Dr. Kenneth T. Whalum, Jr. is pastor of New Olivet Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. In addition to his pastoral duties, he is a member of Memphis City Schools’ Board of Commissioners, the Stellar Awards Gospel Music Academy, and the Recording Academy. Blending a lifetime of wide-ranging experiences, in 2010, he released his critically-acclaimed book, Hip-Hop Is Not Our Enemy [digital; print], an insider’s critique of the Black church’s role and responsibility in co-opting Hip-Hop culture.
In support of the book, Dr. Kenneth T. Whalum, Jr., spoke with AllHipHop.com about “Hip-Hop theology,” mainstream condemnation of Hip-Hop culture, and methods in which the church can connect with members of the Hip-Hop generation.
AllHipHop.com: I find the concept of “Hip-Hop theology” to be very interesting – as it mixes the secular and the spiritual worlds together. Towards the end of your book, you offer a blueprint for Hip-Hop sermons. As a “Hip-Hop theologian,” how – and why – do you think you were called to incorporate Hip-Hop’s cultural framework within religious institutions?
Kenneth Whalum: Well, it starts with my own children, man. I have three sons who are musicians. Each of them is a professional musician. They were trained in music, they read music, and they make music. And they all love Hip-Hop. I heard music all the time in the house that I grew up in. All of my grandparents were musicians. It’s sort of indigenous and natural for me from the music perspective.
From the Hip-Hop perspective particularly, I just couldn’t avoid all of the references to either God or godlike characteristics in the Hip-Hop music itself. The most glaring example of that would be H.O.V.A., man. You know, how much closer do we need to get to that connection between Hip-Hop and holiness? And then, you notice that when rappers – and I’m making a point of differentiating between rap and Hip-Hop – would receive their music awards early on…
AllHipHop.com: They would say, “I want to thank God.”
Kenneth Whalum: …yes. They would thank God, and they would be wearing crosses, and I make a point of this in the book. They’d be wearing diamond-encrusted crosses that were as big as their chests. It was such a loud statement that rappers – who were initially misunderstood and misconstrued in terms of where they were coming from – would identify with the most widely recognized emblem of Christianity in the world, which is the cross. So, I don’t know, man. All those things sort of played together in my mind, and they all came to a head when Three 6 Mafia won their Academy Award.
AllHipHop.com: But there’s so much embedded in that moment, too, and I’m glad that you made that connection. The introduction of your book notes that you find parallels with Jesus and earlier generations’ use of creative language, as well as the dynamics of their times. As the church folk would say, “Make it plain, pastor”! [laughing] What parallels do you see?
Kenneth Whalum: Well, one thing that is also unavoidable is the fact that Hip-Hop is driven and created and perpetuated by young people. It’s a young person’s environment. It’s a young person’s product, even though the ones who typically make the most money off of it is the group of elderly, non-Black people who couldn’t be further from Hip-Hop and its indigenous environs. That’s the first thing. From that, I derive what Jesus himself said about children.
What He said himself about young people in his teachings and in his just day-to-day chillin’, man. He always gravitated toward young people, and they always gravitated toward him. There’s a portion of my book were I spotlight Jesus talking about the children singing to the audience. They’re singing to the onlookers saying, “Listen. We’ve been playing and pipin’ to y’all for years and years trying to get you to see” [Matthew 11:17]. I can almost hear the rhymes as they performed on the streets of Jerusalem, just being themselves.
It’s clear that Jesus went to bat for young people, and He challenged the status quo. That is the parallel between the Hip-Hop generation and Christ, himself. But it goes further than that to the actual fact that most Hip-Hoppers clearly identify themselves as either Christian or spiritual in some kind of way. No matter how much you don’t like that, you can’t change that. And that’s a part of who Jesus was. He really didn’t care much for the status quo. And if there is one word or one concept that could really speak volumes about Hip-Hop, it is that it is anti-establishment and anti-conventional thinking and anti-status quo. That’s why the church killed Jesus, because He was anti-church. He was anti-what we had done to church.
AllHipHop.com: I do find it quite interesting that a marginalized, hidden population would gravitate towards these religious symbols.
Kenneth Whalum: People in church and in religious circles are afraid even of the concept of Hip-Hop, because they’ve been so conditioned to judge people on the surface. I’m saying that if you just read the Bible, you’ll see that Jesus perhaps was the most effective proponent for Hip-Hop that you’ll ever come across, because that’s who he ran with. He ran with the “refuse,” if you will, of society. They called him a drunkard. They called him a winebibber. They called him a glutton. They called him everything but what he was – a child of God.
