The 1970s was a significant decade for biblical studies in North America. Important volumes that have remained seminal were penned and published at this time—they include Brevard Child’s Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (1979), Phyllis Trible’s God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (1978), Paul Hanson’s The Dawn of Apocalyptic (rev. ed. 1979), and Norman Gottwald’s The Tribes of Yahweh: A Sociology of the Religion of Liberated Israel, 1250–1050 bce (1979), to name a few. At the same time, also in North America, in a community recreation room at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in New York City to be precise, a new phenomenon emerged on the music scene: rap music and what has come to be known as hip-hop (see Chang, 2005; Watkins, 2011, pp. 1–38).

The roots of rap and hip-hop lay in dance parties and the disc jockeys (DJs) who provided the music on record players whenever there wasn’t a live band. Two breakthroughs proved to be crucial. The first was the presence of an “MC” or “emcee” (short for master of ceremonies), who would talk on a microphone over the music that was playing, in large part to excite the crowd. This kind of talk or “rap” could and did become ever more rhythmic and lengthy, eventually developing into the early rap recorded during this period (e.g., The Fatback Band, “King Tim III [Personality Jock],” XII, Spring Records, 1979, which many consider the earliest recorded rap song). The second breakthrough was the art of “turntablism”—the innovation of DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash—in which the DJ combined two different records by means of a crossfader mixer, and which eventually included the action known as “scratching” (widely acknowledged as the creation of the DJ Grand Wizzard Theodore) in which the DJ moves the record back and forth, by hand, within the same groove so as to make a scratching noise and/or to requeue the record to a spot that was particularly pleasing to the crowd. In this way, the best part of one record—the “hook” or the break—could be looped, replayed over and over again, even with an entirely different tune or beat from another record providing the primary harmonics. The combination of these two developments was electrifying to crowds and caught on quickly. The first rap song to win nationwide commercial success was The Sugarhill Gang’s hit “Rapper’s Delight” (Sugarhill Gang, Sugar Hill Studios, 1979; Bradley and DuBois, 2010, pp. 97–106), which sold more than 5 million copies. Rap and hip-hop have been going strong ever since, to the point that many speak of a “hip-hopification” of wide swaths of contemporary culture, including various aspects of religion (see, e.g., Miller and Pinn, 2014; Pinn, 2003; Sorett, 2009; Utley, 2012; Watkins, 2011). The popularity of hip-hop now extends across the globe far beyond the Bronx where it was born (Condry, 2006).

Rap has not only been widely accepted, it has continued to develop as an art form. Among the many things that might be mentioned, the increasing complexity of rhyme schemes and “flow” are especially noteworthy (see Bradley, 2009). Early rap compositions remain foundational in many ways, if only in terms of inspiration or certain aspects of the musical accompaniment (especially sampling, on which see further below) but often sound exceedingly simplistic when compared to more recent lyricists (e.g., Jay-Z, Eminem, Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, Tupac Shakur). Another critical element of the genre—indeed, one present from its earliest days—is the use of rap to discuss very serious topics, not just to excite partygoers. The first “conscious rap” song (see further below) is often said to be “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five (The Message, Sugar Hill Records, 1982; Bradley and DuBois, 2010, pp. 73–77; Watkins, 2011, pp. 43–47), which likens life in the inner city to a jungle and covers such topics as drug abuse, poverty, homelessness, prostitution, and incarceration (among others), before ending with police officers mistreating the members of the group. But even one of the very first rap hits, Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks” (Kurtis Blow, Mercury/Polygram Records, 1979), which is clearly meant to be danceable, is replete with rhymes dealing with the harder parts of life. The roots of political hip-hop (as it is sometimes called) run back to the work of artists like Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson (e.g., “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” Small Talk on 125th and Lenox, Flying Dutchman/RCA, 1970) and the Last Poets, artists that emerged from the 1960s civil rights movement and black nationalism.

The present article considers the Bible vis-à-vis rap and hip-hop and does so by first evaluating the place of the Bible within rap music, then by assessing the Bible alongside rap music, and finally by imagining the Bible as hip-hop and vice versa. It should be noted that hip-hop is generally considered the broader of the two terms, such that hip-hop includes rap but also other types of music and additional cultural aspects. So while hip-hop culture would certainly include rap, it would not be coterminous with it; rap, in turn, might be seen as the lyrical expression of hip-hop culture (cf. Utley, 2012, p. 162). This important point granted, in what follows the two terms are used largely interchangeably, though the focus is resolutely on the musical genre.

The Bible in Rap.

