Do beliefs inform cultural expressions or do cultural expressions inform beliefs? I know that in philosophy and science, the philosophers and scientists respectively observe [externally] the life and the cultural expressions of people in order to formulate what laws, principles and beliefs inform and drive those actions. No one assumes that some of those actions, especially those used in communication between members of a community, are meaningless or causeless.
A JAPANESE GREETING
For example, if you observe a Japanese greeting, you will notice that people greet each other with a slight bow. If you are an external observer, this cultural expression will of course make you curious, and if you approach a Japanese person and ask them about it, they will explain to you that it is a sign of respect and how far one bows down actually indicates how much respect the one bowing has for the other person. So, to the external observer, it is the cultural expression that will make him curious about the underlying beliefs. However, to the people actually participating in the cultural expression, they are not doing it ignorantly. Their cultural expression is the direct outcome of a primary, underlying belief or principle.
HIP HOP & EXHIBITIONISM
But what does all this have to do with Christianity and Hip Hop Culture? I can’t help but feel the eyes of Hip Hop enthusiasts poring at this post to see if I have my facts right concerning the origin of Hip Hop and if I will be sure to point out the difference between Hip Hop as a culture and Rap as a music genre. Well, I will have to disappoint you on that because what I am writing about today does not require an accurate history of which specific village, era and cult gave birth to Hip Hop. All I need to present my message is a single Hip Hop village, and the cultural expressions (gestures) contained therein.
The little I know about the Hip Hop culture that arose in South Bronx in the mid 70s is that it was predominantly an outcry from the talented youth of South Bronx and Harlem, an outcry that elevated the “I”. The music was all about identity: “I am the best. I spread the most love in the Bronx, in Harlem, in Queens.” Then it evolved to a way of expressing “real” issues about society and humanity. Later on, it became about money, drug, sex, fame and elevating one’s gangsta image. These underlying themes of course evoked external gestures and mannerisms for expressing them. Pride and self-elevation for example, inevitably generates the tough look with chin elevated and a lot of clout in the performer. The flashy cars, clothes and bling were an outward expression of one’s wealth and the fact that they had made it in life. You can add to the list…
So, what am I getting at with all this? Well, what I mean is that the cultural expressions of secular Hip Hop are not just random signature moves, they are outward expressions of inward realities. Jay Z is not just flaunting his friend’s car to put up an image of clout and wealth, he is actually wealthy and most probably owns the car. I am saying “most probably owns the car” because many of the cars on most American Hip Hop videos are actually being marketed and advertised… in case you didn’t know. For example, Mercedez Benz was the number one brand mentioned in Billboards top 20 singles in 2005. Hennesy was at number 6. So, you see, these guys are not just acting out random gimmicks in their videos. They are very deliberate. They either own the car or they are marketing it. They either drink the stuff or they are advertising it.
But what about the Christian Hip Hop artists? What do those gestures and cultural expressions in your lingo represent? Where is your clout coming from? Why do you have that flashy car and those flashy clothes in your music videos? Of course, if confronted, you can rationalize and say that you are simply celebrating what the Lord has done for you. Even if you actually own those clothes and that car, what is the theological basis for flaunting it to the public in your videos? Even if you’re doing it to brag on your Lord, is that how bragging on the Lord looks like? How come other people who boast in the same Lord don’t seem to flaunt their material wealth to prove it?
WHAT ABOUT RELEVANCE?
And if your reason or excuse for doing that is that you are trying to contextualize your message and create an opportunity for sharing the Gospel with those entrenched in the Hip Hop culture, have you considered what the Bible has to say about that? Apostle Paul was very careful when he first approached the Corinthians with the message of the Gospel. He says;
“When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.” [1 Corinthians 2:1-5]
It is not that Paul was not skilled with eloquence. His letter to the Corinthians actually happens to be among his most poetic literary works. It is not that Paul didn’t know his Greek philosophy and Roman culture, come on, he was a Roman citizen! But what did he resolve to do when he first went to minister to the Corinthians? He resolved to know nothing but Jesus Christ crucified. And he presented this message with great fear and trembling, because He did not want the people’s faith to rest on his wisdom or eloquence, but on the power of God in The Gospel.
Ironically, many Hip Hop artists actually include the Hip Hop mannerisms and cultural expressions in their music and videos for the exact same reason that Paul deliberately left these things out – to reach out to the lost. Am I the only one who is seeing this dangerous paradox? When Paul first reached out to the Corinthians, he gave them the unadulterated message of the Gospel. But when Paul wrote them as believers in Christ, he wrote them one of his most poetic pieces ever. He used his gift to edify the Body, not to seduce the world to be interested in The Gospel.
EXAMINE YOUR HABITS
My question to our local Hip Hop artistes is, why do you do what you do in the name of Hip Hop? Why flaunt a car you neither own nor advertise? Why adorn clothes that you can’t afford (and if you did, it really upset your budget, making it a sign of poor stewardship) just so that you can appeal to those lost in the Hip Hop culture? Maybe I have a major blind-spot in the way I view this matter. I wouldn’t mind being corrected on this. But please note, I am not now espousing a puritanical cultural conservativeness that considers hymns the only way to worship God through music, I am simply asking us to think about why we do what we do. There’s a lot to commend in Christian Rap/Hip Hop, but there’s also a lot we need to seriously and biblically think about.
If you are really boasting in the Cross through your Hip Hop beat, then how come your hearers praise God more with a Hip Hop beat and are indifferent to the same words when sung in a hymn? Could it be because their faith is resting in the genre of music rather than in the message of the Cross?
“So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves.” [Romans 14:22]
For the fame of His name,