Archive for September, 2012

Hip Hop and the Holy Spirit

Posted in Uncategorized on September 1, 2012 by Josslyn Luckett

It has been nearly a year since the “Mother of Hip Hop,” Sylvia Robinson passed away at 76. Ms. Robinson produced classics such as the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message.” Just in case you thought I was hip enough to be casually up on all this–I can’t front, I’m not! This past week, perhaps my last to dive into anything I want to read on my own time for joy, I’m finally getting to my brother, comrade Dr. Emmett Price’s new edited collection: The Black Church and Hip Hop Culture: Toward Bridging the Generational Divide. Though classes don’t start for me til Wed, Sept 5, I have been seriously schooled this past few days by Professor Price and his stunning roll call of scholar/theologian/minister contributors, such as Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou, Patricia Lesesne, Shaundra Cunningham, Josef Sorett, and my very own UPenn Chaplain, Dr. Charles Howard–who incidentally brought Sylvia Robinson’s story to my attention. Not only am I moved to learn that these jams I love and may even still be able to recite verbatim (don’t know if I could still recite the lyrics and skate backwards at the same time, maybe if I find my lucky red velour hoodie, okay let me stop–)were produced by a woman, Howard’s essay shares an excerpt from an interview with Robinson by James Spady that suggests that Robinson’s inspiration to produce the Sugar Hill Gang’s first hit was “a revelation from God.” Robinson explained that she felt a chill one night in the “Harlem World” discotheque, watching this group of MC’s rhyme. A voice told her to put this music on tape: “all at once, I felt chills all over my body, like the Holy Spirit overcoming me.” My my my, now somebody say “up jump the boogie.”

Reading this book now in Philadelphia (instead of Boston where I’d been living the last few years and jumped at any chance I could to hear Northeastern Professor Price speak on the spiritual ethos of John and Alice Coltrane or the political activism of Chuck D and KRS-One) is kinda chilling/thrilling, considering Price locates this city as home to one of the oldest generational divides in the early history of the Black Church. Bishop Absalom Jones and Bishop Richard Allen, who together founded the Free African Society here in the city of Brotherly Love circa 1787 were 14 years apart. Price wonders how much their age gap accounted for their ultimate split (Jones later founded the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, and Allen later established the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal). Booker T. Washington and the one time Philadelphia Negro W.E.B. Du Bois were 12 years apart. Price points out that while much is made of the Malcolm/Martin split…much less has been made of the generation of elders who opposed them both. He breaks all of this down much more eloquently than me, so BUY THE BOOK! I so appreciate his urgency to wonder at why, when the themes of survival, liberation and equality are key for both the Black church and hip hop communities, why the divide? Reading and wondering with Price and his contributors in this collection, from the vantage of a city that produced both a Bishop Richard Allen and an Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, I sure would like to know how the church/civil rights generation and the hip hop generations can constructively collaborate to be about the survival, healing of this place, where an awful lot of sisters and brothers look as though they wonder how to keep from going under.

Now, my multi-religious, left leaning tendencies make any discussion of the notion of “The Black Church” challenging. The Black preachers who have delivered the most liberating, stimulating, satisfying good news to my ears have not necessarily come out of “The Black Church” and I mean here men like Rev James Forbes of Riverside and back in California, my former UCC pastor, Rev Madison Shockley. So, while I love the diversity of the writers included here, I admit I get a little stuck on the first three words of the title. And then I want to push and say that the generational divide troubles me much less that the sacred/profane divide that pops up throughout the collection…a divide that does not always line up around age difference. While I find completely fascinating Cassandra (“DJ Lady Grace”) Thornton’s piece here, “Isn’t Loving God Enough? Debating Holy Hip Hop,” I’m struck by how even in the process of politely confronting members of “The Black church” who would call hip hop, “a demonic force” she counters with a theology that I find rigid, even shaming (such as when she declares that if Kanye West does not have “a personal relationship with God, he will not be walking with Jesus on judgement day.”) I’m ever grateful for my new chaplain (and old family friend) Charles Howard who–after speaking of Sylvia Robinson’s Holy Spirit encounter–really gets at this question of who is sanctified and who is not. After exploring an argument by scholar Garth Kasimu Baker-Fletcher who contrasts numerous “Christian” rappers with a list of “secular” rappers like Dre, Snoop, and Biggie–Howard poignantly asks/preaches, “What is it that makes the former sanctified and the latter not?… God’s grace is extended to both lists. And is it not by grace that we are sanctified?”  Up jump the boogie and glory be.