CWRU professor discusses Hip-Hop and the Holy

Issra Osman, Contributing Reporter

Since its creation, hip-hop has continually paid homage to its spiritual, cultural and religious beginnings. In her talk on “‘God Complexes’ and ‘Complex Gods’: Emancipatory Practices in Religion and Hip Hop,” Joy Bostic, Ph.D. examined the connection between divinity and hip-hop.

Like she does for all her courses, Bostic started off by introducing the perspective of Charles Long, Ph.D., author of “Significations: Signs, Symbols, and Images in the Interpretation of Religion.” Both Bostic and Long believe black music is a response to the circumstances of blacks in America. To justify the systemic oppression of African-Americans, Africanity, the quality or state of being African or of having African origins, became debased. Enlightenment ideals branded blacks as “heathens” that needed to be saved from their own culture.  

To build on that idea, Bostic referenced Michael Eric Dyson’s belief that the black poor are given a voice through what she calls “divine grammars.” Through hip-hop and other art forms, these artists are actively deconstructing our notion of the divine. Bostic explains that when humans become religious, they are getting closer to God. This makes them become more God-like, which brings the use of these “divine grammars” into the music mainstream.

In hip-hop music today, we see artists refer to themselves as divine powers. From Yeezus (Kanye West) to Hova (Jay-Z) to Queen Bey (Beyonce), black artists are called out for having god complexes. By divinizing its roots, the African-American community frees itself from the negative connotations it is associated with. Bostic explained that black bodies becoming divine contradicts the Anglo-Saxon Protestant idea that black bodies were the antithesis of the holy.  Tupac Shakur, for example, depicts himself as a crucified Jesus on the cover of his album “Makaveli.”

Despite depicting himself in this image, Tupac references a search for a god that the black poor can relate to. In his song “Black Jesus,” Tupac asks for someone “[…] like a Saint, that we pray to in the ghetto, to get us through/Somebody that understand our pain/You know maybe not too perfect, you know /[…]/That understand where we coming from.”

Bostic related Tupac’s “Black Jesus” to Kanye West and Jay-Z’s “No Church in the Wild;” in both, the dichotomy of the sacred and the profane are blurred. In “No Church in the Wild,” Jay-Z speaks of “Tears on the mausoleum floor/Blood stains the Coliseum doors/Lies on the lips of a priest/[…]/Is Pious pious ’cause God loves pious?/Socrates asks, “whose bias do y’all seek?” In this, Bostic explains that the rappers are positioning themselves as what she calls the sacrality and flow.

During the talk, Bostic recalled her own experience as a nine-year-old girl, positioning herself while shopping so that the owner could see she wasn’t shoplifting. This kind of code shifting was necessary for African-Americans because historical blackness was a threat to the divine right of whiteness. In flipping this, hip-hop artists make themselves what Monica R. Miller calls “New Black Godz.” “New Black Godz” are people that divinize the struggle of urban poor, speak to experience of those rendered illegible and confront the places that are deemed “non-passage.”

When black rappers manipulate “divine grammars” in their music, they do so to achieve recognition, to achieve a greatness that rises above black community. In Childish Gambino’s “This is America,” he uses symbolism and imagery to describe American history, a history that includes the history of African-American people. They were brought to America, once free individuals, and subjected to a cruel status change that rendered them owned property. Through movement, rhythmic structures and ritual, African-Americans have found a way to exist and respond to it.