Religious Hip Hop: Gospel meets street
Growing up in a black Baptist church and enjoying gospel music has led to an interest in how gospel can combine with popular music styles like Hip Hop. As a little boy sitting next to my mother in the choir pew with all the singers as they performed, I did not know what a unique experience the black evangelical church was. It just seemed normal that people would speak in tongues, stand and jump, shout and collapse in religious fervor. I thought it normal to speak back to the minister as he preached, with praise, approval or disagreement. The choir would be an active player in all parts of the church life, including ministry, social activities and church politics. There often would be a strong interaction between the minister and the singers. The minister might start singing in the middle of his sermon, which became a cue for the singers and musicians to join in. When the singers were performing, the minister might shout in support and start preaching.
Gospel and praise music has received research attention in this country for about 100 years. Questions have included who is the audience, and where does it fit in the landscape of the American music scene. There has been some musical, historical and sociological scholarship on gospel music. It is clear that spirituals, praise and gospel music have played important roles in African-American churches throughout the United States. Mellonee Burnim (1980) states that there is an increased use of gospel music outside of churches. A part of the field that has received less research, is critical appraisal of the draw of hip hop for the churches, religious ceremonies and spiritual gatherings.
A version of popular music beginning to be used by African American Churches is hip hop. Barnes suggests, “the experiences depicted in gospel rap, no matter how sobering or disturbing, would have purpose and should be given voice” (334). Sharon Lauricella and Samuel Kyereme examined the personal stories of hip hop performers to identify where hip hop meets religions. They see the personal, ”narratives illustrating both the holy and the profane in hip hop” (Lauricella and Kyereme 1).
Critiques of holy hip hop have come from multiple sides. Traditional church members have suggested that it is inappropriate or improper (Barnes, 2009). Some music scholars have asserted that it derives from stylistically weak forms of music. Traditional rappers sometimes say it lacks the power of more authentic street musical expression. Critiques of hip hop might also apply to holy hip hop. McWhorter says he, “would argue that it is seriously harmful to the black community” (75). Other scholars believe hip hop demonstrates a lack in African American churches. Emmett Price III suggests, “if the Black Church were more vigilant toward the needs, concerns and desires of its youth and young people during the 1960s and early 1970s, there probably would be no Hip Hop Culture” (xi).
African American churches have lost a large cohort of young members over the past decades. Scholars offer multiple causes for this change. Peter Paris posits the end of the African American churches struggle in a segregated society for legal equality for African Americans contributed to the loss of young people. He says the 1964, “civil rights victory had a crucial impact on the on-going internal life of the churches themselves” (Paris 481). This came about because young people no longer had an interesting unified goal to strive together for under the leadership of the church. Alridge also discusses the loss of the civil rights movement to motivate African American youth (226). Hutchinson discusses how the end of integration led to young people becoming separated from the community. He says that because of integration, “the Hip Hop generation has no strong sense of community and church” (Hutchinson 17). The resulting separation of young African Americans from the Church, no matter the cause, has led to efforts on the part of African American churches to lure the young people back into churches. One effort is the bending of hip hop music to the project of religious purposes.
This analysis sees the appropriation of hip hop as meant to appeal and reach the African American youth audience. The example artifact being analyzed here contains elements to reach this targeted audience. A narrative critique of the separate elements within the example performance can analysis the important dimensions of holy hip hop. This essay examines the overlap between gospel and hip hop and how performance can be targeted at specific audiences.
When a music narrative is successfully used for religious purposes it delivers a powerful narrative that can offer bonding points between the performers and the audience. The popular music genre of hip hop has recently been used by Christian churches to reach out and bond with potential new members. This critical analysis examines one holy hip hop music video with a narrative analysis to determine what functions are performed by the narrative which contribute to serving religious purposes. A holy hip hop music video like “Stomp” by Kirk Franklin must serve multiple different rhetorical functions. A holy hip hop video must serve the function of popular entertainment for young people who enjoy hip hop style music, and also this genre of video must serve religious purposes. This analysis will first look at the formal features of the narrative offered by the “Stomp” video, and next offer critical perspective on how the video has been recruited to perform work for religious institutions. Hip hop is used by churches because the changes in church attendance mentioned above has forced looking to new forms of recruitment.
