Black History

Unashamed Blackness: Black History & Christian Rap Featuring Ameen Hudson

Blackness never needed Christian rap, but Christian rap is unimaginable without Blackness.

As we celebrate Black history this month, it is fitting to acknowledge that CHH would never exist without Blackness—without the Black experience, Black resistance, Black hope, Black history, Black soul, Black spirituality, Black rhythm. It is primarily a Black genre, and any definition predicated apart from this reality is hopelessly misplaced. This genre isn’t color blind. These rhyme schemes have melanin.

(Citations listed at the bottom of the article.)

Author, public intellectual, co-host of Southside Rabbi, and respected commentator on Christian hip hop, Ameen Hudson sat down with Rapzilla to discuss the centrality of Blackness in the development of hip hop in general and CHH in specific. According to Hudson, hip hop and Christian rap share an undeniable cultural heritage in the Black experience and the Black struggle. As Hudson points out, “hip hop was created by people of color, specifically by Black people; and our Puerto Rican brothers and sisters were in on that as well. Hip hop is a Black cultural product.”

CHH is an extension of hip hop, and hip hop is Blackness expressed sonically. In her book titled Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, Tricia Rose asserts that “rap music is a black cultural expression that prioritizes black voices from the margins of urban America.”1 Blackness produced hip hop, and hip hop served as a modality for Black narrative, Black imagination, and Black articulation.

Hip hop is Black.

And this same Blackness colors the canvas of CHH. The musical production enjoyed by consumers of CHH is more than mere entertainment. We hear more than melodies, raps, and rhymes. These artists aren’t simply entertainers assembling random words that listeners can bump. These are people with stories, histories, heritage. These Black sisters and brothers in Christ are telling their stories—their beautiful Black stories.

Ameen Hudson

And in these stories is the explicit articulation of self-affirmation—affirmation of humanity, of Blackness. “I think hip hop was a way in which we tended to actually champion and announce our dignity to the world,” Hudson states, “it was a way that we found identity; a way that we reclaimed our dignity, and the way that we expressed it to the world.” The world of Black narration stood tall against the false narratives of Blackness constructed by the world.

Black humanity pronounced Black stories through Black musical expression. These stories include their communities, their wins, and losses; their crowns and crosses. In their lyrical construction is their narrative of themselves, the world, God.

According to Hudson, “hip hop had become a vehicle of messaging, it was a way in which people were constantly able to get across not only their dignity but to be able to teach people.” He goes on to say that hip hop serves as a way “to give messages to our own people in our own context.” And Hudson ties together the thread between hip hop and CHH by claiming that “the gospel is inherently a message.” The vehicle of cultural messaging in hip hop translated seamlessly to a messaging of cultural, spiritual, and social redemption.

This vehicle of messaging gave way to a unique Black expression of the divine, an expression realized in CHH.

Christian rap is Black God-talk. It is a certain spoken theology that dances between Doxology and Du Boise, Reformation and Reconstruction, Martin and Malcolm. From Scattered Tulips to Talented 10th, from The Trap to Terraform — CHH is an entire school of theology. It is the urban seminary condensed in time stamps and rehearsed at concerts. The mic is the lectern, the headphones are the classroom. And it all stems from a Black consciousness, the reality that God breathed life into Black bodies for His glory, and now Black bodies breathe meaning into soundtracks that give people life.

As Hudson states, “we want to show people not just by preaching from the pulpit that Christ can come and meet them where they are, but we can also show people in the music that Christ CAN come and meet them where they are.” And CHH does just that. It steps into specific contexts and proclaims the good news in a common tone, an identifiable tongue, a perceptible language.

And many would never have accepted Christ without the unique Blackness of CHH. Hudson reflects how he “heard the gospel in Southside St. Pete from another Florida dude who was from the streets.” He explains that “the dude that I heard the gospel from was an ex-dope dealer, a dude named Mynista.” Hudson described how KB preached the gospel to him, gave him Mynista’s album, and Hudson repented listening to the outro song. It was Mynista’s message of the gospel wrapped in his own Black language, Black messaging, and Black skin that ministered to Hudson.

“I think about how Christian hip hop has had the ability to meet other Black urbanites where they are,” Hudson states, “like it did for me. I would not have been able to hear the gospel via Christian hip hop through—not any shade—a Toby Mac. Toby Mac is not from where I’m from. He doesn’t speak my language. He may use the vehicle, but he doesn’t speak my language.”

DC Talk and TobyMac

CHH is the gospel preached by Black creatives to the created world.

From Cross Movement to Reach Records, from Sho Baraka to Jackie Hill Perry, CHH is the amalgamation of a diverse Blackness, the culmination and expression of a particular Black Christianity contextualized in an ethnic identity.

