God's my big homie
Caspar Melville reports on the resurrection of religion in black popular music
Hip hop, according to reports from the frontline, has gone holy. This should surprise us, because while the narrative form of hip hop has traditionally been broad, sampling as it does from the long history of black popular music from blues to soul, God has only infrequently merited a mention. As it evolved from its origins in 1970s New York through phases of party hedonism, social commentary, and “gangsta” confrontational to reach its current state of bloated consumerism known as “bling”, various forms of religious iconography and spiritual stirrings have emerged, most usually versions of Islam drawn from the Nation of Islam teachings of Louis Farrakhan. But such stylings have been residual for years, as the champions of “bling” such as Sean “Puffy” Combs, 50 Cent, Ja Rule and DMX, who combine a grim, violent and compassionless form of story-telling with a mindless worship of the trappings of fame – Kristal champagne, diamonds and sports cars – have risen to the top. In any battle between God and Mammon these rappers would seem self-evidently on the side of the latter. Yet it is these very rappers, and other like them, so apparently pleased with their flaunting of legal and moral codes of conduct, who have in recent times come over all pious. As Marvin Gaye might have asked, what's going on?
Hip hop picked up where soul left off in the late 1970s, becoming the primary expressive vehicle for Black America and building on the economic achievements of soul, above all Berry Gordy's Motown label which established black popular music as a viable commodity in the global marketplace. Early good times “party rap” of pioneers like Grandmaster Flash, and the proto-protest phase of Public Enemy helped establish the artistic, political and commercial credentials of the genre. But it was with the arrival of gangsta rap with its provocative strut, and cold-eyed take on American life – Straight Outta Compton by NWA (Niggaz With Attitude) of 1988 marks the change – hip hop hit the global economic big-time.
Funny thing was, the more gangstas railed against racism and white authority on behalf of the black “community”, and the more that the figure of the “nigga”, the drug-peddling, woman-hating, money-loving ghetto thug (for whom in the lyrics of one rap hit “life ain't nothing but bitches and money”) took shape as the central archetype, the more the white kids in the suburbs lapped it up. This was the moment when rap showed the promise of becoming the soundtrack to a new assertive black politics which could measure up to the challenge represented by the Rodney King video scandal, very much as soul had served the civil rights movement. But in fact the real impact of hip hop was less a matter of politics and more a matter of political economy. When a young Ice Cube told us on “Fuck Tha Police” that he was “A young nigga on a warpath/And when I'm finished, it's gonna be a bloodbath,” you might have thought it was a prescient reference to the LA Riots which were fulminating at the time. But looking at the worldwide megastardom of NWA old boys Cube (now a major Hollywood star) and record producer Dr Dre (the most financially successful producer in pop history) we might be tempted to read Cube's lines as a reference to blood on the boardroom carpet. The media battlefield is littered with the corpses of record labels which failed to take the economic threat and potential of hip hop seriously, while each of these artists sits atop a media empire of their own construction.
All of which is by way of saying that if hip hop has recently got a dose of God it matters, for this might tell us something about the mentality of the “hip hop nation” it claims to represent. After over ten years when the rudest, most pornographic, most thuggish hip hop acts and tunes were the best sellers, has hip hop repented of its sins? Has it been Born Again?
Evidence for this includes: Rapper Ma$e, he of the well-known track “Fuck Me, Fuck You” retiring from rap at the height of his fame, saying he had a calling to the ministry. After two years he was back with a new album (which is not particularly religious but has no “cuss” words in it) and a pledge that he will only promote his music from Wednesday to Friday (Saturday to Tuesday being set aside for work for “The Lord”): Gravel-voiced DMX, one of the heavyweights of nihilistic, ultra-violent rap has declaring he also wishes to become a Christian minister; Kanye West, best-selling representative of a more soulful hip hop sound having a huge hit in 2004 with “Jesus Walks”. One religious rapper telling an MTV journalist: “God is my nigga. He's my big homie. I hope I always remember that.”
In a way hip hop's religious turn is predictable. It replicates a theme long present in black popular music, the oscillation between sacred and profane. Ray Charles scandalised the black religious world when he used gospel music as a vehicle for worldly profane meanings, thus “inventing” soul. His career saw him shuttling between the two worlds. Marvin Gaye's life, as narrated by David Ritz in his definitive biography, was an endless back and forth between the sacred and the profane, symbolised by the life-long struggle with his domineering preacher father (who eventually shot him dead), by his frequent drug benders followed by bouts of repentance and renunciation, and by his music, which frequently intertwines and juxtaposes Heaven and Earth, worldly and spiritual. If we remember Marvin as the great and brave social commentator who spoke, a decade before rap, of “Inner City Blues” we should remember that on the same best-selling album was the dire “God Is Love” which suggests that ultimately a higher power can be relied called upon to solve the problems of racism, poverty and Vietnam.
