Childish Gambino dances in the music video for “This Is America” (YouTube/Vevo).

Counter-Spells

The theology of hip-hop challenges the idols of our time.

I ’ve been thinking a lot about Thomas Merton’s infamous street epiphany lately, when the Trappist monk had the sudden and jolting revelation that God is uncontainable and omnipresent, capable of appearing in every fleck and filament of creation, in all things near to, and far from, familiar sites of the sacred. Merton’s epiphany, so his account goes, occurred at the corner of 4th Street and Walton in Louisville, as the walls that had separated him from the bustling masses came crashing down and he realized that he was one with them. The experience left him a changed man, his soul now fired by a dream of justice that spilled over the boundaries of the monastery. He had once stepped away from the world to seek God, and now this vision inspired a return, leading him to a deeper involvement with events of the day, especially the civil-rights and anti-war movements.

Merton’s revelation, of course, has a rich and ancient pedigree in Catholic thought, apparent in Jesus’ parables and sketches of grace among persons, places, and things considered unclean; in Meister Eckhart’s insistence that God is present in the stable and fireside as much as in the churches; in Ignatius of Loyola’s conviction that God is in all things; and in liberation theology’s intuition that one can encounter God in the face of the poor and oppressed, the stranger and the refugee.

Such theological intuitions have also been at the root of my own interest in hip-hop, a subject that has occupied my teaching and scholarship for close to two decades now. I introduced a class on this subject at the University of Arizona in the early 2000s, intent on exploring the intersections of the sacred and profane in hip-hop, a culture that includes graffiti writing, b-boying, deejaying/beat-making, and the art of emceeing or rapping. I didn’t grow up surrounded by books—I was the first in my Mexican-American family to graduate from college—so rappers were the first to enchant me with their verbal skills. They introduced me to the rich possibilities of language, how vowels and consonants can be stretched or swallowed, how meaning can exist on the surface of the sound alone, how words can flow and move together like a school of fish. And they introduced me, long before I read the words of liberation theology or Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, to the presumption that God could be found in surprising and unexpected locations, that the word of God could carry in the wind and fall on one’s ears like a “shout in the street.”

There are moments in hip-hop when the power of the music can melt away all the barriers that separate us from the poor of the world, reminding us that we share the same humanity, the same fate.

I recall heading to class at the University of Chicago, where I was a graduate student, with Tupac, Public Enemy, Nas, OutKast, and Cypress Hill ringing in my ears and rattling my bones. Part of their allure, I see now, was the way their beats and rhymes not only complemented my interest in Afro-Latino theologies, but acknowledged and celebrated underprivileged backgrounds, lending dignity to places and peoples that had been routinely demeaned in American history. There are moments in hip-hop when the power of the music can melt away all the barriers that separate us from the poor of the world, reminding us that we share the same humanity, the same fate. To paraphrase Merton again, it’s like waking from a dream of separateness and elitism, of spurious self-isolation.

Over the years, I started to notice how frequently similar epiphanies occurred in hip-hop, how the subject of God constantly surfaced. I had noticed this before—this is what inspired my class, after all—but it was more pervasive than I had assumed. Religious themes are less a passing storm than a consistent weather pattern in hip-hop. In this way, hip-hop mirrors the religious appetites of African Americans and Latinos in general. (A 2007 Pew Forum study found that African Americans ranked as “the most religiously committed racial or ethnic group in the nation,” with Latinos not far behind.) Gradually, I began to pay greater attention to how rappers tussled with God, how they turned seemingly profane verses into sanctified oratory, whooping and discoursing like inspired preachers.

 

If God can be found in all things, and Black music had long been suffused with gospel shouts, sweet soul swoops, and emotions that resembled rapture, the crosscurrents of the sacred and the profane in hip-hop shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise, but I still found myself amazed by the reach of religion in the music. Hidden in plain sight, it was a major concern of countless rappers, from many of the classic hip-hop tracks of the 1980s and ’90s—for example, in KRS-One’s Spiritual Minded (2002) or Ice Cube’s Death Certificate (1991)—to work by hip-hop luminaries of the new millennium: Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo (2016) and Jesus is King (2019), Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book (2016), Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city (2012). You could even find it in the stuff of reggaetoneros, like Vico C’s La Recta Final, (1989) and Bad Bunny’s OASIS (2019).

Such work has led me to see the genre in theological terms, as a form of “street scriptures” or “street theology.” It has led me to probe hip-hop for its prophetic and emancipatory possibilities. Sometimes these are political and protest-oriented. More often, they are expressions of defiance through dance and celebration, rebellion expressed as an abundance of joy. Though there have always been elements of both prophecy and revelry in hip-hop, the past decade or so has seen a clear renaissance of the former—the musical equivalent of a fist raised in the air.

