My love of hip hop began with T-Pain's "Buy U A Drank." In July 2009, this 12-year-old Asian-American girl from the Bay Area learned the word "shawty" and heard about drinking in the club for the first time. Hip hop had come a long way from New York City’s South Bronx, where this cultural and political movement was born 36 years earlier, driven by marginalized communities of black and Latino youth.
Hip hop music (also called "rap" or "MCing") is only one element of the culture, which includes DJing, breakdancing, and graffiti art. The music became foundational in neighborhood block parties, rap battles, tracks reflecting the reality of life in housing projects, gang violence, and police brutality. Hip hop is both insight into this reality and its striving for more, a reflection of life as it is and life as it hopes to be. Especially for its communities of origin, the music endures as a protest against racism, a call for justice, safety, equality. It traces the fundamental human search for meaning and purpose, for identity, for satisfaction. Hip hop is a narrative of redemption, one that parallels the redemptive arc of the Old Testament through the Gospels.
At its bleakest, hip hop is situated in Genesis, rejecting the sovereignty of God. This anger at a God who exists but doesn’t care, who has left people to fight for themselves, can be seen from one of the first and most prominent hip hop songs about inner city life. "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five was released in 1982, setting a standard for the gritty, unfiltered storytelling of artists like the Notorious B.I.G., Nas, and N.W.A. Melle Mel raps, "A child is born with no state of mind / Blind to the ways of mankind / God is smiling on you, but he’s frowning too / Because only God knows what you’ll go through / You’ll grow in the ghetto living second-rate / And your eyes will sing a song called deep hate."1 The verse goes on to tell the story of this child growing up admiring thugs, pimps, and gamblers, eventually dropping out of school and dying in jail. In this song, God has failed urban communities in their struggle. There is no redemption—if God is loving and sovereign, why is there yet suffering? This absence of hope links hip hop to the emergence of sin in Genesis 3, when Adam and Eve were cursed with pain and death after they disobeyed God. Banished from the Garden of Eden, they entered a world of conflict and survival. This rejection of God is evident in the despair and futility that can still be found in hip hop today, with songs like "Turn" by Vince Staples. He raps, "When it's judgment time I doubt that God can look me in my eyes / ‘fore He send me down to Hell cause I’ma ask a n****, why? / Never played it by the book because the Book was full of lies / And the preacher full of s***, and the teacher full of s***." Vince talks about embracing the gang lifestyle because it’s all he has—faith does not reach the darkness he is in, and he ends the song saying "I’m going crazy, please somebody save me / Jesus way too far gone for him to reach me."
As hip hop evolved into an increasingly profitable mainstream genre, its commercial success drove a shift in lyrics to glorification of success and pleasure. What rap music is often stereotyped as—explicit, unintelligent, only about sex, money, and drugs—emerged as it became a lucrative career. Rejecting God led to seeking fulfillment elsewhere. Here, hip hop finds itself in Ecclesiastes, as Solomon seeks after pleasure, embracing folly and "the delights of a man's heart" —amassing silver and gold, herds and flocks, male and female slaves, wine, a harem.3 The epitome of this seemingly ideal lifestyle is depicted in the 1994 Snoop Dogg classic "Gin and Juice." It glamorizes smoking weed, getting drunk, having sex with multiple women, all "with my mind on my money and my money on my mind."4 Ecclesiastes 4:4 describes how "all toil and all achievement spring from one person's envy of another." Hip hop is a competitive sport that takes its rivalries seriously, whether through beefs of actual violence or diss tracks. Commanding power and respect, asserting one’s dominance has been inherent to the genre since rap battles began in the 1980s. One of the most legendary disses is "Ether" by Nas targeting Jay-Z, which in popular opinion garnered Nas the title of best rapper in New York then. Nas calls himself God’s Son,5 which is a noteworthy indicator of hip hop’s God complex—to be considered the best at this craft is enviable, equivalent to deification. Many rappers look up to Rakim as "the God MC" for his influence, and strive for the coveted distinction of the GOAT or "Greatest of all Time." Earning your way to near-God status also emphasizes the "self-made" aspect of hip hop, which celebrates not just having everything you’ve ever wanted, but being the driving force of your own success. Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan exult, "I've done did a lot of s*** just to live this here lifestyle / We came straight from the bottom to the top, my lifestyle."6 They mirror Solomon who wrote, "I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my labor, and this was the reward for all my toil."7 However, hip hop’s search for redemption in the world is unsustainable, as Solomon continues in Ecclesiastes 2:11 — "Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun."
