The Gospel of John According to Hip-Hop

Hip-Hop-AlbumsThe constructs, motifs, and tropes available in hip-hop provide an unique tableau for creating poetic art.  I applaud hip-hop artists like Propaganda, Shai Linne, and Trip Lee for doing a great job to redeem hip-hop for the Kingdom of Jesus.  I want to put a hermeneutical bug in your ear.  I am going to posit that elements of hip-hop can actually help you better understand John’s writing style.  And by “better understand”, I am going to argue that without some of these elements, you are selling John’s gospel woefully short.  Consider these seven tropes used by both hip-hop artists and the Apostle John:

1. The Rap Artist-Producer Relationship

Behind every good rapper stands a great producer.  Behind every Jay-Z, there is a Kanye West.  Behind every Lecrae, there is a Gawvi–spinning tracks, cutting and remixing beats.  John is the Dr. Dre to Jesus’ Eminem.  I’m not sure those four names have ever appeared in the same sentence, but there you have it.  In John’s Gospel we have the words of Jesus, but they have been mixed, cut, and smoothed together by a man who lends his own flavor to the product.  There is a reason why the Gospel of John is so different from Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  It’s because John the Apostle has a different taste in beats, throwback samples, and hooks.  When John and Jesus collaborated for The Gospel of John: The Album, John lent his own trademark style of production, and it filtered the way Jesus’ poetic rhymes came through to his listeners.

2. The Hype Man

If you spend any amount of time listening to hip-hop, you will notice that a rapper’s lines are bolstered by a hype man or another artist who adds background emphasis, affirmations, and braggadocio.  He might respond to the artist’s comments, he might join in rapping certain words, or he might let out a howl at some hot rhyme.  In many ways, John functions as a hype man for Jesus.  At times he adds editorial comments, at times he boosts Jesus cred, and at times he joins with Jesus in shouting the same rhymes.

3. The Collab

Collaborations are an essential element in hip-hop.  Rap crews and alliances make for guest appearances and collaboration across the board.  John and Jesus are no different.  At times, it is even difficult to figure out whether John is speaking or Jesus is speaking (see John 3 for instance).  The entire Gospel of John is a giant back and forth between the Messiah and the Revelator.  At times Jesus lays down the rhymes, at times John responds, elaborates, and adds his own opinions to backs up his partner.  They are proclaiming the same message through the Holy Spirit, but its coming from two different mouths.

4. Homonyms, Homophones, and Double Entendre

Homonyms are two words that are written the same but have different meanings (e.g., think of all the different words that are spelled “bow”).  Homophones are two words that sound the same, and double-entendre is when an artist is intentionally vague to allow for two meanings.  All of these tools are put to work in any rap song worth its salt.  Rap artists love to take advantage of these poetic elements for the purposes of irony, sarcasm, humor, and surprise. This line by Jay-Z contains both double-entendre and a homophone: “When you Earnhardt as me, eventually you hit a big wall.”

John’s Gospel has the same penchant for these clever devices.  Consider the confusion of Nicodemus over the homonym γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν (“born again” or “born from above”).  The point is not to figure out which Jesus means, but to realize that he means both.  Or think about Jesus’ offensive speech about men “drinking his blood” and “eating his flesh” in John 6.  Those who want to argue for one distinct, exclusive meaning in these instances miss the point that more meanings is better to John.

5. Profanity

Now, most rap is notorious for profanity.  But consider this: why is profanity so prolific particularly in this genre?  Profanity is a poor man’s way of creating double or triple-entendre.  Four letter words can be invested with as many different meanings as there are rap artists, and they are constantly put to work to allow for multiple meanings in a rhyme.  John does the same thing.  He uses words like light, word, bread, truth, life, water, and many others that allow for multiple parallel meanings, some on the surface and some hidden.  For instance, when Jesus says, “I am the bread of life,” the interpreter has to realize that John wants us to think on multiple levels of meaning.  Like profanity, Jesus chooses intentionally vague words to allow our minds to explore multiple meanings, and John delights in the rich depth this brings to his gospel. (Note: I am not advocating the usage of profanity; this is merely an analogy!)

6. The Sample

This is not exclusive to John; all of the gospel writers do this.  Hip-hop is a genre characterized by referentiality.  New hip-hop pushes forward by reappropriating samples from their heritage [whether gospel, soul, jazz, early rap, etc.] as an homage to the past.  When you read John, realize that he is always looking for ways to tell the story of Jesus with a nod to the Old Testament.  He wants to couch the narrative of Jesus with hooks from Isaiah or connections to the history of the people Israel.  Only the reader well-schooled in the Old Testament will pick up on this extremely clever and tasteful method of production.

7. The Messiah Complex

The Gospel of John is full of veiled and not-so-thinly veiled references to the God-status of Jesus.   Many hip-hop artists make their living through bragging and proud estimation of self.   Think about Jay-Z’s nickname “Young Hovy”, referring to his status as “Young Jehovah”, or Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks”.  The difference between Jesus and other hip-hop artists is that he can legitimately call himself “HOVA”, and he does–just read the “I Am” statements in John (“I Am” being the name “Jehovah” or “Yahweh”, the name of the LORD in the OT).  John himself uses many different words to describe Jesus’ deity: the Word, the Son of God, the One Who Makes Himself Equal with God, the Christ, the I Am, the Only Way to the Father, and many more.

The next time you pick up the gospel of John, treat it like a good hip-hop song.  Expect double-entendre.  Look for hidden meaning.  Don’t be surprised when you hear Jesus speak tongue-in-cheek or when you recognize Jesus and John are spitting rhymes back in forth.  Read into the intentionally vague words of Jesus and find deep, Spirit-inspired meaning.  Remember that John is telling Jesus’ story against the background of the Old Testament, and look for respectful and intentional connections to that heritage.  Above all, recognize that both John and Jesus are taking turns bragging about Jesus status as the eternal Son of God.

Check out “The Gospel of John according to Hip-Hop, Vol. II“!

(photo credit)

Published by Chad C. Ashby

Instructor of Literature, Math, and Theology at Greenville Classical Academy Greenville, SC

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