In his magisterial 1962 essay, “Letter from a Region of My Mind,” James Baldwin wrote about his ambivalence toward faith—about how much he needed it, and how much damage it could cause. Baldwin’s New Yorker piece is chimeric, moving between profoundly earnest faith and a cynical analysis on the ongoing problem of capital. Right in the middle of the essay, he writes about meeting his friend’s female pastor. He talks about her in terms reminiscent of Whitman, as if this woman were all of America. She says to him, “Whose little boy are you?” Baldwin is a child at this point, but he realizes that he hears the same question from the pimps and racketeers on the street. The question of who owned him would become central to his life. The answer would be, of course, no one—except, in moments of extreme vulnerability, the vague possibility of God.
This is the question central to the American holocaust of slavery and Jim Crow: Who owns you? The question conjures up feelings of loss and abandonment that come from having an owner but no family and no home, that come from the diaspora being born in your flesh and the displacement barely covered by a shuffle of practices and desires. The question is still asked in the space between the church and the street, but it is rarely answered there.
In 2016, hip hop music asked such questions in ways that were profoundly religious, but religious in ways that wrestled with a wide variety of heterodoxies, verging on blasphemy. Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Kendrick Lamar’s Untitled and Unmastered, and Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book are some of the albums asking complicated questions that branched (perhaps indirectly) from Baldwin’s questions of identity and social construction, of the mutual hustle of city street and church back room. The street is bloody, and the church might not provide necessary solutions. These searching, difficult texts ask more questions than they answer.
Hip hop in 2016 was often about not knowing. These songs are ironic if we define irony as the space between expectations and actuality, or between the sign and the signifier. The gap between expectations and of lived realities—and what is written about those things—has a literary and religious set of problems. Baldwin tells us that for the black religious community, irony is the space between audience and performer, and that it holds deep power. Such irony is not grasped by white folks, whose understanding of black culture requires no slippage between sign and signifier. He writes, “White Americans do not understand the depths out of which such an ironic tenacity comes, but they suspect that the force is sensual, and they are terrified of sensuality and do not any longer understand it.”
Kendrick Lamar’s 2016 album, Untitled Unmastered, begins as a sex jam, but quickly transitions into an almost literal jeremiad—an eschatological (he quotes the Book of Revelation) list of that which he fears. The first half minute of the first (untitled) track is a guest verse sung by Bilal. It speaks with loving tenderness of a lamb:
Come here, girl
Oh, you want me to touch you right there?
Oh, like a little lamb, play in your hair
The lamb here is complicated: Lamb as in angus dei; lamb as in Blake’s poem; lamb like honey or baby or any name for a woman that suggests an infantile lack of power; lamb like the possibility of a sensual God; lamb as a little child will lead them; lamb like an adult woman will lead them—an adult woman that one will want to sleep with; lamb like a distinct kind of eroticized blasphemy, a push of religious and sexual desire; as the first line of an ongoing introduction to the repeated themes, a triple helix, an unsolvable riddle. But it is not the most explicit of these anthems. That would be Kanye’s Pablo.
Pablo was marketed as a gospel album before its release. It has some gospel traits, especially in whom Kanye chooses to guest or sample. On “Father Strech My Hands,” he quotes Father TL Barrett; on “Ultralight Beam,” the breakout single, he quotes gospel superstar Kirk Franklin. But Barrett is notorious for running a multi-million dollar pyramid scheme, and Franklin is engaged in an interdenominational fight about his religious purity. Kanye’s gospel is one of money but sacrifice, of refusal of flesh but desire for the body; of joy and melancholy. It also comes close to blasphemy. The ambivalence of the genre and of the theme cannot mean that Kanye’s earnestness about religion and the earnestness of sexual themes are unified. The power to convert and the power to shock appear in a single space. It is a blasphemous album, because blasphemy only holds its power when you maintain the space for traditional religious forms, when you take Christ seriously.
Though this is a difficult argument to make, Kanye using the same track to quote Nina Simone and Kirk Franklin complicates the cruel invective that lands on Taylor Swift’s fame. In one notorious verse that appears after the gospel sample on “Father Stretch My Hand,” Kanye almost makes an argument about the sanctification of the flesh, but it is buried in his narcissism. The ambivalence of how much he loves himself and how much he feels persecuted deepens his martyrdom complex, but this complex does not rest on the suffering of the body. The split between the bodies of others, the spirit of Kanye, the nature of God, and the pleasures of the flesh, destabilize an album that never quite arrives at a distinct thesis.
