Dr. Anthony Pinn
The idea that religion and hip hop culture have anything in common is a stretch for most. But is it really that difficult an idea?
Think about it: these are two major cultural developments. Their origins may be separated by thousands of years, but both have influenced and informed how people think about themselves, their relationships to others and the world in general. They both provide a vocabulary, a language – for example, sin and salvation for traditional religions and “trill” for hip hop – that captures in a poetic fashion a human response to life’s great questions. There’s a lot to consider when we take both seriously and don’t dismiss either. And, to the extent both continue to matter to defined groups of people, it makes perfect sense to explore them and to explore the ways in which they influence and inform each other.
Think about it: hip hop and religions like Christianity have a shared common perception. Both understand that great ideas and life transforming realities can come from unlikely places. For Christianity, it’s a carpenter born in a manger; and for hip hop, it’s the development of a powerful cultural force in the urban decay of New York City. They agree that life is rough, but it isn’t beyond improvement. In a word – both traditional forms of religion and hip hop develop as a way to explore the fundamental questions of human existence: Who are we? What are we? Why are we? Where are we? When are we? In this way, both are cultures forged to help humans find, describe and celebrate life’s meaning. Traditional forms of religion do this work through doctrines, creeds, ritual practices and so on. Hip hop, likewise, does it through the basic activities of the MC, the DJ, graffiti, breaking and a general aesthetic – complete with styles of dress and communication codes.
Still, there are ethical and moral disagreements between the two – along the lines of the friction between the spirituals and the blues. When taken seriously, these points of agreement and disagreement by two extremely influential cultural forces – religion and hip hop – provide food for thought and a proper basis for inquiry. These points of agreement and disagreement, always present but typically overlooked, are what we tackle in our course. Rather than just an academic exploration and explanation of hip hop and its connection to other cultural developments, we’ve brought together two individuals with unique perspectives: an academic who studies religion and has been a hip hop fan from its start in the 1970s, and a major hip hop figure. Together they give a “thick” presentation of how religion and hip hop matter.
“RELI 157: Religion and Hip Hop Culture” has shifted the perception of religion and hip hop and the course has received a lot of positive attention both on and off campus. People from across the country (and the globe) contacted us asking how they could get involved. By developing a MOOC, a free, six-week course available to anyone with an Internet connection, we were able to expand access to learners across the globe.
The course covers six key areas drawn from the larger, residential course: (1) Defining terms: What is religion and what is hip hop? (2) What do they have in common? (3) Islam and hip hop; (4) Christianity and Hip Hop; (5) Hip hop’s critique of traditional religions and (6) Hip hop as a religion. Each topic is covered with lectures by Bun B and Pinn, as well as play list, commentary from the teaching assistants (including an “East Coast Correspondent”), social media exercises, and so on – all meant to give students an opportunity to explore these questions from a variety of vantage points and in conversation with each other as well as course staff.
The online format also gave us opportunity to rethink location. No traditional classroom for this MOOC; instead, we’ve gone with locations off the Rice campus – a church, mosque, clubs, recording studios and other places meant to represent the reach and influence of hip hop and religion, and foster more creative thinking regarding where the intersections between the two take place.
Both hip hop and religion have had global impact, and there’s no reason to believe either will go away. “Religion and Hip Hop Culture: RELI157X” recognizes this connection and plays it out. It’s really a call to conversation, an opportunity to have a global dialogue.