Daniel White Hodge, a blogger with ConversantLife for the past four years, is a producer with a Ph.D. In his twenties he had production credits on Bone Thugs-N-Harmony's first album, E 1999 Eternal, as well as helping to score the first two seasons of New York Undercover. With a Ph.D. from Fuller Graduate School of Intercultural Studies, he is now the director of the Center for Youth Ministry Studies and assistant professor of youth ministry at North Park University in Chicago. This interview first appeared in Christianitytoday.com.
How has your relationship with hip hop changed over your life?
I was a listener as a kid, back in the late 1970s when I first heard The Sugarhill Gang and Run DMC and started wondering how they put those words together. Until high school, I was more of a consumer. In high school I became a participant. In my early twenties, I was involved as a producer. Now I am looking at how God is involved in almost every facet of hip-hop culture, which has become more of a lifestyle, not just something in [a musical] corner.
What is the theological heritage of hip-hop?
The historical root of hip hop is self-awareness and self-consciousness. "Use your mind. See the world and see it for what it is." KRS-One or Afrika Bambaataa said there are nine elements of hip hop, but there are really ten. The tenth is spirituality. It's about connecting with God. A lot of folks say it's because we have given up on the tenth element that hip hop is in the condition it is in. With any art, when you add money and commercialization, there is the danger that the soul gets lost. You saw that with the organic food movement when Wal-Mart showed up in organic food. It's what George Ritzer calls the "McDonaldization of society." That is what hip-hop today is fighting against.
Theologically, hip-hop is about connecting with the broader supernatural world. Most hip hop heads know that we just didn't happen by accident. This isn't an accidental universe or space we find ourselves in. In many hip-hop circles, you see God in everything: the space, the art, the sky, the wind. It's really this idea that God is involved in what we are doing. I think that's ultimately what hip hop is attempting to do.
People like KRS-One will say that we even have a religious structure within hip-hop. He wrote a whole book looking at the gospel of hip-hop. The cover actually looks like a Bible. He wrote it in the same way as our New Testament: chapters and verses. Hip-hop is an outlet for people to begin to connect with something that they might not be able to connect with in a four-wall church. Concerts and spoken-word venues were powerful venues. The smaller venues are not much bigger than a classroom, but they feel transcendent and leave people saying "God is in this place." In that sense, we are having church: People's minds are being opened and people are leaving transformed.
With Lecrae hitting #1 last year, the Reformed Rap movement reached new prominence. What are your thoughts on the Christian hip hop movement?
They are a theological and spiritual breath of fresh air. I don't like to delineate between Christian and secular hip-hop because I like to look at the message and content of it, and see if it is espousing some aspect of Christ and a gospel message. When you think about the genre of Christian rap, the music for years was just bad! The beats were horrible. Although the message was pretty decent there was not that connection with kids. In my years as a youth pastor, we tried to play that music and it just wouldn't connect.
There was an artist that came out in 2000, B.B. Jay, and if you closed your eyes and listened to him, you would think it was Biggie Smalls. He even looked like Biggie Smalls. He was from New York. I loved his music. His whole idea was "I want to make Christian music but we are going to make it in a missional way, so I want to be marketed towards non-Christians. I want to be sold to non-Christians." His record company didn't get that. They said, "You are a Christian artist, why would you want to sell to non-Christians?" So unfortunately his album never went anywhere.
So to see Lecrae doing what he is doing now, and Propaganda, and these artists actually putting it out there and saying, "This is what is happening. I can be Christian, I can rap about this stuff, I can still be down, I be a part of the hip-hop lifestyle, and still be a Christian at the same time," is amazing. Part of the challenge for Christian art in general is that at times it tries to answer eternal questions. Artists like Tupac don't try to answer these questions—they just ask these questions and struggle with these things.
That's where I think Propaganda and Lecrae in particular, whom I have known since they were doing beats in their mama's basement, get it right. So to see what they have become and to have remained true to their faith is amazing to me. I'm so happy for their success and so elated to see that they have a Christian social message that is still edgy and still hard but is rooted in the gospel. And they are getting the criticism from both sides.
Do you think that the evangelical church in general is still hostile toward hip-hop?
Absolutely. I think there are a couple different factors that play into that. I think there is unawareness. And that leads to fear. Then you have the racial element. You have men of color who have gained some momentum and positions of power, so some white evangelical males are feeling disenfranchised. For those folks, it's not an intentional thing. Racism is so embedded in our psychology and everything we do in this society it's like a matrix. I don't think people even know that's going on, but nevertheless it [plays a part]. When fear, unawareness, and race combine, it makes for a deadly cocktail.Don't get me wrong—there is a lot to be upset about from artists like Lil' Wayne. I was just reading a lyric last night from Chief Keef who said [in effect], "If I don't get oral sex from a woman, I am going to kill her." This type of nonsense is unacceptable. Rick Ross talked about putting a sedative in your drink so I can have sex with you—though he has apologized. That is maddening. And those are the things most people see. When you hear an artist that has the bass, the music, and the bravado: That's intimidating for someone that doesn't know.
What would you say to critics who say the very spirit of hip-hop is not fitting with the gospel?I say it is no different from anything in the human experience. You need to look at Christianity a lot closer. We need a theology of celebration, but we are unbalanced if we don't look at the theology of suffering and the world surrounding that, because suffering is also an element and an aspect to people's lives.
How can Christians better engage with hip-hop?
Listen to the music and have a critical eye. Download the lyrics. Study them and look at them and say "What is this artist or author actually saying? Are they saying what I think they are saying?" That's why I like to put the lyrics up in my lectures. It's a matter of breaking it down and slowing it down. There are lyrics for anything put out in recent years where you can go and find it and actually ask "What is this artist actually saying?" And be critical.
Christians can begin to ask better questions of artists. It's in our tendency of humans to judge what we don't know. It's going to take skills to better interpret the hip-hopper without judging. Or if there is judgment, I think its okay to have that conversation. I think it's about being able to come and have it be a dialogue rather than a monologue. So often, particularly when you are young, you get a parent, or pastor, or youth worker that is just trying to tell kids what to do. Of course, you are just going to want to go to what you aren't supposed to do.I tell youth pastors all the time that if a song is violent or wrong, let's go right to it and see what is really at the core. Let's construct a Bible study or theological message around it and deal with that in the youth group environment. I think about youth group in particular, because where better do we want to deal with these things than inside the church where people can ask questions? As Christians we need to begin to take that broader step into culture. Now more than ever, the traditional mores of Christianity are running ashore with this generation. The "Nones" want nothing to do with religion or spirituality—not necessarily that they are against God or antagonistic toward God, they just don't want to deal with religion. I think hip-hop offers an alternative way to engage with the gospel.