I wonder if Kanye is attempting an actual critique of religious embodiment through a lens of sexuality or outré sexual practices, as Kendrick does with the image of the lamb. But this excessive rhetorical play, where Kanye never really quite settles on anything but the genius of Kanye, seems out of place in this difficult political year.
He is deeply connecting to a religious tradition and participating in a tradition of black blasphemy through that Baldwin-esque rhetorical form, where he is both mocking God, but also discussing the nature of the divine. Is Kanye’s music doing the same kind of work as Ishmael Reed’s epic poetry, or Fran Ross’s novels, or Paul Beatty’s National Book Award winning novel, The Sellout? Does Kanye work as a kind of distaff, an avant-garde corrective figure to the earnestness of the African American church?
One thing that Reed flirts with, but Baldwin does not, is something surprisingly absent from Kanye’s work: reclamation of traditional West African spiritual practices, away from Christian piety. Beyoncé did that this year. Absent from traditional piety, Bey’s video for “Hold Up,” shows a personal goddess, a syncretic, both/and ritual practice, which incorporates Yoruban and Christian motifs.
In a story for PBS, Kamaria Roberts and Kenya Downs explain this as a text of the African Diaspora: “In ‘Hold Up,’ the album’s second single, Beyoncé appears as Oshun, a Yoruban water goddess of female sensuality, love and fertility. Oshun is often shown in yellow and surrounded by fresh water. Donning a flowing yellow Roberto Cavalli dress, gold jewelry and bare feet, Beyoncé channels the orisha, or goddess, by appearing in an underwater dreamlike state before emerging from two large golden doors with water rushing past her and down the stairs.”
“Hold Up” begins liturgically—not the liturgy of Kendrick or the gospel of Kanye, but something less Christian. It begins with a depiction of ritual practices. Some seem more outrageous than others, but she mentions God in a way that seems familiarly Western, and the Holy Book could be considered a Bible. The orisha finds her way through the diaspora, into the churches of black America. That it ends with death seems less than heartbreak; she becomes a diaspora, another example of another black body, dead on the street, when she talks about betrayal, about ashes to ashes, about death. This is not a personal narrative. This is a resurrection story. A double resurrection, through a double baptism—her presence overwhelms the colonial forms; her mixing is a source of profound power. Like in Formation, when she stands on the cop car in the Louisiana swamp, she owns a world, flooded by indifference.
Beyoncé mixes social identities with the problems of religion, culture, and personal narratives, and she, Kanye, and Kendrick all complicate what Christendom could be for African American audiences, moving the borders of orthodoxy and orthopraxis. But to talk about theological implications of hip hop in 2016 without talking about Chance the Rapper would be foolish.
Chance is the most orthodox of the rappers. His work is earnest and not ironic in its faith. He loves Christ, and though there is a through line of prosperity gospel in his work, it is not the work for “paper,” or money. Rather, he is working as an evangelical, sharing with others an understanding of the Kingdom that has given him life. In the song “Blessings,” he sings:
I don’t make songs for free, I make
’em for freedom
Don’t believe in kings, believe in the Kingdom
Chisel me into stone, prayer whistle me into song air
Here, Chance creates the liberating view of Christ in the image of himself. Chance reads the violence of the state against himself as not only a black man, but also considers Christ as the marginalized victim of state violence. This marginalized Christ is placed in context of blessings delivered, but not material positions or goods. It becomes another kind of corrective to the power found in the world, and to this cult of paper.
Thinking about all of this in relationship to the original Baldwin quote, the question of social identity and its religious components, in the culture that continually oppresses it, is difficult. Hip-hop music of 2016 seems especially fecund, but the construction of identity against the racism of America is an ongoing process. How these artists recast Christ as part of the ongoing black imaginary has a religious power—and some practical magic.
Anthony Easton is a Toronto-based writer.
Baldwin, James. “Letter from a Region of My Mind,” The New Yorker, November 17, 1962.
Beyoncé. Lemonade. Parkwood Recordings, 2016.
Chance the Rapper. Coloring Book. Chano, 2016.
Lamar, Kendrick. untitled and unmastered. Top Dog/Aftermath/Interscope, 2016.
Roberts, and Downs. “What Beyoncé Teaches Us about the African Diaspora in Lemonade” http://www.pbs.org/newshour/art/what-beyonce-teaches-us-about-the-african-diaspora-in-lemonade/
West, Kanye. The Life of Pablo. GOOD Music and Def Jam Recordings, 2016.