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Faith and Hip-Hop...part 1

July 1, 2005

I’m sure that I am not the first person to write about the connection between hip-hop and faith. Of course, I’d like to think that I am the first Southside Chicago bred white-boy who connected the dots and found the roots of my faith written into the rhythmically crafted lyrics, but I’m almost positive that I’m not. Whatever the case I just had to write about how hip-hop has affected my faith. If nothing else I hope that the title of this article caught your attention and sparked your curiosity. “Faith and Hip-Hop?” you say, “How do those two go together?” Let’s have a look shall we. Here is part 1 of my series on faith and hip-hop.Faith and spirituality are two elements that, if you believe, can be found in all nooks and crannies of life. But as I see it, the issue at hand for quite a few people is that they don’t believe or they have struggled for so long against religion that they have given up. And who am I to tell them anything different?

I live and work in a land where faith and life go hand in hand. In Guatemala, my friends, my family, and my co-workers have faith that each day will move forward, that each day will bring a new light, and that each day will come to a close. This has led me to a whole new realm of realizations.

Throughout this experience that we call life, I continue down my walkway of faith, continually adding to my own definition of who I am and what I embody in my life. Every day is an adventure, a learning experience, something that takes a piece out of every interaction, every piece of information that we ingest, every piece of the world that shapes our lives, from the minute to the gigantic. Lately, this adventure, this journey in my life and faith has taken a turn that I did not see coming. But it is in those unexpected moments, those surprises that sit right over the next horizon that we experience our lives and learn about ourselves. What follows is a day in my life, an unforeseen adventure, and a lesson hidden in the wind and blown into my life without warning.

Popular mainstream music of every sort has always been sprinkled with hints and allusions to religion and faith but most of the time it comes in veiled references. Now and then it’s an off hand thanking of God, occasionally it relates to some form of belief. But on the whole, mainstream music is a barren wasteland, a desert you might say in relation to lyrics specifically targeted at faith, belief, and God. Just as religion and prayer are quarantined from public school classrooms like the plague, in the past, pop music about God rarely found its way into our homes. Kanye West, a hip-hop artist from Chicago, writes, quite accurately, that

“They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus
That means guns, sex, lies, video tapes
But if I talk about God my record won't get played Huh?”

But an oasis has begun to grow in the desert. Maybe grow is the wrong word. An oasis has been accepted in the desert since for years hip-hop has brought a message. Kanye’s album, which includes the song “Jesus Walks”, an absolute statement of how faith moves him, won three Grammies this year. My question is, how can the church, how can we as a people of belief, and how can I as a person who is still treading water in my faith look to hip-hop, look to main-stream culture to help us examine our faiths?

During the month of May, similar to many other months, I have spent many hours in what I call my church, in my own personal sanctuary. At times I look for a lesson, frequently I just meditate, and on occasion I write. The pews in my church are the torn leather seats on a second glass Guatemalan bus. Compressed into these bench seats made for elementary school children along with the 70 other members of the congregation trying to find a small piece of leather on which to park their tired bodies, we gallop down the two-lane roads of Guatemala, weaving and battling with the montage of pickups full of egg flats, enormous bull cows with their skin flapping off their scrawny bodies, emaciated dogs who decided to take a nap on the road, and other buses, mad tubs of metal screeching through the countryside. Sometimes I see the other people on the bus as part of my space and sometimes it is just I in the sanctuary. As I have written before, this is where I find my piece of mind, where I worship. More often than not you will find me with my headphones on and some muddled blend of folk, rock, pop, jazz, Latin, and/or hip-hop infiltrating my head through one ear since only one of my earpieces works. This list reflects the diversity of my tastes in music. On one of my various trips to the church I got much more than I bargained for.

My head was turned, eyes focused out the grimy pane of glass that could have used a few squirts of Windex and a rag. But still, through that smudged portal, I watched the country side fly by. Suddenly I realized that a message was streaming through my one ear, that a sermon was speaking to me by way of the music and the setting. I was listening to a song by Common, another hip-hop artist from the Southside of Chicago, my hometown. The song is called G.O.D. (Gaining One’s Definition.) I started paying close attention to the lyrics and, well, let me invite you to join me in my church.

“Please rise for the reading.”

“Our lesson today is from Common, the song is titled G.O.D. (Gaining One’s Definition) from the album One Day It’ll All Make Sense.”