The first and most obvious point of connection between the Bible and rap concerns the place of biblical citation and allusion in hip-hop. No less than other art forms, there is a vast amount of such citation and allusion—far too much to detail here, but all of which relates to the larger issue of the reception history of the Bible (cf. Lieb et al., 2011). Rap, no less than Renaissance art, has received the Bible and is a testimony to the Bible’s liveliness and ongoing interpretation. To be sure, some examples of biblical citation or allusion in hip-hop are more substantive, complex, and/or generative than others, and so a continuum of sorts might be plotted from songs in which the use of the Bible is rather loose and minimal, all the way to those compositions where the interaction with scripture is extensive or otherwise profound.

One example of a less significant connection to the Bible is The Notorious B.I.G.’ s song “Ten Crack Commandments” (Life After Death, Bad Boy Records, 1997; Bradley and DuBois, 2010, pp. 477–479), which invokes the Decalogue’s decimal structure, but only as an organizing schema to list rules for a drug dealer. A large number of compositions that include brief or otherwise un(der)developed allusions to the Bible could be considered along with Biggie’s on this end of the continuum. A more recent example that seems to move toward more substantive engagement with the Bible is Pusha T’s song, “Exodus 23:1,” released in 2012. The biblical verse that lends the song its name reads: “Don’t spread false rumors. Don’t plot with evil people to act as a lying witness” (CEB). The verse is never mentioned or quoted in the song, which is, instead, an intense (and expletive-filled) tirade against another rapper. The text from Exodus apparently serves as religious justification for Pusha T’s lyrics—or some explanation of the same—though one suspects his antagonist might like to cite the very same verse in response.

Tracks that belong more solidly to the middle of the continuum—that interact with the Bible more extensively, perhaps by taking some sort of inspiration from a biblical story—are equally numerous. So, for example, in their song, “Shadrach” (Paul’s Boutique, Capitol Records, 1989; Bradley and DuBois, 2010, pp. 134–136), the Beastie Boys compare themselves to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the book of Daniel. But even here the comparison is rather muted, since the lyrics play across a wide range of apparently unrelated topics. It is only at the very end of the song, in the last couplet, in fact, that a connection to Daniel becomes most apparent: “They tell us what to do? Hell no! / Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego” (Bradley and DuBois, 2010, p. 136). In the end, then, the three Hebrew children of Daniel are evidently invoked as examples of independence in the face of authority (a point that ties in with the group’s history at that time as they had recently changed record labels). Upon subsequent reanalysis of the song, independence can be seen as a leitmotif underlying most of the lyrics, though, again, the connection to Daniel is neither obvious nor highly developed. Even so, the Jewish heritage of the Beastie Boys should not be overlooked; neither is the fact that there are three of them, since these details, too, are points of connection with the heroes from the book of Daniel.

On the opposite end of the continuum, it seems that only a few rap songs have drawn extensively from the biblical text while enjoying commercial success. An early hit from Boogie Down Productions and KRS-One, “Why Is That?” (Ghetto Music: The Blueprint of Hip Hop, Jive/RCA Records, 1989), may be the preeminent example as it engages in a rather prolonged discussion of the genealogies in Genesis to argue for the importance of the African continent in the Bible (Shem, Abraham, and Moses, among others, are all said to be black) and for appropriate education of African Americans. Of course, Christian hip-hop artists (e.g., Lecrae, Trip Lee, KB, tobyMac, Andy Mineo, KJ-52, Shai Linne), who have enjoyed great commercial success in recent years, frequently make recourse to the biblical text, with some songs even commenting on the strategies of biblical exegesis, replete with reference to concordances, commentaries, and Bible dictionaries (see Flame, “Context,” Rewind, Cross Movement Records, 2005; see Strawn, 2007).