The “Stomp” music video on Youtube is an example of gospel hip hop religious music. Its methods, style and approach are very much in keeping with gospel music I was exposed to in black churches. This video includes a street flavor of performance by young people using some moves that are considered funky or sexy by social standards. This video serves gospel purposes for churches to reach young people. This video demonstrates an appropriation of hip hop style by gospel music as embedded in the African-American community because of shared experiences of slavery, Jim Crow and segregation. Analysis of the artifact shows how gospel music functions are carried out between black performers and the black audience, fulfilling goals of praise, celebration, worship, religious participation and obedience.
This artifact holds a special position for study. This song was produced without any affiliation with an established church. The video has always been available on the internet and so is accessible to a wide audience. There is criticism of this song and the album for not being “Christian” enough. For these reasons, the album serves a value in studying one type of gospel music. I suggest the song and video serve to appeal to an African American youth audiences and is designed specifically to reach the intended audiences. This artifact will be valuable for both filling in areas of research and exploring the use of critical analytical tools.
This critical analysis views changes in musical behavior in African American churches with a lens that focuses on social changes and age differences within the community. This study performs a narrative analysis to contextualize the hip-hop music genre before exploring the changes in African American communities that have led the churches to carry out an appropriation of this genre for its own purposes. First, we examined the distinct culture of gospel praise and worship which evolved with African American churches. Second, we analyze the Franklin video and show overlap between hip hop and gospel. Third, a narrative analysis is used to articulate the features that hip hop has which might be appropriated to serve religious purposes.
Gospel Music in African American Churches
Since the time of slavery in the United States African American churches have served a role in the development of a “community that exhibited a strong sense of social cohesion and communal belonging reminiscent of their respective tribal communities in Africa” (Paris 477) Gospel and praise music has received research attention in this country for about 100 years. It is clear that spirituals, praise and gospel music have played important roles in African American churches throughout the United States. Changes in society that have reduced African American church attendance has forced looking to new forms including appropriating Hip-Hop musical forms.
Black gospel music is a strain of religion based music that developed as early as the beginning years of the 17th Century in African American churches. There is some disagreement with the details of style, practice and aesthetics that are part of gospel music. Gospel is intertwined with the African American experience and functions as an art-form unique to black culture. While similar forms appear in poor white Southern churches, this paper focuses on black gospel. The music parts that are heard in gospel include strong reliance on vocals with a chorus, refrain technique and unusual syncopated rhythm (Wharry 203). Instrumentation used in gospel music has evolved to include almost every possible instrument at different times in different churches. Gospel music embeds a part of community life into a cultural art-form using song, music, call and response and other communication methods to share information, instruction and community goals.
One unresolved issue involves the limits or boundaries which encompass gospel; there has been a changing target of what gospel music looks like and is perceived to be. Some resistance to research studies of gospel music, may stem from the disagreement some music scholars hold with the style, practice and aesthetics that are part of gospel music. While it is clear that gospel music plays a role in African American churches, it is not so clear what those roles are, how they operate, and how to analyze those roles. Some scholars including Burnim (1980), Pearl Williams-Jones (1970) and Charles E. Gold (1958) describe gospel as intertwined with the African-American experience. Pearl Williams-Jones (1970) places gospel music in a framework which describes it as an art-form unique to black culture. Burnim (1980) suggests gospel music involves ideology, aesthetic, and behavior in an interacting whole. Gold (1958) said, “essentially the gospel songs are songs of testimony, persuasion, religious exhortation, or warning” (p. 70). The music parts that are heard in gospel include strong reliance on vocals with a chorus, refrain technique and unusual syncopated rhythm.
