Religion is a complex topic encompassing many opinions and feelings. Some people hate the idea of God, some people hate those who hate God. Some people live their lives for God, some have never once had a relationship. Under the umbrella of religion there is one commonality between all of it: influence. Society is almost decided by religion but so many folks don’t see religion without gods and creeds. Anthony Pinn would make the argument that religion is a cultural experience more than about creeds. With that mindset the argument must be made that Hip-Hop is not only a religion but is the next great religion. Malcolm and Martin catalyzed the emergence of Hip-Hop despite their deaths decades before it became a phenomenon.
In this context religion is defined as a set of values and is not Gods and creeds. Charles Long in his essay Significations says, “The religion of any people is more than a structure of thought; it is experience, expression, motivations, intentions, behaviors, styles, and rhythms,” (7). Long makes the argument that religion is not only not creeds and gods but a far more complex and overarching phenomena. Long’s view also sets a backdrop for an argument to be possible for Hip-Hop being a religion at all. Staying with the status-quo of religion would make for an impossible situation that would call for a God, and while there are plenty of Hip-Hop artists that claim the crown, or even are called the God Emcee, there would be no consensus. Defining black religion isn’t as simple as defining other religions so we must view religion more in terms of creative possibilities and not just a scriptural aspect. Anthony Pinn says in Terror and Triumph, “Black religion is not a transhistorical mode of reality but a creative and bold wrestling with history in order to place black bodies in healthier spaces, with a greater range of possibilities,” (179). Furthermore as Pinn says in Terror and Triumph, “[Black religion] is not defined and limited to the liberal tradition and democratic principles that consume religion as institutions and doctrine as well as the work of sociopolitical and economic and activism,” (177). Therefore, Pinn’s view of religion as not a simple institution and as more of a social experience is important when defining Hip-Hop as religious. Malcolm and Martin’s ability to completely change how non-white people could think and speak in this country gave way for this rise and for Charles Long’s definition. Many often forget how radical their way of thinking and their critiques were for the time period just as many often forget that the beginning of Hip-Hop’s rise to prominence was just as radical.
The first and potentially most difficult way to look at Hip-Hop as a religion is by looking at expression. Expression in a typical religious setting would typically be dictated by the scripture that the religion follows. Expression is dictated by what God says and what one is allowed to do from within those dictations. Hip-Hop is innately different in that way because Hip-Hop as expression is not influenced in the same way that expression is in a typical religion. Hip-Hop itself is an expression of the society that people live in, particularly in black society and even more so in poor black society. Anthony Pinn in Introducing African American Religion breaks down Hip-Hop into three subgroups: graffiti, breakdancing and rap music. Pinn then breaks rap into three other subgroups: status rap, progressive rap and gangsta rap. These subgroups are the most prevalent aspect of Hip-Hop into today’s popular media. What is particularly interesting is that in many ways the differences between so-called progressive rap and so-called gangsta rap are similar and often synonymous with Martin and Malcolm. Pinn’s individual definitions of these two subgroups are important to consider as well when looking at the parallel between the two leaders and their relationship with Hip-Hop. Pinn’s definition of progressive rap is, “discusses socio-political and economic problems and seeks to provide solutions through information and strategies for transforming how people think and behave,” (227). According to Pinn, gangsta rap, “chronicles the struggle of inner city life and embracing violence and a radical individualism that seeks to make personal gains through available urban mechanisms such as gang activity and drug dealing,” (227). In many ways contemporary media has directly related Martin with so-called progressive rap and Malcolm with so-called gangsta rap. Media has used Martin as a figurehead of equality and all coming and being together, similar to the way media treats Chance The Rapper. Media then portrays Malcolm as a militant, violence first man, along the same vein of Vic Mensa, Chance’s Chicago counterpart. This idea follows innately white thought but also follows an idea that Martin gave blacks the ability to talk and Malcolm gave blacks ability to express more so-called radical thinking. This form of expression makes Malcolm and Martin near deities to what Hip-Hop would become. Further than that whiteness uses so-called progressive rap in the same way they use Martin. Whiteness tries to make it seem as if Martin was not a radical and uses Martin to continuously objectify and keep blacks down. Then whiteness uses Malcolm as a “too far” narrative that was used when so-called gangsta rap came to its peak.
