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FIRST-PERSON: Are we listening to the Hip-Hop Generation?

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–On June 14, some three hundred rap artists and music executives concluded the “National Hip-Hop Summit” in New York City. Hip hop has now been around for over 20 years and is well established as a multi-billion dollar, world-wide industry, impacting youth culture around the globe. Like jazz, from its early origins in the creative aesthetic spirit of the African American community, for good or ill, it has crossed over to grab the hearts and minds of music enthusiasts of every ethnic background.

Yet mainstream Christianity has dialogued little, if at all, concerning the influence of this phenomenon. In dramatic contrast, hip-hop has developed close ties with Islamic leaders. With such an influential medium, should not the evangelical community be more engaged in discussions related to this musical genre?

Although NAACP president CEO, Kweisi Mfume, and Martin Luther King III, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference attended the summit, along with at least five members of Congress, leaders of the wider Christian community were noticeably absent.

High on the national summit’s agenda were concerns over lyrical content as well as young artists’ understanding the power and influence they garner in this multi-billion dollar industry. Thus, the hip-hop summit itself in my opinion should be viewed by all, particularly, those concerned with the content and character of rap and hip-hop music, as a positive idea.

Many argue that hip-hop is not really a black and white issue. Hip-hop is a culture. You observe its cultural dynamics in both white and black youth, in their language, in their dress and even in their physical movements. Though 98% of rap artists are black, 75 percent of the sales of rap music are purchased by white youth, most often, white suburbanite youth. Without question, many church going youth contribute to the wealth and popularity of these rap artists, though some argue that the very life-blood of rap music thrives on negativity. That is, some say, if you remove the exploitation of women, machismo violence, and materialist yearnings from rap music, the art will die. Others say, to remove the harsh lyrics would be an infringement on artist freedom, suggesting that rappers are only reflecting in rap what they experience in life — it’s their story and they should have the right to tell it.

It is important however, to question from time to time, the meaning of various cultural trends relative to the trend’s societal influence. According to Def Jam Records founder, Russell Simmons, the theme of the hip-hop summit was: “Taking back responsibility.”

The African American community believes that lyrical content of hip hop has long been a issue of concern in the black community, but white America did not pay much attention until the controversial white rapper Eminem became popularized in the white community. It is important to note, however, that white youth have long listened to rap groups and artists like NWA, Public Enemy, Ice T, and others who were around much longer than Eminem, using similar lyrical content. Yet there was never the outcry, to the extent there is over Eminem. Many white rappers understand the rap culture, but they also understand the economic market as well. Many refuse to place their faces on the cover of their CD cases because they fear white youth will not buy rap music performed by white rappers. By the sound alone, it is difficult distinguish white rappers from their black counterparts. That’s because hip-hop is a culture not a race.

I think it’s important for Christians to engage in these cultural discussions. When you bring together wealthy youth, media exposure, social, economic, political power and influence, we all should be paying attention to such an enormous captivator of youth culture. Often the church is guilty of the proverbial “ostrich in the sand,” “Johnny-come-lately” mentality when it comes to being aware of the major cultural trends, trends that are impacting youth across ethnic, racial and socioeconomic lines. No matter what opinion one may have about the sound and substance, the message or meaning of rap music, hip hop and rap music are here to stay. Are we listening?

    About the Author

  • Terriel Byrd