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Utley’s Newest Book Takes A Look At God, Hip-Hop And Rap

Published: June 1, 2012

Rap and Religion: Understanding the Gangsta’s God, the latest book from Communication Studies’ Ebony A. Utley (theutleyexperience.com), takes a fresh look at references to God within hip-hop culture and rap music.

Utley, a member of the university since 2006, tapped into source interviews, award acceptance speeches, magazine and website content, liner notes, rap lyrics and videos spanning three decades of mainstream hip-hop culture on the East Coast, West Coast and the South to explain how and why rappers talk about God.

The 208-page title from Praeger Press available in June is not so much about religion as it is about God, said Utley. “You don’t have to be religious to see the God in rap,” she explained. “You don’t need to belong to any specific faith. If you’ve ever felt the tension between the way things are and the way things should be, then you will understand what the rappers are talking about.”

Her research affects how she listens to popular music. “Spirituality sits on my ears,” she said. “Whenever I hear something I really like, I listen beyond the rhythm. I’ve become more sensitive to the spiritual side of rap.”

Utley Book

Utley believes rap can sustain serious analysis. “Rap is an art form like any other,” she said. “I’m not saying there is genius in every rap. But there is the potential for genius in every interpretation of rap. Interpretation is what is important. The beauty of being an artist is not being in charge of what people do with your work. This book gives rap audiences another way of reading their favorite music.”

Utley argues that the “gangsta” isn’t a real person; it is a persona. “It is an identity young people don when they want to feel more powerful,” she said. “They want to exert more control over a world that seems out of their control. If the `gangsta’ persona gives them power, the gangsta’s God gives them even more. They can be better than themselves and larger than life in a world that seems violently chaotic.”

Where other scholars search dusty cellars by lamplight, Utley went one step further – YouTube.

“This book represents an analysis of about 100 songs,” she said. “I spent hours on YouTube. I watched hundreds of videos and had many others brought to my attention by students. I will soon have a blog, rapandreligion.com, where individuals can weigh in with their own interpretations.”

As video yielded to video, Utley began to see similarities. “I noticed a recurring image of rappers entering a physical church to reach God,” she said. “It is meant to represent a kind of pilgrimage. Very rarely would the videos open with the rapper already in the church. There always was an emphasis on walking in. The rapper often was represented as a small figure walking into a big church.”

Utley couldn’t help but notice how often rappers seemed to find themselves in cathedrals. “Where in urban America are cathedrals like those?” she wondered. “Not only are they hard to find but I imagine they were expensive to rent. I think the rappers made sure they appeared in cathedrals because they are places where small men feel big. The high ceilings of cathedrals remind us to look up and to elevate ourselves above our circumstances.”

Different reasons are offered for taking these pilgrimages. “Sometimes it is because of the death of a loved one and sometimes it is to be closer to God,” she said. “Sometimes it is the need to confess. There are several confessional videos where the rapper goes to church to do just that. These confessions are not always about their sins but about their feelings.”

Ebony Utley
Ebony Utley

Hip-hop culture and rap music in particular are often perceived as being shallow and misogynistic. Many rap lyrics explicitly glamorize murder and misogyny. How, then, do the glorification of God and acceptance of Jesus Christ fit into this worldview?

“Is there tension between spirituality and the secular world of popular music?” Utley asked. “Spirituality has always been for sale. At least, that’s what I know about the origins of the Catholic Church. The packaging and selling of spirituality going on here follows a long tradition. I don’t think rappers are doing anything new.”

“Rap and Religion’s” final chapter is comprised of interviews with 175 CSULB students. Utley asked her students about who God was to them and the role of religion in their lives. “I asked them in a survey if they saw any hypocrisy in rappers rapping about murder and mayhem while still rapping about God,” she said. “Most of the rap fans said that the rappers they listened to didn’t seem any different from themselves. Don’t we all ask God for forgiveness? We all do things we regret sometimes. They respected rappers who could be honest about their lives. Some argued that rap was a job. Don’t we all do things as part of our professions that we would prefer not do or say in our personal lives? Why hold rappers to a different standard?”

Gender plays a role in defining the gangsta’s God. “Only three rappers in all my research portrayed God as female and all three were men,” she said. “Female rappers never talk about a female God. In their perspective, God is masculine. Apparently, there is a patriarchal rule and you’d better be a man breaking it. For the most part, there is no goddess talk.”

Miracles take a back seat in the world of the gangsta’s God. “There is a difference between rapper Jesus and the more traditional image,” she said. “The Biblical Jesus performs miracles like raising the dead or turning water into wine. The rapper Jesus does none of that. The rapper Jesus is a figure of persecution in the way many African-American men feel the need to rise above persecution in their daily lives.”

Utley received her B.A. from Indiana University where she was a Wells and a McNair Scholar and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Communication Studies from Northwestern University where she was a Javits Fellow. She served as a Mitchem Fellow at Marquette University.

She hopes Rap and Religion helps her readers become more broadminded about hip-hop culture in general and about God in particular.

“A lot of our definitions of God come from organized religion. These have been static. What the rappers reminded me of, and what I hope rappers remind my readers of, is the social construction of God,” she said. “Ideas about God are fluid and dynamic. Even if you think of God one way, there is someone else with access to the same information who thinks of God in a different way.”