First hiphop permeated American culture; now it’s dancing its way through religious culture. Hiphop churches, religious recordings, concerts, festivals and ministries are drawing a robust multicultural mix of youth and young adults. The hiphop religious movement is dominated by evangelicals but increasingly speaks the language of other faiths, including Islam and Judaism. It includes DJing, rapping, emceeing, dance, art and graffiti.
The linking of faith with music known for misogyny, homophobia, materialism and violence has its critics, but rappers respond that not all hiphop music promotes these values. Advocates point to hiphop ministries’ success at engaging young people.
Mostly, houses of worship give a nod to hiphop in services and programs as they try to reach out to youth. On the street, for example, phat means cool, but at New Hope Assembly of God Church in Lancaster, Ohio, it stands for Purposeful, Humble, Available, Teachable. Mainstream urban churches may include a hiphop song in worship or host a Christian rap concert.
But around the country, more churches are using hiphop as a serious tool of ministry and outreach. Some churches now define their mission and worship style through hiphop music and culture, says Tommy Kyllonen, the Christian rapper and minister who started the country’s first hiphop church in the early 1990s in Tampa, Fla. The Crossover Community Church campus is dominated by TV screens, graffiti murals, basketball courts, and an 8,000-square-foot skate park. Services include rapping, DJing, poetry writing and art-making.
Why it matters
Music reflects and shapes culture; it’s also one of the primary ways people worship and express faith.
Rap – the musical expression of hiphop culture – is informed by the same deep questions as religion, says Anthony Pinn, a Rice University expert on black religion. These are questions like: What does it mean for us to be? To be happy? Who put us here? Why are we here? Early rappers critiqued mainstream Christianity, and some made references to the Nation of Islam (Public Enemy), Sunni Islam (Mos Def) and The Five Percent Nation (Eric B. and Rakim). Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan was the first religious leader to embrace rap as a contemporary expression of classic questions of faith, Pinn says. Later, Christian evangelists adopted street culture and music as a means of enlivening Christianity and making it responsive and relevant to youth. Protestant Christianity is the dominant voice in religious rap today.
“After Turning Theological, Christian Hip-Hop Turns Critical”
Read a May 30, 2013 Christianity Today article about the “new phase” that Christian hiphop is supposedly to be moving into.
“Starting a Dialogue with Hip-Hop”
Read a June 18, 2013 Christianity Today interview with Christian hiphop artist Daniel White and his understanding of “theomusicology.”
“Hip-Hop Theologians and Preachers”
Read a May 13, 2013 Christianity Today article that lists and explores artists shaping the Christian hiphop movement.
“Florida Church Leaders Preach Hip-Hop Style”
Read a June 17, 2013 article about the differentiation of traditional hiphop to Gospel hiphop and the positive messages the latter preaches.
“Why Christian Hip Hop Is Not a Failure”
Read a April 29, 2008 Patheos article in response to “The Failure of Christian Hip Hop.”
“How Christian Hip-Hop Could Call the American Church Back to the Gospel–and Hip-Hop Back to Its Roots”
Read an April 21, 2013 Christianity Today article about how Christian hiphop might be another form of evangelical marketing.
“Rappers Are Raising Their Churches’ Roofs”
Read a Sept. 13, 2004 New York Times article about the developing relationship between hiphop and Christianity.
“Christian Hip-Hop: The Future of Christian Music?”
Read a Jan 5, 2012 Christian Post article about Christian hiphop, its growing popularity and some churches’ hesitancy to accept the genre with open arms.
Polls and surveys
“Black Youth Project”
The Black Youth Project at the University of Chicago surveyed 1,590 African-Americans, whites and Latinos aged 15 to 25 in several Midwest cities on subjects including rap music, premarital sex, politics and the “color-blind” society. The results included: 58 percent of black youth listen to rap music daily, compared with 45 percent of Latinos and 23 percent of whites; and black youngsters express more concern about the content of rap CDs and videos than whites or Latinos, with 72 of blacks agreeing that rap videos have too many sexual references.
