Street Scriptures: Between God and Hip-Hop by Alejandro Nava. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2022. Paperback. 256pp. $27.50.
Rap music is the most popular genre of music in the world today. The sound pioneered in the ghettos of the South Bronx has spread across the entire world; hip-hop sounds, methods, and styles dominate the airwaves, the top 40, and the awards shows; rap albums outsell every other genre of music, and Kendrick Lamar’s 2017 record DAMN won the Pulitzer Prize (the first non-classical, non-jazz album to do so). The music is so popular because it speaks to the experiences of so many; it is capable of serious and even sober reflections on contemporary realities, while at the same time remaining fresh, fun, vibrant, and honest. A single rap song can be a hard-hitting take on current events, a technically stunning musical achievement, and an awesome party groove, all at the same time. What’s not to love?
Yet the common stereotype among evangelical Christians is that rappers are preoccupied with showcasing their own inflated egos; they are obsessed with acquiring money; they are violent, or at least disrespectful, to women; and they are profoundly vulgar. If this is the case, does rap’s popularity indicate a troubling development? Is there anything of value at all in the genre? What is worth celebrating, among all that is to be condemned?
Street Scriptures paints a different picture. Alejandra Nava’s scope is wide; he covers the entire landscape of hip-hop, from its roots as inner-city party music in the late seventies all the way to the current scenes in the US and Mexico, with special emphasis on how rap is embraced by Hispanic communities in the southwest. Nava’s knowledge is deep as well; his analyses of individual songs, like Childish Gambino’s “This is America” or Gerald Wilson’s “La Tirado,” are masterfully exact. His understanding of the nuanced difference between, for instance, the East Coast, West Coast, Atlanta, Houston, and Chicago scenes deftly teases out the significances in lyrical approach, musical style, and subject matter, while interpreting these angles from a spiritually informed viewpoint. Nava’s thesis is that there is a hidden spiritual dimension to the entirety of hip-hop—or, perhaps, that the spiritual dimension is not so hidden after all. If true, this claim should come as a welcome relief to Christians who desire to dialogue with the broader culture in a non-confrontational manner; after all, if there is such latent commonality between rap and religion, there should be much opportunity for engagement and cross-pollination of ideas. As is the case with religious sensibilities in contemporary art—a subject which has been attracting much attention in the art world—an understanding of the spiritual language spoken by hip-hop artists is a fruitful path toward greater mutual trust and respect.
However, I find fault with some aspects of Nava’s presentation of his idea. The array of evidence he presents to support his claims seems impressive, but a closer look reveals it to be somewhat unconvincing. For every one of his examples, I can think of a counterexample. He praises the spiritual dimension in songs by artists such as Tupac Shakur or OutKast, but for every rap lyric with a religious inflection or a spiritual angle, there are many more by these artists which indicate a focus on the material world or the present moment. If Nava had done more to explicate the tension which some of his rappers undoubtedly feel between the sacred and the profane, I would have been more satisfied. As it is, he highlights those aspects of the history of hip-hop which support his conception of its spiritual side while downplaying those elements which work against his thesis.
He treads on even more dangerous ground when he begins to equate specific parts of hip-hop culture with specific aspects of religion. His idea of “street scriptures”—that rap is akin to the way Scripture had been recited until the predominance of print culture—seems reasonable on the surface. But I’m not certain I agree with statements such as, “Because the classic prophets of the Hebrew Bible were also largely autonomous from the royal courts and temple—autonomous from politics and religion—they spoke from the vantage point of the streets” (76). At times it seems as though Nava is determined to find a 1:1 relationship between modern hip-hop MCs and the prophets of the Old Testament. But does he mean that the words of the street are propounded in the same manner as Scripture, or than they have become scripture? Nava quotes Kendrick Lamar as saying “I’m the closest thing to a preacher they have” (109). Is Lamar saying his raps are analogous to a preacher’s exhortations, or that they are equivalent? This nuance is unaddressed in Nava’s telling.
But either way, what is being preached? If, as Nava claims, rap music is preaching the Christian message against injustice and inequality, then it also has to be admitted that rap is preaching the gospel of materialism, greed, violence, and inflated ego just as much–or maybe even more so. Nava says he censures these tendencies in hip-hop, but his censure seems only a half-hearted admission of their regrettable nature instead of the forceful critique that I would have expected to find in a theological treatment of rap.
What kind of spirituality does Nava find in rap music? Nava’s point of reference is deeply rooted in Catholic liberation theology, and as such, his conclusions might be slightly uncomfortable for some Protestants. “Pop music,” he says, “is learning that the concept of ‘liberation’—as in the Christian tradition—means not only freedom from all the systems and attitudes that oppress and degrade a race or culture or gender; it also means freedom for others, a willingness to use one’s voice in the spirit of solidarity, justice, and compassion (167).” Worthy goals, to be sure, but where is a concept of liberation from the bondage of sin? Part of this might be due to the intractable difference between a Protestant conception of piety with a focus on the individual, and a conception, more common in the Catholic world, of socially-mediated righteousness. Granted, some of his examples do explore that individualist side—Nava devotes a large portion of his book to an extended analysis of the career arc and attendant self-reflective spirituality of Kendrick Lamar—but he also discusses musicians such as Bad Bunny, of whom he says “he changes looks quickly when it comes to religion, slipping on church sentiments and then dropping them for bawdy ones, changing his mood hurriedly like a stage performer between acts (164).” That last simile is quite disconcerting—how many other rap artists only express faith and spirituality as part of their stage persona?
Nava commits a serious equivocation when talking about the artistry of Cardi B, switching from talking about “spirituality” as in “religious sensibility” to “spiritedness” as in “lively and full of spark and verve.” If the “spirituality” present in hip-hop is merely equivalent to the latter, then there doesn’t seem to be anything special to merit extended discussion. Unfortunately, the last two chapters of Nava’s account are almost entirely given over to a detailed analysis of Latin American hip-hop, reggaeton, and associated styles as such, with much discussion of the connection between these musical styles and associated cultural and physical concepts, but with barely any reference to the Christian spirituality that was the book’s ostensible focus. If this is spirituality, then what would count as materialism?
Overall, Street Scriptures was slightly disappointing; I was hoping for a more stridently theological critique. But this criticism should not overshadow the incredibly valuable work that Nava has done to introduce this music to a broader audience. Nava is an expert at describing music, and his deep love for the sound of his cultural heritage shines through his prose—and deservedly so. His voice is at once the refined assessment of the aficionado and the gushing praise of a devoted fan. There is much of value and beauty in hip-hop; there is much truth also. And although we should be aware of the shortcomings and pitfalls which abound in the genre as a whole, we shouldn’t forget that value and beauty. Rap music, like the world which has embraced it, is varied, beautiful, and broken—it is human. As Nava makes abundantly clear, hip-hop is rooted in the most human aspects of our being—our corporeality, which makes us want to move our bodies to a hardcore beat, and our yearning for transcendence, which inspires in us a desire to speak truth to the situations around us and seek for something greater than ourselves. Ultimately, the shortcomings in Nava’s argument do not rob his book of its value as an important and welcome starting point in a discussion of the intersection of rap music and the Christian faith, a discussion that needs to be continued, with, I hope, as much scholarly wisdom, insight, and artistic sensitivity as Nava brings to the conversation.
William Collen is an art researcher and writer. He publishes reviews and theoretical essays on aesthetic criticism and art history at his personal blog, ruins.com; his writings have also been featured at Agape Review (where he is the staff film critic) and Artway. He lives with his family in Omaha, Nebraska.