Jesus Walks with and for Us: The Symbolic Value of Jesus within American Black Christianity and Hip- Hop

 

When we think about Hip- Hop and Hip- Hop culture, we usually envision “ hustlers, killers, murderers, drug dealers even the strippers…  guns, sex, lies, video tape”(play.google.com). These days, most Rap and Hip- Hop songs are about fuckin’ bitches in the club or makin’ that paper rain. There is a certain language, a specific dress code, and an understanding of the hierarchy of “The Hood” the leads to what we consider to be Hip- Hop music. This appeal to consumerism and the idea that sex, violence and drama sell contributes to the global popularity of Hip- Hop. We know what is a Hip- Hop song and what isn’t. “You can rap about anything except for Jesus… But if I talk about God my record won’t get played”(google.play.com).

Kanye West, also known as Yeezy and with a most recent 6th studio album entitled Yeezus released in 2013, unveils and lives this truth in his 2004 song entitled Jesus Walks from his debut album entitled The College Dropout. This particular song only has 22,002,243 plays on Spotify in comparison to his smash hit Gold Digger’s 89,235,123 plays as of 11:04 am on Tuesday November 24th, 2015, and definitely differs from the latter in terms of content(spotify.com). Jesus Walks, through its lyrics and music video, portray the pillar of support that Jesus represents to the Black Christian community, but also how the way that American racism creates a level of certainty and discomfort between the black religious community and Jesus himself.

Hip- Hop since its onset within generally lower income, primarily African-American communities in New York City, has roots in not only being a form of musical entertainment, but also a vehicle through which the African-American people, torn to shreds by racism is able to express sentiments unique to only the black community. “The rebellion in the streets is the black ghetto’s response to the vast distance between the nation’s principles and its practices… its blood has been sent pulsating through the very heart of black life”, Hoyt W. Fuller, creator of the Organization of Black American Culture in Chicago, explains in his literary piece entitled Towards a Black Aesthetic which explains the powerful origins and motivation behind the Hip- Hop genre(Fuller, 7).Ye is able to both entertain and inform his audience of the black experience through using the aesthetics of Hip- Hop to his advantage.

Music videos display the visual aesthetics of Hip- Hop. Classic rap videos follow a storyline, as Kanye’s video does here. The opening of the Jesus Walks(Version 2) music video by West commences with a black-and-white film scene of black men chain to each other ankle- to- ankle, being watched over a white man who seems to be dressed like a warden. The scene is militant, yet the prisoners show no signs of objection and instead appear resigned to suffering. As they walk in a single file line, pick axes in hand, the clanging of their chains as they walk, coupled with the rhythmic humming, create a sound reminiscent of Negro spirituals sung both during the time of slavery and during peaceful protests against Jim Crowe laws led by inspirational(and also religious) figures of the black community such a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The Negro spiritual served a dual purpose as both a distraction from the misery of slavery indentured servitude and torture such as lynchings, as well as a way to pay homage to their African roots in the style of music as well as their religious beliefs. Through the arts, we come to understand God and how we let him act in our lives. If you are familiar with popular contemporary music aligned with the Christian tradition, you will find that the humming and clacking of chains sounds similar to the instrumental introduction to a rendition of Little Drummer Boy by the Harry Simeone Chorale(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R6vGGKchcdQ).

A popular technique within Hip- Hop music is called sampling, wherein an artist/ producer takes a excerpt from another work of music and features that melody or set of lines in the newer piece. This tool is important because when older music is put into a more contemporary context through sampling, it breathes a new life of modernism into a more antiquated piece. Similarly, Jesus Walks serves the same purpose in the gaze of Christianity by helping us understand how He holds relevancy within humanity. Before Kanye West himself has even dropped a verse- through listening to the song in conjunction with the music video it belongs to and analyzing it in a Christian context, and as consumers of popular music, we can already come to an understanding that Kanye is bringing thousands of years of religious worship to the forefront in the modernism of American racism through this song.

Kanye gives us the context of his rap, stating “We at war with terrorism, racism, but most of all we at war with ourselves”(google.play.com). As studiers of theology, we can take this last line to mean a multitude of things: we are at war with ourselves, meaning that each of us has an internal conflict to face. For Kayne, that is his belief in Jesus. He notes “My Mama used to say only Jesus can save us, Well Mama, I know I act a fool”- this can be understood that although it is Christian belief that dictates that Jesus can only save us, he personally would be a fool to take it as true(google.play.com). Belief in a God that we theoretically can’t see touch or hear, of whom we “argue about his facial features”, seems foolish(google.play.com). Being “at war with ourselves” as humanity is a secondary interpretation that reflects religion and racism for the black community: bodies altogether Christian and the same, but at war due to black and white. For the African-American community, Christianity is a difficult concept to understand because in the United States there has been a stark contrast between what we consider to be White Christianity versus we we have labeled as Black Christianity. White Christianity has historically been the very same Christianity that has participated in the enslavement, lynching, and killing of black people.

