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Starting a Dialogue with Hip-Hop

Daniel White Hodge is a producer with a Ph.D. In his twenties he had production credits on Bone Thugs-N-Harmony's first album, E 1999 Eternal, as well as helping to score the first two seasons of New York Undercover. With a Ph.D. from Fuller Graduate School of Intercultural Studies, he is now the director of the Center for Youth Ministry Studies and assistant professor of youth ministry at North Park University in Chicago.

Hodge's books, Heaven Has A Ghetto: The Missiological Gospel & Theology of Tupac Amaru Shakur and The Soul Of Hip-Hop: Rimbs Timbs & A Cultural Theology are explorations of "theomusicology." CT's Wes Jakacki talked with him at the Calvin Festival of Faith and Music about Reformed rappers, why many Christians are still uneasy about hip-hop, and the religious themes that pulse underneath even the most secular rap.

How has your relationship with hip hop changed over your life?

I was a listener as a kid, back in the late 1970s when I first heard The Sugarhill Gang and Run DMC and started wondering how they put those words together. Until high school, I was more of a consumer. In high school I became a participant. In my early twenties, I was involved as a producer. Now I am looking at how God is involved in almost every facet of hip-hop culture, which has become more of a lifestyle, not just something in [a musical] corner.

What is the theological heritage of hip-hop?

The historical root of hip hop is self-awareness and self-consciousness. "Use your mind. See the world and see it for what it is." KRS-One or Afrika Bambaataa said there are nine elements of hip hop, but there are really ten. The tenth is spirituality. It's about connecting with God. A lot of folks say it's because we have given up on the tenth element that hip hop is in the condition it is in. With any art, when you add money and commercialization, there is the danger that the soul gets lost. You saw that with the organic food movement when Wal-Mart showed up in organic food. It's what George Ritzer calls the "McDonaldization of society." That is what hip-hop today is fighting against.

Theologically, hip-hop is about connecting with the broader supernatural world. Most hip hop heads know that we just didn't happen by accident. This isn't an accidental universe or space we find ourselves in. In many hip-hop circles, you see God in everything: the space, the art, the sky, the wind. It's really this idea that God is involved in what we are doing. I think that's ultimately what hip hop is attempting to do.

People like KRS-One will say that we even have a religious structure within hip-hop. He wrote a whole book looking at the gospel of hip-hop. The cover actually looks like a Bible. He wrote it in the same way as our New Testament: chapters and verses. Hip-hop is an outlet for people to begin to connect with something that they might not be able to connect with in a four-wall church. Concerts and spoken-word venues were powerful venues. The smaller venues are not much bigger than a classroom, but they feel transcendent and leave people saying "God is in this place." In that sense, we are having church: People's minds are being opened and people are leaving transformed.

With Lecrae hitting #1 last year, the Reformed Rap movement reached new prominence. What are your thoughts on the Christian hip hop movement?

They are a theological and spiritual breath of fresh air. I don't like to delineate between Christian and secular hip-hop because I like to look at the message and content of it, and see if it is espousing some aspect of Christ and a gospel message. When you think about the genre of Christian rap, the music for years was just bad! The beats were horrible. Although the message was pretty decent there was not that connection with kids. In my years as a youth pastor, we tried to play that music and it just wouldn't connect.

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Starting a Dialogue with Hip-Hop