I recently purchased J.Period’s phenomenal mixtape, The Best of Lauryn Hill: Fire and Water. Those of us still searching for L. Boogie as the enigmatic Ms. Hill performs across the country, occasionally with the reunited Fugees, can find solace in this collection of her group, solo, and guest appearances from the early 90’s to now. Hill hosts the two-disc collection, giving us insight into her inspiration and development as a person and an artist.
In one remembrance, entitled the Message Music Interlude, Hill shares her reasons for rapping. She explains, “‘I think I chose to become a rapper because I had a lot of things I wanted to say and I wanted to make sure that it reached the people.” Hill continues, “At that point, R&B music wasn’t being used to make any statements. It was hip-hop. Hip-hop had Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest, you had Eric B. and Rakim. And this was message music. I think that I kind of was inspired by a lot of these groups to start rhyming and have a somewhat conscious statement, a conscious message.”
Lauryn Hill intentionally chose the medium of hip-hop music over R&B to express to “the people” messages of justice, hope, and freedom, despite and through oppressive circumstances. As a Black Christian who considers himself a liberationist, her reflection led me to ask the question: Why not express protest through gospel music? After all, traditionally, black “sacred” music has inspired black protest movements in North America from enslavement to the present. Or has it?
Several weeks ago, I attended the annual meeting of the National Black Presbyterian Caucus (NBPC) in Charlotte, North Carolina themed “Stride Toward Freedom: Justice and the Gospel.” My wife Neema and I led a workshop and spoke on a panel for the event, which featured preaching and lectures by AME Bishop Vashti McKenzie, Presbyterian pastor Dr. Karen Brown, and Dr. Jeremiah Wright, pastor of Trinity UCC in Chicago.
Wright shared two lectures with us, the second offering a seething critique of the Black Church’s lack of progressive politics past and present. On the one hand, he lamented that many Black churches have yet to purge themselves of white supremacist ideology such that in our worship experiences, we would rather sing European hymns, anthems, and Westernized Negro spirituals than claim our black heritage through the singing of gospel music.
Later in Wright’s lecture, however, in an ironic twist, he expressed frustration with the theology of contemporary gospel music. He asked, “Who determines the theology for the Black Church today?” Responses ranged from Rush Limbaugh to T.D. Jakes to Tavis Smiley. Yet Wright’s response caught many of us by surprise.
“Musicians,” he replied, generating a pause in the room.
He then explained that a good number of mega-church pastors and black televangelists began their careers as musicians who then shifted to pastoral ministry. Donnie McClurkin, Marvin Winans, and Jakes himself, he argued, all began their careers as musicians without proper theological education who through song and sermon lead millions of black worshipers astray with an over-emphasis on false notions of biblical prosperity, a theological individualism borrowed from the religious right, and a failure to acknowledge the socio-political implications of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Wright was particularly annoyed with Donald Lawrence’s Prayer of Jabez inspired ” Bless Me (Enlarge My Territory).”
Yet, interestingly enough, the very “traditionalists” that Wright derided earlier in his lecture make a similar critique of the lack of theological substance in gospel music. Who would disagree that a traditional hymn offers more depth than the average top 10 hit on gospel radio? If Wright’s critiques are valid, then the road to sonic liberation seems to be clouded by the white supremacy of traditional hymns and the conservative theology of contemporary gospel.
What is the progressive Black Christian to do?
While reclaiming the spirituals is one strategy, and Africanizing the hymns and anthems of the church is another, where are the contemporary expressions of black “sacred” music that uplift an understanding of salvation inclusive of theologies of liberation? Where are the songs that critique a church and society that idolizes whiteness, maleness, wealth, and heterosexuality? Where is the music that brings a gospel of hope to the downtrodden, despite our institutionalized oppression? It is disappointing that A Black Theology of Liberation seems not to have influenced the medium of music that informs the theology of most black Christians. Or has it?
The Best of Lauryn Hill reminded me that the Spirit of God that inspired enslaved Africans in America to sing “Go Down Moses (Let My People Go),” “I’m On the Battlefield (For My Lord),” and “We Shall Overcome,” still lives, and is moving in the brush harbor of hip-hop.
Hill’s catalogue reveals that her music is a wellspring of black liberation theology, as this “Abyssinian Street Baptist” is “out to change the focus from the richest to the brokest.”
Where else but in hip-hop can we find a Womanist collaborator like Common express openness to a feminine vision of the second coming? (“Waiting for the Lord to rise, I looked into my daughter’s eyes, and realized I’m a learn from her/ The Messiah might even return through her, ” title track from Be). Where else but hip-hop can we find a postmodern prophet like Jill Scott taking and holding on to her freedom, representing God’s glory along the way (“Golden,” Beautifully Human)? There are even Christian hip-hop artists who aren’t afraid to see the political as spiritual, as hip-hop Jeremiahs Grits wonder if a balm exists in the Gilead of a racist post-civil rights United States, “Black man, wake up/Black man, feel me/ Dr. King said we would overcome/ Will we?” (“If I,” Dichotomy B).
To be fair, not all of hip-hop is concerned with liberation, but neither is all of gospel music. Yet, hip-hop music seems to have created a space for the social gospel in a way that contemporary gospel music has not. Hip-Hop psalmists understand as James Cone did 35 years ago that “Any message that is not related to the liberation of the poor in a society is not Christ’s message. Any theology that is indifferent to the theme of liberation is not Christian theology.” I’m sure that hip-hoppers worldwide would say”Amen” to that.