Scholars and cultural critics
Ted Swedenburg is a professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Arkansas. He has done research on popular music, including Islamic and Middle Eastern influences on rap and hip-hop music, and has hosted a world music show on the radio. He can speak about the impact that Muslim young people are having in the world of music.
Martha Simmons is publisher of the nondenominational preaching and ministry journal The African American Pulpit, and she is an associate minister at Rush Memorial United Church of Christ in Atlanta. Simmons has preached throughout the country for 20 years in a variety of ministerial capacities and has her finger on the pulse of trends, changes and issues in the black Christian world. She invites reporters to consult on story ideas, on finding experts and checking the accuracy of their reporting. Simmons co-edited The Norton Anthology of African American Preaching: 1650-2005, and she commissioned scholars to create the African American Lectionary, a resource tool launched in 2007 that highlights African-American ecclesial traditions.
Anthony B. Pinn
Anthony B. Pinn is a professor of humanities and religious studies at Rice University in Houston. He has been critical of the prosperity gospel preached in some black megachurches for its lack of emphasis on community service and charity. He is the author of Why, Lord?: Suffering and Evil in Black Theology and editor of Redemptive Suffering: a History of Theodicy in African-American Religious Thought. He also studies African-American religious humanism and is the author of African American Humanist Principles: Living and Thinking Like the Children of Nimrod and By These Hands: A Documentary History of African American Humanism.
Michael Eric Dyson
Michael Eric Dyson is Avalon Foundation Professor of Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster (Basic Civitas Books, 2006).
Bakari Kitwana is a writer, lecturer and cultural critic. He speaks widely about hiphop culture. Formerly the editor of The Source magazine, which covers hiphop music, culture and politics, Kitwana is the author of The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African-American Culture (Basic Civitas Books, 2003) and Why White Kids Love Hip Hop: Wangstas, Wiggers, Wannabes and the New Realities of Race in America (Basic Civitas Books, 2005). Kitwana directs the hiphop discussion tour RapSessions.org, which brings town-hall-style meetings on difficult dialogues facing the hiphop community to cities across the U.S. He is based in the Cleveland area.
Jeff Johnson is ordained in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and is a political activist and media personality. His Washington, D.C., nonprofit, Truth Is Power, is a strategy, leadership training and curriculum-development company focused on hiphop and politics. Johnson produces and hosts Black Entertainment Television’s documentary miniseries The Jeff Johnson Chronicles; hosts BET’s weekly newsmagazine, The Chop Up; and offers commentary on BET’s Rap City. He’s been a music-industry consultant, deputy director for People for the American Way, national youth director for the NAACP and vice president of Hip-Hop Summit Action Network. He is co-writing (with Bakari Kitwana) a book, Get Your Soul Right: Ministering to the Hiphop Generation.
Marcyliena Morgan is a professor in the department of African and African American studies at Harvard University and author of Language, Discourse and Power in African American Culture (Cambridge University Press, 2006). She founded the Hiphop Archive at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University while on the faculty there. She now directs the Hiphop Archive@Stanford University and is working on a book about hiphop culture. She teaches classes on hiphop, the ethnography of communications, representation in the media, language and identity, race, class and gender.
Dancer Jessica Ralph, a member of the National Baptist Convention USA, directs workshops using hiphop, liturgical dance and other art forms in a religious context. She is a member of the World Council of Churches’ transformation team, a group with varied backgrounds and talents who lead classes and workshops.
Michael G. Datcher
Michael G. Datcher, clinical assistant professor of English at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, co-edited Tough Love: The Life and Death of Tupac Shakur (BlackWords Inc., 1996). He can discuss criticism of rap music and of the hiphop ethos.
Musicians and religious leaders
Cameron Strang is president and founder of Relevant Media Group in Winter Park, Fla., which targets Christian “twenty- and thirtysomethings” across denominations.
Otis Moss III
Otis Moss III is pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, which is led by Senior Pastor Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. Moss is known for his ability to speak to young people, extensive theological education and preaching. A poet, he wrote Redemption in a Red Light District: Messages of Hope, Healing, and Empowerment (FOUR-G Publishers, 2000).