In Russia, for instance, opposition voices have embraced hip-hop as an ideal medium for political activism, prompting a crackdown on the music. (“Russia’s Youth Found Rap. The Kremlin Is Worried,” reads a New York Times headline from 2019.) In Cuba, the 2021 rap “Patria y Vida” (“Homeland and Life”) came to define the unrest and rebellion occurring on the island. An appeal for life and liberty, the rap reclaims the slogan from the Cuban revolution, “Patria o Muerte” (“Homeland or Death”) and turns it into a cry for change: “Ya no gritemos patria o muerte sino patria y vida.” (“We no longer shout homeland or death, but homeland and life instead.”) Throughout the Caribbean and Latin America, in fact, various indigenous, Afro-Latino, and mestizo rappers are wielding the mic like a sword, their words increasingly cutting and dangerous.

Don’t get me wrong: hip-hop has always been flawed and ambiguous, and it sometimes deserves its reputation as devil’s music. But what may seem predictable, uniform, and flat to a distant observer can contain remarkable depth, variety, and beauty when you plunge into the subject itself. Immersed in this way, the listener will begin to notice the genre’s remarkable inventiveness, its love of rhyme and rhetorical extravagance, its testimonials of racial injustice, its longing for freedom and equality, its pining for God.

Besides the fact that in the ancient world sacred scripture would have been delivered in a lyrical, rap-like manner—chanted, declaimed, and sung in a ways that set it apart from ordinary speech—the way in which the Scriptures were originally composed bears a resemblance to the making of hip-hop, the two of them sharing a composite and collagist aesthetic.

David Tracy has argued that theology is best understood in this way, as a constellation of fragments, or as a rich and colorful tapestry of interwoven filaments. The Bible itself, a collage of various textual pieces and oral traditions stitched together by a masterful weaver of sorts, is a good example of this. Less the product of single authors than editors or redactors, biblical texts were composed and arranged by sampling, cutting, splicing, and rearranging threads of tradition. Instead of creating them out of thin air, biblical authors composed their texts out of preexisting stories, joining them together in beautiful and graceful patterns. “It is quite apparent,” Robert Alter explains about the Hebrew and Christian Bibles in The Art of Bible Translation, “that a concept of composite artistry, of literary composition through a collage of textual materials, was generally assumed to be normal procedure in ancient Israelite culture.”

Hip-hop, of course, is made in a similar fashion—by reusing and remixing the existing sounds and colors of the world. The greatest beat-makers of the culture—a Pete Rock, Marley Marl, DJ Premier, J Dilla, or Mannie Fresh—would sample a song of choice, chopping it into pieces and then rebuilding it into something new and fresh. A drum loop from James Brown, a horn riff from John Coltrane, a bass line from Parliament, marching snares from Mardi Gras, a piano run from Nina Simone, harmony from R&B and soul, a touch of gospel, classical strings, a Brazilian samba guitar, the cacophonous noises of the city, the raw diction of urban youth: hip-hop is nothing if not a collection of fragments, the music arranged and layered together by an expert deejay/producer/programmer so that it coheres in a mosaic-like design.

If there are echoes of scriptural traditions in the style of hip-hop, the tougher question is whether there are also echoes of scripture in the content of hip-hop. The answer, naturally, is yes and no, depending on the artist in question.

 

In the case of Lauryn Hill’s remarkable album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998), the answer is an emphatic yes. This album set a new benchmark for what hip-hip could be. In the mid-to-late 1990s, rap had taken a turn toward the frivolous and festive after the deaths of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls in 1996 and 1997, respectively—as if the age needed some degree of escapism to cope with the losses. At some point, however, the banal celebrations of ghetto fab—the “shiny suit” era’s flaunting of cars, riches, jewels, sex, designer fashions—started to sound monotonous. At some point, we needed a bite of reality, and that’s exactly what Lauryn Hill’s album offered.

Lauryn Hill performs at Irving Plaza, New York, October 25, 1999 (ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy Stock Photo).

Even her fashion choices, before anything was said or sung, spoke volumes about her convictions. Like Samson’s hair, Hill’s manner and style were part of her superpowers. They were hip in an unruly way; they signaled she was not to be messed with. She sported dreadlocks, sometimes twisted and coiled in cornrows, always slick. Her clothes—leather jackets, retro tops and jeans, African and Jamaican colors and textures—were both chic and rebellious; they complemented her natural beauty without reducing her to a sex object. She had touches of Jamaican reggae in her, splashes of 1970s funk and soul, traces of Public Enemy’s militancy, and the flair and emotion of gospel. These choices of self-presentation identified her with the struggle of Black folk around the globe, connected her with refugees and agitators, and defined her as a countercultural icon.

