Hip-Hop Religion and Spiritual Sampling in a “Post-Racial” Age

You’d think that seven years after the release of Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks” that there would be little need to explain the link between hip hop music and religion. Yet in a recent NPR interview, I was asked once again what the often profane posture of hip hop has to do with the sacred aspirations of spirituality. So perhaps it is still necessary to pause at the outset and offer a few examples as a reminder to readers of rap music’s long tradition of religious ruminations.

In fact, one can trace a trajectory that goes back as far MC Hammer’s 1987 debut album, Let’s Get it Started, which featured the gospel track, “Son of the King.” Such spiritual lyricism continued through the prophetic musings of Tupac Shakur, the biblical (re)imagination of Ja Rule (i.e. Rule 3:36), the Muslim message of Lupe Fiasco, and the messianic aspirations of Remy Ma, whose 2008 album was simply titled Shesus Khryst.

Clearly, Hip Hop has much to say about matters religious. And never mind the fact that so many hip hop purists tell the story of the music/culture’s origins as mythic history: one of creation ex nihilo, wherein the divine became incarnate in black and brown teenaged bodies, who danced over dirty and deserted streets, and turned the South Bronx, circa mid 1970s, into an urban Eden—if but for a moment. Were you there? I’ve heard that one could often witness a god on the mic, in those days!

Doing the Knowledge

Regardless of how we might remember rap music’s early years, hip hop has certainly come a long way over the past three decades, rising (or falling, depending on your politics) to become among the world’s most prominent forms of popular culture. From cars and clothing lines, to sports management and social media, hip hop has had something to say (and sell) about everything. 

And given its longstanding commitment to “doing the knowledge”—at least one founding father (i.e. Afrika Bambaataa) claims knowledge as “the fifth element” of hip hop—it makes perfect sense that hip hop culture would extend into the book business. Thus, we have the conversion narrative of Minister (formerly Murder Mase) Mason Betha, Revelations; the tell all tale of former rap video mainstay, Karrine Stephans, Confessions of a Video Vixen; Raising Kanye, a memoir/parenting guide (of sorts) by the rapper’s late mom-ager, Dr. Donda West; and, hot off the presses, Fifty Cent’s guide to success, The Fiftieth Law, co-written by the motivational speaker Robert Greene.

Of course some books are more masterful then others in capturing the voice of an MC on paper. For instance, while Fifty Cent may have collaborated with Robert Greene, it is Greene’s literary mind that drives The Fiftieth Law. Although the book does draw from Fifty’s life, The Fiftieth Law is much more interested in the path to success, writ large—the business side—than it is in the particularities of its subject’s story, who has after all, long been clear that music was always a means to an end: Get Rich or Die Tryin’.

Significantly, Fifty’s commercial strategy was deeply indebted to a rap group that made its debut just a decade earlier: the Wu Tang Clan. In fact, one could draw a line in the sand of hip hop history—before and after Wu Tang circa 1993—as the group that elevated the art of cameo, collaboration, and collective branding to a “science.” 

But if Fifty’s G-Unit might be read as a failed Wu Tang Clan, then Fifty’s book is a lesser version of the new book The Tao of Wu, a much more compelling collaboration between Wu Tang mastermind, the RZA (a.k.a. Robert Fitzgerald Diggs), and journalist Chris Norris. Where readers will have to strain hard to hear the rapper in Robert Greene’s prose in The Fiftieth Law, RZA’s voice comes across clear throughout the pages of The Tao of Wu.

A Desperate Faith, a True Faith

With blurbs from Cornel West and Sifu Shi Yan Ming, the founder of the USA Shaolin Temple (who also provides the book’s foreword), The Tao of Wu aims to position RZA, in West’s words, as a “towering artist and deep thinker who has much to teach us.” Given the history and dominant discourse of young black men (especially those who rap) as anything but reasoning or reasonable, this book is evidence to the contrary. But this does not appear to be RZA’s aim. Consider the following quotes, which provide bookends to his narrative:

“If you live in the projects, you don’t leave them much.” 

“And God will show and prove that he is the Universal Changer.” 

An account as much about leaving the American ghetto as it is about a search for God, The Tao of Wu is one part memoir, one part spiritual narrative (the preferred form for asserting black subjectivity back to the days of Equiano), and one part hip hop history (tied to a history of the Wu Tang Clan). If I were to play on the value that MCs place on wordplay, than I might describe it as his-story—that is, this is RZA’s account of rap’s rise from obscurity organized by his own quest for enlightenment and fame.