In the aggregate, allusions to and/or citations of the Bible in hip-hop show the enduring cultural legacy of the Bible. Songs that refer to the Bible, whether in extended or brief ways, participate in the larger process of biblical interpretation, though here—as in any case of interpretive activity—one may appropriately ask after the quality of the interpretations offered: some are clearly better than others. To be sure, in the vast majority of cases, the point of the rap song, or of its allusion/citation, is not biblical interpretation proper, even if that is an inevitable (albeit small) byproduct, if only because the biblical text is usually just one part, perhaps peripheral, of the song’s overall message. In such cases, the evocation of a biblical phrase or character or story functions primarily in rhetorical fashion: to highlight an artist’s intellectual, religious, or cultural dexterity by showcasing the artist’s familiarity with a culturally and religiously important corpus. At the same time, such references lend a certain authority to the lyric or the lyricist, as, for example, when Pusha T invokes Exodus in his beef with his enemies. A variation on this theme is when rappers summon the Bible in some way only to supersede it. So, for example, Jay-Z has adopted the self-moniker “J-Hova,” which plays off of the divine name “Jehovah.” As another example, on Jay-Z’s track “Lucifer” (The Black Album, Roc-A-Fella Records, 2003), he takes the verse “vengeance is mine, says the LORD” (Deut 32:35; Rom 12:19; Heb 10:30) and applies it to himself. Kanye West and Eminem have made similar moves, with Kanye calling himself “Yeezus,” a play on Jesus (Yeezus, Roc-A-Fella Records and Def Jam Recordings, 2013), and Eminem claiming to be a “Rap God” (The Marshal Mathers LP 2, Aftermath Entertainment, Shady Records, and Interscope Records, 2013). Such examples as these demonstrate that not all biblical allusions serve (traditional) religious ends, though they may suggest a kind of religious (self-) veneration of the artist. Still further, even those tracks that do draw upon the Bible and/or are otherwise religious in nature sometimes have nothing to do with traditional Jewish or Christian religious adherence, but emerge from the Nation of Islam or its offshoot known as “The Five-Percent Nation” (see Knight, 2007; Sorett, 2009). This does not yet mention the many songs that critique traditional religion and/or reject it altogether (e.g., Arrested Development, “Fishin’ 4 Religion,” 3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days in the Life Of …, Chrysalis/EMI, 1992).

The Bible alongside Rap.

The existence of explicit citations from or allusions to the Bible indicates that a generative relationship exists (or can exist) between the Bible and hip-hop. Indeed, when these two are considered alongside each other, fresh insight is gained into both (see further Hodge, 2010; Miller, 2013; Miller and Pinn, 2014; Pinn and Miller, 2009; Utley, 2012; Watkins, 2011). Limitations of space afford brief mention of only three large areas: poetic form, commercial success (popularity), and lyrical content.

Poetic form.

While it is indubitably a musical phenomenon involving lyrics and instrumental accompaniment of some sort, the poetic nature of rap is an undeniable and irreplaceable aspect of the art form that no doubt comprises a major part of its appeal. (The fact that most instances of rap do not require singing ability may add to its success by making the genre widely reperformable: fans need only memorize and repeat, not be able to carry a tune.) From its very inception, rap was closely associated with poetry, especially of the performative/spoken word variety. Rap is not only written poetry, then, but “public art,” with “rappers … perhaps our greatest public poets” (Bradley, 2009, p. xiii). Indeed, thanks to its global success, “rap is now the most widely disseminated poetry in the history of the world” (p. xiii). This is all the more remarkable when one realizes that rap contains “some of the most scrupulously formal poetry composed today” (p. xvi).

While biblical poetry operates with different conventions than modern hip-hop, it is nevertheless true that a significant portion of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible also comes in poetic form. Like rap, the poetry of the Bible is actually a macro-genre made up of a number of poetic subgenres or specialized poetries. These include prophetic poetry (e.g., Amos, Isaiah); the poetry of wisdom (e.g., Proverbs, Job); and the poetry of prayer, including lamentation, imprecation, and praise (e.g., Psalms 13, 137, and 150, respectively). Rap music, too, especially in its most “religious” moments—those places where it intersects with the Bible and/or religious traditions based on or otherwise derived from scripture—can traffic in proclaimed or prophetic rhetoric, address ethical issues, be couched as prayer to the divine, and/or contain vitriolic cursing of enemies. There are too many examples from hip-hop to list here; with regard to prophetic poetry, it must suffice to recall the serious topics that marked hip-hop’s lyrics from its earliest days, which has blossomed into “conscious rap” (see further below). This type of rap need not be explicitly religious but is often called prophetic by its admirers, with artists like Tupac Shakur, Talib Kweli, and Public Enemy considered prophets (see Dyson 1996, pp. 165–171; Keyes, 2002; Perry, 2004; Watkins, 2011, pp. 49–52, 97–113). As for prayer, many albums include snippets of prayer to God here and there or couch entire songs as prayers (see, e.g., Kendrick Lamar, “Sherane a.k.a. Master Splinter’s Daughter,” good kid, m.A. A. d. city, Top Dog, Aftermath, Interscope, 2012; DMX, It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, Def Jam, 1998). With regard to imprecation, rap often revels in braggadocio and one-upmanship, with many songs taking such competition to highly violent rhetorical levels (see Watkins, 2011, p. 34, for connections of even this kind of rap to the praise of God). In many cases, especially in conscious rap, the entities that are marked for destruction are not specific individuals (let alone competitors) but systemic societal evils like poverty or racism (e.g., Public Enemy, “Burn Hollywood Burn” and “911 Is a Joke,” Fear of a Black Planet, Def Jam Recordings and Columbia Records, 1990).