As for the soundscape, live instruments and layered harmonies evoked the music of the 1970s, dancehall reggae and patois-inflected raps evoked the Caribbean, and, of course, the spiritual content evoked communal and religious notes from an older past, going back to the age of the spirituals and gospel. “Gospel music is music inspired by the gospels,” Hill remarked about the inspiration for Miseducation. “In a huge respect, a lot of this music turned out to be just that. During this album, I turned to the Bible and wrote songs that I drew comfort from.”

More than just comforting, though, Miseducation was also defiant and edgy. Hill stood in the lineage of Black music—the lineage of Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, and Al Green—formed by soul-shaking, body-quaking, house-wrecking religion. On one track you might hear warm gospel vocals; on the next, she was blowing rival rappers away like chaff. The result was all things to all people: now tender and sensitive, now bluesy and wistful, now sanctifying and prayerful, and sometimes, in the spirit of hip-hop, rugged and confrontational.

Take “Lost Ones,” one of the most hammering displays of lyricism on the album, its percussive flow of words complementing its hardcore hip-hop beats and record scratches. (The hook samples Sister Nancy’s dancehall hit “Bam Bam” from 1982.) It begins with a declaration of personal emancipation and then turns into a dis: “My emancipation don’t fit your equation / I was on the humble / You on every station / Some wanna play young Lauryn like she’s dumb / But remember not a game new under the sun.” In the late 1990s, rap’s standard formula—a combination of flaunting one’s wealth, drug hype, and supersized masculinity—had a hard time knowing what to do with a female rapper like Lauryn Hill. The hip-hop of that period often featured displays of subversive fun, anything to keep one’s mind off the spikes in homicide, bulging prisons, the poverty of the inner city. Older generations, facing such problems, did what they could to confront and challenge the system; hip-hop of the late 1990s seemed to be doing everything it could to claw its way to the top of that system and claim it as one’s own. Lauryn Hill, needless to say, found that dream empty:

Now, now how come your talk turn cold
Gained the whole world for the price of your soul….
Now you’re all floss
What a sight to behold
Wisdom is better than silver and gold
I was hopeless now I’m on hope road
Every man wants to act like he’s exempt
When he needs to get down on his knees and repent
Can’t slick talk on the day of judgment.

“Final Hour,” another one of Hill’s fast-moving, declamatory raps, continues in the same vein, warning about the high price of fame and fortune and the danger of neglecting the values of the soul. Like the prophets Moses and Aaron, whom she invokes, Hill decries idolatrous attachments to worldly treasures—“watch out what you cling to”—and envisions a revolutionary upheaval, the kind that would fix attention on the poor instead of the rich, on outcasts and slaves instead of the princes of the world. Echoing the central tenet of liberation theology, she calls for a soul-altering change, a conversion that would prioritize the needs of the poor above all else: “I’m about to change the focus from the richest to the brokest / I wrote this opus to reverse the hypnosis.” Haranguing and cajoling at once, Miseducation was intended to re-educate Hill’s listeners, to break the spell that enthralls people to the sparkle of American capitalism. These tracks are counter-spells.

Many of the other songs on the album are more syncretistic, crossing boundaries between R&B, rap, soul, and reggae. They foreshadow melody’s take-over of rap in the early aughts, post Drake. One of the most popular hits on the album, “To Zion,” was Hill’s powerful hymn to her newborn son, from whom it gets its name. That name, of course, derives from the Bible: Zion is a synonym for Jerusalem, and Hill rhapsodizes in the song in ways that recall Jeremiah’s giddy anticipation of a day when the people “shall gather and sing aloud on the heights of Zion…. Then shall young women rejoice in the dance / and the young men and the old shall be merry” (Jeremiah 31:12–13). Verse one begins with a measured delivery until Hill’s swelling joy, growing and kicking like the child in her womb, proves too much to contain in rapped verse and spills over into exalted harmonies: “The joy of my world is in Zion,” she croons with joy and delight. Hill was advised to terminate the life within her so that she could focus on her career. The song is about her refusal to follow this advice. Instead, she chose to see her child as a miraculous blessing in her life, a gift, not a curse. Suffused with the wonder of childbirth, the entire song is framed by the dream of Jeremiah, as well as by the story of the Annunciation, where the angel Gabriel appears to Mary, a terrified and unwed young woman, and tells her that she will conceive and bear a son who will bring good news to the world. “But then an angel came one day,” Hill sings, “Told me to kneel down and pray / For unto me a man-child would be born.” Notice the formal, elevated speech of the King James Bible: street slang is common throughout the album, but here Hill makes use of a consecrated and stately diction, redolent of the archaic, dignified language of Scripture. This diction suggests that something out of the ordinary is happening to her, and she waxes ecstatic about it.

