An Odd Future For Faith In Hip-Hop

I love hip-hop!

I love hip-hop music. I love hip-hop fashion. I love hip-hop culture. A multi-racial, multi-lingual, international phenomenon, hip-hop is arguably the most significant cultural and artistic movement of the last forty years.

I am a proud member of the hip-hop generation, defined by Bakari Kitwana, former editor of The Source Magazine, as the population of black youth born between 1965 and 1984 (although a redefinition is likely merited to reflect hip-hop's aforementioned diversity and longevity). When I first heard the poignant inquiry of the hip-hop coming-of-age love story Brown Sugar (2002), "So, when did you fall in love with hip-hop?" it arrested my consciousness and caused me to reflect upon the origins of my own love affair with hip-hop. (For the record, I fell in love with hip-hop when I heard A Tribe Called Quest's classic album Midnight Marauders (1993). It literally changed my life!)

I am also a part of an ever-widening group of young, seminary-trained clergy who closely identify with hip-hop culture: pastors, ministers and even professors of religion for whom hip-hop was never a passing fade but an ever-present reality. It is my two decades-old love of hip-hop that presently fuels my doctoral study on the contextualization of hip-hop spirituality for the church.

But at the risk of sounding out-of-touch, outdated and even uncool, a significant risk in the realm of hip-hop, I am increasingly troubled by certain contemporary moves in hip-hop culture that embrace the occult and make a mockery of faith. I understand freedom of speech and expression. I even subscribe to the belief that what others might perceive as vulgarities can actually be an authentic witness to the truth. But I find recent attacks in hip-hop against religious faith and God to be, well, wack!

One need not look any further than two hip-hop acts being heralded by many, such as Billboard Magazine and The New York Times, as the future of hip hop: rapper Lil' B and the hip-hop collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All. Also known by his rap alias "Based God," the cover of Lil' B's mixtape Angels Exodus depicts the artist crucified on a cross wearing a crown of marijuana, with money spilling from his shirt pockets and a bra and G-String draped across the horizontal beam. In one of his more controversial songs, of which there are many, "Look Like Jesus," Lil' B raps that he receives fellattio due to his resemblance to Jesus Christ. In the accompanying video, he performs these lyrics while in a church sanctuary.

Many of Odd Future's lyrics promote the rape of women and make light of school massacres. Their mantra "Kill People, Burn S***, F*** School" has been known to whip concert-goers into frenzied fits of violence. They also feature anti-Christ and anti-Christian lyrics. On their popular song "Sandwiches," Hodgy Beats of Odd Future raps that "God is the cancer."

Now, the hip-hop of my youth was far from Sunday School material. Some of it was replete with misogyny, violence and rampant drug use. Yet, despite these vices, there was still a certain reverence for the Divine. While there has long been a subgenre in hip-hop music known as Horrorcore, with its "horror-themed lyrical content and imagery," never before has Horrorcore been so readily accepted and embraced by the mainstream. Even the most gangsta of rappers inevitably tipped their hat to God. In the classic song "It Was a Good Day" from his album Predator (1993), Ice Cube gives reverence to the Divine with the lyric "Just waking up in the morning gotta thank God" prior to departing for his drunken, gun-toting, promiscuity-laden day.

I won't deny the tremendous talent of Lil' B or Odd Future. However, I find their lyrics and imagery to be destructive, sacrilegious, blasphemous and ultimately dangerous to the social, physical, intellectual and spiritual well-being of their most impressionable listeners.

A closer listen to their music also reveals another disturbing element of our contemporary experience, one for which they are not at fault: paternal absenteeism and its impact upon emerging generations. In his song "Bastard," Tyler the Creator of Odd Future predictably rails against God. But his rhymes also reveal a serious void left by the absence of his father with lyrics such as "... f*** a deal, I just want my father's e-mail, so I can tell him how much I f***** hate him in detail."

Could it be that because the church has failed to reach them, and fathers have largely abandoned them, that we have produced a generation now coming of age to express their angst and pain in ways that are destructive to themselves, their communities and their spirituality?

We have been awakened to odd days in hip-hop. And if such blasphemous content continues, hip-hop shall have an odd future, indeed!