Yes, RAP Does Have a Spiritual Backbone

I do not own the copyright to the music below. I used it in my class this previous semester in lecture. The conventional criticism and writing about RAP are that it is nihilistic, misogynistic, and materialistic with no spiritual backbone. But RAP has always had a spiritual backbone and has always been globally influenced while being a global influencer. Like Blues, it was the music of po’ folk, so it has traditionally been marginalized popularly and academically and its spiritual contributions have been unacknowledged while its cultural contributions have been outright dismissed.

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Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X with the girls, and Muhammad Ali

I have just wrapped up one of the most exhausting semesters of my teaching life. It began virtually, went to hybrid, then finished virtually due to unending positive COVID-19 test results from my freshmen students. Thank goodness that the upperclassmen took better care of themselves and are no longer thrilled by campus parties — else the entire semester would have been dismal.

One of the upper-level classes that I taught was called, “Hip Hop and Creative Expression.” I received the class at the latest minute possible with absolutely no teaching material available. Thank God for the uncountable volume of Rap City and Caribbean Rhythms (I miss when BET and MTV played actual music, by the way) that I’d consumed on BET as a teenager, a publication project that I’d participated in last year around the Black Arts Movement, and a general curiosity that I have around Hip Hop scholarship. If not for those things, I would not have had any teaching material for this class. In the intense preparation for this class, I discovered some things about RAP that seem to fly in the face of conventional wisdom about RAP.

To claim that RAP is aspiritual or amoral simply because it is non-Christian is to ignore the long and heavy influence of Islam on RAP music. RAPpers who are influenced by Isam are no strangers to questioning the political status quo, inequitable treatment of Black people and people of color in America’s law enforcement/penal system, and the nature of cyclical poverty and crime in ghetto areas of the industrialized North. Unsurprisingly, they are rather tepid on women’s issues.

As RAP developed, Christianity was added in. This is a continuity with the Blues. During the Blues, there are times when the Blues singer stops singing and starts “preaching.” There are times when the Blues singer fully embodies the preacher, complete with hooping and call and response. In the voice of the preacher, the Blues artist gives out secular advice to the listening audience about the difficulties of life and how to overcome them. Betty Wright does this in several of her songs. And to this day, I can repeat her advice word-for-word. Reader, one day, life was going horrifically for me. I was broke. I had like .37 in the bank account, the sky was gray, I was stuck in adjunct-land, my Ph.D. committee was stalling me, traffic was crawling, my mother was sick, and my husband made me mad. I just broke down and started crying. Then, this song came on, and I do declare, the sun came out.

Speaking RAP-wise, MC Hammer is the first RAPpper to fully-embody the preacher. I remember being a child and he performed an old hymn from church on BET. He was the preacher. I remember thinking: “Why can’t my church be like this?”

Hammer is a West Coast RAPper, by the way. And that is a whole other posting! I have not gotten into The Watts Prophets.

As RAP in the South has continued to progress, we have seen Southern RAPpers spin in traditional gospel. In a previous posting, I demonstrated how Big K.R.I.T is using the concept of the praise break, Holy Ghost, and the preacher positively in his song and video, “Keep the Devil Off,” so that the young Black man in the video will not become another statistic. Wale uses “I’m Blessed” by the Mississippi Children’s Choir in his provocative song, “Sue Me.”

In Wale’s song, Kelly Price sings the hook. In the video, he reverses the roles of white and Black to create a stunning visual.

2.) While RAP has taken its share of the blame for misogyny, I ask you this one question: how many Blues songs have you heard about good and faithful women? And RAPPers did not invent sexism in America. Most Blues songs are about cheating women, unfaithful husbands, and the husband who knows he has messed up and now he has to tuck his tail between his legs and try to “straighten it out.” In that sense, RAP shares continuity with the Blues. While RAPpers focus less on Jody and more on “bitches” and ‘hos, they most certainly wail out the heartbreak of infidelity alongside their older grandfathers, though in a different genre. If we are dissatisfied with the terminology that RAPpers use for their cheating, heartbreaking women, we should ask why American audiences are so comfortable with such disrespect of women. Would we tolerate that from Blues and rock singers? Speaking of Blues singers, check out this hit from Bobby Womack. Didn’t we just hear this same story, updated of course, from Jamie Foxx and T.I.? Remember, Taraji P. Henson was in the video. The song was called, “Just Like Me.” I believe Earth, Wind, and Fire told us that “sound never dissipates, it only recreates for another place and time.” This is true of Black music. What we think of as “old” just renews itself for another generation in another genre.

