What if I told you that listening to hip-hop could actually hone your skills in Biblical interpretation? In an article I wrote in September, I argued that there are at least 7 distinct similarities between the way the hip-hop genre functions and the way John’s Gospel is written (e.g., collaboration, double entendre, sampling). Well, we are back with Volume II. Here are six more reasons I believe listening to good hip-hop can make you a better interpreter of John’s Gospel.
1. Multiple Rap Names
Hip-hop artists tend to go by one stage name, but in their rhymes they play with different variants of the name, along with other nuanced self-references. For instance, Lil’ Wayne often refers to himself as “Lil’ Wheezy”, “Wheezy F”, and “Mr. Carter” among many others. Jay-Z has called himself “Hova”, “Lucky Lefty”, and “Jigga”. Eminem also goes by his full name “Marshall Mathers” and his alter-ego “Slim Shady”.
None of these artists can hold a candle to the host of stage names that Jesus appropriates in John’s Gospel. At times he goes by “The Word”, “Son of God”, “The Christ”, and “The Lamb of God”. When laying down his own lines, Jesus calls himself “Bread of Life”, “The Light”, “I AM”, “The Good Shepherd”, “True Vine”, and “The Resurrection” just to name a few. Multiplicity of monikers make for variety, nuance, and mixing of metaphors, and Jesus did it better than the best.
I can’t believe I left this one off Volume I. Metaphors are the bread and butter of any good hip-hop song. In fact, it’s not a hip-hop song if there aren’t any metaphors. When an artist talks about “rhymes”, he doesn’t just mean lines ending with words that sound the same. By definition, a rhyme contains metaphor. They’re what elicit that “OHH!” response from crowd. They’re what communicates the braggadocio. Metaphors are what make a song flow to the beat. It’s funny to me that people characterize rap as music where the beat is primary. Nothing is further than the truth. Metaphors ARE rap music.
Again, Jesus Christ is King of metaphors especially when the Apostle John is producing the record. In one episode we may find Jesus crossing up Nicodemus with hot lines about being born again, another day we hear him by a well as he compares himself to living water. Jesus can carry a metaphor like the Vine and Branches for 17 verses without taking a breath, and he can confound an entire crowd with his offensive metaphors about eating his flesh and blood.
3. The Clique/Gang/Posse
Whatever you want to call it, every rap artist who is going to survive makes it with the help of his team. Call it a clique, call it a gang, call it a family, call it whatever–everybody’s got one. Wiz Khalifa has the Taylor Gang, Trip Lee has the 116 Clique, Lil’ Wayne has Young Money, Jay-Z has ROC Nation. Rap artists thrive in groups.
Why do you think Jesus chose twelve disciples? He spent all of his time, night and day, with those men. They were like his brothers. He would end up giving his life for them. They ate together, spoke together, did life together. Jesus had a posse of disciples. He didn’t go it alone in life, and it boggles my mind that there are Christians out there who spend no time with the Church, as though they are better than Jesus…
4. Prophetic Timeliness
When they take a breath from bragging about money, sex, and drugs, rap artists tend to have some sort of agenda to push. Many arose from broken situations, or simply recognize the general brokenness of the world. Whether it’s a form of oppression like racism or ignorance, classism, cyclical poverty, or unfair trade practices, rap artists call attention to what is wrong in society and demand that we do something about it. They have a prophetic air about the way they evaluate the culture.
Jesus’ prophetic air was not put on or staged. He identified the world’s greatest problem: Sin. And he didn’t come onto the scene to blow a bunch of steam, make millions of dollars, and retire comfortably. He came to actually do something about it. Most of his prophetic utterances in John’s Gospel deal with the prediction that he would die on a cross. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). This prophetic feel characterizes everything Jesus says in John’s gospel.
Unfortunately, when you crowd too many aspiring rap artists with over-sized egos into an already crowded music culture, beef tends to develop. Artists call one another out in their songs, they get into altercations at bars and clubs, and in extreme and rare circumstances someone actually gets hurt. Normally, its a whole lot of empty threats; in the end artists on both ends of the beef make bank from the added publicity of these kinds of conflict.
Jesus was no stranger to beef. He had an entire establishment of pharisees and religious leaders trying at every turn to destroy him. Jesus was a true man of courage. All along these guys plotted how to put him to a tortuous and humiliating death (a death much worse than any amount of bullets could create). Yet Jesus egged them on, calling them sons of the Devil and claiming to be God right to their faces!
6. Center of the Universe Complex
Most rap artists act as though the world revolves around them. In interviews, in their rhymes, in everything they do, they operate as if everything was about them.
When it comes to Jesus, John is quite clear that in fact the whole world does revolve around him. John’s opening chapter acts as a prologue meant to establish Jesus as the highest exalted Creator of the Universe. It’s as though John wants to hoist Jesus so high into the heavens that we should be ashamed that he even came down to earth. And yet in the same instance, he reminds us that in Jesus we don’t find a braggart or a power-grabber, but the Word made flesh–a God-man full of grace and truth (John 1:17).
As I have argued earlier, hip-hop as a genre is the most poetic style of music alive these days, and these now 13 distinct characteristics show how understanding this genre can help you read the Bible better.