This too far narrative plays directly into respectability politics but also is related to media crucifixion of Malcolm and his view on whiteness. The redeeming quality of this media crucifixion is that it alienated one of the great leaders of the African American community, giving way for millions to express and critique whiteness; Hip-Hop has used this platform extensively. Malcolm’s view on the origins of whiteness from Black Man’s History, “Yacub knew that by separating that brown one from the black one, and then by grafting then brown one from the black one…would eventually reach…white,” (51). Malcolm also got into hot water by the Nation of Islam’s teaching that once the individual was white they were the most susceptible to wickedness, saying that whites were the most devilish. Malcolm’s religiously influenced perspective of whiteness has been adapted to fit what Hip-Hop needs to accomplish. So-called gangsta rap has used this distrust of whiteness that Malcolm presents to push back and explain issues within the black community and within innately white institutions, like police. N.W.A’s song Fuck tha Police and their criticism and ultimate explanation of distrust of the police and how they are treated simply for being black. Malcolm X is directly responsible for N.W.A even having a platform to express this idea. Before Malcolm, no black man or woman would have been able to express an anti-whiteness sentiment. Without someone like Malcolm, the culture and religious expression people have from Hip-Hop would not have been possible.
The other aspect of Malcolm, in particular, that directly helped the rise of hip-hop is that he is one of the most well known people to have been a part of an atypical religion. The Nation of Islam being what it is gave way for an ability for people to find something they believe in that is not typical orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism or others. His ability to tap into atypical religious people gave way for more atypical religions to come to existence. In many ways it is the one aspect that separates him from Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King appealed to religion more than Malcolm did but he did it in a more conventional way. Martin appealed to typical religious people and got them to listen to what he had to say, which is one of the biggest reasons why Martin is so often used by people who perpetuate whiteness. Martin’s seeming regularity is why he was so able to appeal to a vast group of people. Where Malcolm was an ex-convict, grew up for much of his life without a father and didn’t find God until jail, Martin was not a convict, grew up with both parents and was always in a religious household. Martin’s upbringing is seen in the way he talks about himself and the way he spoke in his speeches. Larger than that one can see Martin’s upbringing within his own explanation of what he wanted to do with his life especially in The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr, “I had a great deal of satisfaction in the pastorate and had come to the point of feeling that I could best render my service in this area” (41). Martin’s own interest in the Church and having an influence through the Church gave him massive appeal later on to Church going folks, as well as their children who would’ve grown up seeing Martin. Furthermore Martin, and Coretta’s, decision to go back to the South after Martin got his PhD was potentially the best decision they made, “Finally, we agreed that, in spite of the disadvantages and the inevitable sacrifices, our greatest service could be rendered in our native south,” (44). Martin saw the bigger picture and knew if he was to champion a fight for change he must do it in the South. Martin, though, saw how to champion this change differently than Malcolm and that is why their reach was so wide.
Martin and Malcolm individually attracted different groups of people. Martin appealed to so-called regular folks: churchgoing, Christian, regular, people. Malcolm appealed to so-called radical folks: so-called violent, revolutionary, radical people. However, Malcolm and Martin also appealed to some of the same people. The way history tries to portray them is by creating a dynamic where church goers can’t be radical and radicals can’t be churchgoers. This ahistorical interpretation of the two of them has also pushed forward the rise of Hip-Hop as the next great religion.
There is a larger phenomenon going on here than just Martin and Malcolm’s reach and that is easily stated by Joshua Hutchinson in Dissed-Enfranchised: The Black under the Steeple, “The Black Church is an isolated nation of wealth in the Ocean of Denial, refusing to join, address, or even concern itself with the many ills that still plague the Black Community,” (15). Within that same chapter Hutchinson also simply states, “The Black Church is in denial,” (15). This is why Hip-Hop has risen to religious heights and why it has now transcended just black culture to become a worldwide phenomenon. Hip-Hop saw the pitfalls in how the black church handled the post-civil rights generation. Hip-Hop has used its ability to unapologetically explain itself and its existence in the same way that Malcolm and Martin were able to 50 years ago. Hip-Hop’s ability to reinvent itself and change what it challenges is why Hip-Hop has been able to stay so important within the black community as well as the overall American culture.
Malcolm X and Martin Luther King are two of the most influential individuals in American history, and possibly even in human history. Malcolm and Martin’s most important achievement, larger than the Civil Rights Movement, was probably their simplest action: expressing themselves. Malcolm and Martin’s oratory ability and their unwillingness to step down from their expression gave way for generations to follow them and do the same thing. Furthermore, their expression gave way for an institution to do what the Black Church was unwilling to do: represent individual communities as well as the black community in general. Without Malcolm and Martin, Hip-Hop never rises and without Hip-Hop, people do not have an alternate choice of religious expression. Hip-Hop is the next great religion with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr as their first prophets.