We gon' be alright: Rap and Reggae as Black Sacred Space

Celebrated hip hop rapper Kendrick Lamar and his album, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” are poised to make history at Monday’s 58th Grammy awards

By Noel Leo Erskine|February 11, 2016

Celebrated hip hop rapper Kendrick Lamar and his album, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” are poised to make history at Monday’s 58th Grammy awards. Giving voice to the underside of Black communities in which marginalized persons seek to establish a sense of identity and dignity, Lamar has already broken a record with his nine nominations. He is now the most Grammy-nominated hip hop artiste in a single year.

Rap and reggae artistes claim to make it real. That is, they do not create. They narrate life in their communities, and allow music to signify life on the ground, in which there is violence against Black bodies—bodies marked as inferior—as well as racism, overt sexuality, gender inequality, the hardships of tenement housing and a culture of poverty.

Rap, since the 1980s, creates worldviews that draw on the Black experience as source, while reggae, starting a decade earlier, focuses on African roots and Jamaican culture.

Although women deferred to men in the early years of reggae and rap, the airwaves have recently exploded with reggae singer and disc jockey, Queen Ifrica, chanting that children are to be protected and valued, while British singer and actress, Joss Stone, who was selected by Billboard Magazine as reggae artiste of 2015, chants about “water for your soul.”

Rappers and reggae artistes are at their best when they work on behalf of their communities, and when they become prophets and truth tellers who allow their music to become a medium of liberation for persons whose bodies are labeled property.

Reggae and rap artistes dream of an alternative reality. They use music as a conduit for a Black public narrative that brings to consciousness and exposes the trickery of racist violence that seeks to keep things the way they are. These artistes point out that those who wield power in the public sphere often deceive the poor and blame them for creating contexts in which the future of children is blighted and education becomes a tool in the service of the status quo.

There is a similarity between reggae and rap music and the sorrow songs of enslaved persons during the era of slavery; both are beyond the reach of oppressors. A present danger, however, is that as these musical art forms become mainstreamed and commercialized, the interests and needs of the poor and victimized are sacrificed for profit and popularity.
Kendrick Lamar seems to transcend the temptation to forget the poor as he embraces fame and popularity. “To Pimp a Butterfly” is the most critically acclaimed album of 2015, having sold more than 750,000 copies and having been streamed 375 million times. In spite of this notoriety, Mr. Lamar’s four-times, Grammy-nominated anthem for justice, “Alright,” became a theme song for Black Lives Matter groups throughout the nation.

It was not lost on him that President Obama referred to his song “How Much a Dollar Cost,” as his favorite song of 2015. When asked to comment on the President’s delight in his song, Mr. Lamar pointed out that it shows Mr. Obama is more than a President. He is human and relatable.

These songs of freedom and justice can also become instruments of liberation for many who are conflicted about themselves. Mr. Lamar speaks of himself as king, hypocrite, sinner, and prophet.

Hip hop artiste Kanye West tells us in the lyrics of his song, “Jesus walks,” that he was challenged by peers not to produce songs that referenced God, because they would not sell; yet his mother told him “only Jesus can save us.”  He raps that Jesus walks with killers, hustlers, saints and sinners.

Rap and reggae are about survival, and hope for human flourishing. At their best, they provide an alternative culture, in which a new language, new names, new communities such as posses, neighborhood crews, and sistren take root. The pressure to belong, to have a support system, and to have group identity, all provide a basis for posses, neighborhood crews, and sistren and neighborhood crews to become family.

Further Reading:

Sisario, Ben. “Grammy Awards: Kendrick Lamar, Taylor Swift and the Weeknd Lead Nominations.” New York Times, December 7, 2015, Music.

Robertson, Iyana. “Kendrick Lamar Is Now The Most Grammy-Nominated Hip-Hop Artist In A Single Year.” Vibe, December 7, 2015, Music News.

Coscarelli, Joe. “Kendrick Lamar on the Grammys, Black Lives Matter and His Big 2015.” New York Times, December 29, 2015, Music.

Thompson, Desire. “How Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright’ Became The Anthem To Civil Unrest In 2015.” Vibe, December 11, 2015, Opinion.

Graphics for national police shootings per month in 2016Washington Post. Accessed February 4, 2016.

Miller, Monica R. and Anthony B. Pinn, eds. The Hip Hop and Religion Reader. New York: Routledge, 2014.

Forman, Murray and Mark Anthony Neal, eds. That’s the Joint! The Hip Hop Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, 2011.

Erskine, Noel Leo. From Garvey to MarleyGainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida, 2007.

Cooper, Carolyn. Noises in the Blood. London: MacMillan Education Ltd., 1994
Hebdige, Dick. Cut ‘N’ Mix: Culture, Identity and Caribbean Music. New York: Routledge, 1987.

Image: Kendrick Lamar performing in Barcelona at the Heineken Primavera Sound Festival, May 30, 2014. Credit: Christian Bertrand / shutterstock.com creative commons.

Correction: February 15, 2016
An editing error in an earlier version of this article gave the wrong date for the 2016 Grammys. They were scheduled for Monday, February 15, not Sunday, February 14.

73ca76a9-ec41-40e9-b925-088c6e2f3d4e.jpgAuthor, Noel Leo Erskine, (Ph.D. Union Theological Seminary) is Professor of Theology and Ethics at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. His research focuses on the historical and complex nature of Black Theology, Revivalism, Rastafarianism and the theological perspective of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In his latest book, Plantation Church: How African American Religion Was Born in Caribbean Slavery (Oxford, 2014), he investigates the history of Black churches in the Caribbean and the U.S. after the arrival of enslaved Africans.


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