These tales suggest a well-worn, boring flip-flop in black popular music between two fixed poles, God and the devil, the drug binge and the tearful reconciliation with God, which ultimately goes nowhere but back to powerlessness.
What a pity that this generation of hip hoppers seem unable to recall any but the most mundane and circular lessons of black music history. The seeds of an alternative, stimulating, playful and, yes, human-centred philosophy are left to lie un-harvested. Whether it is in the unswerving honesty and intellectual curiosity of Harlem Renaissance woman Zora Neale Hurston – “Prayer is for those who need it. Prayer seems to me a cry of weakness. I do not chose to admit weakness. I accept the challenge of responsibility”; the challenge that jazz poet Gil Scott Heron lays down to understand human pain and respond compassionately as in his drug addiction song “Home Is Where The Hatred Is” (“Stand as far away from me as you can/and ask me why/hang on to your rosary beads/and pass me by”); or the whole rich tradition of alternative myth-making named by writer Kodwo Eshun as “Black Atlantic Futurism”, which includes the playful, ironic and beautiful alternative universes created by eccentric jazz bandleader Sun Ra (who claimed in all seriousness that he came from Saturn) and the totally crackpot cosmology surrounding George Clinton's P-funk.
The P-Funk cosmology drew from all kinds of sources, sacred and profane – Buddhism and Sufism, cartoons and blaxploitation, surrealism, psychedelia – but the end result was both to undermine the possibility that any one of these thought systems might be true and sufficient, and to encourage laughter, dance and ultimately free thought (“free your ass and your mind will follow” was their mantra). Rather than look for salvation in the beyond, P-Funk chose to engage the battle in the here and now: As P-funk historian Scott Hacker argues, in contrast to the pompous Afrocentrists continually pining for an imagined Africa, P-funkers “took all the cheese America had to offer and ran with it, taking the fashions and technology of the day to their ultimate, preposterous conclusions, amplifying the aesthetics of the 1970s into a throbbing, fish-eyed cartoon of itself.”
Here's a taste, from the liner notes of the LP Standing On The Verge Of Getting It On: “On the Eighth Day, the Cosmic Strumpet of Mother Nature was spawned to envelope this Third Planet in FUNKADELICAL VIBRATIONS. And she birthed Apostles Ra, Hendrix, Stone, and CLINTON to preserve all funkiness of man unto eternity... But! Fraudulent forces of obnoxious JIVATION grew; Sun Ra strobed back to Saturn to await his next Reincarnation, Jimi was forced back into his basic atoms; Sly was co-opted into a jester monolith and only seedling GEORGE remained! As it came to be, he did indeed begat FUNKADELIC to restore Order Within the Universe. And, nourished from the pamgrierian mammaristic melonpaps of Mother Nature, the followers of FUNKADELIA multiplied incessantly!”
It sounds mad, I'll grant you, but it makes a damn sight more sense than the fact that the top 20 per cent of American society own 83 per cent of the wealth while the bottom 20 have zero per cent, and intoned over the febrile funky beats of the band, you can dance to it too. If only hip hop had stolen as much from the cosmology of Clinton and his troupe of cosmic thespians as they have from his musical catalogue (Clinton is the second most sampled musician of all time behind James Brown).
At the end a ray of hope lies in the shape of hip hop artists OutKast. Hailing from Atlanta, huge artists since their best-selling albums Stankonia and The Love Below/Speakerboxx they are explicit about their debt to P-funk and George Clinton.In the stinky funk of the tunes, in the exaggerated style of the stage costumes and videos and the personas they adopt on record, they betray the P-Funk influence. Back in 2000 Tony Green said this about them, and it remains true: “OutKast understand the same things that George [Clinton] and Co's more sprawling line-ups understood: that sounds and timbres often make the best points, that satire is coolest when you include yourself in the crosshairs, that people live more interesting lives than accessories.”
Hopefully OutKast and their ilk can preserve and extend the tradition within black popular music which rejects the apparent comfort of dogma, and instead continues to worry away at what Kate Soper calls “the paradox of humanity's simultaneous immanence and transcendence” or as P-Funk puts it “We're just a biological speculation, sittin' here vibratin', and we don't know what we're vibratin' on.” Refusing an easy answer to this is the whole point.