Has the Black Church Become Middle Class and Abandoned the Hip Hop Generation in the Cities?

Recently I read Ralph Basui WatkinsHip-Hop Redemption: Finding God in the Rhythm and Rhyme. I hope to write a review of the book at some point; it’s certainly worth one! But today I want to excerpt a portion of the book I found thought-provoking. The tension between hip-hop and the church is well documented. Usually the relationship gets described in terms of the church’s unwillingness to embrace the art form and its eagerness to denounce it as the purveyor of misogynistic, violent, and materialistic worldliness.

Watkins writes to defend hip-hop by tracing some of its spiritual themes and contribution. And mid-way through the book he gives a more complex story of the relationship between hip-hop and the church. Watkins introduces deeper culture, class, theological and spatial issues.

Here are a few excerpts with my added emphases:

“Hip hop is situated in the gray space, much like the prophet Jeremiah was. Jeremiah was in that gray space between hope and promise during a time when things appeared to get worse. This is what hip-hop has had to deal with. Hip-hop came on the scene after the civil rights movement, only to realize that civil rights didn’t result in silver rights, a livable wage. The African-American middle class had been elevated and had escaped the ‘hood’. The former prophets who had graced the pulpits of black churches had been gunned down or beaten down, and their prophetic message of social justice had been replaced by the prosperity gospel of Creflo Dollar and Fred Price. The prophetic message that had once been in the hands of the black church had been abandoned, and now hip-hop prophets had to pick up where the institutional church had left off. Todd Boyd put it best when he said, “Hip-hop has rejected and now replaced the pious, sanctimonious nature of civil rights as the defining moment of Blackness. In turn, it offers new ways of seeing and understanding what it means to be Black at this pivotal time in history.” It is the role of defining and understanding the life circumstances of what it means to be black—and especially black and working class—that positions hip-hop as a prophetic voice for the present age.

In the past, the black church served as a leader with others as they fought side by side for justice. Cornel West says, “The civil rights movement succeeded primarily because of the talent, skill, and courage of the civil rights activists, its pronounced black cultural potency (rooted in black southern churches), and the rising tide of political liberalism facilitated by an expanding American economy (at home and abroad).” The very success of this movement, as attested to by West, also fueled the downfall of the center of the African-American community.

As the rising tide lifted the black church to the top, it took its money, status, and privilege and left the inner city; it ran to the suburbs. The African-American church became a bastion for middle-class African-Americans.

The black church is now looking this reality square in the face. It is finding it difficult to reach inner-city, working-class, working-poor, and nonworking-poor African-Americans. But the communities that are difficult for the African-American church to reach are the very places hip-hop culture lives. It reaches out, touches, affirms, and communicates with the pain, struggles, and realities of these communities. The face of the black church has changed; its membership does not consist of many in the hip-hop generation. “…The class divide within the African-American community is partially responsible for hip-hop being the first major cultural movement rooted in African-American culture that wasn’t nurtured by the African-American institutionalized church. Hip-hip was nurtured by the very streets from which the African-American church retreated and now finds difficult to reach. The institutionalized church didn’t nurture and lead the hip-hop prophetic movement. As the class divide within African-American community widened, the black church continued to become a middle-class bastion,” (pp. 49-51).

That’s how Watkins sees it. What about you? How would you characterize the relationship between the black church and hip-hop? Did the civil rights success of the black church lead to the church’s downfall? Has the black church become irrelevant to inner-cities realities because it’s become essentially middle-class and suburban? Has the black church forsaken the city? Is hip-hop the new cultural force that defines what it means to be black and the new prophetic voice articulating the life of the city?

Come up on the porch and tell us what you think by commenting below.

Thabiti Anyabwile
Thabiti Anyabwile serves as a pastor of Anacostia River Church (Washington DC). He is the happy husband of Kristie and the adoring father of two daughters and one son. Holler at him on Twitter: @ThabitiAnyabwil

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