I became the youth pastor of St. Luke ‘Community’ UMC in Dallas around the same time Kendrick Lamar released his chart-topping album good kid, m.A.A.d city. As a pastor of youth of the hip hop and social media generation, I believe it is my duty to guide them toward a moral high ground and enlighten them to the detriments of society. As a hip-hop’er and product of the hip hop generation myself, I believe it is necessary to help them “exegete the sonic expressions of the modern gospel.” So when the release of good kid, m.A.A.d city hit the radio, I was ready to dissect the lyrics of “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” like I would the parable of The Prodigal Son. As the radio continued to play the popular singles from the album, I found myself more critical of Kendrick’s artistry than most of the youth I pastor.
Recently, on the heels of Kendrick’s most prophetic work, “Blacker the Berry”, I felt “led” to revisit good kid, m.A.A.d city. As the first track began, I immediately realized I had committed a mistake many novice preachers commit when they begin as preachers: I did not consider context in my hermeneutics. I had failed to do my due diligence as a student of hip hop and as a pastor. My perceived moral high stance abandoned my own defense against prosecutors of products of the environment that I am a product of. I know what it feels like to be judged before heard and counted out before counted at all. I grew up Village Oaks, a low-income housing community in Oak Cliff, in Dallas, Texas. Many of our greatest ambitions were to be successful by any means necessary: sports, entertainment, or distribution! And most of us chose distribution. Why? Because we saw more success in our context in selling drugs than anything else… and those other avenues of success took too long to change our living conditions. I’m not condoning our actions, but to adequately critique our lifestyle choices requires one to have an understanding of the context.
It is with this understanding that I suggest our hermeneutic of hip-hop be evaluated. Much of the critiques of Hip-Hop from the church, the seminary, and any other institution concerned with social morality tend to exegete the art from positions unfamiliar with the contexts represented by the artist. In the church we have been programmed to “shun the very appearance of evil”, we have been delivered and set free, and now we look at the artistry of Hip-Hop as that which God has delivered us from. We judge the artists as if many of us are unfamiliar with the narrative. The detriment of this unfortunate exegesis is that we close our ears to the voices that influence the culture. The Hip-Hop prophets and evangelists who speak truth to power that resonates within our inner cities and captivate the hearts of our young people. The teachers of the culture who give guidance to seeking youth dealing with self-esteem, seeking identity, and fighting peer pressure are those who embody the Hip-Hop culture. While I acknowledge that some of Hip-Hop’s messages must be filtered for their gospel nuggets, their sermons are more effective than some of our greatest preachers’ best messages!
As I have matriculated through seminary, my relationship with the Gospel of Hip-Hop has become increasingly serious. As a first-born of the Hip-Hop generation, it has always been a part of my life. It prepared me for basketball games, boomed through the surround sound in my first car, and gave me confidence like nothing else could. Yet it is only now that I HEAR the messages spoken loudly by the heralds of this generation. Now good kid, m.A.A.d city sounds like Moral Man and Immoral Society. Like engaging the texts of the Bible, I examine the context of the artists, engage the “text” from its original source, and dissect its gospel for the advancement and edification of those who hear.
When Jesus left the disciples, he told them to tell the world about the message they received from him.
“When the lights shut off
And it’s my turn to settle down
My main concern
Promise that you will sing about me
Promise that you will sing about me”
They took his message and made it known to the world. A proper hermeneutic of Hip-Hop.
Marcus Jones is a youth pastor and graduate student from Dallas, Texas. He is married with two children. Marcus enjoys music, theology, and engaging in methods of social change. Marcus can be found on Instagram @pastorphat and Twitter @InformedScholar.