Tommy Kyllonen, who also goes by Urban D., is a hip-hop artist and lead pastor at the Tampa, Fla., Crossover Church. The church’s ministry is the hip-hop culture, and worship combines music, dance, visual arts and other media. He has recorded albums, performs concerts and has written a book about hip-hop and the church.
Benjamin Chavis Muhammad
Benjamin Chavis Muhammad lead the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, a nonprofit founded in 2001 to use hiphop as a catalyst for improving society and addressing poverty and injustice. Contact through Jody L. Miller.
David Hawa manages the Muslim trio Native Deen and other Muslim musicians through his entertainment marketing company Daze Studios in Sterling, Va. He can discuss the Muslim music scene and connect reporters with musicians, including Native Deen.
Larry Acosta is president of the Hispanic Ministry Center and the evangelical Urban Youth Workers Institute in Buena Park, Calif. He can discuss the organization’s use of Christian rap and the response of youngsters to it.
The Hiphop Archive is a door into the hiphop world, with a mission to “to facilitate and encourage the pursuit of knowledge, art, culture and responsible leadership through Hiphop.”
Christian hiphop began with a Gospel rap album in 1982 called The Gospel Beat: Jesus-Christ, and grown since then into a very large community of religious hiphop artists and audiences. One of the major influences of the genre came in 1994 with the formation of Gotee Records, the first record label marketed explicitly for Christian hip hop and R&B that was backed by a major label. With it’s growth in popularity came it’s development into other forms of social media, such as radio stations like ChristianHipHop.net, tv shows, websites and awards.
Muslim rap is a small but growing movement, thanks to Native Deen, a pioneering group of three young African-American men who were reared in Islam and brought together through a youth music outreach program of Muslim Youth of North America (affiliated with the Islamic Society of North America). Native Deen lyrics gently urge youth to choose God, respect women, love peace and prayer, and reject violence, cigarettes, alcohol and materialism. The group is wildly popular among Muslim youth the world over, drawing concert audiences of thousands. One member, Joshua Salaam, was an imam at an Air Force base while enlisted in military service.
Jewish rap is a very small scene. Wikipedia lists Jewish and Israeli hiphop and rap groups. Typically, Jewish artists deal more with cultural Jewishness than with religion. The best-known exception is the commercially successful recording artist Matisyahu, whose reggae work includes the occasional rap. Matisyahu belongs to the Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic community. JDub Records is a New York City record and promotion company built around contemporary Jewish music, both cultural and religious.
In the Northeast
William H. Curtis
William H. Curtis is president of the Hampton University Ministers’ Conference, the oldest nondenominational African-American ministers conference in the country. He is senior pastor of 7,500-member Mount Ararat Baptist Church in Pittsburgh, Pa.
Ernest Allen Jr.
Ernest Allen Jr. is a professor of Afro-American studies at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. He has written about the evolution of the Nation of Islam from its roots as the Moorish Science Temple to the stepping down of Farrakhan.
Josef Sorett studies religious and spiritual expressions in hiphop music and culture. He has a master of divinity degree and is a graduate student in African-American studies at Harvard University, where his dissertation is on race, religion and the arts in 20th-century America. He has worked extensively with young people in nonprofits and religious communities.
Mark Lewis Taylor
Mark Lewis Taylor is Maxwell M. Upson Professor of Theology and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary. He wrote Religion, Politics and the Christian Right: Post-9/11 Powers and American Empire and The Executed God: The Way of the Cross in Lockdown America. He is a commentator on American culture and politics. He has written articles on hip-hop and religion. His expertise also includes race, U.S. prisons, the death penalty and contemporary anti-war movements.