AllHipHop.com: Year after year, since Hip-Hop’s inception, much of the culture’s lyrical and visual aesthetics of rapping have come under fire. “Where there is smoke, there is also fire.” No truer statement has ever been made. When you reflect upon Hip-Hop’s multi-decade evolution, what do you consider to be the “smoke” and “fire” metaphorically? And more interesting, perhaps, have you identified an “arsonist”?
Kenneth Whalum: Well, let’s start with the fire. The “fire” is the absolute hypocrisy of America. That’s the fire, man. The fire is that America would, with a straight face, actually try to blame its own creation for the creation. The fire is that we, as a nation, perpetuate poverty, man. We created the ghettos, man. We got a trademark on how to keep Black kids poor – and I specify Black because that’s what I am, man. I’m not unmindful of the fact that there are other ethnicities that have problems and challenges. But none are as specific and unique as the condition of a Black man in America because of our unique history with slavery.
But the fire is the hypocrisy of America. The “arsonist,” if you will, is a hybrid, a combination of the typical American, the typical so-called patriotic American and Black church folk, man. It just is what it is. Basic church folk are the ones who have, throughout generations in a combined sense, controlled enough resources to change our communities or to, if you will, put out the fire. But we have, for one reason or another, through fear or through greed or through our own hypocrisy, refused to put that fire out. And then finally, the “smoke” is around us every day. The smoke, the manifestation of the fire – that which clouds our visions – we see every day.
Every day, a new reality program comes on television. Every day, a new manifestation of bling-bling. A new manifestation of the “here and the now.” Give me what I want, and give it to me now, and damn the consequences. Well, that’s the smoke, and the smoke is not clearing. Now, that’s not a bad thing, because many times, smoke is the result of putting a fire out. So, I’m not saying that we are not doing what we need to do, but I am saying that there’s going to be a period of time where it appears to get worse than better. But that’s the sign, the trademark of all progress – that it gets worse before it gets better.
AllHipHop.com: Gil Scott-Heron believed music was a formidable force – and “a powerful tool in the form of communication [that] can be used to assist in organizing communities.” In your book, you quote Jared Green – pointing out the fact that the musical medium through which the story of life in America at the end of the 20th Century – and this current century – is being told through rap and Hip-Hop. I am interested to hear your perspective as to why you think Hip-Hop music has had such a stranglehold on being America’s voice, since three to four decades is a very long time for any cultural institution to have a monopoly on anybody’s voice.
Kenneth Whalum: The reason it’s the voice is because it’s so good, man! [laughing] Hip-hop, man, listen. It combines every indigenous, self-contained voice – the thing that all of us have inside of us. It combines the best of all of those things. Rhythm. Creativity. Language. Aspiration. Fear. Doubt. Group ethos. I’m having a hard time articulating it myself, man.
There’s something about just a basic rhythm, a basic beat that literally reaches past all the façade of my upbringing, all the façade of my challenges and reaches into what God placed into me, and that is that rhythm of my heart, man. That heartbeat. That rhythm. It is what drives creation, it is what drives civilization, and it’s what drives instruction of civilization. It just depends on how that rhythm is set, and how you respond and interact with that rhythm, man. Hip-hop is the voice because Hip-Hop has always been the voice. It’s just that we’ve come up with a name for it in the last 40 years.
Clayton Perry: As a child, I was shocked at the resistance that Kirk Franklin received at the beginning of his career. To date, he has released 10 albums – blending and blurring the lines of varying music genres. When you talk about relieving the tensions – and breaking lines – between Hip-Hop and the church, why do you think he faced so much resistance at the beginning? And as he career evolved, why do you think that people have opened up and received him more readily? In many ways, Mr. Franklin’s career is reflective of Hip-Hop’s experience.
Kenneth Whalum: Man, that’s a complicated question with multifaceted components in the response. First of all, again, he’s good. It’s the music. The music is good. And when you have a level of excellence, a level of high-quality, that tends to knock down specious opposition. It gets down to a point where you just don’t like it. Your personal taste is you just don’t like it, and that’s fine. But quality has a way of entrenching itself in a culture, and particularly in a business like the music industry, which is so driven by personal taste. I guess another reason for his longstanding success is the fact that we have grown up with him. In the years that he’s been here, the people who have heard him and liked him have grown into jobs and made money and bought concert tickets. That’s all a part of it, as well.
The other thing is that White America – as it has dealt with its own maturity, or lack thereof – more and more Whites have embraced Kirk, embraced Black gospel music, and started making money off of gospel music. So, the mainstream has made it its effort to co-opt Hip-Hop to bring money to itself – which is not a bad thing. It’s a definition of capitalism. But those are, I think, some of the main reasons that Kirk is enjoying the success that he still enjoys.
