Hip Hop: Trash or Treasure?
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, March 30, 2003
But I am, really, much more comfortable introducing myself to you as just plain old “Rev. Jeff”—or perhaps, as some of you know me, as “Rev. Chef Jeff”. So, in that role, I am going to begin this sermon about music by talking about (one of my other favorite subjects)—food.
It has often been observed that the standard American worship service takes the form of a “Hymn Sandwich”— that is, a slice of sermon, slapped between two hymns. One of my colleagues, Rev. Mark Christian of our church in Oklahoma City [now: there’s an interesting last name for a UU minister: “Christian”], suggests that he likes to think of it more as a multi-decker Dagwood (what we’d probably call an Italian or [if you’re from Rhode Island] a grinder around here): “a hymn, some readings and prayers, another hymn, a sermon, and a final hymn, with assorted other musical condiments in and around these main elements.”
Rev. Christian goes on:
“Some of my ministerial colleagues and some religious liturgists take exception to this service-as-sandwich format and strive over and again to create something different—the service as mosaic, or the service as lifeline, or the service as whirling dervish, or something! As for me, aside from making me a little hungry right now, I am generally satisfied with the hymn sandwich approach.”
That’s because, he says—and I would agree—music is so powerful that it ought to be central to the worship experience. It is through music that we enter into true worship. In listening to music—or in making music—we are “swept into something seemingly eternal where life ands love and God begin to make sense,” in Rev. Christian’s words. When worship works, words and images and music can blend together and transport us to a more transcendent realm.
We don’t have to be in church for this to happen, of course. Music can touch us and move us and heal us and inspire us in all times and places, at all seasons of our lives. Each of our lives has its own soundtrack, the musical background which undergirds and helps to highlight and explain the journeys of our lives. Martin Luther called music “the most precious gift of God”. It was, to Luther, a holy treasure which could calm and cheer the soul, and lead all people to the divine. In our reading earlier this morning, James Luther Adams, too, said that music was not merely a human creation, but a gift of grace, a holy and sublime treasure.
That is part of the reason that so many of us love music so much: because it touches us more deeply than words alone can. Music is a reverberation of the great cosmic symphony that underlies all life, and we need all kinds of music—classical, folk, country, gospel, rock, pop, hip hop (or rap)—to complete the varied movements of this wondrous symphony human and divine.
Yes, we need even hip hop, as strange as it might seem to some of our ears—as alienated and detached some of us might feel from its origins, its present forms, and its aspirations. Yes, we need hip hop, too, as vilified as it has been in the media, and by politicians, and by various “do-gooders” down through the years—as much as it has been blamed for so many of the social ills our society faces. We need to pay attention and celebrate hip hop, as much as those other forms of music with which we might feel “more comfortable”, as much as we might want to ignore it and devalue it and dismiss it, as irrelevant at best and odious (even insidious) at worse.
For if we dismiss hip hop, out of hand, without taking it seriously, without looking at it and listening to it with an open mind, without any real or meaningful exposure to it whatsoever, then we are engaging, in effect, in an act of spiritual violence—cultural terrorism-- against not only a musical form, but also against those who perform and listen to it. If we dis hip hop, then we dis those for whom hip hop is a deeply meaningful mode of expression. That flies directly in the face of our First Principle—our claim to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every man, woman, and child.
And that means demeaning a whole lot of people—including, not incidentally, many of our own children and grandchildren. It does violence to all that we stand for as religious people.
It has been over 23 years now since the Sugar Hill Gang charted Hip Hop’s first Top-40 hit, with the festive (and by today’s standards, incredibly innocuous) “Rapper’s Delight”:
i said a hip hop the hippie the hippie
to the hip hip hop, a you dont stop
the rock it to the bang bang boogie say up jumped the boogie
to the rhythm of the boogie, the beat…
But “Rapper’s Delight”, even though it was rap music’s first mega hit, started nothing. According to Davey D, in his “History of Hip Hop”, it all really started in the early 1970s, when a Jamaican dj known as Kool Herc moved to the West Bronx, and started reciting improvised rhymes over the instrumental or percussion sections of the popular records of the day. Because these breaks were relatively short, Kool Herc learned to extend them indefinitely by using an audio mixer and two identical records on a pair of turntables in which he continuously replaced the desired segments.
Davey D continues:
“In those early days, the young party goers initially recited popular phrases and used the slang of the day. Fore example, it was fashionable for a dj to acknowledge those who were in attendance at a party. These early raps might feature someone like Herc shouting over the instrumental break: ‘Yo this is Kool Herc here in the joint-ski saying my mellow-ski Marky D’s in the house.’ This would usually evoke a response from the crowd, who began to call out their own names and slogans.”
As the phenomenon evolved, the shouts became more elaborate and fine-tuned, and began to incorporate little rhymes. Different dj’s would draw from nursery rhymes and popular songs and schoolyard chants; they would twist and customize them, according to the particular party they were at, or the neighborhood, or the news of the day, or what was on people’s minds. What they were doing at the time still wasn’t called “rap”, but “emceeing”.