As hip hop looks for meaning beyond its success, it draws parallels to ancient Israel’s history. Through kings and prophets in the Old Testament, Israel failed repeatedly to obey God, worshipping idol after idol until realizing they were unsatisfactory. These false gods were not able to save them from captivity and destruction, just as wealth, fame, and pleasure do not protect hip hop from coming face to face with demons that still exist. For example, Vic Mensa raps in "There's Alot Going On" about his battles with depression, addiction, mental health, and suicide. He says, "Cleaned out my closet, I got rid of all of my demons / If you learn one thing from my journey, n**** it's don't stop believing / When this s*** got so suffocating I could barely even keep breathing / Wrote my wrongs all in this song / Now I'd like to welcome y'all to my season."8 Here, hip hop seeks redemption in the struggle, using the music as a vehicle for vindication, a place to confess its sins. It asks the Lord for mercy—we have what we thought we wanted, but is there more? Isaiah writes, "All who make idols are nothing, and the things they treasure are worthless. Those who would speak up for them are blind; they are ignorant, to their own shame. Who shapes a god and casts an idol, which can profit nothing?"9 J. Cole often meditates on the burdens and complications of these idols in songs like "Love Yourz" when he says, "It's beauty in the struggle, ugliness in the success." He asks, "For what's money without happiness? / Or hard times without the people you love / Though I'm not sure what's ‘bout to happen next / I asked for strength from the Lord up above."10 As he wrestles with the weight of his wealth, J. Cole raps in "LEGENDARY" — "I look at all I got like, "What's missin’?" / God is my only guess, ‘cause yes, faith relieve the stress."11 Hip hop is finding limitations in praying to gods that cannot save.
The genre has recently taken a turn not just toward confession and introspective grappling but a definitive identification of God as savior. Ultimately, redemption is found in recognizing our need for the Lord. It is found in Kanye West's "Ultralight Beam," the refrain of "I'm tryna keep my faith / But I'm looking for more / Somewhere I can feel safe / And end my holy war." The intro is a child praying "We don't want no devils in the house, God. We want the Lord, and that's it," and the outro is Gospel artist and minister Kirk Franklin extending a homecoming in prayer.12 The song is a declaration of faith in the Gospel, where we can feel safe and find resolution to our inner turmoil. "LOYALTY" is a subtler declaration, answering the call "Tell me who you loyal to." Kendrick Lamar asks, "Is it money? Is it fame? Is it weed? Is it drink?"; Rihanna asks, "Do it start with your woman or your man? Do it end with your family and friends? Or you're loyal to yourself in advance?" They ask "Anybody you would die for?" and their answer is "That's what God for."13 God is the most important being for us to be ultimately loyal to—and only He would be so faithful as to die for us, too. The lyrics in these songs still address the same struggles of violence, fear, injustice; however, there is a clear Savior and a hope that radiates in the music. Stormzy juxtaposes street life and faith, how their lives are still intertwined with their dangerous communities, gang violence, the criminal justice system. However, his songs include prayers to the Holy Father, asking for salvation and freedom. In the middle of Stormzy's Gang Signs & Prayer album is worship—"Lord I've been broken / Although I'm not worthy / You fixed me, now I'm blinded by your grace / You came and saved me."14
In its historically revolutionary form, hip hop is “voice for the voiceless, hope for the hopeless,"15offering a potential literature of redemption. Its musical expression reflects experiences that draw listeners in to understand conflict, brokenness, anger at the world, longing for peace and justice. It says, feel our pain—what’s more, recognize our resilience. Hip hop culture as a whole is often branded as worldly, sinful, a bad influence. Yet parts of even this medium find salvation in Christ, not just in the genre of Christian rap, but in the mainstream culture, where rappers known for catalogs of irreverently explicit music are wrestling with their faith. To call it a contradiction is simplification—it is even more meaningful to hear a voice consumed by the chaos of its sinful environment emerge with a cry for deliverance. Hip hop is seeking. The Gospel is one place where it can be found.
I know my God
I know my God seen His breaks and His edges
Are jagged for giving that pain to His city in gold
Like everything is everything
Like all them days He prayed with me
Like emptiness was tamed in me
And all that was left was His love16
1. Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five. “The Message,” in The Message. Sugar Hill Records, 1982.
2. Vince Staples. “Turn,” in Shyne Coldchain II. Def Jam Recordings, 2014.
3. Ecclesiastes 2.
4. Snoop Doggy Dogg. “Gin and Juice,” in Doggystyle. Death Row Records, 1994.
5. Nas. God's Son. Columbia Records, 2002.
6. Rich Gang ft. Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan. “Lifestyle.” Cash Money Records, 2014.
7. Ecclesiastes 2:10, NIV.
8. Vic Mensa. “There's Alot Going On,” in There's Alot Going On. Roc Nation, 2016.
9. Isaiah 44:9-10, NIV.
10. J. Cole. “Love Yourz,” in 2014 Forest Hills Drive. Dreamville Records, 2014.
11. Joey Bada$$ ft. J. Cole. “LEGENDARY,” in ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$. Pro Era Records, 2017.
12. Kanye West ft. The-Dream, Chance the Rapper, Kelly Price, and Kirk Franklin. “Ultralight Beam,” in The Life of Pablo. GOOD Music, 2016.
13. Kendrick Lamar ft. Rihanna. “LOYALTY.” in DAMN. Top Dawg Entertainment, 2017.
14. Stormzy ft. MNEK. “Blinded by Your Grace, Pt. 2,” in Gang Signs & Prayer. #Merky Records, 2017.
15. Talib Kweli. “Gutter Rainbows,” in Gutter Rainbows. Blacksmith Music, 2011.
16. Chance the Rapper ft. T-Pain, Kirk Franklin, Eryn Allen Kane, and Noname. “Finish Line / Drown,” in Coloring Book. 2016.
Patricia Jia is a senior at Penn. Jesus is her first love, hip hop is her second. Sometimes she reads the Bible online as if it’s Rap Genius and clicks on verses expecting an explanation to pop up.