and shape my own.

My first fight was coached by the East Coast group Brand Nubian, who taught me that "punks step up to get beat down." My second public dance routine was choreographed by West Coast cousins Digital Underground, who taught me the "humpty dance." In the humpty dance, you move the midsection of your body while your arms move in a wing-like motion. Even the fire that fueled my last crush on a teacher, Mrs. "Got It" Gibbs, was energized by the muscle-bound rapper and actor LL Cool J (Ladies Love Cool James), who told me I needed a girl (or teacher) "who's as sweet as a dove for the first time in my life, I see I need love." This music has been a well-traveled and experienced relative and friend to me, and to many others of my generation. This music is a companion and not just a culture, which has a compelling quality that connects with masses of people in personal ways.

Hip Hop seems human or biological in the way it has spawned an original art form, dance expressions, and styles of dress. Its set of shared attitudes, values, and practices are infectious. This inspiration positively and virally travels like it is airborne. Here are some of its characteristics: (1) sudden involuntary motor and repetitive vocal expressions when clever metaphors are spoken at varying volumes; (2) grimaces that resemble a person eating sour lemons when particular chord progressions are heard; and (3) sporadic head nods with facial frowns when acute drum patterns are played. Hip Hop is an international human phenomenon that draws us in, one song and metaphor at a time.

Hip Hop lives and breathes with us like a person; and unlike most cultural movements in human history, Hip Hop is human. It effortlessly connects with what makes us human because it is human. Because it was unconsciously shaped by the meek and not manufactured by the affluent, Hip Hop has a freedom and truth that is distinctly human. By exploring the vulnerability, passion, and truth of Hip Hop, we discover what it means to be more fully human.

Hip Hop Is Human

I realized that Hip Hop was a living and breathing phenomenon at the age of sixteen. I traveled to Eastern Europe a few weeks after the Iron Curtain fell in 1989. I was there to distribute an unlikely combination of gifts on the streets that would have had me and my delegation jailed just two weeks before. As a delegate of the United States Youth Council, I had a mission to pass out condoms and Bibles. The novelty of our mission was only overshadowed by the unique culture shock I experienced as the only African American delegate. We traveled to places in Moscow and Leningrad where black people had never been seen in person. The only experience many of the Eastern Europeans had had with young black men was through media images and entertainment portrayals of life in the United States.

Many older folks grimaced at me, while others called me "monkey" or "darkie" as I walked the streets. Some even spit on the ground to show their disgust as I walked past. This was not a shock because to some degree I had experienced this treatment at home. The real shock, however, was the way young people in Moscow and Leningrad treated me. They treated me like the young prince of the 1989 cult classic film Coming to America, starring James Earl Jones and Eddie Murphy. Often running up to touch my skin and smiling as I moved about the city, they made me feel like family. Some even stopped to do random break-dance moves and awkwardly attempt to give me handshakes that were authentic to the urban streets of Houston. These Russian youth made me feel human and valuable because, through Hip Hop, we could communicate, as together we experienced the heart and vibe of a global culture. Even across continents, Hip Hop connected us as members of a distinguished clan and gave a voice to the voiceless.

Recently freed from the oppression of Communist reign, they saw me as a baggy-jeans-wearing freedom fighter sent to guide them into the new world of freedom. The humanity of Hip Hop went before me in every province and town we visited. To the young people, I was a human brother and not a monkey—a kindred member of a redeemed people.

This charismatic phenomenon that we call Hip Hop draws people of different ethnic backgrounds and experiences together all over the world because it has an honest, rich, and authentic life that makes room for everyone. Many wonder how this music has been able to bridge gaps between so many in such a short time. How can this ghetto music have such a compelling glamour that it seduces the bodies, minds, creative sensibilities, and clothes closets of dancers, artists, and designers everywhere? A response to this question may come from the personality of the music. The music allows us to be creative expressions of a living culture rather than products of dying neighborhoods.

Not Mere Products

In a world in which people are often seen as only products of their environment, Hip Hop believes that we are more than manufactured; we are creative. Hip Hop boldly tells the world that we are not "products of our environment," but "creations of God." Music made from the discarded B-side of classic albums, dance studios made from cardboard, and fantastic moves made by our bodies make us a force to be reckoned with.

Black migrants, from Southern plantations, moved north in search of a better life in such cities as New York, Detroit, and Philadelphia. They found jobs in manufacturing plants and on assembly lines, which made them instruments of industry. When the industry jobs dried up during the Great Depression, their communities became desperate and even dangerous. Crime escalated because of a lack of jobs, and alcoholism increased as peoplesought to self-medicate the pain of hardship. These transplanted communities from plantations became islands of poverty and then ghettos.

Soon the children of these disenfranchised former sharecropping farmers received more education and began a movement to gain civil rights and black power. The civil rights and the Black Power movements gave these ghetto communities, in both the North and South, an antagonist to combat and a reason to come together. They began to gain momentum as a creative force that was more than a product. Bus boycotts, sit-ins, marches, and voter registration efforts made these descendants of former slaves more than mere products of a workforce; they were organized masses of social and political creativity.