Gospel music holds an important role in the African-American community and can help us examine aspects of black community life that we otherwise can not analyze. Gospel music is useful as a field of study, because is embeds a part of community life. Critical studies can offer a valuable set of tools to analyze these aspects of community life. As others have suggested, gospel music is a cultural art-form using song, music, call and response and other communication methods to share information, instruction and community goals. Gospel has arguably included some space for hip hop within its scope since the 1980s. The music video used as an artifact in this study serves to illuminate this question of overlapping use.
Hip Hop Music Video as Gospel
In 1997 Kirk Franklin produced an album, as a collaboration with the vocal ensemble God’s Property, named God’s Property from Kirk Franklin’s Nu Nation. The lead single, “Stomp”, featuring Cheryl “Salt” James, of Salt-N-Pepa, was a commercial success, appearing on MTV and other music channels, and charting at No. 1 on the R&B Singles chart for 2 weeks. Franklin received a Grammy for Best Contemporary Soul Gospel Album. The album has been the most financially successful gospel album in history, selling more than 2.7 million copies (Gospel Music Association 2006). The narrative of this music video of the lead single is the object of this study.
This artifact is in the form of a music video. The video runs for 4 minutes. The scene is an open warehouse studio with large wall to wall windows and wooden floors with several low risers. There are two principle singers in the stage center-front. Kirk Franklin and Salt are side by side with Kirk singing the lead vocals to start. Behind them are the more than 40 members of God’s Property (GP). God’s Property is a gospel choir with about equally 15 tenors, altos and sopranos. Throughout the entire 4 minutes everyone is moving non-stop. The lead performers are dressed in casual suits, while the GP performers are dressed in pants or jeans with sport jerseys and other casual tops. Everyone except the lead performers appears to be wearing athletic shoes. The performers’ hair style seems to be normal grooming for performance. The men’s hair is cut short, while the women have well tended, teased or braided hairstyles. No one wears hats except for Kirk Franklin in some scenes. These details of dress and grooming play character roles in this musical narrative because of the importance this features play in African American churches. The video is edited together, because the clothes worn by Kirk and Salt change from cut to cut. The music track seems continuous, as often the case in music videos.
The performance begins with Kirk starting to talk to the audience. He says: “For those of you that think gospel music has gone too far. You think we got too radical with our message. Well, I got news for you, you ain’t heard nothing yet, and if you don’t know, now you know. Glory, Glory.” From there, the GP singers sing a chorus that is statements combined with call and response and praise. The style of singing is rhythmic, poetical and in tune with physical movement. After several rounds between GP and Kirk, Salt sings a refrain. In between each chorus refrain Kirk interjects comments that are not listed in any copy of the lyrics I have seen. This improvisation is recognized as an aspect of gospel practice. The most repeated element in the performance is when a call and response takes place between Kirk and GP. Twelve times during the 4 minutes Kirk asks, “GP are you wit me?” Each time GP answers as a group, “Oh yeah, we havin church and we ain’t goin nowhere!” This call and response is also a common feature of gospel music.
The hip hop style of performance serves to reach and strengthen the performers connection with target audiences. The purpose of the video is to motivate the audience’s participation through commands and example. The video is a communication tool used to convey the performers as leaders and examples in religious praise. Appealing to shared values is an integral part of fostering identification. Elements within the song and in the video appeal to two separate audience groups. Black religious audiences will view messages they identify with, in the video, and young black non-religious audiences may also be interested in the video.
The music video contains both appeals to religious themes and popular culture entertainment value. The movements and behaviors of the performance are very reminiscent of secular performances of hip hop. The dance steps, the form of address, attitude and assertiveness show overlap between hip hop and traditional gospel. Franklin has a posse, similar to secular hip hop artists. In this case, it is the GP choral group. Franklin also uses very assertive forms of address, and similar address would be expected with secular performers. However the music video also does the work like gospel for churches.
Lyrics that include terms like God’s Property and “wit me” can be interpreted to appeal to audiences who are familiar with gospel phraseology. GP is the abbreviation for the name of the choir and could also stand for God’s people. This term can serve to focus attention for the choir and audience members. Unaffiliated members might also be encouraged to feel included. Although they are not members of the choir, due to the nature of audience participation in gospel music, gospel fans will feel included in appeals to the choir. So for both the choir and gospel fans in the audience, there will be a focus on being included. The term “wit me” is used to reach the audience and the choir to call them as part of a call and response. So audience members, who are part of a gospel music tradition, will know their role and be encouraged by this term. In the video, the audience is given guidance and instruction, which black gospel often includes.
