Where others see a sharp division between religion and rap, Communication Studies’ Ebony Utley sees unity.
Utley researches the intersection between the languages of church and street in her book-in-progress The Gangsta’s God: Deciphering the Divine in Rap. She also has taught a class in hip-hop criticism since joining the university in 2006. Based on her doctoral dissertation at Northwestern University in 2006, “The Gangsta’s God” traces the interconnections between organized religion and popular music.
“I was a teenager in Indianapolis and I went to church every Sunday where the rule was, you could listen to rap music the other six days of the week but not on Sunday. My mother suggested I memorize the lyrics of one hymn for every rap song but I never quite mastered that,” she recalled. “I remember one Sunday right after the 11 a.m. service when I heard friends listening in the church parking lot to rap music. That’s when I began to think about religious rules and whose interest they serve. What would happen if the secular and spiritual were to blend? I don’t remember my friends distinguishing between what was happening in the church and what was happening in rap music or, at least, not in the way their parents did.”
As she prepared her doctoral thesis and began to look at social change reflected in the discourse all around her, Utley saw that social change for young people was occurring through rap. “I saw young people who weren’t marching as much as they were singing into microphones about their social conditions,” she said. “Sometimes, when it wasn’t social commentary, it was possible to reconstruct the social environment where the singer came from. Most critics, I think, would be hard pressed to find a rap artist without awareness of church discourse. Even if they never went in a church, African American musicians knew where the churches were. Someone in their families would be affiliated with the church. The church environment of rhetoric, pacing and performance became part of who these young people were.”
One of the strongest commonalities between religion and rap is their mutual resistance to oppression, Utley believes. “The African American church was created as a space where worshippers could be free to express themselves,” she explained. “They needed a place that offered hope that their lives would get better. There were many African Americans who might not command as much respect in their jobs as they liked but when they walked into church, they would be greeted by titles like ‘pastor’ and ‘deacon.’ They would garner the respect they did not find out in the world. Both religion and music are ways of resisting oppression, racism and prejudice in the world and offer safe spaces where participants can be somebody.”
Where women rappers have used rap to resist oppression, they have risked falling into a trap in their musical portrayal of God, Utley argues. “Look at Lauryn Hill,” she said. “She perceives God in her music as a patriarch and as a father who controls everything she does and who punishes her. I see that kind of dominant-submissive role in other women rappers and their relationship with God. I want to know what it is about the African-American church in particular that leads women to see God in that way.”
Utley sees the intersection between religion and rap underlined over and over in the most popular hip-hop tunes. “Rap tracks sample church rhythms. Videos are filmed in churches. Kanye West re-mixed a spiritual. There is a lot of oscillation between rap and the church. The artist DMX recently released a rap album and a gospel rap album on the same day. That’s never been done,” she said. “If these artists’ lives seemed hellish and their life options limited, they had to put their faith in something and sometimes that’s God. I want to know where these connections come from and how they function.”
Utley received her B.A. from Indiana University (where she was a Wells and McNair Scholar) and her M.A. and Ph.D. in communication studies from Northwestern University. She also served as a fellow at Marquette University.
Utley discusses her research with her students and finds plenty of interest in hip-hop criticism. “Hip-hop criticism is a discussion of the language of power as seen through hip-hop lyrics. It means blending careful attention to the lyrical aspects of rap with careful attention to the social conditions that helped create those lyrics. My research hopes to integrate those influences. I hope my research analyzes resistance to oppression of all kinds.”
Utley encourages music lovers to pay closer attention to the spiritual elements of rap. “There was never any particular movement that came right out and said, ‘Rap is spiritual.’ Secular mainstream hip-hop never declared itself that way,” she said. “But people in the rap community can see the spiritual connections. When you’re in touch with the movement, you can see its spirituality. I hope that, through work like mine, more people will be able to recognize the spiritual manifestations of rap.”