Keep Your Head Up: Toward a Hip Hop Christology
By Daniel White Hodge
For lots of observers of diverse background, the church and the Hip Hop community are hopelessly divided. Nothing connects the two and in fact much divides them—their view of the world, their values and priorities, their fill in the blank. But for many in the church, Hip Hop is an increasingly compelling cultural phenomenon; and meanwhile, for many in the Hip Hop community, Jesus is the one who keeps their head up.
When we see Jesus’ life in context, we can then begin to see some points of identification with Hip Hop culture. For example, Jesus had a baby-mamma. In the Jewish context of Jesus’ day, the word “virgin” could mean either someone who has not had sex or an unmarried daughter. Within that context, an unmarried woman with child could only mean one thing: someone’s been dippin’ in the field! Joseph would have been straight trippin’ with Mary when he heard that she was pregnant. What were people going to say? It took a prophetic dream to convince Joseph that Mary was OK to marry, but we learn something countercultural about righteousness when we find that Joseph, “a righteous man,”sought to protect her from public disgrace (Matthew 1: 18-25).
Similarly, from birth Jesus did not have a good relationship with the authorities of his day. Al Sharpton offered a humorous example of this on Saturday Night Live; he and two others played the Wise Men and were pulled over by Roman soldiers for “driving [camels] while black.” Jesus was the subject of a vicious assassination attempt shortly after his birth: “A king of the Jews?” Herod bellowed, “Not in my ‘hood!”
Jesus continued to contend with haters throughout his ministry: in Matthew 22:15-22 we see the religious authorities of the day challenging Jesus on who to pay taxes to. The Pharisees wanted to get him to fall in order to arrest him. Jesus, never at a loss for words, called them out using a provocative (even profane) word: hupokritace, or “hypocrite.” We do not typically identify with a “foul-mouthed” Jesus, yet we find Jesus several times using language like this that was considered profane in his context in order to confront the powerful.
Through connection points like these, Hip Hop culture has developed a unique relationship with Jesus. The Hip Hop Jesus confronts racial and ethnic constructs of Christian faith; it also brings Christianity directly to bear on the suffering, marginalization and oppression experienced by many people groups—particularly African Americans—who identify with Hip Hop. Rappers like Tupac, The Outlawz and DMX are often explicitly religious but always inherently spiritual in their lyrics, essentially creating a space for Hip Hoppers and sympathetic onlookers to access a Jesus directly from the hood, rather than through the intricate and imposing ecclesiastical structures of church, pastors, priests, and piety. The Jesus of Hip Hop embodies the language and imagery of the streets—the Hip Hop Jesus is Black and spells his name with a Z.
Tupac Shakur was perhaps the first to refer to “Black Jesuz” in the song of the same name. The letter Z represents a Jesus not only “above” the fray in theological pursuit but also “below”—in reachable form, validating the particular struggles, narratives and spirituality of many Hip Hoppers. This Jesus opposes the dogma of early creeds and is suspicious of interpretations of Scripture that do not take context, history, and language into consideration. He culls from the Gospels a story in which the Hip Hop community can both participate and find their own story. This Jesuz is illuminated by appeal to sociology and psychology; we discover the inner development of Jesuz to his full consciousness. His humanity is emphasized, his divine Otherness is downplayed, and traditional interpretations of Christian morality and ethics are critiqued by reference to Black Jesuz.
Appeals to Black Jesuz are essentially appeals for a “low Christology”—that is, a Christ who walked among the people rather than being “on high” and out of touch. As such, Hip Hop Christology is more compelled by the Gospels of Mark and John, as well as the Christology attributed to the theoretical Q source.
“Black Jesuz” was in many ways an innovation of Tupac, but the need for a Black Jesus is not a new discovery. In 1975, in the middle of Hip Hop’s prehistory, James Cone arguedfor a Jesus that American Blacks could relate to—a Jesus who was socially aware of the struggle that Blacks had to go through, and who would have compassion on them because of their hardships. This image carried a messianic message of hope, vision, blessings, and concern for the downtrodden in U.S. inner cities. As Michael Dyson has observed, later Hip Hoppers like KRS-One and Tupac essentially took up Cone’s mantle to become “irreverent” natural theologians for their suffering communities.
So, given the ascendancy of Hip Hop as a dominant culture, it should come as no surprise that we see new, widespread affinity for Black Jesuz—a Jesus more concerned with the needs of the suffering than with the integrity of an institution. When future books of religious history are written, it may just be that people will read Tupac’s “Black Jesuz” with the same seriousness that we today read Martin Luther’s 95 theses. In the meantime, I hope that we can take these “irreverent theologies” seriously, continually deconstructing our images of Jesus and growing our faith and spirituality to new heights.