Alex Gee is co-author of a new book titled, Jesus and the Hip-Hop Prophets, published by InterVarsity. Alex is a pastor, and his co-author, John Teter, is an area director for InterVarsity in south central LA. Gee picked up his first Tupac Shakur album to learn what the young people in his church listened to, and he discovered why they related better to it than his preaching. Since then, Gee said, more and more young people have attended the church to hear the pastor who listens to rap.
Any missionary will tell you that when you go to another culture, you've got to learn their language. Why is what you did so rare among pastors?
Historically pop culture has had such a negative image. To dive into that and to appreciate it and talk about it and bring it to the pulpit was really sacrilege. I think we have that stigma to overcome. But we don't think of people in our own homeland as being from other cultures. That's for people overseas. Looking at someone who likes rock and roll or hip-hop music, that's not another culture, that's just people going wild.
What are you learning about sorting through what's useful and the recognition that there are elements of it that are just not-not supposed to be part of your life?
I'll use the example of the evening news or newspapers. I don't read it because I enjoy everything that's in the paper, nor is it edifying when you read about murders or obituaries, but it's a part of the news. It's what's happening in society and you want to be informed. When I listen to hip-hop music, there are things that they say that touches my heart, because they're so artistically astute. Then they say some things that are just ugly and raunchy and reeks of misogyny. But I realize that, like other artists, they are merely a barometer of what's happening in society. As a pastor and as a Christian, my job is to understand the culture. I mean God becoming incarnate is not just about getting a body so he could go to the cross. It really is embracing the human experience, including culture.
The parts of the music that's not edifying is educational. So that means I have to ask myself, Okay, where is the misogyny coming from? Where's the materialism coming from? Because you know, materialism and misogyny are much older than gangster rap.
What are you discovering about Jesus by connecting to the hip-hop lyrics?
Tupac wasn't in anyone's pocket so he earned money, he had his listenership, so he could say whatever he wanted to say. He could speak his heart. His thing was, "I'm going to communicate truth." And so sometimes I think in Christian culture and as church leaders we want to placate so many things, we want to say the nice things so as to not ruffle feathers or rock the boat but he covers things like racism. I have so many friends white colleagues who will say to me, they will lament the fact, Alex, "I've never preached that racism is sin." But they believe in family values and so they'll talk about sexual orientation, but have never gotten in the pulpit and said that racism goes against family values. It's a sin. And yet you get these rappers talking about glass ceilings. God needs someone speaking out on these issues because, as pastors, we don't want to.
In a chapter you guys wrote, "Dear Mama," Tupac talks about his relationship with his mother. Why do some listeners resonance with those lyrics of Tupac and with the gospel.
In this song Tupac serenades his mother and he says, "When I was young you took the brunt of my anger and frustration because my father, the coward, wasn't there. I didn't understand you, I was angry with you. But then as I grew up I realized you were the one always there for me, you came to visit me in jail, you always cooked for me, and I realized you were always in my corner."
As I listened to that song, I thought a couple of things. One, if we're going to present the Creator as a loving father image, we need to consider the fact that many of the young men and young women that we're writing to don't have positive images of earthly fathers. I certainly don't.
But when I think about my mother, who sacrificed and moved us from Chicago to Madison so she could go to school to better her life, to set an example for her children, and how both of us went to college because of her example, I realized scripture shows the motherly side of God as well. And maybe, like Tupac, we blame him for all the things that have gone wrong and he's the one that's always been in our corner.
If you want to reach young men, particularly men of color, and you want to get straight to their hearts, talk to them about their mothers. Then flip that on its head and say, "in Isaiah God refers to himself as a nursing mother with breasts rather than a proud pacing father handing out cigars." It turns it on its head to give them a different image.
What about the lyrics "I hear Brenda's got a baby, Brenda's barely got a brain. The girl can hardly spell her name." What's that one connect to?
As a pastor I deal with so many people, men and women, who have been victims of sexual abuse. In evangelicalism we are so good at talking about pro-life issues, celibacy issues, and we need to teach those things and talk about those things. But who talks about the sexual abuse and sexual assault that many times is the impetus to sexual promiscuity?
I preached a sermon once about how Jesus loves people and his ability to put his arms around people who have been sexually assaulted and sexually abused. A woman came up to me with tears in her eyes after church and said, "I want to join this church. I was a victim of date rape my freshman year of college." In all my years I have never ever heard anyone take a sermon and talk about God's love for the sexually assaulted.
But rappers are doing it. In that song that's what Tupac is talking about. He starts out by telling about Brenda having a baby and you think, Okay good, he's going to bash the young, the young hoes in the community. But he's not. He bashes society. And basically what he says is we're no better than the scum that raped Brenda because we were so busy we didn't even notice her belly getting bigger. So it was a challenge to society, what's going on that you're allowing this to happen to children?
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Jesus & the Hip Hop Prophets is available from Christianbook.com and other book retailers.
Gee and co-author John Teter have more information on their web site, Jesus & the Hip Hop Prophets.
More information, including interviews, reviews, and an excerpt, is available from the publisher.
Dick Staub's interview with Os Guinness presents the view that the only thing culturally relevant is the gospel.
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