A particularly intriguing aspect of rap’s poetic form—both lyrically and instrumentally—is the way it abounds in reuse of prior materials and allusion to the same. Hip-hop’s not infrequent citation of the Bible is a case in point, but rap’s intertexuality is truly expansive, ranging far beyond (indeed, mostly beyond) religious texts and topics. The Beastie Boys’ “Shadrach” is an instructive example. The song, slightly over four minutes in length, includes references or allusions to a stunning range of topics, including Batman’s nemesis The Riddler; AC/DC’s song “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)” (For Those About to Rock, We Salute You, Albert/Atlantic Records, 1981); the motion picture Putney Swope (1969, directed by Robert Downey Sr.); the law firm of Jacoby and Meyers; Goodyear tires; Brooklyn’s street fair known as the Atlantic Antic; catch phrases like “wine and women and song” and “even Steven”; the movie character Rambo; the figure of Robin Hood; the authors J. D. Salinger and Charles Dickens; the Beatitudes; the restaurant Kentucky Fried Chicken; U.S. President Harry S. Truman; the iconic mascot of Mad magazine, Alfred E. Neuman; the holy chalice; the televangelists Jimmy Swaggert and Jerry Falwell; the racecar driver Mario Andretti; the Cadillac Fleetwood automobile; and the songs “King Tim III (Personality Jock)” (see above) and “Amazing Grace.” To be sure, all art and poetry depends—in one degree or another—on prior work (cf. Bloom, 1997), but rap has taken such interaction to levels previously unimagined in music—or, at least, is more explicit about such dependence. Many rap songs simply would not exist without this sort of dense intertextuality. As a result, much that happens in rap is lost on those audiences who cannot or do not catch the allusions. So it is that some artists have taken to “decoding” their own lyrics (see Jay-Z, 2010); the website includes extensive annotation to thousands of songs.

The reuse of material in rap is manifested not only in the lyrics but also in much of the musical accompaniment. Given its origins in dance parties and the ability of DJs to mix records together and highlight breaks, rap has long incorporated “samples”—snippets, whether taken directly or re-created from another, preexisting song—as major musical elements in its new compositions. The very first commercial rap hit, Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” employed Chic’s earlier disco hit “Good Times” (Risqué, Atlantic, 1979) in this very way. Later, after legal action was threatened, the writers of “Good Times” were given co-credits for “Rapper’s Delight.” Subsequent use of sampling in hip-hop was extensive with the Beastie Boys’ album Paul’s Boutique (1989), something of a classic in this regard (see Nielsen, 2013). The song “Shadrach” alone includes samples from no fewer than nine previous compositions (in chronological order): “Funky Drummer” by James Brown (1969), “Never Let ’Em Say” by Ballin’ Jack (1970), “Hot and Nasty” by Black Oak Arkansas (1971), “Loose Booty” by Sly & the Family Stone (1974), “Do Your Dance” by Rose Royce (1977), “King Tim III (Personality Jock)” by the Fatback Band (1979), “That’s the Joint” by Funky Four Plus One (1980), “Sugarhill Groove” by The Sugarhill Gang (1980), and “Good to Go” by Trouble Funk (1986).

Several aspects of the phenomenon of sampling are important to consider in a discussion of hip-hop alongside the Bible. The first thing to observe is that the reuse of previous material is polyvalent in terms of significance and meaning. On the one hand, sampling is a method and tool of expedience: Why re-create a great hook when you can simply reuse one that has already proved highly successful and effective? On the other hand, reuse is a method of recognizing and offering respect to preexisting artists and their compositions. In this way rap music and rap musicians function like historians and serve as historical repositories. On yet another level, no matter how many samples a song includes or how long and pronounced a particular sample is, the new composition is, by definition, new. Along with reuse, then, one must also reckon with resignification of the old in the new, even if the new song is closely if complexly related to the preceding composition(s).

