I’ve been listening to poetry lately; powerful poems, written from the heart, asking big questions. Surprisingly, I’ve found these poems embedded in hip-hop songs. I say surprisingly, as I generally avoid the hip-hop genre altogether and it certainly wasn’t the place I expected to find profound thoughts. But recently I made a conscious decision not to ignore an art form that has swept the world and is so meaningful to so many people. I see it as a bridge into the life of a generation twice removed.
The content of some of the lyrics is fascinating—the artists are crying out for meaning and understanding; they are relating to the big questions in life about existence, identity and purpose. Through hip-hop, these foundational questions are receiving mainstream radio airplay in contemporary society.
These two artists are asking big questions about life and meaning, and their fans are demonstrating resonance with these questions, hence the popularity of the songs.
Take for example “Maybe Tomorrow” by Chance Waters, a catchy song full of rhymes about an impending world apocalypse:
I heard a preacher man claiming that the rapture’s coming/He blamed it on the gays, and Democrats, and probably someone else —
I didn’t really pay it mind, I’ve learned from life that;
I would fall for anything if I refuse to stand for something….Don’t you know, there’s not too long to go.
I’ve met a man who knows, he said the world will end on, (someday, someday).
I sat in my car and wondered about the religious background of Waters, and if he was lurking around the edges of any church. As an independent artist, he uploaded some of his songs to Triple J Unearthed—a website that allows anyone in Australia who thinks they can make good music to upload some songs and promote themselves. So I went to Waters’ Unearthed page. Here I found a song that gave me goosebumps. It’s called “Infinity”. The lyrics didn’t fit with the stereotyped, generalised view I had about hip-hop:
Before time had a name, well life had a face
When everybody shared that place,
before all that we know was let loose from its chains.
Pandora’s Box can’t be closed again.
Every particle of energy in me and you,
love and hate and every eye we see it through.
Every piece and part of me, every key and harmony,
is woven from the start of things and singing this tune…
I don’t know if there’s a grand design,
or we found some dice and got the gambling type.
Or are we just one more stop for the hands of time?
Or here with a reason, a man divine?
If it all boils down to the collision of atoms,
can we act as if it matters if we black the skies?
If everything we do is just a stitch in the pattern,
and choice is an illusion in the map of our lives.
Then, I don’t know if I can stand it to try to make
sense of life, if I believe that’s right.
I see it all around me/Infinity surrounds me.
What if I never found peace?
Seth Sentry is another Australian hip-hop artist receiving a fair amount of airplay, especially for “My Scene”—an amusing song about trying (and failing) to find a sense of belonging in different types of social groups. Many of the songs on Sentry’s latest album address the emptiness of consumption and greed. One particular song is called “Ink Blot Test”:
But I feel so alone on the globe spinning.
So I jumped up and made a god in my own image.
Spun a gun around a sun.
Printed up a couple of bumper stickers for the gift store.
Not sure what I exist for?
So I think by the wishful, drink by the fishful.
I got the devil in the details, Bible in the porn stash.
That’s what I’m seeing in the Rorschach.”
How many young people would identify with feeling alone on the globe spinning, not sure what they exist for, thinking by the wishful? How many are just as conflicted between faith and the appeal of hedonism?
Being a complete hip-hop novice, I did a quick web search about Christianity in hip-hop. As the first results came up on my screen I felt like I had thrown myself head-first into a viscous boxing match. Links came up to articles praising Christian hip-hop as a valid evangelistic approach, alongside links with text such as: “being a ‘Holy Hip Hopper’ is just like saying I am a ‘Holy Pimp’.” The extraordinarily popular Kanye West (so popular Barack Obama referred to him occasionally during his presidential campaign) has a song called “Jesus Walks”, where he repeatedly declares his devotion to Jesus while noting that:
They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus/
That means guns, sex, lies, video tapes/But if I talk about
God my record won’t get played. Huh?
Every year Australia’s Triple J (the ABC’s youth radio network) holds what they call “the world’s biggest song democracy”—where they invite anyone to vote on what they think are the best songs of the year. The results were announced in January. Chance Waters and Seth Sentry both had two songs in the top 100. These two artists are asking big questions about life and meaning, and their fans are demonstrating resonance with these questions, hence the popularity of the songs.
This raises the question: how should I talk to a young person who’s listening to the Seth Sentry rap “Ink Blot?” How do I share that my faith helps me not to feel “alone on the globe spinning” in a way that is relevant to someone 20 years or more younger than me? The good news is that they have the same profound questions we all have, and that God has answers that speak to every heart in every age. But how can I provide those answers in a culturally relevant manner that cuts through the noise and avoids the clichés? Maybe there’s a young person in my church family who has “Infinity” on repeat in the headphones they always seem to be wearing. Are we able to help them find answers to their questions with a song of truth and hope?
Michelle Abel is an international community development consultant based in Sydney. She is currently working on projects in Papua New Guinea and Rwanda. She previously lived in Mongolia and Papua New Guinea, where she worked for ADRA.