The book proceeds as a chronological account of RZA’s life from its humble beginnings in Brooklyn, New York, to acclaim as rap royalty, and ultimately as a Hollywood star. However, at times overwhelmed by his own rapid ascent, RZA still fashions himself as more street sage than celebrity. As such, he offers vivid images of life in the so-called American underclass via personal anecdote. Regarding life in 1980s Brooklyn: “a hell of violence, addiction, misery, and humiliation,” a place where “in times of heavy rain human excrement floated by under our basement level bedroom.” Yet he often seamlessly shifts from descriptions of “living where shit floats,” to analysis: “That’s poverty in this country—something that makes you small, shrinks your horizon, clouds your vision.”

In its excess, inconsistency, and eccentricity (as well as its introspection), The Tao of Wu can be read as a psycho-spiritual analysis of the American self. Alongside reconciling his social analysis with an embrace of the American dream, RZA’s journey is deeply spiritual; and scattered throughout the book are moments of redemption, salvation, and transformation. In addition to pillars of wisdom, sutras, and meditations on fear, peace, and love and happiness, he cites divine intervention at certain events in his own life. For instance, while running to escape a mob that he had provoked with gun talk, RZA claims that, “just for a minute, Allah made me invisible… by taking off my hat and believing that they didn’t see me? That was faith—a desperate faith, a true faith.” 

Sure, readers will struggle to swallow this story (like the big fish swallowed Jonah). And there are many other faith claims made in the book that seem implausible. Yet, part of what makes The Tao of Wu such an engaging read is flair for the dramatic, fantastic, tragic, and the comic. Certainly this speeds the story of an enchanted life along. And, in doing so, it reminds readers of the importance of taking religion seriously in this so-called secular age. RZA’s take on everything from gender and sexuality to wealth and poverty are equally informed by a spiritual perspective that says much about the American religious landscape at the dawn of the 21st century.

Spiritual Sampling

In this view, RZA is the quintessential postmodern American spiritual seeker. On one hand, he is resistant to the tradition he was raised in, that of the Black Church. Recalling childhood trips to church while visiting relatives in North Carolina, he writes, “The spirit of God sounded beautiful to me, but I quickly separated the experience of God from church.” Here we see RZA casting himself, from early in life, as “spiritual but not religious.” However, on the other hand, RZA is also a spiritual sampler, if you will. As a rapper and producer he pieces together tracks (for himself and too many other rappers to name here) that drew on everything from rock and R&B, to techno and soul, to classical and jazz. His methods as a religious man have been much of the same. In perhaps more familiar terms, RZA stands in the tradition of American eclecticism (and arguably religious liberalism), weaving together a spirituality that is highly individualistic at the same time that it draws on a plurality of religious traditions, however it deems helpful.

Ultimately, it is the apparent earnestness of RZA’s spiritual quest that is most interesting in The Tao of Wu, even as one may question the ethics of many of his actions. One is made witness to his efforts to make sense of the messiness (and meaning) of his life, of black life in the United States, and of life, more generally—both as memories and in real time. As RZA dines at the postmodern buffet of American religion, the delicacies include ample portions of Christian Bible (with a preference for wisdom literature and John’s Gospel) and Eastern religion and philosophy (including citations of Lao Tzu, the Buddha, and Rumi), and a plethora of pop-culture references. Everything from cartoon heroes (Spiderman and Batman), comic book legends (Wolverine and the X-Men), and kung-fu movies are spiritual resources for RZA. And while he seems to have pulled it all together seamlessly for himself, many will find only madness in his methods.

But isn’t this the stuff of religion—the thin, yet opaque, line between believer and observer, insider and outsider?

Race as Central, in a “Post-Racial” Age

This leads us to the greatest irony in The Tao of Wu, the primary religious text in RZA’s life, and the denouement of the book: that is, the spiritual seeker who is this story’s protagonist has for many years been found. Since his teenage years the MC-turned-movie star has claimed allegiance to and studied the teachings of the Five Percent Nation of Gods and Earths.

This breakaway sect from the Lost/Found Nation of Islam was founded in 1968 when Clarence 13X renamed himself Allah, claimed Harlem as Mecca, and began to teach that all black men are gods. In the Divine Science and Mathematics of the Five Percent Nation, RZA was introduced early in life to a religious vision that gives black identity ultimate significance. And in this black religion—still often considered a gang in government records because of its historic ties to prison populations—RZA, incarcarated for a short time himself,  discovered a message of divinity in the midst of economic uncertainty and at the bottom of the racial hierarchy.

Therein lies the religious rub of hip hop music and culture, more generally—it offers a constant reminder of the complexities and contradictions at the heart of America’s favorite sacred cow: race, in black, white and other. Never solely oppositional, nor fully integrated; not naturally religious, or necessarily radical. Yet still first priority, organizing principle, and persistent preoccupation even in this so-called post-racial age.