The sampling in Will Smith’s album Big Willie Style (Columbia, 1997) can be used to illustrate these points. Virtually every hit off that album drew heavily on a preexisting composition: “Gettin Jiggy Wit It” sampled Sister Sledge’s “He’s the Greatest Dancer” (We Are Family, Cotillion Records, 1979); “Miami” sampled The Whispers’ single “And the Beat Goes On” (Solar, 1980); “Men in Black” sampled Patrice Rushen’s “Forget Me Nots” (Straight From the Heart, Elektra, 1982); and “Just the Two of Us” sampled Grover Washington Jr.’s “Just the Two of Us” (Winelight, Elektra, 1980). The technique of sampling remains constant in all of these songs, but the reuse with resignification of the preceding compositions varies dramatically. So, in the case of “Gettin Jiggy Wit It,” Smith can be seen as adopting the persona of Sister Sledge’s “greatest dancer” such that Smith himself is now the greatest dancer and his new dance (the Jiggy) the greatest dance. In “Miami,” the Florida city is praised as one that never sleeps—a place where, to use The Whispers’ lyric, “the beat goes on and on and on.” These two uses might be labeled affirming ones, wherein the artist adopts or coopts preexisting material to underscore or support the artist’s own personal or rhetorical point. In “Men in Black,” the exact opposite is on display—the song by Rushen has her hoping that she and her lover will never forget each other, whereas Smith’s song (the theme song for the 1997 movie by the same name, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld) inverts the sentiment to ensure forgetfulness (as per the plot of the movie). Here the sample is reversed or applied ironically. Finally “Just the Two of Us” transforms the original composition by applying the prior musical setting and chorus, not to two lovers, but to the affection a father feels toward his son.

Not every album evidences the same range or thoughtfulness in its use of samples; in point of fact, it is not entirely clear if the relationships between the originals and the new compositions described above are altogether intentional on Smith’s part or (mostly) created by later listeners who are attuned to the intertexts and their possible interrelationship(s). Either way, sampling demonstrates, in the musical realm, what so much lyrical borrowing does in the arena of vocal performance. In Bradley’s words, rap “relies on originality and recycling, all at once”:

"Biting another MC’s style is the greatest crime a lyricist can commit, and yet rap could not exist had it not borrowed heavily from other art forms. That both of these things can be true is rap’s fundamental paradox. … As an art form, rap relies on repetition—but repetition with a difference … true MCs have the ability to make what they take from others into something all their own." (2009, p. 212)

In truth, there is no real paradox here at all since all art traffics in both the traditional and the innovative.

Uncredited sampling quickly led to lawsuits—most (in)famously with rappers like MC Hammer (Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ’Em, Capital/EMI Records, 1990) and Vanilla Ice (To The Extreme, SBK, 1990) in the early 1990s—such that sampling is used far less frequently in contemporary hip-hop than at earlier points in the history of the genre. Only the most successful (i.e., richest) artists now have the funds to pay the often exorbitant costs required to use a sample. Nielsen (2013) has argued that the decline of sampling, which has been a staple in rap from the start, is accompanied by a kind of cultural amnesia among recent artists. They no longer (re)search the old songs and hits if only because they no longer have reason (or resources) to sample from them. The loss is a large one, equivalent to a loss of historical awareness about, and the historical repositories of, rap and hip-hop culture, along with all that that entails. As a result, in Nielsen’s opinion, more recent rap simply is not as profound.

The Bible, too, abounds in extensive reuse of previously available cultural material. The way the Bible alludes to and borrows directly from its ancient Near Eastern congeners can be likened to sampling (see Delamarter et al., 2007, pp. 66–69; Strawn, 2005a). The opening chapters of Genesis, for example, are often compared with antecedent material from Egypt and Mesopotamia. And yet, when the Bible is considered alongside rap on this point, one sees that the way many biblical scholars have viewed the Bible’s interaction with its ancient Near Eastern context is often far too flat, interested only in questions of direct genetic dependence. To be sure, the new, later, biblical composition is related to the older, earlier, preceding one, but that is not what is most interesting about the reuse. Biblical “sampling” is no less creative than that found in hip-hop; innovation and resignification are every bit as important as the mechanics of borrowing and dependence. Far from being merely derivative, “stolen,” or otherwise secondary, the analogue provided by sampling in hip-hop indicates that the use of extracanonical materials within the canon proper is a dense practice where meaning is made amid complex webs of signification and on multiple rhetorical levels (e.g., echoing, seconding, and supporting along with reframing, changing, and reversing). Indeed, in this way, the recent phenomenon of mashups, wherein two (or more) originally discrete musical compositions are combined to make an entirely new one, may be an even more effective analogue than sampling proper (see Rapko, 2011; cf. McClure, 2011, pp. 83–108).

The practice of rappers referring to other rappers (whether by sample or by lyric)—intra-rap citation, as it were—also finds its equivalent in the biblical materials that can borrow from preexisting canonical material as easily as from the noncanonical. Such interaction can be seen as further evidence of intertextual theory (cf. Fewell, 1992) or be related to the phenomenon of inner-biblical exegesis (Fishbane, 1988). Either way, it finds a contemporary parallel in rap and hip-hop. In this case, too, resignification is always at work, regardless of the specifics of biblical repetition and reuse. So, to cite an example somewhat at random from 1 Chronicles, according to Sara Japhet (1993, p. 504), the “borrowed phrases and verses [in chapter 29] are not literary fossils; they are sensitively modulated and adapted to the new context, from which they derive their specific relevance.” Or, as further examples, one might note the intertextual linkage, or samples, of the Sinai pericope in the story of Elijah at Horeb in 1 Kings 19, or the way so many psalms draw extensively, but selectively, on antecedent material in the course of making their new poetic compositions (e.g., Psalms 74, 78, 107, 136).