“I wanted it to be a revolutionary song about a spiritual movement,” Hill remarked in an interview, “and also about my spiritual change, going from one place to another because of my son.” Her comment applies to the album as a whole. One can even trace a spiritual development in the track list: it travels from anger and lament, in the opening rap of “Lost Ones,” to serenity, ending with the sublime “Tell Him”—a song of pure prayer and praise. It quotes St. Paul’s famous panegyric on love in 1 Corinthians 13 word for word. There’s nothing inventive in the song’s lyrics; its originality is to be found in Hill’s gorgeous phrasing, the notes bending, stretching, and sighing throughout the track. She caresses the verses with such sensitivity and nuance that they suddenly seem new and fresh, no matter how many times you’ve heard them before.

The music of Miseducation soars to sublime heights without losing its bearing here on earth. It does not overlook the struggle for racial, gender, and class equality at the heart of Black history and Black aesthetics. In this respect, the album itself, and not just its title, owes something to Carter Woodson’s classic work The Miseducation of the Negro (1933). If the purpose of Woodson’s book was to revolutionize the education of Black students—awakening racial consciousness, advancing moral and spiritual development, engaging social and political matters, and wrestling with philosophical questions—Hill’s Miseducation shares a similar purpose. It is an album that offers its own holistic pedagogy, a pedagogy of and for the oppressed. It bravely addresses social questions, questions of race and gender, but it also speaks of spiritual crisis and personal redemption. It draws all its fragments—its various musical and thematic elements—into a coherent and memorable work of art.

 

Fast-forward a couple of decades and we find ourselves in an entirely new climate completely at odds with the sunny, unclouded disposition of the “shiny suit” era. Childish Gambino’s “This Is America,” a song and video that epitomizes these troubled times, opens with South African choral melodies, cheery and placid, a perfect harmony of female a cappella vocals. The musical accompaniment is bare and minimal at the start, a light pattern of metal jingles from a rain stick or Egyptian tambourine, a slow finger-picked acoustic guitar, and bright and breezy male voices crooning the lines “We just wanna party / Party just for you / We just want the money / Money just for you.” Childish Gambino enters the picture, strolling and dancing his way to a shoeless Black man strumming his guitar—a nostalgic image from the bucolic age of blues and folk music. After striking a “Jump Jim Crow” pose (hand on hip, leg bent, back contorted), Childish Gambino proceeds to pull out a gun and fire a blast at the bluesman’s head. The effect is shocking, brutal, grotesque, a jolting disruption of the carefree and blithe opening. Like a surrealistic image from the films of Luis Buñuel, the scene, and what follows, is dreadful and traumatizing, a subversive commentary on America’s addictions to guns, its racism and materialism, and social media.

Instead of moving forward, leaving past bigotries and brutalities behind us, history drags us backward, as in a moonwalk. Time is out of joint.

And the music registers it all: as Childish Gambino commits the murder, wearing a hollow and callous grin, totally indifferent to the victim, the music abruptly shifts from lighthearted folk melodies to the sinister, menacing, and street-savvy sound of trap music. What began as a cool breeze, a gentle strum of a folk guitar, suddenly leaps into another register, the winds now howling, the sky darkening, and the violently charged atmosphere producing rattling thunderclaps and lashing rain. The low-end bass, a heavy monotone thud, sounds ill-omened; the high-pitched synthesizer is eerie and dreadful; the drum-machine claps are spine-chilling, like the sound of waves slapping the side of a sinking boat; and Childish Gambino delivers his lines in fragmented, gnomic, and lurching bits, sputtering through the song as though he’s running out of gas. The song chronicles, in all, a world in exile from the heavenly realm. Instead of moving forward, leaving past bigotries and brutalities behind us, history drags us backward, as in a moonwalk. Time is out of joint.

Apocalyptic signs are pervasive in the video too: a hooded figure on a white horse, galloping in the background, evokes the horsemen of the Apocalypse in Revelation; crowds of people, rioting or simply running in terror, are scattered throughout; police cars with their lights flashing denote a state of emergency; there are burning cars, falling dead bodies, a brutally slain gospel choir and, at the end, Childish Gambino fleeing in absolute terror, his eyes bulging, muscles straining, and torso stretched forward as if he is lunging to escape not only the threats that hound him, but his very body. Much like the obscure and nightmarish imagery of Revelation—grotesque beasts that represent Roman aggression and persecution, warhorses as symbols of Death and Hades running roughshod over the innocent, allegories of exile and the sack of Jerusalem in 70 CE—the song is a jumbled collection of fragments, epitomizing our degraded and conflicted present, with America now replacing Rome.

