Peace to the Gods: On Rap Music & Religion

Shamim Mazari is a PhD student at ANU. His research focuses on the anthropology of religion, and the intersection of religion, politics and law in the Muslim world. He holds a Masters in International Law and Politics from Canterbury University, and has worked in human rights and community development.

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My first real introduction to religion wasn’t through my parents, through the church, or through the mosque. It was through the Simpsons and hip-hop. When I was 14, I listened to Gang Starr’s Moment of Truth, in which one “Brother Elijah” quoted the Quran: “Hast thou seen him who belies religion? That is one who is rough to the orphan” (Q 107: 1-2). What did that even mean? And what was this Quran? I had no idea, but I was intrigued. So I went to a bookstore and bought a copy of the Quran. Since then, my hip hop collection, and my interest in religion, have increased significantly. In this article I’m introducing my top three rappers who, for better or worse, have rhymed about religion.

1. Wu-Tang is for the children

“Yo Shorty, you don’t even gotta go to summer school. Pick up the Wu-Tang double CD, and you’ll get all the education you need this year.” With these words, RZA dismissed the entire K-12 education system. As a 15-year-old “shorty”, I didn’t need much convincing; I emptied my piggy bank, purchased the Wu-Tang Forever double CD and hit the beach with a Sony Walkman. The music was amazing, the beats were on point, but the lyrics made little sense. God is a black man from Asia? And God is a Muslim? What are they talking about? Listening now, as an adult, I think I have a (marginally) better appreciation for Wu-Tang’s unique fusion of Shaolin Kung Fu with Nation of Islam (NoI) ideology. “Leave all the cigarettes, guns and alcohol… That’s the mental devil that exists within your body.” For Wu-Tang, metaphysical concepts (like the devil) became metaphors to explain the harsh realities of life in New York’s housing projects. “Heaven and hell exists within: heaven is what you make it and hell is what you go through.” Ultimately, however, Wu-Tang lost a potential convert in me at the point when they mocked evolutionary theory: “At one time it was told to me that man came from monkeys… I’m hardly going to believe that unless I’m deaf, dumb and blind.” I’m sorry Wu, but denying evolution is just as bad as B.o.B’s Twitter rant that the Earth is flat.

2. Big L: Blasphemy

When it comes to rappers who combined senseless violence and hypermasculine braggadocio, nobody did it better than Lamont “Big L” Coleman (1974-1999). On occasion, he sent atheistic threats to enemies before lyrically robbing them: “I run with a thieving squad / and none of us believe in God.” At other times, he acknowledged God’s existence but preferred to live on the fringes of piety: “I kill chumps for the cheapest price / I’m rolling with Satan, not Jesus Christ.” After Big L was murdered in 1999, his mum recalled the first time she heard him blaspheme on a mixtape: “I was like, ‘Oh Lord, Lamont, you gonna have every preacher in Harlem knocking down our door.’” His demonic lyrics didn’t really represent who he was, she said. “He was as sweet as can be. I never had no trouble with Lamont. I never had no trouble with him in school. He was never into any drugs. He really was a good kid.” In gangster rap, there is no form of social suicide worse than your mum going on World Star Hip Hop to claim you’re actually a nice boy with no criminal record.

3. Kendrick Lamar: Authenticity

Thanks to Kendrick Lamar, Wale and J. Cole, the most “authentic” rappers are no longer the most violent. To be a real man, you don’t have to write “never snitched” and “no lacking” in bullet points on your résumé. You don’t have to answer “bitch I might be” when a judge asks if you’re guilty. This authenticity has transferred to rappers who spit about their spirituality, too. Kendrick puts an emphasis on honesty – that it’s okay to be inconsistent, that belief doesn’t always align with the realities of the world: “I’m a loser, I’m a winner, I’m good, I’m bad, I’m a Christian, I’m a sinner… What I’m saying is that I’m human.” Perhaps the phrase “Kush and Corinthians” best sums up this attitude; being halfway between sin and piety, smoking weed while reading the Bible. But unlike Wu-Tang, Kendrick’s religion isn’t a solution to the social ills in the black community. Instead, it’s a personal way to make sense of the violence and suffering around him. “I opened my Bible in search to be a better Christian / and this from a person that never believed in religion.” He often sits at the crossroad of atheism and belief. Ultimately, though, he chooses the latter: “I’d rather live like there is a God, than die finding out that there isn’t.” Pascal’s Wager has its problems, I agree, but you don’t need to be a philosophy major to appreciate Kendrick’s honesty.

The question, I guess, is what lies beneath each of these approaches to religion. What unites them? If their personal belief is fragile at best, why would they talk about God at all? It’s no coincidence that each of these rappers comes from some of the worst neighborhoods in America: Wu-Tang from the projects of Staten Island and Brooklyn, Big L from Harlem and Kendrick from Compton. They come from communities where life is often unpredictable, and where there are two or three churches on every block. Compare this with safer and wealthier communities, where life is very predictable and churches are fewer. There is a negative correlation between existential security and religion, but that’s a subject for another article. Suffice it now to say, that wherever you find violence and poverty, you’ll find churches and mosques. And local rappers will be there to put religion into rhyme.