Commercial success and popularity.

The popularity of rap music is an empirical fact. There are no doubt many reasons for this success, but the widespread appeal of hip-hop is not without its share of curiosity. The highly explicit lyrics in terms of both sex and violence that are often found in rap are well known but have not prevented the genre from mass appeal and consumption across demographic groups in the United States and abroad. Here again, interesting parallels might be drawn between the Bible, on the one hand, and hip-hop, on the other. The Bible, too, has its fair share of “explicit lyrics,” especially when it comes to the topic of violence. Still further, not unlike comparable examples from rap, biblical compositions can conjoin the religious and the violent in shocking ways. To cite an example, LL Cool J, in his hit song “Mama Said Knock You Out” (Mama Said Knock You Out, Def Jam, Columbia, CBS, 1990), moves seamlessly from extreme violence to thanking God for his ability to “rock hard.” One might compare the similar conjunction of religion and violence in Psalm 58:

God, break their teeth out of their mouths!Tear out the lions’ jawbones, LORD!Let them dissolve like water flowing away …Like the snail that dissolves into slime,like a woman’s stillborn child,let them never see the sun …But the righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done,when they wash their feet in the blood of the wicked.

(Ps 58:6–10; CEB)

Many readers are disturbed by the presence of violent sentiments in the pages of Holy Writ, though in at least some cases the same readers might not have any problem with the violent sentiments found in their favorite rap songs, some of which may well have biblical or religious allusions (see above). In point of fact, the reception of rappers such as Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, and Eminem (to name just a few)—each of whom is known for extremely explicit lyrics—into mainstream, even “family-friendly” media is a noteworthy development not unrelated to the question of how violent psalms were received into the biblical canon (see Strawn, 2013; cf. Strawn, 2005b). To be sure, the use of such artists as spokespeople for products is often a case of simple and crass consumerism—capitalizing on commercial success in one arena in the hopes of doing the same in another. And yet even the most brutal subgenre of hip-hop known as gangsta rap has proved to be highly marketable. The classic gangsta rap album, N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton (Ruthless, Priority, EMI, 1988), was certified double platinum with more than 2 million units sold. By some accounts, as much as 80 percent of the record’s sales took place in the suburbs, far from the mean streets of inner-city Los Angeles that are described in the record, a point further underscored by the later success of the album in the United Kingdom and Ireland upon its 15th anniversary rerelease (Strawn, 2013, p. 406; cf. Kitwana, 2005).

One might posit that the remarkable success of gangsta rap, and other types of explicit speech in hip-hop, is not despite the vitriolic content but precisely because of it. This is to suggest that, among other factors, audiences (of many and various sorts and demographics) seem to recognize something of themselves in such content or otherwise resonate with it in some fashion. If so, the recognition and resonance with gangsta rap not only facilitates its reception and adoption (along with massive sales) but also may represent a kind of integration wherein listeners realize, even if only at unconscious levels, that brutality and suffering mark the human condition in real and undeniable ways. In the words of Walter Brueggemann:

"Vengeance is here, among us and within us and with power. It is not only there in the Psalms [and in gangsta rap, etc.] but it is here in the human heart and the human community. … The real theological problem … is not that vengeance is there in the Psalms, but that it is here in our midst. … The capacity for hatred belongs to the mystery of personhood." (2007, pp. 64–65)

Or, more pithily: “Willy-nilly, we are vengeful creatures” (Brueggemann, 2007, pp. 80–81).

But there is certainly more going on here than simply revenge fantasies. The brutal candor that marks gangsta rap goes back to earliest rap’s honesty about the difficulties of inner-city life. A full recognition of the socioeconomic and historical context(s) of rap and hip-hop demonstrates that, while anger and rage mark (protest) rap, so also do grief and sadness. It is these latter that often lead to the former, whether in hip-hop proper or in the imprecatory psalms and elsewhere in the Bible.

