Culture and entertainment are so inextricably linked that oftentimes touchier subjects like religion are danced around but never truly confronted. CSULB associate professor Dr. Ebony Utley has every intention of blasting some of those reservations apart with her new book, Rap and Religion: Understanding the Gangsta’s God.
In the book, Utley tackles two subjects that are heavily linked yet seldom talked about: rap and religion. Specifically, Utley says, “How and why rappers talk about God,” an idea that stems from her interest in rhetoric and power struggles.
Utley says that in our culture, rap music is plagued with criticism (some valid, some not) about violence, misogyny and racial stereotypes. On top of this criticism, there is the prevalence of religion and the worship of a higher power in rap music. The two seemingly incongruent philosophies—one of violence, one of peace—blend together, despite the juxtaposition. The cause of this is more than just flagrant hypocrisy on the rapper’s part, but more of an inextricably linked cultural phenomenon.
“Hip hop is a form of expression and a response to oppression,” reads the first line of Rap and Religion. Rap and hip hop were born from a culture that was disenfranchised, under represented and lacking in social power. Religion has always been a source of strength for disempowered groups, and that is where God comes in.
“I argue that God is used as a rhetorical strategy to help rappers feel more empowered, she says. “In a world where they feel vulnerable, allying with God makes them feel more empowered or invincible. That fundamental feeling of vulnerability comes directly from the culture and upbringing that rap was born from.”
Beseeching from a divine power, however, can work the other way. Invocation of divine right can lead to the disempowerment of others, rappers not excluded.
“The power to salvation can also be the power over someone else that ends up in their enslavement,” she says. Rap lyrics contain misogynistic, homophobic and violent ideas and tendencies, for example, and this hypocrisy is exactly what Utley wants to address.
“Huge chunks of the book are about the juxtaposition about disempowering others,” she says, “sometimes it’s not even intentional. We don’t hear about this in the mainstream.” Utley wants her book to provide for people so they can access the material and not feel so isolated. “Before this book,” she says, “there was no resource.”
Utley will be going on sabbatical from her job as associate professor in Communications at CSULB—where she also teaches a course on Hip Hop Criticism—so that she can do a promotional tour for Rap and Religion. But Utley isn’t going for the usual media blitz of corporate bookstore signings.
“Ideally I’d like to go to public libraries, have a town hall conversation and converse about the hot button issues,” she says. Her aim is to also become a visible presence in churches and campuses to help raise awareness.
Dr. Utley will also be appearing at the Catalyst Con in Long Beach to do a panel on “Sex, Sexism and Pleasure in Hip Hop.”
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