On Tuesday night, February 22 several hundred people gathered at St. John’s United Methodist Church to hear a panel discussion based on the “Religion and Hip Hop Culture” course currently being co-taught by rapper Bernard “Bun B” Freeman (of the group UGK) at Rice University.
The class session was free and open to the public as part of The Houston Enriches Rice Education (H.E.R.E.) Project and sought to answer the question: “Should Rap Be In The Church?”
Invited participants included:
• Rudy Rasmus – Pastor of St. John’s United Methodist Church and Houston Belief blogger
• Marlon Hall – Co-author of Wake Up: Hip Hop Christianity and the Black Church and “Cultural Provocateur/Pastor” of Houston’s non-denominational fellowship The Awakenings Movement
• Crazy C/DJ Revelation – Hip-hop producer (for notable rappers like Scarface, The Wu-Tang Clan, and Outkast) and current on-air gospel radio personality for Houston’s Praise 92.1 FM
• Von Won – Rice University alumnus and local inspirational rapper
"Professor Trill," as some have called him, using a play off of Bun B’s frequently used hip-hop slang for "authenticity," moderated the discussion and asked each panelist pointed, thoughtful questions about the role of rap music within the Christian church. Often his inquiries were better than the answers he received.
For the most part, all of the participants agreed that hip hop culture and its members are already in the church at-large. They also felt that most congregations would be wise to acknowledge and embrace the movement as a way of maintaining relevance with an increasingly disinterested audience.
The panel was often critical of Christianity as it is currently expressed in America. Rudy Rasmus said that many pastors are simply “would-be car salesman” and that most are “breaking Jesus’ heart.” Such statements drew cheers and agreement “amens” from an audience mostly comprised of students and St. John’s parishioners.
Bun B asked if the hip hop generation was leaving the church to simply find a different path to Christ or if they were leaving Christ all together.
In response, Marlon Hall noted that many people in that target demographic are seeking answers and direction from other cultural leaders like Oprah Winfrey, Malcolm Gladwell, or Kanye West. However, he concluded that most are not leaving Jesus, but a “stanky Christianity that only seeks to make them comfortable” instead.
Bun B speaks with audience members after the panel discussion
Photo by Sketch the Journalist
Photo by Sketch the Journalist
Von Won was asked if he views himself as a hip hop artist who creates gospel music or a Christian who raps.
“I’m just speak truth and about my life circumstances through hip hop,” he said. He also noted that MCs who share his faith are often labeled “Christian rappers” and, while perhaps less visible than their secular counterparts on mass media scale, are often more active in their communities doing things like ministering in prisons, feeding the homeless, and mentoring at-risk youth.
In the third hour the event livened up when the conversation turned to what type of language and subject matter is acceptable in rap music – particularly from those that claim to be Christians and members of the Church.
The following video clip illustrates the heart of that back and forth:
After this debate, the event was opened for a freestyle question and answer session. Its less structured style led to several audience members taking the mic to simply share the story of the intersection of faith and hip hop in their own lives. However, a few solid questions were directed toward Bun B (regarding accountability for his lyrics) and toward Rudy Rasmus (requesting his opinion on a rap-in-the-church-is-no-different-than-Michelangelo’s-Sistine Chapel-paintings analogy.)
St. John’s pastor seemed weary at the end though, concluding that the night’s discussion may have unproductively dissolved into a “Who’s In? / Who’s Out?” argument akin to talk radio. He reminded the crowd that Christians should instead be known for their selfless concern for others.
As Rasmus told a TV station interviewer before the event began: “God loves you and I love you and there’s nothing you can do about that!”
This week the “Religion and Hip Hop Culture” class at Rice University completed mid-term exams and will hold a second public session later this semester. The date and location have yet to be announced.