The Spirituality of Hip Hop

How Urban Music Can Touch the Soul

Two months ago I became the managing editor of an urban music magazine, despite the fact that I know nothing about urban culture, hip hop, or rap. But that’s okay, since my job entails unhip tasks like managing the staff, taking care of budgets, and putting out the various fires that are ignited in an office setting.

However… when I do read editorial copy for basic sense and style, I often feel left out because I’m not at all connected to what is a passion for most of the young, eager editors on my staff. Plus, this is a genre of music that always seems to be topping the album charts.

I wanted to know more.

A melting pot of sounds
Like with modern art, where many pieces baffle some viewers, hip hop music is challenging for a lot of people who don’t even think of it as “music.” I mean, where do you draw the line: Is an expletive-shouting misogynist half-rhyming into a microphone with bass thumping in the background actually creating music? Or am I missing something because I grew up in homogenous upstate New York?

All I know is that, as I’m immersed in the sounds of hip hop bursting out of office boomboxes and tiny computer speakers, I begin to hear a diversity of sounds, many of which are reminiscent of everything from R&B to ’80s pop. There’s a Kanye West song called “Through the Wire,” which samples the music from Chaka Khan’s ’80s hit, “Through the Fire.” And a classic Enya tune plays in the background of a Mario Winans single called, “I Don’t Wanna Know.” Neither of those songs has an expletive-spouting misogynist at the mike. Perhaps there’s more to this than meets the eye.

What’s in a video?
Early on, when I’m ushered into the editor-in-chief’s office to watch the premiere of a new video, I feel like I may as well be standing in front of a Jackson Pollock painting for the first time. Everyone around me is bopping to the music, commenting on the scenes of the video and singing or rapping right along with the artist.

I am reminded of how my boyfriend, who isn’t Catholic, must feel sometimes when he attends Mass with me. He is always amazed at how the congregation prays, responds, sits, and stands in unison with very little prompting. As I sit with the others watching that video, I feel like there’s a ritual being played out that I don’t entirely understand yet but which is powerful nonetheless.

Epiphany, please
I found myself finally “getting it” for the first time a few weeks ago. While talking with an editor, she reaches into a bag and hands me a CD. “Take this, it’s really, really good.” I’m happy she’s sharing some new music with me and am anxious to give it a shot. So I pop the disc into my portable cd player, put on my headphones, and start to walk home.

At first, I can’t understand the lyrics. But then I unconsciously start walking in lockstep with the beat and feel a little sway take over. All of a sudden, it’s not about the parts, it’s about the whole. And the whole of me starts feeling the whole of it. For a moment, it’s as if my soul is being touched.

Indeed, it’s a moment in time for me, and I still often struggle to connect with this music. But at least I now know that I am able to be touched, like with anything new it might just require a little patience, an open mind and, of course, a little bit of faith.