The song and video gives commands, as when listeners are told to stomp. This music and video might appeal to individuals that are fans of urban music but not gospel. Terms like love, dance, promise and Jesus can appeal to people even if they have not had experience of gospel music. The lyrics, rhythm and video might serve to focus attention on the dance, party and love aspects of the performance. The listeners would not be thinking about negative concepts like evil or trouble. So these aspects of the video can be seen as intended to reach the audience of urban music lovers who do not know gospel music.
In the video, there is an emphasis on shared values between the singers and the audience; the performers are inviting the audience to identify with a religious vision. God’s Property is a different gospel style choir than most gospel audiences can identify with, but still retains some gospel features. The second audience appealed to is a non-gospel audience. Rhythm, words and actions are appropriate to the second group. The style and patterns of the music and video might appeal to a group of young music lovers who are not presently fans of gospel. The terms used can serve the purpose of exhorting witness and praise, obedience and joyful celebration. The song is meant to increase identification with two separate communities.
The role of gospel music for African Americans has been to build and maintain bonds and group loyalty. Holy hip hop is able to serve similar roles for the community while using a different style of dance, lyrics and rhythm. Traditional gospel music contained elements of rhythm, dance and lyrical allusions to biblical themes and holy hip hop contains those same elements in forms which might appeal to some young unaffiliated African-Americans.
This music video entertains a hip hop performance while also working to serve purposes for African American churches. Through the overlapping features shared by secular hip hop and traditional gospel there are only slight changes which must be made in hip hop to serve churches. The features of call and response, assert address, full body dancing and attitude are shared by both genres so this music can be bent to multiple audience. The holy hip hop genre is also well situated to reach African American youth who have abandoned the churches since the 1960s.
The goal of the performers is to keep the fans motivated. There is a theme of victory and being with the singer. Victory serves to focus attention on us versus them in the struggle. In a similar way, the video focuses attention on being together and united. There is a message opposed to the idea that people can be neutral on the song and the church. The overall theme sees audience members avoiding failure and accepting that Kirk Franklin is aligned with victory.
This music video delivers appeals to young audience members who may or may not be affiliated with churches. There are traditional gospel themes and words, including the terms victory and church, which seemed most closely aligned with the religious audience. The second appeal is to a non-gospel audience. The parts of the video appropriate to this group are the scenes, dance and words that excite people spiritually and physically, and get people to obey. For example, the terms stomp and clap are in the lyrics but also represent actions the choir and audience should perform. In black churches, there is constant command and response between the choir, or minister with the congregation.
The plot of the music video is a story about struggling to achieve victory in a religious nature. The words and features of the video will lead the audience to hear that they can belong to the church directly connected to Kirk Franklin. Audience members will be dissuaded from thinking they are in opposition or disagreement. Unity in the struggle is indicated by words in the lyrics, including terms like “wit me.” The question, “GP are you wit me?” is asked 12 times in the song. The intensity is probably for the same reasons as above, as acknowledgment and request for agreement. A visual message is seen in the camera highlighting GP members when the question is asked and answered. That camera work serves to acknowledge the participation of the group in the story. The plot is moved forward by the lyrics and intense action by the performers.
The audience appealed to by these terms would be the individuals that are fans of urban music but not gospel. Terms like love, dance, promise and Jesus can appeal to people even if they have not had experience of gospel music. These terms might serve to focus attention on the dance, party and love aspects of the performance. They would not be thinking about negative concepts like evil or trouble. So these terms can be seen as intended to reach the third audience of urban music lovers who do not know gospel music.