The contradiction between what we expect of a good Christian person and the acts of humanity is displayed by a white Ku Klux Klan member carrying, and subsequently being crushed by, a burning a cross at 3:12 in Jesus Walks(Version 2). “What is invisible to white Christians and their theologians is inescapable to black people. The cross is a reminder that the world is fraught with many contradictions”(Cone, 159).The symbolic and literal cross that racist White Christianity must bear is their torturing of the black community- something broughton by the fires of evil that then crushes them and devalues their proclaimed Christianity. That being, said it would be understandable for people like Kanye West to hold some kind of reserve or resentment against Christianity in general, recognizing that people are looking past the violence of how and why Jesus died on the cross, and and instead are somehow able to use Christian values to legitimize their evil acts. “Blacks knew that the Christian identity of whites was not a true expression of what it meant to follow Jesus”(Cone, 132). To the Black Christian community, what it takes to follow Jesus is to follow his command: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another”(New Revised Standard Version, John 13:34). If white Christians would not crucify each other, why would they be at war with themselves and crucify their black neighbor. Theologian James H. Cone, in his book entitled The Cross and the Lynching Tree, touches upon  the unique spiritual connection that the marginalized black community has to both Christianity and the crucified Jesus. “The clearest image of the Crucified Christ was the figure of an innocent black victim, dangling from a lynching tree”, both of whom were persecuted simply for being what they were, whether it be Jesus or Black(Cone, 93). Kanye West makes a direct correlation to this idea in three separate instances within his music video:

At 44 seconds, Kanye himself is deployed as an image of Christ, depicted as an angel or Christ- like, dressed in all white with a flickering halo that could serve to symbolize both Christ’s humanity and divinity in that he is holy, yet simultaneously human, as confirmed by the Council of Constantinople in 382 A.D.(Sheed and Ward). Angel- Yeezy is untouched by the flames, just as Jesus biblically is unable to be tempted by the devil or inclined to evil. Part of the reason that his last album is entitled Yeezus, and why he has song with names such as “I am a God”, is not just that he is exceptionally pompous, but also that he sees within himself such an intimate relationship with Jesus that he recognizes himself as a person “in His own image”(Genesis 1:27). In addition, artists in Hip- Hop popular culture have what we refer to as their “public” vs. “private” persona. Public Kanye is kind of a self- gratifying asshole, where private Kanye is portrayed by the media a smiling, loving father who cares so much about the religious life of himself and his first child North that he flies all the way to Jerusalem to have her baptised in the first Armenian church erected there(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SkzO67iZCgM). Jesus Walks not only makes a critique of racism in America in regards to religion, but also tells fans what Jesus means to Kanye.

During 1:07 and again at 1:15 into the video, a black prisoner garbed in white is being frisked by a warden while in a stance mimicking the shape of a cross. Then the warden “pierced his side” with his rifle, just as Jesus is wounded on the cross(John 19:34). If you count the other prisoners dressed in white in the background, there are exactly 12 in view as if they are 12 apostles. The refrain of this rap song is “Jesus walks… Jesus walks with me, Jesus walks for them”(google.play.com). Not only does he walk among us in all marginalized groups, but alongside of, and in place of us when we are suffering, as depicted in this scene. In Hip- Hop, there tends to be a lot of referencing towards God in understanding that the downtrodden social situation that its founding racial demographic is in is both uncalled for and unjust. It is not something that purely through human advocacy and action by the black community can be changed. A citizenry so historically built on racism cannot so easily eradicate it without some type of supernatural intervention, being that from the time that slaves were brought to the United States up until even now, the black community has been both literally and figuratively lynched to the point of being “the almost nearly extinct”(google.play.com). The violence of the music video mimics the uncalled for violence in brutality against the black community and against Jesus.