The chaos and violence of the video blurs the line between the apocalypticism of the biblical tradition and the tragedy of the ancient Greeks, the former convinced that there is a redemptive arc in history, the latter viewing history as wreckage littered with countless wasted lives and irredeemable deaths. Still, if the song lacks a definitive revelation and avoids identifying a clear culprit, there is surely a burning message here. Just as the book of Revelation once urged resistance to the Roman Empire, “This Is America” seems to urge resistance to both the pressures of pop culture and the horrors of America’s gun violence and racism. Notice the reverence for the gun in the video: it’s swaddled in cloth and carried with great care as though it’s a sacred object. Human lives, by contrast, are treated with relative indifference; gun rights matter more than human rights.

The music, meanwhile, is banging and thunderous. Besides communicating the feeling of urban confinement, the trap beats of the song—808 kick drums, crisp snares, fluttering hi-hats, and dark-sounding synthesizers—are grimy, fatalistic, and chilling. Their frequencies are a commentary on the claustrophobic pressures of the Trump era: the empty and titillating forms of pop culture, the moral numbness and nihilism, the racial anxieties and tensions, the despair and loneliness, and the casual acceptance of outrageous injustice and cruelty.

While so much madness plays out in the world, Childish Gambino dances and preens with schoolchildren behind him. They seem totally oblivious to the deaths and catastrophes around them. At least ten different dances, from the South African Gwara Gwara (popularized by DJ Bongz’s song “Ofana Nawe”) to the “Shoot” dance of BlocBoy JB, are showcased in the video. Childish Gambino’s movements are particularly revealing, as they embody the conflicting themes and emotions of the song, the dialectical clashes of joy and tragedy, vanity and social awareness. Sinuous and spasmodic at the same time, his body captures the agony and elegance of Black history in America. I see a slight resemblance, too, to the moves of the undead in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”—a fitting resemblance since “This Is America” portrays a culture beset by deadening and zombie-like forces. References to “straps” (guns), “bags” (money or drugs), designer brands (Gucci), whippin’ (cooking up drugs, making money, or driving expensive cars), and rampant narcissism (“I’m so cold,” “I’m so dope,” “I’m so pretty,” etc.) are threaded through the song. It parodies America’s addictions to pain-killing narcotics and toys—things that have the power to turn their users into zombies. Homicides, racial violence, injustice, acts of terror, all these things happen while Childish Gambino and his backup dancers go on dancing as if nothing has happened, posing for selfies, checking their followers on social media, and worrying about getting money. This is America.

T. S. Eliot famously observed that human beings cannot bear too much reality; we all seek shelter in fictions and fancies. “This Is America” questions the kinds of fictions and fancies in which Americans now live. It contests the most shallow and self-indulgent fancies of American pop culture, the banalities that reduce the Black experience in America to exotic and demeaning caricatures.

And yet, notwithstanding the bitter, tragic wisdom that the song delivers, how can one possibly miss the sheer beauty of the music, rapping, and dancing, the visual theater of it all? Here carnival coexists with apocalypse, celebration with violence and terror. There is a dazzling array of artistic styles in the video, all elegantly arranged by Childish Gambino, Ludwig Göransson, and the Japanese American filmmaker Hiro Murai. Fragments of these styles are reassembled in the video into a mosaic of Black life that does more than simply mirror our tattered lives; it also puts on festive display the rich surplus of Black arts in America, the accumulated genius of slaves and their descendants. While the chilling soundscape pushes the song to the edge of an abyss, the colorful parade of beauty in the video makes the song throb with an abundance of life and joy. Too often undervalued by “socially conscious” hip-hop, dance is cherished in “This Is America,” celebrated for the way it expresses transcendence in steps, gestures, and spins that require no commentary.

I’d like to think that Thomas Merton, witnessing so much beauty, so many incisive insights about modern life, would have come to appreciate the lowly street wisdom conveyed by “This Is America,” and by the culture of hip-hop more generally. Having emptied himself of the feeling of superiority toward ghetto and barrio dwellers—the inventors of hip-hop—he might have gone on to develop a greater sympathy and affection for the art that arose out of the corners and traps of the modern world. It might even have made him dance.

Published in the May 2022 issue: 

Alejandro Nava is a professor of religious studies at the University of Arizona. This essay is adapted from his new book, Street Scriptures: Between God and Hip-Hop (University of Chicago Press). Used by permission.

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