“I met this girl when I was 10 years old and what I love most is that she had so much soul. She was old school and I was just a shorty, never knew all my life she would be there for me” – Common Sense, I Used to Love H.E.R.
In Common’s 1994 hip-hop classic I Used to Love H.E.R., the rapper laments over a long, lost love. The girl that stole his heart at 10 years old has moved on to other interests, but in spite of her unfaithfulness, Common is still in love with her. At the conclusion of the song Common reveals that the lady is hip-hop. I understand. I feel the same way about the Church — I still love her, but things just aren’t the same anymore and I yearn for those days when we were close.
When I was 10 years old, I met a girl that took my heart — it was the Church. More specifically for my context, it was the Black Church. There was always a sense of community among us. The sermon was different than a motivational speech — it was riveting and joyous, and at other times, the songs we sang were dark and melancholy. But in either case, they always touched our souls and revived us. The sermons weren’t about how to be successful (the “how” was always left out), and neither did they placate to our fixation on “haters” who seemed against us. Instead, the Church gave us a lexicon of transcendent language that dealt with the harsh realities of life, yet offered a testament of hope.
Hope was borne out of a commonality between hip-hop and the Black Church — the presence of prophetic voice. Hip-hop was at one point the most countercultural expression of resistance in the United States. It refused to cheapen its counterintuitive message that made America extremely uncomfortable by simply telling the truth. Grandmaster Flash’s The Message illustrated the social ills that were tearing apart Black communities in a post-industrial age under Reaganomics. NWA’S F*** the Police explained in no uncertain terms the police brutality that ravishes Black communities. But most hip-hop today contains no prophetic voice to speak poetically to social ills that eat at the core of our society — that prophetic voice that once woke up a nation so morally bankrupt it subjugated an entire group of people with laws that dehumanized one race but privileged another.
At least some portion of hip-hop’s previously prophetic voice overlaps with the Church, which has also lost its vocal chords. The legacy stretches back from the deep south of the 1960’s to the courageous leadership of Richard Allen that founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church. His desire to create a safe space for the message of liberation and truth spoke to a burdened people that lived on the lifeline of hope.
This prophetic voice so strong it provided songs and a liturgy of resistance in the midst of immense suffering and oppression — the Negro Spirituals. They song dark laments that spoke of death, such as I Am Traveling to the Grave, in which the crooner mourns the death of his loved one’s, more than likely through the crucifixion of hanging from a tree:
My misses died a-shouting,
Singing glory hallelujah,
The last words she said to me,
Was about Jerusalem.
My brother died a-shouting,
Singing glory hallelujah,
The last words he said to me,
Was about Jerusalem.
Simply put, Black musicians were often more likely to give testimony to the ugly plight of Black folks, standing in the gap as prophets and priests. As African-American literary critic, Trudier Harris, says, they were “active tradition-bearers of the uglier phases of back history.”It’s the spirit of these expressions that embody the prophetic voice that was once a hallmark in the Black church, but these days, our ecclesial word bank has been co-opted. We’ve now traded in sharp truths for market language parallel with a culture that is imprisoned by consumerism. The seduction is the belief that we never have enough. Ironically, it offers a heavy yoke rather than Christ’s promised light one.
“Faith” has been equated with “trying harder,” and is now used as a means to an end, somewhat like the Limitless pill — the more we have of it, the more “victories” and “blessings” we will have in life. We’ve traded in a language of hope and waiting for a vocabulary of “now,” which is largely due to the market driven-language that has come to characterize our sacred speech.
We no longer sing songs like I Will Stay on the Battlefield for my Lord, having traded them in for anthems like Go Get It, which seek to commodify the blessings of God as a means to our pursuit of the American Dream. Where we once spoke truth to power, and we now offer a reduced brand of the Gospel that wants to domesticate Jesus as only being concerned with our souls and not the totality of our humanity. Sermons once used for spiritual formation are now rife with consumerism, with roots of secular politics and economics dating as far back as Nero and Constantine.
In light of all of this, I sometimes stop and wonder, “Why continue to go to Church?” When I ask this, I think back to the testament of hope from my youth, when I first fell in love with the Church. I hope that if I hang out in the arenas where she used to hang, she’ll come back one day. Maybe she’ll realize that her affairs with politics and capitalism aren’t going anywhere, and that they’ll just use her and make her appearance look like all the other women (read institutions). I’ll sing a familiar song hoping it rings a bell, and wait for her return.
This post is part of an ongoing series entitled, On Going to Church.
Richard Allen image courtesy of Wikipedia, used under creative commons license.
Pierre Keys is third year seminarian at McCormick Theological Seminary. As a Preacher of the Gospel, he operates a juvenile justice ministry inside the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center in Chicago, Illinois. A pro-black theologue who is unashamedly Christian and unapologetically hip-hop, Pierre’s interview below demonstrates his awakenings during his own journey of faith which began in his own home and arrives at Ferguson, MO.