This still at 1:01 completes the symbolism and parallels between the crucified Christ and the lynching black body discussed by Cone in The Cross and the Lynching Tree. West raps “Top floor of the view alone will leave you breathless, Try to catch it, it’s kinda hard, Getting choked…” as labored breathing plays over the music(google.play.com). Jesus takes his last breath on the cross, just as the lynched person is hanged and choked to death: God is in solidarity with them in the way that Jesus died on the cross. “The cross needs the lynching tree to remind Americans of the reality of suffering- to keep the cross from becoming a symbol of abstract, sentimental piety… Yet the lynching tree also needs the cross… It is the cross that points in the direction of hope, the confidence that there is a dimension to life beyond the reach of the oppressor”(Cone, 163).  The felled tree with what looks like rope attached to it could an end to suffering and lynching that faith in Jesus can bring.

Kanye says he needs to talk to God and he wants to reach out to him because he feels as if the devil is at work through racist acts, but yet he is unsure how to as he sings “I don’t think there is nothing I can do now to right my wrongs… I want to talk to God, but I’m afraid because we ain’t spoke in so long”(google.play.com). Even if he strays away from Jesus, “Jesus walks” with him(google.play.com). The prevalence of the love of Christ, even in the midst of lost faith, loss of loved ones, or transgressions, is seen in the instance where a flock of white doves fly out of packages of cocaine found in a getaway car by police at 2:22. Doves, symbols of peace and love, appear magically out of an illegal substance. The hope that the horrors of crucifixion of Christ and the lynching of blacks will bring peace “save other black boys” and other  people from a similar fate lies in the unfailing faith of believers as they hope against hope and somehow find beauty in the face of death(Cone, 67).

Faith despite injustice is found within precarious relationship between White vs. Black Christianity, but also in recognizing that Christian faith should be of acceptance of  “the hustlers, killers, murderers, drug dealers even the strippers”(google,play.com). Interpretations of Scripture and Jesus’ teachings are sometimes skewed, but His message should be the same: practice of true and unconditional love for Him and for others. Kanye knows that not everyone understands this and prays for Jesus to be able to give him the strength to run and continue on in his success is a rapper, and as a man in knowing that other people will be against him simply because he is Black.

Kanye West sings of a Jesus faithful to the New Testament accounts of Jesus, to the Conciliar definitions of who Jesus is, and as well to the different types of theologies we have touched upon in Jesus in Christian Faith this semester. The portrayal of the corruption of our world, sometimes justified by false “Christianity”, but always by cruelty, is juxtaposed with lyrics describing a loving Jesus. The artistic choice of West in doing this may mean to say that even in a cruel and prejudiced world, Jesus Walks among us and and protects us, even when we don’t see it or think we don’t deserve it. In 20- 21st century American pop culture, art, music and poetry have been dedicated to Christ, proving that even today, a Jesus that loves us- no matter our gender, our ethnicity or our shortcomings, is always relevant. Maybe He is controversial, maybe He may not get as many likes or shares or sell as many copies as Hova, or Mama Minaj, or Bey. Even so, in a modernized  and evolving Hip- Hop culture rooted in Him from its origins, He still walks.

 

Sources Cites:

“Bible Gateway.” New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). National Council of the Churches of

Christ. Web. 24 Nov. 2015.

<http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/New-Revised-Standard-Version-NRSV-Bible/&gt;.

 

Cone, James H. The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Maryknoll: Orbis, 2011. Print.

 

Fuller, Hoyt W. The Black Aesthetic. Ed. Addison Gayle. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971.

Print.

 

“Jesus Walks- Kanye West.” Google Play Music. Google. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.

<https://play.google.com/music/preview/Twhfzxqrr6bo5tjzequdxwumqiy?lyrics=1&utm_

source=google&utm_medium=search&utm_campaign=lyrics&pcampaignid=kp-lyrics&u=0#>.

 

“Kanye West – Jesus Walks (Version 2).” YouTube. YouTube, 24 Dec. 2009. Web. 20 Nov.

  1. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MYF7H_fpc-g&gt;.

 

“Kanye West.” Spotify. 7 Oct. 2008. Web. 24 Nov. 2015.

<https://play.spotify.com/artist/5K4W6rqBFWDnAN6FQUkS6x&gt;.

 

“Kim Kardashian Shares North West’s Baptism Pics on Daughter’s Birthday.” YouTube.

YouTube, 15 June 2015. Web. 22 Nov. 2015.

 

“Little Drummer Boy – Harry Simeone Chorale.” YouTube. YouTube, 15 Nov. 2013. Web. 24

Nov. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R6vGGKchcdQ&gt;.

 

Norman P. Tanner, ed., Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, vol. 1: Nicaea I to Lateran V

(London and Washington, DC: Sheed & Ward and Georgetown Univ. Press, 1990), 5, 24.

 

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