While this is no doubt true, a number of important differences can nevertheless be drawn between hip-hop and the Bible at precisely this point. For one thing, the level of explicitness that marks the most vehement of gangsta rap far surpasses what one finds in the imprecatory psalms. Both “texts” are poetic, but there is a kind of reticence that marks the Bible’s speech about violence (and sexuality) that the most explicit rap delights in transgressing and transcending. Yet another difference is the nature of the two “texts.” One is touted as holy scripture by many and should perhaps be held to a higher standard than more ephemeral compositions designed for entertainment purposes. Then again, for the hip-hop generation, rap is as “canonical” and authoritative a text as any religious document (see further below). Finally, one might wonder about “venting” in rap versus psychological integration in the Psalms. To be sure, one cannot hope to characterize as large and diverse a phenomenon like hip-hop, which dwarfs the 150-psalm Psalter in terms of size and complexity. Even so, if one focuses solely on the reception of gangsta-rapper-turned-actor Ice Cube into mainstream, family-friendly media vis-à-vis the reception of the imprecatory psalms into the Psalter, the latter can be seen as far more integrated than Cube, who seems, in comparison, to juxtapose his different roles rather than truly integrate them (see Strawn, 2013). The imprecatory psalms integrate their violent context within their dominant genre as prayer to the divine. This means that the violence is held back from going public against one’s enemies (since it is prayer to God, not vitriol against them) while simultaneously letting the violence go—not repressing it, but setting it free, in spoken words uttered to God in the context of worship (see Miller, 2004). The imprecatory psalms are also integrated within the book of Psalms as a whole. The larger Psalter exhibits more than one way to relate to, or speak about, one’s enemies (see, e.g., Ps 35:11–16). By offering the reader a full grammar of prayer—one that is as brutally candid as it is heart-wrenchingly beautiful—the Psalms offer a kind of integration, within scripture, that may actually keep readers and pray-ers from enacting violence themselves, even as the very same integration facilitates real healing via honest disclosure (Strawn, 2014). Whether hip-hop can do the same in quite the same way might be doubted by some (but see further below); it at least seems true that some rappers are not much interested in this kind of integration, healing, or transformation of violence, but have made lucrative careers instead by reveling in it. Whatever the case, both rap and the Bible can be instructively compared as materials that have enjoyed widespread popularity despite (or perhaps because of) the inclusion of objectionable material.

Lyrical content.

Objectionable content is only one (small) part of the Bible and hip-hop. Indeed, both corpora, the former no less than the latter (despite its comparatively smaller size) are deep pools. “The Bible says x” is rarely, if ever correct, if only because the Bible might also (and often does) say y and z, not to mention the opposite of x. The Bible is a library, that is, and libraries say many different things. So does rap. It is not fair, then, to condemn the genre as a whole given the presence of misogynistic or violent sentiment simply because not all rap songs participate in such. Many do, but many do not. Those that do are, of course, open to significant critique in the same way that the Bible has been critiqued from feminists and womanists; such criticisms must be heard (see, e.g., Morgan, 1999; Watkins, 2011, pp. 115–130), but they do not apply to the entirety of the complex whole, which is, again, quite vast.

An important subgenre of hip-hop that was mentioned earlier but that deserves further discussion at this point is that of “conscious rap” or “political hip-hop.” While all of hip-hop might be seen as “a response to oppression” (Utley, 2012, p. 1), conscious rap is a particular type of protest music that takes as its focus significant political issues like poverty, racism, oppression, consumerism, and the like. These topics are covered in other types of rap, as well, but the political edge in conscious rap is what marks it as somewhat unique, not to mention inspiring. This rap is also often “underground”: not as popular as other types, not as mainstream, and rarely if ever Top 40. But even the most popular of rappers frequently touch on political matters (e.g., Kanye West, “Diamonds from Sierra Leone,” Late Registration, Roc-A-Fella, Def Jam, 2005), and political rappers can occasionally gain some notoriety (e.g., Talib Kweli).

Despite its powerful rhetoric, some have doubted that conscious rap can actually deliver on the political promises that it makes. McWhorter (2008), for example, is particularly critical of those visions that border on the epochal if not apocalyptic—that envision dramatic overturnings of society such that all will be set right in terms of, say, race relations. According to McWhorter, rap will not lead to a second civil rights movement. That revolutionary moment has already taken place, and the 1960s “will not happen again,” he avers (2008, p. 135), even though it remains true that the United States has much to do to live into the hopes and dreams of full racial equality. McWhorter’s ultimate point is that, by itself, rap’s “realness,” its honesty, will not produce political change, nor does it suffice to make rappers “prophetic.” “Real prophets go beyond just describing things. They suggest something larger, something more. They tell us where to go,” he writes (2008, p. 78). “Part of what it is to be human,” he continues, “is to work beyond the ‘real,’ which is what produces religion and art. Working beyond the ‘real’ also produced the civil rights movement. ‘Real’ alone is just easy” (p. 165). So, without “reasoning, discovering, and building”—without concrete plans of action and the like—hip-hop ends up being “all about the beat,” but, says McWhorter, real life is about more than just the beat (p. 165). To put McWhorter’s point more pithily, if not directly: Does hip-hop run food pantries or homeless shelters? If not, how does it hope to redress poverty? Good beats and dope rhymes alone simply will not suffice.