I fight, with myself in the ring of doubt and fear
The rain ain't gone, but I can still see clear
As a child, given religion with no answer to why
Just told believe in Jesus cuz for me he did die
Curiosity killed the catechism
Understanding and wisdom became the rhythm that I played to
And became a slave to master self
A rich man is one with knowledge, happiness and his health
My mind had dealt with the books of Zen, Tao the lessons
Koran and the Bible, to me they all vital
And got truth within 'em, gotta read them boys
You just can't skim 'em, different branches of belief
But one root that stem 'em, but people of the venom try to trim 'em
And use religion as an emblem
When it should be a natural way of life
Who am I or they to say to whom you pray ain't right
That's who got you doin right and got you this far
Whether you say, "in Jesus name" or "Al hum du'Allah"
Long as you know it's a bein' that's supreme to you
You let that show towards others in the things you do

“The word of G.O.D…”

Take a hard look at the reading for today. Just as Common asks us, don’t just skim over it, break it down. To me, it represents a huge part of what I have struggled through with religion and continue to question every day. In these lines the complexity of my faith journey is dissected just like a frog in 8th grade science lab. It’s taken apart piece-by-piece, following a detailed set of instructions, it’s examined from every angle, and I learn from it. It’s given a beat, wrapped into the soul, and spit back out again with incredible clarity.

I still fight religion in many ways. I still have so many doubts, so many fears about taking down the barrier that I set up years and year ago. I see that many people my age have that same issue, that many of us were given religion as children and not told why we had to believe just that we had to believe, not why we had to go to church and sit still for 2 hours but that we had to go to church and dress in our Sunday best. But over the last few years I have really looked into religion. As I moved further and further into my 20s pieces kept falling into place but there was always one underlying principle, I was going to do it my way, I was going to figure out my own religion and spirituality without letting anyone tell me what to believe. Yet I would do all this while allowing people, books, music, and a walk in the woods, etc. to guide me and I would just have to see what I found along the way. I continue to explore my own sense of spirituality, my relationship with the figure of Christ and what that represents, the fact that religion is a way of life practiced in many different forms, and that faith is a driving force, something that can rip people apart or bring them close together.

I have listened to so many different perspectives. I have been told that faith is like a mountain with many paths to the top, that you can start up one path, then double back, find another, and keep going. You can do this over and over again but eventually all paths lead to the top. I have watched people of diverse faiths united in a common prayer in languages as varied as the dishes at a potluck dinner. On the other end, I have been told that there is only one way to worship God, but what I have seen is that there are many ways, that we can all be one people with God. And here, encased in this song is exactly how I feel. “Who am I or they to say to whom you pray ain't right.” And the beat goes on.

The words in this reading say more than I could ever hope to analyze and are clearer than anything I could ever hope to write here. So why did I choose to share this piece with you, well, because of two things. First of all, it is important for me to work out my faith journey in writing and just as I said earlier, there are so many people, songs, writings, etc. that have helped me along the way. Thus, I want to make sure that I share with others who are on that same kind of journey or bring to someone who maybe is a little more established in their faith than I, a new perspective. I don’t say that anybody has to read this or even take it seriously. This piece is more an inspired composition for me than for any one else.

I believe that faith is a journey that never ends, an adventure that we continually add to piece by piece. In that same breath I was thinking about how to work faith into the lives of those who maybe really haven’t considered it as a part of their lives. From what I have seen while living here in Central America and traveling around the countryside, the presence of faith, of any sort, guides and drives peoples lives. In the face of extreme depression, poverty, sadness, challenges, etc. faith can act as a catalyst, a channel by which people can keep taking two steps forward even after that one step back. I don’t say that people have to believe in God or believe as I do, I would never say that, that’s not my style. But what I hope to provide here is another approach to finding faith in every day life, on the streets of whatever town you live in, in the eyes of the people around you, in the most unlikely of places. And to utilize that faith, that spirituality, that religion, that “anything you want to call it” in everyday life. You can take it or leave it.

As Common says,

“Long as you know it's a bein' that's supreme to you
You let that show towards others in the things you do”

And let the people say, “Amen”.


Paul Pitcher is a missionary with the Christian Action of Guatemala (ACG). He serves as a communication and youth worker with ACG.

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