Darren A. Ferguson
Darren A. Ferguson is founder and pastor of Luke 4:18 Ministries, an umbrella organization of hiphop ministers and services in New York, including the Soldiers of Praise hiphop choir and Friday Night FLAYVA (Freedom, Love and Abundant Youth Victory Alliance) worship. He is also youth director for Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. Ferguson calls his preaching style “Hiphop Homiletics” and says hiphop is a new paradigm for youth ministries. He says streetwise kids respond when they see that God loves people enough to send somebody who speaks their language. Read a Beliefnet article titled “Hiphop Minister: Beware of Cheapening the Gospel.”
Guthrie P. Ramsey Jr.
Guthrie P. Ramsey Jr. is an associate professor of music at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He leads a band, Dr. Guy’s MusiQologY, and has expertise in African-American and American music, jazz, cultural studies, popular music, film studies and historiography. He wrote Race Music: Black Cultures from Bebop to Hip-Hop (University of California Press, 2003).
The Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant is founder and pastor of the large Empowerment Temple, an AME church in Baltimore, and was previously director of the NAACP’s youth and college division. He co-authored The Gospel Remix: Reaching the Hip Hop Generation (Judson Press, 2007).
Princeton University associate law professor Imani Perry wrote Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop (Duke University Press, 2004). She studies race, legal history and culture.
In the South
Teresa L. Reed
Teresa L. Reed is the author of The Holy Profane: Religion in Black Popular Music (University Press of Kentucky, 2004), in which she links West-African musical and religious cultures and religious lyrics and themes in African-American blues, rhythm and blues, soul, funk and gangsta rap. She is an associate professor of music at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma.
Juan M. Floyd-Thomas
Juan M. Floyd-Thomas is associate professor of African-American religious history at Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School and a member of the cultural resources team for the African American Lectionary. He is also an expert on religion and protest music and black religious experience in America.
Leo Davis Jr.
Leo Davis Jr. is artistic director at Gia Publications, Inc. in Chicago, Ill. Davis has a scholarly background in black church worship and can discuss contemporary influences and trends in church music.
Felicia Miyakawa is a writer and editor interested in music, hip hop, feminism and gender, labor movements and music, among other related topics. She was formerly in assistant professor of musicology at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. She is the author of Five Percenter Rap: God Hop’s Music, Message and Black Muslim Mission (Indiana University Press, 2005).
Melva Wilson Costen
Melva Wilson Costen is an authority on music and worship in the black church. She wrote the widely consulted African American Christian Worship (Abingdon Press, 1993) and In Spirit and In Truth: The Music of African American Worship (Westminster, 2004). She recently retired from the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, where she was Helmar Emil Nielsen Professor of Music and Worship.
Mark Anthony Neal
Mark Anthony Neal is associate professor of black popular culture in the Program in African and African-American Studies at Duke University. He wrote What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture (1998), Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic (2002), and Songs in the Key of Black Life: A Rhythm and Blues Nation (2003).
Alan Lamar Patterson
Alan Lamar Patterson, aka AL P, got a law degree from Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University and then became a minister. He is a staff member of Mount Corinth Church in Houston, where he directs the monthly Friday Night Live, the Happy Hour of Power.
CEO, pastor and rap recording artist Del Lawrence, aka Mr. Del, was a member of a secular – and explicit – rap group, Three 6 Mafia, before he became a Christian in 2001. Since then, he says, he has been rapping for God. Lawrence leads City of Refuge Church in Memphis, Tenn.; records with EMI Gospel; and owns Holy South and Nu Soul Records.
James Scandrick directs the Institute on Black Church Sacred Music and Worship at Nashville’s American Baptist College.
Dr. Dawn-Elissa Fischer is an associate professor in the department of africana studies at San Francisco State University. She teaches courses on international Black popular culture, information technology and visual ethnography. She was the education outreach coordinator for Stanford University’s Hiphop Archive and the founder of the National Hip-Hop Political Convention. She works with youth in a number of capacities, including as executive director of Edutainment 4 Life, a collective of consultants working on programs for underserved youth, and on the advisory board of HOTGIRLS Inc. (Helping Our Teen Girls in Real Life Situations), a nonprofit using hiphop to educate girls about sexual health. She has commented on hiphop culture on Black Entertainment Television and Pacifica Radio.