Jesus made Black folks, and Black folks — out of their unique experience — crafted CHH.

The Black particularity of CHH speaks both to the present and the past. It links together a long legacy of musical and cultural heritage, and it is expressed within hip hop. As Hudson points out, “we can’t divorce [the creation of hip hop] from the Black church, and then you can’t divorce the music and the style of the Black church from the Negro spirituals. You can’t divorce the Negro spirituals from the Black experience and from slavery — all of that has trickled down to this genre that we now call hip hop.”

And CHH is certainly part of this rich inheritance. It integrates old traditions with innovative styles. It blends together ancestry with advancement, nostalgia with novelty.

KB’s recent release “Worship in a Moshpit” is a case in point. It harkens back to a specific Black Christian tradition: the ring shout.

The ring shout originated when enslaved persons fused African retentions or traditions of dance and music with Christianity. Gathered in hush harbors — secret locations to practice their religion—African Americans worshipped God in a circular gathering, singing and swaying, humming and shouting.

Flora Bridges, in her work titled Resurrection Song: African-American Spirituality, articulates that the ring shout “permitted all to worship God together, irrespective of their many ethnic and linguistic origins, and thus fostered the social principles of unity, harmony, and cooperation in the slave community.”2

The ring shout and the moshpit present parallel meanings. KB’s song is perhaps the realization that what was once done in private is now displayed in public. It is the expressed efforts of Black resolve and the continued legacy of Black worship.

In addition to KB, Lecrae’s song “Deep End” also is a testament to Black tradition. The song itself incorporates themes from the Black spirituals, those Black songs of old that wrestled with God over the injustices of the world. In both verses of his song, Lecrae lyrically conveys a physical struggle between himself and God, one that leaves him walking with a limp.

This wrestling with God is a prominent theme in the Black spirituals. The lyrical depiction stretches back to the Civil War when Black regiments sang songs like “Wrestling Jacob”:

O wrestlin’ Jacob, Jacob, day’s a-breakin’;

I will not let thee go!

O wrestlin’ Jacob, Jacob, day’s a-breakin’;

He will not let me go!

O, I hold my brudder wid a tremblin’ hand;

I would not let him go!

I hold my sister wid a tremblin’ hand;

I would not let her go!3

The spirituals are inherently communal in nature. In his contributing essay on music in The 1619 Project, Wesley Morris expresses that “among all else that spirituals could be, they were essentially communal, a people speaking to each other and reaching for God.”4

They also served as a rallying point for justice. In his work titled The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James Cone states how “the spirituals and the church, with Jesus’ cross at the heart of its faith, gave birth to the black freedom movement that reached its peak in the civil rights era during the 1950s and 60s.” He goes on to claim that “the spirituals were the soul of the movement, giving people the courage to fight, and the church was its anchor, deepening its faith in the coming freedom for all.”5

The spirituals also served as a social and religious reflection of inequity. Flora Bridges asserts that “as with every aspect of early black culture, what the people were singing religiously reflected what was happening to them sociologically.”6 Early Black religious song was encoded with the reality of sociological oppression.

There is no reason to suggest that this lyrical encoding ceased with the emancipation of slavery or directly following the March on Washington. Similar to the spirituals, Hip Hop speaks against power structures.

Travis Harris, in his article titled “Refocusing and Redefining Hip Hop: An Analysis of Lecrae’s Contribution to Hip Hop” articulates that “just as the spirituals and the blues addressed the adversity the slaves endured, Hip Hop addresses the adversity today’s generation faces.”7

Lecrae’s use of the wrestling analogy in “Deep End” continues the legacy of the spirituals and affirms the practice of using religious music as a response to physical, cultural, and social injustice. This is more than an artistic idea; this is the ongoing expression of Black folks wrestling with God for hundreds of years.

Lecrae’s music isn’t Christian only — it’s Black.

And Blackness is pervasive throughout hip hop. Situating the genre in this long historical development demonstrates the importance Blackness played in creating the genre. This is why Hudson states that “if someone asked me ‘is hip hop a Black genre?’ I would say it absolutely is, and Christian hip hop is just an extension of hip hop. Christian hip hop is a Black genre…and I hope it could be respected as such, I hope that it would be respected as such.”

But Blackness and the Christian music industry have had a complex relationship. There have been many attempts to whitewash CHH, to take the theology but deny the urban, to invite in the spiritual but leave out the physical. This led some artists to highlight those accepted themes. Hudson even states that “I know there’s more nuance to this, but I think there was a time within Christian hip hop where we were just trying to impress white theologians.”

However, many artists recognized the hegemonic attempts to erase the Blackness from CHH. Artists like Sho Baraka and Propaganda, for example, refused to deny their Blackness for a more “marketable” style. When white Christians wanted these rappers to vocalize concepts strictly confined to the white theological formation, they resisted.