Furthermore, it’s Sunday, I live in the Bible belt, and as a highly-educated Black woman absolutely surrounded by Black Baptist and Church of God in Christ congregations, I can testify that there are reasons why I stay in my house rather than waste my time putting on clothes and going to church. If young women can ardently complain about RAPpers and their sexism/misogyny, I wonder why they continue to participate in the weekly patriarchal control of Sunday service participation. I stopped going to church the day I was accused of witchcraft because I actually apply my Ph.D. to reading and studying the Bible for myself with some understanding.

3.) While RAP sprang from the Black community of America, it was always globally influenced while being a global influencer. There is no doubt that Black music of the South, once transported to the industrial North, influenced RAP music. One of the things that angers me about New York snobbery is the fact that many of the breakbeats were sampled from Southern soul musicians. Without that backbone, there would be no RAP. Period. James Brown is the most sampled musician in the world thanks to RAP music. James Brown is from Georgia. One of the most influential RAP groups of all time, the Wu-Tang Clan, ROUTINELY samples from the Stax music vault. Stax was located in Memphis, Tennessee, and showcased Southern R&B groups such as Otis Redding. We take it as high-handed jackassery when our beats can be sampled but our RAP output can be dissed.

As a child of the South, I am proud of the Southern soul contribution to ALL American music. But as far as RAP is concerned, the bass portion of it DID NOT come from the South. That distinction goes to our brothers and sisters from the Caribbean, specifically Jamaica. Some of the earliest creators of Hip Hop had roots in the Caribbean and brought that bass to it. Here is Yellow Man.

Because I consumed Hip Hop, I began to consume Reggae. I COULD NOT stop listening to Sister Nancy, Barrington Levy, and Buju Bantu at one point (seriously, I still listen to this day!). I find myself watching Yellow Man’s interviews and even kept track of his cancer journey. If he can overcome cancer and resume his workout schedule, surely I can stop baking and lose a few pounds!

RAP continues to be a global influencer as it is globally influenced. If we look at break dancing, it looks almost like kung fu. Well, break dancing was influenced by as many Latino and Asian American youths as Black Americans. There are several different fighting styles mixed in (one from Brazil) and others from Asia. As a matter of fact, if you look at The Avatar: The Last Airbender on Nickelodeon, the Fire Nation fighting style incorporates break dancing moves! The creator of that cartoon is steeped in Hip Hop culture.

Just for giggles, I had to prove to my students that Hip Hop continues to be globally influenced as it influences globally. Listen to the following song. If you are a true RAP fan, it should sound familiar to you.

3.) RAP, like the Blues, is the music of poor folk. Period. As the music of poor folk, it has run into the politics of respectability from Black Americans. At one point, Blues was called the “Devil’s music.” Today, it is RAP. Cultural productions of Black Americans tend to betray the class tensions within the culture. While many of us may not be any better off economically than the other, we tend to use our mannerisms and speech against one another. Calling a Black person “country” “ghetto,” or “no-class” has nothing to do with geographical location or the number of dollar signs in the bank account and everything to do with mannerism and behavior. Blues is for “country” folk. RAP music is for the “ghetto” and “no-class.” I am not sure what is for the people with the class or what they have produced that is worthy of any kind of cultural study/academic pursuit. How have they contributed to the culture? What have they done that is distinctive enough to present itself worthy of some kind of study? While I cannot name you one thing that the people with all of the class have contributed to the culture, they tend to dismiss and ignore the Islamic spiritual backbone of RAP and outright deny the positive contributions of RAP and RAPPers to African American and global culture at large. They ignore how many RAPpers have gotten older groups money from record companies from old, exploitative contracts. They ignore how many RAPpers start scholarship funds and charitable organizations. They ignore how even RAPpers’ sampling of older recording artists have revived these artists’ careers and some of the artists have been grateful for the income and the work. Look at Charlie Wilson: He is EVERYWHERE thanks to Snoop Dogg! And many RAPpers ARE NOT misogynist, nihilistic, or materialistic. They have something to say, but since they are not saying it in a manner that older people want to hear, they are ignored. Queen Latifah, anyone?

In fact, many of the earlier RAP songs had no profanity, no N-word, no drug-selling, no killing, no disrespect of women…none of the negative things that we now associate with RAP and older people still had a problem wth it. What was their problem? It was the music of poor and young people, and not the music of Black middle-class, Christian respectability.

Okay, this post has gone on long enough. I will be back with another post in a few days. If you like this post, press the hands. Or, you really can enroll in that class. I promise to let you know when I offer it again!

LaToya Jefferson-James has a Ph.D. in literature. She specializes in literature of the African Diaspora and cultural criticism.

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