Hip-Hop Fridays: Can Hip Hop Give Youth A Voice In Church? by Bakari Kitwana

I have always found the expression "Christian hip-hop" to be a bit of an oxymoron. It's a phrase that seems as loaded with contradiction as, say, the emerging term "hip-hop feminist."

But this is what happens when tradition meets the new. It's what happens when generations collide. Much of this whole debate around Christian hip-hop is just that, one of personal preference, generational division and change.

I'm reminded here of a comment Jesse Jackson made in summer of 1995 during the recurring national debate over prayer in the public schools. As long as math and physics are taught, Jackson said, as long as there are Thursday night parties and Friday morning exams, there will be prayer in schools. And as long as hip-hop is the culture of today's youth, there will always be hip-hop in the church.

Given the growing list of Christian hip-hop acts and even ministries that cater to hip-hop audiences, the question of whether or not hip-hop has a place in the church is not the real issue. The real question is how can a more meaningful dialogue be nurtured between the two? Answering this question requires give-and-take on both sides.

Those who are resistant to hip-hop in the church need to confront at least a few of the many misconceptions about hip-hop. For example, those skeptical of hip-hop should understand that hip-hop music is just one aspect of a youth culture that speaks to a larger lifestyle.

Hip-hop skeptics also must realize that true hip-hop is more than just what they hear and see on the radio and television. Too often, these media depend on sensational images to secure their market position. They are not trying to preserve the art and culture of hip-hop. Hence, they magnify sex and drugs and glorify the anti-authority and materialistic components of hip-hop. In the process, they define, albeit inaccurately, hip-hop for those outside the culture.

But hip-hop isn't by nature all decadent. It's a mode of expression first that tends to be a bit more gritty and edgy as it attempts to find a voice in a mainstream culture that has too long denied young people their say.

Likewise, young people who feel strongly about hip-hop's place in the church have to do their part to make it work for hard-core churchgoers. Few would dispute that hip-hop can't be brought into the church as is. But it may not be enough to simply change the message and keep the packaging. Those who would bridge hip-hop with Christianity must grapple with the contradictions that hip-hop poses for a Christian lifestyle.

The rapper Mase (one of the biggest stars on P. Diddy's Rap Label Bad Boy), who left the hip-hop world at the height of his success in the late 1990s and be came a minister, is just one ex ample. Mase says he felt he couldn't serve what he calls "two masters," hip-hop and God. For him these worlds were in conflict.

Having grown up in the black church and having grown up with hip-hop, in a way I agree with Mase. As a result, I tend to keep these worlds separate. When in search of God, I'm not looking in a record store or a night club or in a music video - although I've experienced spiritual moments and found divine inspiration in all of these places. And if I want Outkast or Common, I'm not looking for them in the church, either.

While bringing the two worlds together is not my personal choice, the optimist in me begs to differ. Namely, if it brings people to have faith and makes kids come to church who previously didn't want to go, then why not?

Bakari Kitwana is the author of "The Hip-Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African American Culture." and can be e-mailed at bakhannkru@aol.com

Friday, July 11, 2003