Religion is a funny thing. It is so important to so many people, it defines the identity of many people and shapes their moral compass. But it is also a taboo element of conversation at the same time. If you have ever had a single friend going out on a date that asks for advice on what to say or what not to say, a general bit of advice is usually to not discuss politics or religion. The reason for this is quite simple: politics and religion are wildly divisive and an argument waiting to happen if they are brought up.
This divisiveness is what makes the idea of religion in hip hop so interesting to me. Hip-hop, more than any other genre has the unique characteristic of emphasizing a message and a broad range of topics due to the more spoken delivery of the lyrics compared to other forms of music. Rappers are often viewed as tastemakers and poets that can help to influence the mentalities and behaviors of millions of their fans. This power is why so many rappers will often use their fame and name-brand appeal to create various products like clothing lines (50 Cent’s G-Unit brand and Jay-Z’s Rocawear) or premium liquor brands (Lil Kim’s Three Olives Vodka and Diddy’s Ciroc). An often understated element of messaging in hip hop is the heavy influence of religion and how it has impacted hip hop culture and the wider mainstream consciousness as a result.
The origin of the hip-hop genre is widely accepted to be in the mid-1970s, with the popularization of the genre starting in the mid-1980s with acts like Eric B & Rakim, Run DMC, and Big Daddy Kane laying the foundation for later generations of rappers that brought what many call the “golden era”. While the genre was born as a style of music for house and block parties in the Bronx, NY, it is important in understanding the societal melting pot that helped to create this mega-genre.
Merely a decade after the assassinations of Civil Rights movement leaders Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr, the concept of Black Power was starting to take root with the Black Panther Party picking up momentum in the early 1970s. While this was happening the crack cocaine epidemic was ravaging inner cities across the United States, creating a sort of hellscape for African Americans across the country.
In my experience, hard times tend to make people evaluate their lives and often seek morality as an escape. When I was a teenager living in Amman, Jordan a few of my relatives were financially struggling. And in these times of uncertainty, I would see them become more in touch with their religion. Where finding a closer relationship with God was the mental ease that they needed to get through times of anxiety and stress.
It is not a stretch to say then that African Americans in the 1970s were dealing with so much that they needed that ideal to fall back on. In an era of post-Jim Crow laws, drug addiction epidemics, and rampant poverty you can understand why people would lean on the church to make sense of their terrible circumstances. This backdrop is important in realizing the way that religion can be the structure of many young men and women that were being brought up into the world in such a turbulent time. This turbulence is what inspired future generations to take pen to paper and narrate stories of the streets, and the structure of that is rooted in strong religious belief.
On the surface, it seems a bit ridiculous to suggest that there are many religious undertones in a genre that is notorious for subject matter that centers around drugs, violence, and sex. But at its core, modern hip-hop is a medium of storytelling and more specifically telling the story of what the narrator sees. Nas is an embodiment of this persona as he said in his song “Project Windows”:
“Lookin’ out of my project window
Oh, I feel uninspired
Lookin’ out of my project window
Oh, it makes me feel, so tired”
In some ways, rappers are chroniclers of their experience and the experience is rooted in religion. While this extends beyond the reach of just Christianity, the Christian faith is definitely the most visible with the presence of cross-laden jewelry and gold and diamond depictions of Jesus Christ around the necks of rappers of every level. This shows the root of religion in many rappers’ lives, as diamond chains and jewelry signify “making it” and choosing for the piece to be religious in nature shows the respect and gratitude of their belief helping them reach their goals.
One of the titans of the hip hop industry over the last two decades has been Curtis Jackson, also known as 50 Cent. In his early days, 50 was seen wearing a diamond-laden cross at all times. In fact, the cover of his critically acclaimed album “Get Rich or Die Tryin’” depicted him behind broken glass wearing said cross. Throughout the album, 50 makes a few references that indicate his close personal relationship with God. On the standout song “Patiently Waiting” he says:
“I’m innocent in my head, like a baby born dead
Destination heaven, sit and politic with passengers from 9/11
The Lord’s blessings leave me lyrically inclined
S***, I ain’t even trying to shine”
50 Cent is not alone in rapping about closeness to God in parallel as a justification for the tales of street life. In fact, the entire subgenre of gangsta rap saw these types of references in a sort of behind the scenes explanation of the actions that are being rapped about. An interesting relationship with God indeed as rappers acknowledge that they have been placed in a bad situation and have had to resort to violence and drug selling to exit that situation. They then show gratitude to God for testing them like this and allowing them to escape it. These types of rationalizations are common in many religions and are not exclusive to gangsta rappers.