AllHipHop.com: Going back to the point you brought up about capitalism, art – and the sudden transformation it undergoes when entering the marketplace – is rarely discussed. When it is created initially, it is owned solely by the artist. Upon release, however, it becomes public property – a completely different monster. When people talk about the glory years of Hip-Hop, some proponents frown upon the music of today and pronounce that Hip-Hop is dying or that it’s lost its spiritual roots.
What’s your take on comments like that, especially when you juxtaposed it with earlier times when Hip-Hop artists used to get onstage and say: “I want to thank God” – with chains of the cross dangling from their necks. I don’t recall the last time I heard someone say that onstage, but I do remember hearing it a lot in the ‘90s.
Kenneth Whalum: Let me give a back-end response to the question about not hearing as many Hip-Hop artists be overtly, if you will, Christian or religious in their performances. I’m not sure that, that has really died down as much, but I will say that to the degree that it has, it can probably be attributed to the fact of specialization within Hip-Hop. In other words, there are hip-hop artists who do nothing but holy Hip-Hop. These guys – who are great musicians – don’t even pretend to want to do secular music. They have sort of carved out a niche for themselves in the industry, both in the recording and the performing industries, which speaks volumes.
AllHipHop.com: Very true – and that’s a very interesting point.
Kenneth Whalum: I guess the other thing would be that we can’t underestimate the strength and power of secularism, either. I mean, it is a warfare. This is still a battle for the hearts and minds of people, and young people in particular. My head is not in the sand. We’ve got a whole lot of young people who ain’t thinking about God and ain’t thinking about doing right, ain’t thinking about Christ, and ain’t thinking about religion and nothing else. So, we have to be real about that.
AllHipHop.com: You have gone on record boldly stating, “Do not change the songs young people are listening to” – but rather “change the circumstances from which the music has emerged.” What is your take on censorship?
Kenneth Whalum: I am completely against censorship, and I guess part of that has to do with my own story here at the church, and the opposition that I received early on in my pastorate where, because of the stand that I was taking to defend children and to allow Hip-Hop in the church and to allow them to express themselves, the people literally tried to put me out of the church. So, I take it personally whenever I think that somebody might be trying to shut somebody else up when they have a right to free speech.
So, we can’t censor. We cannot censor. We must fight to the death to protect our right to free speech. With that said, what I do is try to encourage young people, as I did recently at Trezevant High School in a ghetto area of Memphis. Our children have given up hope, man. I have never seen the despair in the masses that I see now. And the way to capitalize on whatever hope they have left is to encourage them to be creative. You’ve got to be creative.
AllHipHop.com: What words do you have to artists, like Kanye West, who may have more influence upon youth than politicians, like President Obama?
Kenneth Whalum: To Kanye – and others – I say, “Keep doing what you’re doing, but remember you have a responsibility, a personal responsibility to the generation that’s coming up behind you.” But let me encourage you, too. The questions that you have asked me have evidenced an intellectual depth that is needed in this industry, man. You’ve got to continue to press and push through.
You’ve got to continue to ask the hard questions. You’ve got to continue to make a way for yourself. Be an entrepreneur in every sense of the word. Don’t be afraid to take risks. And as I say that to you, I say that to your readers, to your listeners. You know what the stakes are. Don’t be afraid to do what’s necessary to achieve what we have to achieve for our children, man. It’s life and death. I’m not overstating it. This is a matter of life and death.
AllHipHop.com: With the stakes so high, trust is a very hard thing to place into an institution, let alone an artist, especially if they object to – or deflect from – the responsibility of being role models for youth.
Kenneth Whalum: This is warfare, man. This is what drives me, man. This is why I’m so passionate about it, because if we don’t take it back, if we don’t reclaim our children, if we don’t stand up against those elements that are destroying our children and causing them to destroy themselves, we are going to implode as a nation. This is the very reason I wrote the book. Why would I try to stop an artist from enjoying whatever success they enjoy, because they’re going to enjoy it anyway?
The more you try to press down anything that has the value and power of personal appeal, the more you’re going to raise them up. Now, what we have to do is “collapse the culture,” as I say in my book. We have to annul the culture. And then we’ve just got to do the hard work, man. We’ve got to do the hard work of making good music, of buying good music and of holding ourselves accountable. It’s not going to happen, otherwise. The fact that I don’t like it doesn’t mean a doggone thing if I’m not going to do anything about it.