Can the church say Amen? Who’s ready to get “turnt up?” These sentiments and seemingly conflicting statements described the mighty movement of the Hymns & Hip Hop (#H3C) conference hosted by the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church and N.E.W. Leadership Academy in Atlanta that was held on March 28-March 30. In a word, this conference was refreshing! As a part of my thesis and graduate work I have attended various conferences that focus on the recent scholarship and issues in/surrounding Hip Hop. There was the #femhiphop conference hosted by Melissa Harris-Perry in New Orleans. The Hip Hop Literacies Conference at The Ohio State University, and various hip hop sessions at the American Academy of Religion. Each of these conferences offered a variety of valuable, enriching experiences, amazing networking opportunities, celebrity sightings, and brilliant scholarship presented by rising scholars and academic starlets alike. However, there has been something missing. As a minister and theologically trained scholar with a focus in ethics, I constantly search for voices that reflect my own, one that is concerned about the intersection of hip hop and church culture. But it becomes tiring to search and provide the church’s response when it comes to Hip Hop. Though the conferences have been covering a wide range of topics, the church’s response, understanding, and position has gone by with deafening silence. I deeply believe that it is important to the future of the church and we must engage this culture because it influences and develops our congregants.

“Secular” Hip Hop continually mediates and affects our culture and Christian Hip Hop and R&B are steadily developing and changing the game, but our youth are more engaged with Rick Ross than the book of Mark. Both the church and the Hip Hop community are needed to navigate faithfully in this unjust world. So when I heard about the Hymns & Hip Hop conference I was ecstatic and cautious! Ecstatic because I would finally have the opportunity to be in the midst of scholars, lay persons, and clergy who were willing to do the work; to problematize and nuance lyrics, music, dance, and hip-hop culture. I imagined a safe space where like-minded people could come to place of understanding to discuss the prevailing issues that surround the rift between the Church and The hip-hop community. But I was cautious because I’ve never seen the church truly engage with Hip Hop, I’ve only seen the promotion of negative stereotypes, condemnation, and judgment from both sides. As a result, I went into this conference with my eyes wide open yet full of optimism.

Hymns & Hip Hop did not disappoint; they truly represented as they set the stage to begin “bridging the gap between the Holy and Hip Hop.” The leaders of the conference Pastor Mike Wortham and Min. Cassandra Henderson began by highlighting the goals of the symposium. #H3C wasn’t trying to address or solve all of the conflicts that surround Hip Hop and the Church, but rather they were opening up a safe space where both communities could begin to dispel myths and find a common ground on the journey to working side by side in love and acceptance.

#H3C promoted a variety of panels and workshops which were in-depth and invigorating while being centered on the broader concerns of humanity. There were scholars such as Dr. Valerie Bridgeman, Dr Jocelyn Wilson, Dr. Teresa Fry Brown, Dr. Maisha Handy, and Rahiel Tesfamarian. Hip Hop industry veterans such as Chuck D,  Kool Mo Dee, and Shanti Das stood alongside younger artists such as Killer Mike and Yani and all shared their gifts and wisdom from time spent in the industry. The panels and workshops ranged from topics like “Thugology 101” where participants critically engaged and interpreted the theodicy and thug theology that is inherent in Hip Hop songs such as “Crossroads” by Bone Thugs and Harmony. #H3C participants got a chance to dialogue in a remarkable panel entitled “A Threat To Justice Everywhere” where some incredible women leaders in Hip Hop and the Church broke down the issues of sexism and misogyny in both communities. These women did not simply address the issues but offered some tangible solutions for resisting the injustice that patriarchy places upon both communities. I could go panel by panel and explain the funny, witty, and thought provoking comments, I could describe the sights and feelings that I had but I would be writing for days and who has time to read that. So here is the most important feature of the conference, in my opinion. Get close, you ready? YOUTH!!! Youth!!! YOUTH!!! I can scream it from the rooftops!!!

Part of my pedagogy insists that we define and name the issues, words, and communities so that we can provide a firm foundational framework in order to truly embody the conversation. We have been discussing hip-hop in the context of youth but they haven’t been a part of the conversation. If we were going to discuss the Queering of Hip Hop we would invite someone who identifies as LGBTQ. If we were going to discuss sexism within the community we would invite women right? So where are the youth? Well, Ebenezer Baptist’s youth showed up and Turnt Up. The youth were engaged and fully embodied. They participated in panels by asking intuitive questions, got excited in the town halls and sessions, spit lyrics in the workshops. They had fun and got it in (Nae Nae style) at the Artist lounge. In the workshops they gave such poignant critiques on thug theology that I swore they took my seminary class, Evil and God. In short they were a delight. I had such a visceral reaction to the way they embodied the holy and Hip Hop that I am considering moving to Atlanta just to be a part of the mighty move of God that is happening down there.

The highpoint of the conference happened at the closing worship service. Rahiel Tesfamarian preached a moving sermon, but what got me excited was the unique way that the youth led worship. They exemplified bridging the Holy and Hip Hop through music. They took drama, dance, lyrics, and song and remixed them into a wonderful celebration of worship. They created montages of “Oh Happy Day” and Pharrell’s “Happy.” They presented a homage to the fallen such as Trayvon Martin and Renisha McBride through “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “Heaven”  by Beyonce. They showed us that in the end we are all here for the same purpose, we cry the same tears and ultimately are fighting the same fight.

There was so much packed into this three day extravaganza that I could literally spend days rambling in excitement. However, I will leave you with the task that I received at the #H3C. Karega Bailey, a raptivist and teacher proclaimed, “always remember to be a student because we are being studied!” H3C reminded me that we are on a road of knowledge, understanding, and community bridge building between Hip Hop and the Church. Throughout this arduous but indispensible process we must remember to be students because truly bridging the gap means the freedom to study one another in a judgment free space! In other words we got work to do on both sides of the divide!

If you are really interested in finding out more about how the conference went, I and a few others participated in live tweeting the conference, so just search the hashtag #H3C or #HymnsHipHop to revel in the brilliance (I follow back @deannamonique).

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