It comes back to the jewelry as the trophy of this triumph. A signal that they have been tested and came out on the other side stronger, harder, and more capable. This entire ideology is rooted in the foundations of the church as children. Where every Sunday was a church Sunday, developing the closeness to God at a very young age. It is impossible to listen to this music without also understanding the influence of faith in the music.
Evangelizing the Booth
Christianity is not the only religion that has influenced rappers over the year. Jewish rappers such as Drake, Action Bronson, El-P, and Lil Dicky have achieved success over the years. Islam has also become a staple in hip-hop with rappers like Rakim, Kevin Gates, Mos Def, and Lupe Fiasco all being vocal advocates for the religion. These rappers have integrated many aspects of the faith into their rhymes, as Rakim often goes by the secondary name of Rakim Allah and Kevin Gates has incorporated some Quran verses in his recent music. While these rappers have introduced concepts of Islam and Judaism into their music, no act embodies speaking on their faith more than the Wu-Tang Clan has promoted awareness of the Nation of Gods and Earths or the 5% Nation.
While the Nation of Gods and Earths considers itself more of a cultural movement than religion, the way that its teachings are imparted and have been delivered by artists such as the members of the Wu-Tang Clan can be interpreted as religion. The 5% Nation was an offshoot of the Nation of Islam, founded by Clarence 13X in the 1960s. He is a figure that many Wu-Tang rappers and the group’s affiliates mention frequently. In the song “Abduction”, Ghostface Killah raps:
“Staten Island’s bayside of teachers Elijah
Thrown out the temple, non-calodic wit the father
Nickname’s Pudding, Clarence 13X before the Will Smith’s and limelight of Cuba Gooding”
The teachings of the 5% Nation revolved around the concept that the group calls “Supreme Mathematics”. In short, there are representations of concepts through numbers that center around the idea that the world is made up of three types of people: the 85, then 10, and the 5. The 85 represent 85% of people in the world that are “dumb, deaf, and blind” and unaware of the truth. The 10 represent the 10% of people in power that are looking to keep the 85 locked into a cycle of ignorance. And the 5 are the 5% of people that are true believers whose purpose is to educate the 85 on the truth of this world. Therefore believers of this idealogy are called the 5% Nation to signify that they are members of the 5.
Where further numerology comes into play is the representation of some of the numbers that the 5% Nation uses frequently. And it is these numbers that groups like Wu-Tang have used most prominently in their music over the years. The number 7 is used to represent God, but not in the traditional aspect. According to the beliefs of the 5% Nation, every believer is their own God, a representation of the divinity of the “Asiatic Black Man” that helped to create the universe. In this belief, Allah is an acronym instead of the name of God standing for “Arm, Leg, Leg, Arm, Head”. The 5% Nation believes that men are the Gods of this universe and the women are Earths as they give every living being life. The Nation of Gods and Earths also attribute the number 1 to knowledge, the number 2 to wisdom, and the number 3 to understanding.
These motifs have been used by rappers affiliated with Wu-Tang such as GZA, Hell Razah, Killah Priest, and Raekwon among others. Simple statements like “Peace God”, “The God of 7”, and so on have been peppered through the music of the group. This rhetoric has led to the perception that Wu-Tang and Wu-Tang affiliated rappers are conscious rappers when in reality they are merely mentioning the views of their belief system of choice.
This is not too different from Kevin Gates reciting a Quran verse or 2Pac paraphrasing Psalms 23 on a song. Religion is and always will be a part of the moral fabric of society. As it was centuries ago, many people in this world use their religion to shape their morality and opinions on the world. And they will continue to do so. The influence of faith does not make an exception for musical artists, in fact, they can be considered some of the most relevant preachers of the modern world.
The modern world has seen a decline in church attendance, which is partly attributed to younger generations being less religious (insert “damn Millenials” joke here). What people do pay attention to is a celebrity. People will hang on to every word of their favorite musician or an actor like it is the gospel. This makes the takes of people in these positions that much more pivotal when it comes to the influence of religion on music. A rapper talking about Jesus is more impactful than what most will give credit for. And as long as the hip-hop game glorifies the rags to riches story that opens itself up to deep religious undertones, there will always be a place for faith on wax.
Thank you very much for reading this article! A very big shoutout to my good friend Drew for helping to inspire this piece, give him a follow here on Twitter. If you enjoyed this article please consider following me here on Medium and on Twitter to be the first to see new articles as soon as they come out!