However, the presidency of Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s thwarted many of the gains of the civil rights movement and Black Power initiatives. "Reaganomics" led to more job loss, economic challenges, and social desperation. The desperation coupled with a cheap and deadly combination of cocaine and baking soda (crack) turned the need to self-medicate into a minefield of unrealizable dreams. Landmarks of African American development, like New York's Harlem and Houston's entrepreneurial Dowling Street, that once lifted blacks up became landmines where drug cartels and gangs planted the explosive drug crack in the pockets of metaphorical suicide bombers who killed themselves and the people around them. Neighborhoods that were once safe villages were transformed into graveyards where dead-men-and-women-walking abused drugs. The descendants of once-freed slaves became enslaved once again.

In the throes of the violence and tension of urban community, DJs such as Afrika Bambaataa DJ Kool Herc brought music that "stood in the cracks of our brokenness." Hip Hop came along in this time as a voice of freedom and truth. It worked to dispel the crippling message that we are products or slaves of any environment. Pioneers like Sugarhill Gang and Kurtis Blow came to give a voice of hope to a community shattered by drugs, violence, and despair. And the horror of death and poverty became the matrix that forged the power of Hip Hop music.

From Broken to Beautiful

The thing that drew me into Hip Hop was that it was a rebellious music. It was a ghetto folk music that was not supposed to have a voice. Here is this symbolic art form called Hip Hop where the music aspect was us only taking what was there. We had the record and that was what we used. That is what Flash used, that is what Herc used, that is what Bambaataa used.

Hip Hop takes broken shards of promise, dance, and music and makes a mosaic. It does not hide brokenness; rather it discovers art and beauty within. I experience this art and beauty as a kindred spirit. Its sound, my second cousin, is skilled at taking discarded stuff and making of it dynamic objects of art: found-object art.

I have many memorable experiences with this kindred sound, but one of my first was seeing rapper Biz Markie for the first time on Yo! MTV Raps. Biz Markie was my hero. His layers of "dookie rope chains" dangled freely from his rather large neck. The gold jewelry was the stuff of the Hip Hop rich and famous.

Believe it or not, this was the coolest image of manhood that I had ever seen on TV. As one of the premiere beatboxers of his time, Biz Markie used his mouth to move a nation. A beatboxer is a performer who uses his or her voice, mouth, lips, and tongue to imitate the sound of musical instruments, especially percussion instruments, to create musical beats, rhythms, and melodies. His "I'm Bound to Wreck Your Body and Say Turn the Party Out" made its way, everywhere, into souls and minds of rap artists and listeners alike.

From "Vapors," a song that was a tale of a reject's revenge, to "Make the Music with Your Mouth, Biz" From "Vapors," in which Biz used his mouth as an instrument; he became a spokesperson for all selfdeclared and societally affirmed underdogs like me. Biz Markie taught a generation that we could use what we had to be great, even with our oversized lips and bellies. He taught us that what others saw as flawed could be beautiful.

Biz's music was introduced on discarded cardboard dance floors, used microphones, and borrowed turntables. These inauspicious beginnings led many critics to believe that the music was a temporary fad that would fade like the jeans worn by its supporters. These critics thought Hip Hop would simply drift off into pop-culture obscurity when the cardboard wore out and the secondhand instruments broke, but it did not. Even after some thirtynine years from its origins, Hip Hop remains one of the most prolific and powerful cultural standards in the world. As I continue to travel today from New York to Prague and beyond, I am welcomed by young people and respected by the old as a young black man who is a part of their cultural family. This is because Hip Hop continues to pave new pathways for the powerless, rejected, and disenfranchised.

However, this cultural phenomenon grew not only in spite of its cardboard-thin foundations, but also because of them. Hip Hop music is for displaced people—young and old. This music and its accompanying cultural experience are accessible, relevant, tangible, and honest. Here, lonely latchkey kids find love; recluses find companionship.

Issues of Method: Interviews

Rather than speak simply as researchers and analysts, we, the authors, decided to let the music speak for itself. Hip Hop wordsmiths, artists, and musicians themselves best document this broken-to-beauty story. For them, the music is the means to tell gripping human stories. This approach will allow the story about the music, culture, and the people of Hip Hop to tell itself. The interviews are the heart of the book, and our observations and research are woven in and about. Relevant and emergent artists respond to key questions so that by the end of this book, you will have a new window on your own life.


Excerpted from Wake Up! by Cheryl Kirk-Duggan, Marlon Hall. Copyright © 2011 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Marlon F. Hall is the Cultural Architect for The Awakenings Movement, where he challenges ordinary people to live extraordinary lives through the power and love of Christ. Marlon has a joint degree from Fisk and Vanderbilt Universities in Anthropology and Political Science.

Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan is Professor of Theology and Women's Studies and Director of Women's Studies at Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, North Carolina. She has authored many books, including Mary Had a Baby and Undivided Soul, both published by Abingdon Press.

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