Two points of connection to the Bible might be mentioned at this juncture. The first is to note how Brueggemann (2001) has argued that the prophetic task is composed of both criticizing and energizing. Criticizing dismantles “the dominant consciousness,” while energizing moves “persons and communities by its promise of another time and situation toward which the community of faith may move” (2001, p. 3). In McWhorter’s perspective, hip-hop deals exclusively in the first category—that of criticism. While criticism is important, it is not the whole of the prophetic task, and so even “real” rap would not qualify as “real” prophecy. But insofar as the biblical prophets energize as well as criticize, biblical prophecy passes McWhorter’s two criteria as legitimate: it includes plans for action in the real world, it is not solely powerful poetry (though it is that as well).

And yet the second point of connection must be immediately mentioned—namely, that it is not always clear that the biblical prophets were effective in their energizing, not, at least, in the realpolitik sense that McWhorter wants. In Brueggemann’s terms, the words of the prophets were sometimes firmly promissory—concerning “another time and situation,” one “toward which the community may,” but equally well may not, “move.” Still further, it seems that in some cases the plans laid out by the prophets did not pan out—at least not fully—as evidenced in the disappointment registered by those who returned from the Babylonian exile and had to square the harsh realities of postexilic life with the high visions of Isaiah 40–55 and Ezekiel 40–48. In this way, even the “real” biblical prophets may fail to live up to McWhorter’s standards. That chastens biblical prophecy, on the one hand, but may equally chasten McWhorter’s critique of hip-hop, on the other. In both cases—that of the Bible and that of rap—it takes not only the lyrical vision of daring and insightful poets but also the hard work of enacting what the poets have seen and said. “Faith without deeds is dead” (Jas 2:26; NIV) is certainly true; but then again so is “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Prov 29:18; KJV).

The Bible as Hip-hop/Hip-hop as Bible.

Much of what has been said above could be mentioned in this last category, which imagines the Bible as hip-hop and hip-hop as (a kind of) Bible. So, for example, seeing the Bible as a dense collection of samples or as a mashup is a way of seeing it as hip-hop, or at least through the lens of hip-hop. Or, again, the critique of oppression that one finds in the pages of the Bible and in so much rap are ways the two could be seen as mirror images of each other. Yet another way to relate the Bible and hip-hop is to recognize how the latter has become a way of life or religion of sorts for many people, replacing mainstream religions like Christianity altogether (see Sorett, 2009; Watkins, 2011). According to KRS-One (2009), there is something called “The Gospel of Hip Hop.” Alternatively, even for those who remain committed to historic forms of Christianity, hip-hop can (and has) become so powerful a culture and worldview that traditional aspects of religious experience and practice can be re-visioned and refracted through it, leading to, among other things, phenomena like hip-hop prayer books (Holder, 2006).

Beyond these considerations, it is worth reflecting further on the fact that both the Bible and rap are complex mixtures of things deemed by audiences to be variously “good” or “bad.” The case was made earlier that in some instances (namely, that of the Psalms and violent rhetoric) the biblical materials do a better job at integrating both poles in a way that contains and ultimately transforms the “bad” parts. But many rappers also know about integration and transformation and try to do both at various times and in various ways (see Strawn, 2013, p. 416). Quite apart from individual performers, rap and hip-hop as a whole remains a complex mixture of both “good” and “bad” (however defined) and is thus a juxtaposition of the two, if not integration of both on the way to a greater good. In truth, hip-hop is too vast a phenomenon to categorize in this (or any one) way, though it is more than evident that devotion to hip-hop can rival that of the most faithful adherents to the Bible. Among other things, such “piety” allows devotees of either corpus to hold to the overall goodness of the “text” despite the bad parts and/or to justify the bad parts in light of the good parts (cf. Watkins, 2011, esp. pp. 67–82). Hip-hop, no less than the Bible, is “a way of life, a means by which to view the world and act in accordance with that vision” (Pinn, 2009, p. 106). In the end, then, religious devotion, whether to hip-hop or the Bible, provides the faithful with the means by which their sacred corpus can function as, and remain functional as, authoritative literature—which is to say, as scripture: something people can and do live their lives by.



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Brent A. Strawn