Thank God they resisted!

On a recent Southside Rabbi episode, Hudson addressed Sho Baraka’s legacy, stating that “a lot of cats owe Sho Baraka an apology.”8 When everyone was talking theology in their music and afraid to vocalize Blackness, Sho Baraka remained unapologetically Black.

Artists like Sho Baraka and Propaganda firmly denied the transaction of trading their Blackness for dollar signs. Because of their perseverance, they have paved the way for other artists to emulate. Blackness is integral to hip hop, and Christian rap cannot be severed from Blackness.

Sho baraka

As Hudson states, “don’t invite Christian hip hop in and not invite all of the struggles and realities of those who are actually doing Christian hip hop. Don’t just take our rhythm and not take our blues. Don’t want the rhythm and not the blues, bro. You have to get the rhythm and the blues; you have to get both of them. If you just want our rhythm but don’t want our blues you don’t want us, you want to hijack and appropriate it for your own means. You can’t take half of it, you have to take all of it” — Blackness included.

Other artists and creatives have also set the tone for Black affirmation in historically white spaces. Acclaimed author, speaker, and accomplished hip hop artist Jackie Hill Perry has asserted her own Black identity, and Hudson esteems her example: “She embraces all of who she is, including her experience, and then she contextualizes the theology for all people, but she doesn’t do it by erasing her own identity as a Black woman.”

And now the entire genre is following the example of those who refused to be quiet about their Blackness. “I think that now we really are in a place where we are talking about the fullness of the Black struggle and the Black experience,” Hudson comments. And this is due to the holistic vision emerging within CHH, one that combines orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthopathos; a Christianity that is equally concerned with right doctrine, right practice, and right feeling toward God and neighbor.

Hudson advances optimism for the future of Christian rap: “I think that by and large Christian hip hop is embracing the full, holistic reality of the Black experience and [artists are] talking about it and wanting to talk about it in their music without losing sight of the gospel of Jesus Christ being the hope for all men, all nations, tribes, tongues.”

“I just see that folks are going to be unashamed now, not just of the gospel — as we always were — but unashamed of being Black,” Hudson notes.

As we celebrate Black History, it is imperative to distinguish the contribution of Black artists to CHH. Even more, it is crucial to recognize the legacy of Black music, to appreciate all it has overcome. For all the times history and humans attempted to stomp out Blackness, Blackness stomped back. It sang, it rumbled, it rang out for all the world to hear. And because of it, the world is changing.

Now more than ever Blackness is expressed in CHH. Now more than ever Blackness owns CHH. And now more than ever Blackness defines CHH.

CHH is Black art, Black poetics, Black music. It includes Black stories, Black spirituality, Black rage, Black joy, and Black creativity. It is a masterful mosaic of the Black experience expressed in the reverberations of 808s, raps and rhymes, freestyles, and flows. CHH, whatever it is, is Black — beautifully Black.

And so I end with where I began: Blackness never needed Christian rap, but Christian rap is unimaginable without Blackness.

Stay tuned for additional commentary on this subject…

Sources

1 Tricia Rose, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1994), 2.
2 Flora Bridges, Resurrection Song: African-American Spirituality (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001), 57.
3 Thomas Higginson, Army Life in a Black Regiment (Boston: Beacon, 1962), 209.
4 Wesley Morris, “Music” in The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story by Nikole Hannah-Jones et. al., (New York, NY: One World, 2021), 366.
5 James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), 28.
6 Bridges, Resurrection Song, 75.
7 Travis Harris, “Refocusing and Redefining Hip Hop: An Analysis of Lecrae’s Contribution to Hip Hop,” The Journal of Hip Hop Studies 1, no. 5 (2014): 16.
8 “Ministry, Music, and the Justice Convo with The Ambassador,” Southside Rabbi, Season 3 Episode 13, presented by Native North, featuring KB, Ameen Hudson, and the Ambassador, 00.45.43.







What do you think?

Avatar

Written by Isaiah Thompson

Isaiah Colton Thompson is a scholar, rapper, and activist. He holds a B.A. in Religious Studies and History and is pursuing his M.A. at California State University, Fullerton, where he is a member of the Mellon Mays Fellowship, the Ronald E. McNair Scholars Program, and the Sally Casanova Pre-Doctoral Program. His research interests include hip hop, the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Black Theology, and racism within the church.

Leave a Reply

Avatar

Your email address will not be published.

GIPHY App Key not set. Please check settings

Hot or Not

Vote On Christian Rap Hot Or Not Submissions Of The Day (2/21/22)

2022 Rapzilla Freshmen Class List Revealed