The performers are a unified group composed of Franklin, Salt and GP. GP is the abbreviation for the name of the choir. The video focuses attention of the choir and audience members on the action and theme. Hearing GP will encouraged hearers to feel included in the group. I believe unaffiliated members will be encouraged also. Although they are not members of the choir, due to the nature of audience participation in gospel music, gospel fans will feel included in appeals to the choir. So for both the choir and gospel fans in the audience, there will be a focus on being included while the opposite will be discouraged. The audience and the choir are being called as part of a call and response.
The location of the industrial appearing warehouse serves to demonstrate that this video belongs with the regular people. It is not in a church or other formal location. A warehouse has similar features of the street in being a place where average folks belong. The warehouse does not appear dressed up or overdecorated. These incidental features of the setting also reinforce the feel of realness and a place for regular people.
The antagonist in the narrative in this video is the devil and what that represents. The term devil is loaded for Christians and gospel music practitioners. The term is embedded within the idea of a struggle between the devil and God for the souls of mortals. And when singers say “I got the victory” in this song, it implies powerful success against the devil and all the powers of darkness. It is understood that all brothers and sisters are in danger from the devil and should attempt to achieve victory. The enemy is pointed out in this struggle between God and the devil for victory. The video implies that when people achieve victory, that will be a worthy accomplishment.
The purpose of the video was to motivate the audience’s participation through commands and example. The video is a communications tool used to convey the performers as leaders and examples in religious praise. Appealing to shared values is an integral part of fostering identification. The lyrics and themes and setting appeal to specific audiences. These terms including Stomp, victory, God’s property, church, clap, and “wit me” are targeted to specific groups. The song and video appeal to separate audience groups, including a youth audience.
As observed through the song and video of this artifact, there are narratives in hip hop that serve both the purposes of youth entertainment and African American churches. Hip hop when appropriated for religious uses stories and themes to build shared belief and action. By emphasizing shared values between the singers and the audience, the performers are inviting the audience to identify with the religious vision. Through an analysis of the video and a critical look at the role of music in the African American church, possible collaboration between gospel and hip hop are made visible.
This analysis demonstrates how various aspects of hip hop can appeal to a youth audience and serve the Church. First, we examined the unique a tributes of the distinct culture of gospel praise and worship. Second, we analysis the Franklin video to show the overlap between hip hop and traditional gospel. The style, rhythm and movement of hip hop are comfortable to long time supporters of African American churches. Kirk Franklin is allowing listeners to identify as part of this church community. Third, a narrative analysis is used to articulate the features that hip hop has that can be harnessed to serve religious purposes. While hip hop has some features that go beyond what most gospel audiences could identify with, the themes, rhythms, movement and energy can appeal to a non-gospel audience. This appropriation with both words and physical actions which might appeal to a group of young music lovers who are not presently fans of gospel. Songs like this a meant to increase identification with the community which those churches have been losing. By looking at the appeal to this desired audience, we are able to understand and analyze this video in new ways. What is valuable in this approach is to find rationales for the way the song and video were tailored to serve the churches.
The role of gospel music for African Americans has been to build and maintain bonds and group loyalty. Holy hip hop is able to serve similar roles for the community while using a different style of dance, lyrics and rhythm. Traditional gospel music contained elements of rhythm, dance and lyrical allusions to biblical themes and holy hip hop contains those same elements in forms which might appeal to some young unaffiliated African Americans. The African American churches are reappropriating hip hop for religious purposes of outreach and recruitment.
This study contributes to the project of critiquing the forces that encourage African American churches to employ hip hop for religious purposes. Scholars have noted the turn to hip hop by churches, and some scholars address the overlapping roots of both African American churches and hip Hop. Lerone Martin says, “Hip Hop, like the blues, grows out of the depths of African American experience” (61). The current work builds on those previous critiques and adds the specific points of narrative structure in hip hop that can serve religious goals. This critique contributes to popular culture studies of use of this music genre in multiple spheres.
The focus on a critical analysis through narrative features of the video allow a useful insight into the performers’ choices in producing the artifact. Future studies should examine other examples of praise music and gospel music to see if this method of analysis might be useful in the field. While this approach seems valuable to the author, it has only been applied to one artifact, so its use is too limited to judge it’s wider applicability.
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