It caught on like wildfire because, according to Davey D, it offered young urban New Yorkers a chance to express themselves freely. It was also an art form accessible to everyone: “[You] didn’t need a lot of money or expensive resources to rhyme. [You] didn’t have to invest in lessons or anything like that. Rapping was a verbal skill that could be practiced and honed to perfection at almost anytime…”
Rap also became popular because it offered unlimited challenges. There were no real set rules, except to be original and to rhyme on time to the beat of music. Anything was possible. One could make up a rap about the man in the moon or how good his emceeing was. The ultimate goal was to be perceived as being ‘def’ (good) by one's peers. The fact that the praises and positive affirmations a rapper received were on par with any other urban hero, was another drawing card.
“Finally,” Davey writes, because of its inclusiveness, rap “allowed one to accurately and efficiently inject [his or her own] personality. If you were laid back, you could rap at a slow pace. If you were hyperactive or a type-A, you could rap at a fast pace. No two people rapped the same, even when reciting the same rhyme. There were many people who would try and emulate someone's style, but even that was indicative of a particular personality.”
From the black and Latino communities of the West Bronx and South Bronx, rap spread like crazy, and from these humble origins the culture of hip hop evolved. Hip hop includes rap music, but extends far beyond it as well. The culture of hip hop has four major elements: deejaying (sampling and creating music and rhythm using multiple turntables); emceeing (performing poetry and lyrics in spoken-word style); b-boying (which is breakdancing and rhythmic movement [I considered breakdancing as part of this service, but decided against it]; and tagging (which is the creation of graffiti art, usually on public surfaces). ]
Hip hop, then, is not just a style of music, but a whole lifestyle. In addition, it also encompasses fashion, language, art, and attitude. In the words of one commentator, “It’s not just a homogenous subculture but a diverse supraculture transcending ethnic, geographical, and artistic boundaries. Indeed, it ain’t just a ‘black thang’.”
According to The Source, a leading hip hop magazine, 70 percent of rap and hip hop music is purchased by white consumers, usually (though hardly exclusively) males under the age of 30. In recent months, the sales figures for hip hop have surpassed those for both rock and country, making it America’s top selling musical style. Internationally, hip hop is a rising force as well, and wherever you travel in the world—London, Prague, Moscow, Tokyo—even Paris—the beat of a hip hop record is not usually far behind.
“Hip hop’s got more of a lock on youth culture than ever before,” writes Jesse Washington of Blaze magazine. “Urban kids set trends, and suburban kids follow en masse.” According to a recent article in Timemagazine, hip hop has been called “the most important youth culture on the planet.”
Well, maybe hip hop ain’t just a “black thang” any more. But another, maybe more important, question remains: We can’t judge the worth and veracity of anything simply by whether it’s popular or not. Is hip hop a good “thang” or a bad “thang”?
Certainly, rap or hip-hop seems a strange means of cultural expression to many of us, and I’m sure some of you question whether it should really be called music at all. I’ll admit, quite frankly, that it’s far from my favorite mode of musical expression (although, I really like the Beastie Boys, and greatly admire the incendiary poetry of Zach de la Rocha formerly of Rage Against the Machine [not strictly rap, but heavily influenced by it, certainly]. But if I was marooned on a desert island (or locked up in a Homeland Security prison), and all my Bruce Springsteen tapes were confiscated, and I had to choose between a cd by Eminem or one by (say) Brittany Spears (or even Barry Manilow), I would sure as shooting choose Eminem (because then, at least, I’d have someone to argue with, and my brain would be engaged).
So, many of us may not like rap music all that much, but that’s really not the issue. My father loathed Bruce Springsteen (his music, that is)—which, as you know, is as close as you can get to anathema in my eyes. But we still respected one another, and loved another, and got along, and communicated (as well as fathers and sons do, at least). Personal tastes aren’t the issue. Mutual respect is. Listening for the message beneath the music (or the noise, call it what you will) is what we’re called upon to do—as parents, as mentors, as role models, as fellow children of this Mother Earth.
And here, the record of rap—as with most cultural forms in this most conflicted, most commercialized, society-- is, in all honesty, a mixed one.
Certainly, it does little good to blame rap, or hip-hop, for a whole range of social ills, from gang violence to teen pregnancies, as is so often the case.
In August of 1954, no less illustrious institution than the U.S. Senate reported on a “reign of terror” in a New York City park by four teenage boys. What was the “cause” of the youths’ violence? The boys had been reading “horror comics”, especially one called Nights of Horror. The committee’s report read, in part:
“…Subsequent investigations disclosed that the pattern of sadism followed by this Brooklyn youth gang had been blueprinted almost word for word and act for act in a cheap pulp publication entitled Nights of Horror. A complete file of Nights of Horror was found in [one of the leader’s] possession. It had been well-thumbed… Even [the] words [of one of the gang leaders]… ‘This night has been a supreme adventure for me.’—were parroted from the lips of a character in Nights of Horror.”
Others blamed “killer teens” of the day on diabolical blues lyrics, in which all sorts of coded (and not so coded) lyrics were to be found. Soon, of course, many of these same voices would blame Elvis for all the problems of society.