Dr. Layli Phillips is executive director of the Wellesley Centers for Women in Wellesley, Mass. She was formerly the associate professor of women’s studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta, where she is also a faculty affiliate in the African-American studies department. Her teaching and research are on women and hiphop, womanism, black feminism and black queer studies.
Brad Mathias is president of Bema Media LLC, the parent company of iShine, the world’s largest preteen Christian media group in Nashville. He can discuss the hiphop genre of Christian music.
Charles E. Jones
Charles E. Jones chairs the African-American studies at Georgia State University. He recently took part in the second annual Hiphop Summit Behind Prison Walls at the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ USP Coleman II high-security prison near Ocala, Fla., where participants discussed the role of hiphop in crime and violence in black communities.
Derrick P. Alridge
Derrick P. Alridge is an associate professor in the college of education at the University of Georgia. He wrote “From Civil Rights to Hiphop: Toward a Nexus of Ideas,” an article in the 2005 Journal of African American History (Vol. 90).
Hampton, Va., hiphop artist Sean Slaughter writes a column, Freestylin‘, for GospelFlava.com, the gospel music industry newsmagazine. He can discuss the relationship between gospel and hiphop.
In the Midwest
James Perkinson is professor of ethics and systematic theology at Ecumenical Theological Seminary in Detroit. He has written about religious expression in rap music.
Pastor Phil Jackson conducts hip-hop worship services at Lawndale Community Church in Chicago with the Firehouse Community Arts Center, which seeks to “uncover and develop the gifts and strengths of North Lawndale’s youth and young adult residents.”
Richard Brent Turner
Richard Brent Turner is a professor of religious studies at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, where he teaches a course titled “African American Islam in International Perspective.” He wrote an article titled “Mainstream Islam in the African American Experience.”
Cathy J. Cohen
Cathy J. Cohen is professor of political science and deputy provost for graduate education at the University of Chicago, where she formerly directed the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture. She wrote The Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics (University of Chicago Press, 1999). She directs the Black Youth Project at the University of Chicago, which surveyed attitudes of 1,590 African-Americans, white and Latinos aged 15 to 25 in several Midwest cities on various topics, including rap music.
Efrem Smith serves as the President and CEO of World Impact in Los Angeles, Calif., a urban missions organization committed to the empowerment of the urban poor through the facilitation of church planting movements and leadership development. He also served as founding pastor of The Sanctuary Covenant Church in Minneapolis, Minn. Smith co-authored The Hip-Hop Church: Connecting With the Movement Shaping Our Culture (IVP Books, 2006). He also wrote Raising Up Young Heroes: Developing a Revolutionary Youth Ministry (InterVarsity Press, 2004).
In the West
Chuck Currie is a United Church of Christ seminarian and advocate for the homeless in Portland, Ore. He is also an active blogger and frequently writes on religion and politics.
Robin Sylvan is an adjunct professor of art and religion at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif. He has written about religion and rave culture, popular music, rap and hip-hop.
Ralph C. Watkins
The Rev. Ralph C. Watkins is the Peachtree associate professor of evangelism and church growth for Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga. Watkins co-authored The Gospel Remix: Reaching the Hip Hop Generation (Judson Press, 2007). Watkins, a pastor and musician, works to resolve gaps between the hiphop generation and its elders.
Bobby Schuller, head of Hour for Power in Garden Grove, Calif., and grandson of founder Robert Schuller, holds regular hiphop church services at the Los Angeles FaithDome, attracting thousands. Contact through Melanie Vogel, Shepherd’s Grove Public Relations.
Kimasi Browne is director of the ethnomusicology program at Azusa Pacific University near Los Angeles, where he is an assistant professor of music. Contemporary religious music trends and hiphop are among his areas of expertise.
W.P. Middlebrooks is a lay minister and rap evangelist at People’s Place Church in Pasadena, Calif., affiliated with the Church of God in Christ. He has developed Christian hiphop events and clubs through his Youth United for the World ministry.