Holy Hip Hop: a new expression
On a cool night in early November, around 200 students entered Second Presbyterian Church to fellowship with other Christian students from the University of Memphis. But this Bible study hosted by Campus Outreach was unique to some of the ministry's attendees. Right in the midst of their service, integrated with "amens" and murmured praise, was hip-hop music.
From its infancy in the 1970s, riddled with braggadocio-filled raps, community-center disc jockeys and nimble break dancers from the Bronx, hip-hop culture is often recognized for its content's immorality. What many see as hip-hop's inherent, sinful nature even led to rap music being blamed for the gradual collapse of American morality.
The grungy and gritty environment that gave birth to the genre may make hip-hop and religion an unlikely pair. Yet while it lacks an immaculate conception, hip-hop contains religion in a larger capacity than its gold-encrusted Jesus pieces and infamous Illuminati rumors.
"I am, I guess, what you would call a gospel rap artist," said Terence "June" Gray, a recent graduate of the University of Memphis, who performed during the Campus Outreach service.
"When I began living in a Christian worldview, I wanted to tell people about it. Rapping about how I was living and how I want to live," said Gray, who was born and raised in Memphis.
Holy hip-hop, as the genre is called, has allowed for religious groups to reach younger crowds and has surpassed the boundaries of Christianity. There are Muslim, Jewish and even atheist hip-hop artists who rap about their faith and beliefs.
"A lot of people would come up to me and say, ‘What is that?' or ‘Rapping about God, that's corny,' when I was just starting at 17, 18 years old and that was discouraging. In the church, I've had a guy come up to me and tell me that the music I was making was sinful and flat out wrong," recalled Gray.
"But for the most part, I've seen a lot of acceptance," Gray said. "It's not seen as peculiar and odd as it was before. My music is for everyone; not just Christians. No one is required to live up to a super-Christian persona to listen to my music. It's for everyday people."
Though holy hip-hop may appear taboo to some, its presence may be right on time.
The Spirituality in Higher Education study, which has been conducted over the past seven years by researchers at UCLA, found that only 25 percent of college juniors frequently attend religious services, in comparison to the 44 percent of college freshmen who frequently attend religious services.
"We think that we don't have enough time, because of this test or that paper, but it's really a matter of making time," said Venson Whitmore, a 22-year-old student studying psychology, who also produces music for various local artists.
"When you look back at the civil rights era in Memphis, the church had a high influence on young people but now not as much," said Rashid Sharif, Imam of the Masjid Al-Mu'minun Muslim congregation in South Memphis. "Fewer and fewer of our youth and college students in this community are interested in participating in religion. More and more entertainment is taking the place of religion in terms of importance to young people."
Some say that is where holy hip-hop can bridge the gap.
During his set at the Campus Outreach session Gray performed a song from his latest mix tape called "My Portion," featuring singer Khristian Thomas, who is also a student at the University of Memphis. The song discusses issues often faced by college students, such as identity crises and materialism.
"More than enough/ Lord you're enough for the freshman in college/Who don't know why he's here/ But he's scared to be honest/ So he study real hard but it don't mean nothin'/He thinking ‘bout droppin' out cause he tired of frontin'," Gray rhymes in the song's second verse.
Gray, whose stage name "June" originated from the date when he became a Christian, said his music narrates struggles with education and crime, both issues that young Memphians frequently grapple with.
Since Memphis is a city grounded in musical tradition, Gray is not the only rapper of his kind in the city. Delmar Lawrence, also known as Mr. Del, is a popular holy hip-hop artist who has performed across the country. Lawrence is a former member of the Academy Award-winning Memphis rap group Three 6 Mafia.
"Music reaches people in a way that other creative outlets can't quite touch. It can kind of transcend a lot of boundaries," said student and music producer Whitmore. "It may be easier to be receptive of a message given in rap lyrics than in an equally moving sermon. Either way the message is the same so it should not matter how it is delivered."
Though holy hip-hop may still be in its early stages, there are indications that the trend is starting to spread. For instance, Yo-Natan, a Jewish hip-hop artist, founded HipHopShabbat, which is an educational and spiritual endeavor that combines hip-hop with traditional Jewish prayer and rhetoric. Muslim artists like rapper Amir Sulaiman, who has nearly 3,000 followers on Twitter, communicate regularly about their projects and faith with others through sites like Facebook and MuslimHipHop.com.
"Religion can be intimidating when practitioners are so traditional," said Micah Greenstein, senior rabbi at Temple Israel. "We must open up different avenues of religious expression so that young people do not feel hindered."
Gray says he sees himself as someone who is in the ideal position to reach young adults and get them interested in religion, Christianity specifically.
"The church is full of traditions and traditional gospel music is still influential," said Gray. "But when calling people to Christ, there's an invisible wall up between the church and the secular world. I want to tear down those walls. The familiarity of hip-hop helps me do that."
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