Friday, February 04, 2005

Hip Hop and Liberation

Maybe it's the pounding beats and verbal flurries that blare from apartment windows on the side streets off of Fredrick Douglas Boulevard. Maybe it's the flamboyant billboards on 125th proclaiming the new Mase or Nas album. Maybe its the pirated CDs hawked 2 for $5 in commercial areas. Maybe it's the concert posters that are ubiquitous here.

I've been living in Harlem for six months now. And whatever the reason, I've become intensely more interested in Hip Hop music than ever before.

Many Christians would see this as a bad thing. Much of Hip Hop music, especially that made by popular artists like Nelly, is obscene. There is a glorification in violence and sexual exploitation which is indefensible. Given this, I understand why most Christians are averse to Hip Hop music.

But dismissing Hip Hop entirely for what it is at its worst, while understandable, is wrong. I see much of Hip Hop as an articulation of and response to oppression.

Consider these lyrics from Hip Hop's first real hit, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "The Message" (1982):

Broken glass everywhere,
People pissing on the stairs, you know they just don’t care.
I can’t take the smell, I can’t take the noise,
Got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice.
Rats in the front room, roaches in the back,
Junkie’s in the alley with a baseball bat.
I tried to get away, but I couldn’t get far
Cause the man with the tow-truck repossessed my car

Don’t push me, cause I’m close to the edge.
I’m trying not to loose my head.
It’s like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder
How I keep from going under.

If we think of Hip Hop in this way, it may actually take us places spiritually. According to Liberation Theologians Leonardo and Clodovis Boff, the starting point for following Jesus' message of liberation is a "suffering with." Ideally, perhaps we should live among the poor. Perhaps we should have no more material possessions than the poor have. Jesus did these things.

According to Boff and Boff, the "suffering with" starting point for following Jesus' message requires at "a minimum" a "perception of [the] scandals [of poverty and oppression]."

I believe that Hip Hop can help white, middle-class suburban Christians (among others) begin to "perceive" (though admittedly not fully understand) the suffering of inner-city African Americans. This is what is good about Hip Hop.

But Hip Hop has not been content to complain, to simply proclaim oppression. Instead, Hip Hop has offered responses to oppression too. At its best, Hip Hop - through artists like Common or Talib Kweli - calls for social and individual renewal. At its worst, Hip Hop suggests a sort of nihilistic giving up. Since no one has cared for me (or us), I will care for no one but myself. This, for me, explains the violence and hedonism found in a lot of Hip Hop.

Often just the nihilism is expressed and not the reasons for it. But sometimes it does show itself as a response (if a terrible and unproductive response) to oppression. Consider this frustration from rapper Kastro on Tupac's Album "Loyal to the Game" (2004):

In the belly of the best, I'm bubbling up
Runnin' outa luck, about to self-destruct
Your power movement was cool
But it ain't fixed nothin',
So I just go on with what I know
I don't trust nothing

I believe that Boff and Boff are right. I don't think we can serve "the least of these" without a minimum of "suffering with." I think that Hip Hop helps us perceive oppression. I also believe that we can listen to Hip Hop music for this purpose without necessarily approving any unproductive responses to the oppression which it explains.


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