In 1957, Frank Sinatra said in an interview: “Rock and roll smells phony and false. It is sung, played and written doe the most part by cretinous goons, and by means of its almost imbecilic reiteration, and sly, lewd, in plain fact, dirty, lyrics… it manages to be the martialed music of every sideburned delinquent on the face of the earth.”
Frank seemed to have forgotten that, back in the 1940s, a group of psychologists, psychiatrists, and educators had denounced his music as “a simple and familiar combination of escapism and substitution [bordering on] mass hysteria and mass hypnosis,” which rendered young girls little more than “slaves to Sinatra”.
Just as, a few years before, musical “experts” had denounced Swing music as “nothing more than orchestrated sex… a phallic symbol set to sound…” (That could be a current description of hip hop almost word for word.) Some denounced Swing as “musical Hitlerism”, luring young people into blind obedience and conformity, while for their part, the Nazis banned Swing as “degenerate” and “not fit for German young people”.
It is easy to demonize the things we don’t like. But the fact that we might like something (or not) does not make it right (or wrong).
But there are issues in the present hip hop culture which deserve to be explored more deeply.
Rap music is a historically African American cultural form—but is today primarily consumed by a white audience. Is this interchange or is it expropriation? When does enjoying the cultural forms of others become, in fact, stealing from them?
The fantastically successful rapper Marshall Mathers, or Eminem, is both admired in the hip hop community for his skill as a writer and a performer, but also condemned by some as a severe drain of the money, attention, respect, and notoriety that might more appropriately be paid to more “genuine” [and more genuinely black] rappers.
Then there’s the question of the swearing and “bad language” that marks so much hip hop music. Now, as I have said before “bad language” in and of itself, has never killed anyone. But how many uses of the “f-word” (or the “n-word”) do you need in a song before it becomes, frankly, boring. A few chili peppers can spice up a soup. But a soup of jalapenos alone is, ultimately, inedible.
Then there is perhaps the most important question of all—the question of commercialization. Part of the deep and abiding allure of rap is its integrity, its genuineness, its ability to face real life directly, stare it straight in the eyes, unblinkingly, and tell about it as it truly is. That’s why rap music has become so popular in the suburbs: because it offers something of the excitement, the energy, and the brutal honesty of the city. “Keep it real” is the rapper’s mantra; “Keep it real”—tell it (and live it) like it is.
But rap music and the culture of hip hop is also big business-- very big business—multi-billion-dollars-a-year business. How real can anything so grossly over- commercialized be? As rapper Pierre Benu writes in an article in Pop and Politics:
“I know you've been thinking it. And if you haven't, you probably haven't been paying attention. The art we once called hip hop has been dead for some time now. But because its rotting carcass has been draped in platinum and propped against a Gucci print car, many of us have missed its demise.
“I think the time has come to bid a farewell to the last black arts movement. It's had a good run but it no longer serves the community that spawned it. Innovation has been replaced with mediocrity and originality replaced with recycled nostalgia for the ghost of hip hop past, leaving nothing to look forward to. Honestly when was the last time you heard something (mainstream) that made you want to run around in circles and write down every word. When was the last time you didn't feel guilty nodding your head to a song that had a 'hot beat' after realizing the [homophobic, misogynist] lyrical content made you cringe? …”
Benu goes on:
“The only hate I see is self-hate. The only love I see is self-love. All one needs to do is watch [hip hop celebrities] and notice none of these people, showing off their heated indoor pools or the PlayStation Two consoles installed in all twelve of their luxury cars, have a library in their home. Or display a bookshelf, for that matter. No [celebrity] rapper has ever been quoted saying: "Yeah, this is the room where I do all my reading, nahmean?"
“To quote Puffy in Vogue magazine Nov, 2002: ‘Diamonds are a great investment... They're not only a girl's best friend, they are my best friend. I like the way diamonds make me feel…’
“If rappers read, they might know about the decades of near-slavery endured by South African diamond miners. Or the rebels in Sierra Leone whose bloody diamond-fueled anti-voting rampages leave thousands of innocent men, women and children with amputated limbs.”
Maybe it’s time for a new movement to bring hip hop home again—
out of the penthouse suite
and back to the street,
away from carvin’ that
billion buck record deal
and back to keepin’ it real,
not those who want their names in the society notice,
but those just us, who get no notice,
just us, who work for peace and justice.
Come back home again, hip hop,
before it’s too late,
and your eternal beat is silenced
and you await
just another discarded black man on the pile
all the time while
the corporate goons still smile,
as they count the money you’ve made for them.
Come home, hip hop, before it’s too late.
In the meantime, we are all called upon to engage our minds, and open our eyes—and look deeper, and open our ears, and listen more discerningly to the cultural trends all around. We don’t need to embrace blindly everything our culture throws at us, but we are called upon—as parents, as citizens, as friends to one another across all boundaries of age and race and lifestyle-- to listen for the music, and see the reflection, of the more just and compassionate society we still need to build.