Is Hip Hop Just A Euphemism for a New Religion?
By Jaylin Paschal
Kanye West asked a potent and profound question when he penned the "Gorgeous" lyric "Is Hip Hop just a euphemism for a new religion?" He called into question the likeness of major global organized religions and the international phenomenon that is Hip Hop culture.
Steve Stoute wrote in his book The Tanning of America: How Hip-Hop Created a Culture That Rewrote the Rules of the New Economy, "Hip-hop can be seen as having the same markers that occur with all major religions--among them a connection to community, a connection to spirit through personal experience (in the music itself), a coherent doctrine and morality, code, ritual, an organization and hierarchy, and a mythology featuring heroes and leaders."
The gospel of Hip Hop begins at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue. And since that house party, hosted by DJ Kool Herc, Hip Hop dominated the counterculture of Brooklyn until it eventually permeated societal barriers and led American mainstream popular culture. Now, in 2017, it is easy to identify every single religious marker mentioned by Stoute.
A Connection to Community: The Hip Hop community has grown from a neighborhood of party-going outcasts to a global union to Hip Hop heads. The community extends from rap crews to dance teams to concert attendees to music bloggers. You can interpret this community as industry moguls and operatives, or of the artists themselves, or of the fans and consumers. No matter where you go in the world, Hip Hop's music, culture or influence is there. It has created a global village connected by rap and rhythm.
A Connection to Spirit Through Personal Experience: Hip Hop has testimony, as lyricists and emcees recount their personal experiences in the music they write. These testimonials suggest a connection to spirituality and soul, rendering Hip Hop as more spiritually relevant than just kids spitting rhymes over extended breaks. The "Hip Hop saved my life" testimony we hear and rejoice often in our community is no exaggeration.
Spirit, reinterpreted: It would be irresponsible not to note the other definition of "spirit" here. There is very much so a "holy ghost" component to Hip Hop. Just as churchgoers are moved to shout, raise their hands and move uncontrollably or involuntarily, witnesses to Hip Hop are often moved to similar extents. Think of all the times your homeboy shouted after hearing ridiculous lyricism, how many times you've literally jumped up and down or in your seat when a rhythm excited you, or how many times you found your head nodding to a beat you tried to ignore.
A Coherent Doctrine and Morality: As in any culture, there are somethings in Hip Hop you just don't do. There's a sense of right and wrong within the culture, and straying from that moral path can lead to your demise. You don't sell out. You don't bite. You don't have ghostwriters. You don't disrespect the pioneers. If you do so, you may continue to have mainstream/pop commercial success, but the Hip Hop community is relatively unforgiving. You'll be excommunicated from the "real Hip Hop" conversation--you'll be a Sucka MC.
Code: Code is found all throughout this culture. From style of dress to dance, there is a behavioral standard that unifies Hip Hop heads. From dapping each other up as a greeting to brushing our shoulders off to signify a certain "unbotheredness," there is an undeniable cultural code which exists in signifiers we oftentimes don't even notice anymore.
Ritual: Ritual can be interpreted as many things within the Hip Hop community--the rollout of an album, the unified flashlight-sway at a concert, the award ceremonies. And on a more individual level, it could be ritual to first listen to new albums in a car with your friend, or to perform Kid 'n Play's famous dance whenever a suitable song presents itself. Rituals in Hip Hop are any repeated event or action that can be directly linked to the culture.
An Organization and Hierarchy: This element is why "Top 10" or "Top 5" conversations are so important to us. It's also why we feel so compelled to separate more traditional rappers from "mumble rappers." It's also why we feel like it's so important to appoint the best from the south, and from the west, and from the east, and from the midwest--and to treat each region completely differently on what qualifies whom for the throne. Lovers of Hip Hop are usually extremely organized in thought.
A Mythology Featuring Heros and Leaders: Hip Hop has a thorough list of icons, from DJ Kool Herc to Jay Z. And there's an intricate, Odessey-like tale of how it was born, complete with disputes and discrepancies. And of course, Hip Hop has it's martyrs--the Biggie's, Tupac's, Guru's, Left Eye's and Aaliyah's--who contributed a great deal to the culture, and then, before we expected it, left us to interpret their art.
So while Hip Hop has no designated holy book or place of worship, Rap Genius allows us to interpret text and rap forums allow us to congregate. There is no prayer, but there is faith. No deacons, but definitely disciples.
Young kids are more likely to save 10% of their check for a Kanye West concert ticket or a pair of Yeezy's than they are to tithe that money. They're more likely to memorize Biggie's stories than Bible stories; to follow Russell Simmons tips to success than to follow the Ten Commandments. Feel how you will about that. There's just no denying Hip Hop's status as a religious movement.
While I am a follower of Christ, I am a witness to Hip Hop. If it itself is not godly, it is certainly proof there is a God. And that He is powerful. And that He is good.