Associate Professor of Communication Studies at California State University Ebony Utley researches rap music. In her Convocation presentation, Utley built off her book Rap and Religion: Understanding the Gangsta’s God to discuss God as a social construct and its manifestations in American rap music.
Establishing from the outset that “gangsta does not mean mafia member, but a persona – an identity,” Utley emphasized the empowerment of such a title. This empowerment, she argued, “is not restricted to just music: being a gangsta allows someone to pretend they are larger than life.”
Investigating religion in rap music interests Utley so much because of a central question: if a music artist and his or her listeners know God via the language we use, does that mean God only exists in language? This concern led Utley to investigate God as a social construct, meaning different things for different people and constantly changing depending on the situation.
Her presentation therefore proceeded to explicate what roles God played for individual rappers. Utley established two sides of the spectrum: God is either “out there” as a omnipresent spiritual force, or “down here” embodied by various music artists. She emphasized the attention to power dynamics, pointing out that “the gangsta’s God is not up there, for that would put him on top of the hierarchy, and responsible for the suffering of people on earth.” In the same vein, being “down here” means that God can in fact take a human form.
In determining the identity of God, Utley sorts the rap music into three distinct categories: songs that treat God as “Friend,” “Father,” or “Foe.” She highlighted the characteristics for each, showing specific song lyrics that dealt with the individual themes. “When God is a friend, it means rappers are essentially saying: ‘God is a big Homie,’” thus capturing the familiar presence of God.
Utley also mentioned rappers who view God to be “a protector and provider, which are synonymous with fatherhood.” Finally, for songs that equate God with misfortune and hostility, Utley argues that they “topple the idea that God as a supernatural force even exists, instead pointing to human ingenuity” that determines social relations.
In her research, Utley found an abundant focus on Jesus in rap music. She pointed to the traditional narrative of Jesus that frequently becomes compared with those of music artists: “Rappers look at Jesus and go ‘Dude, that’s my story right there!’”
In highlighting the persecution and sacrifice associated with Jesus, Utley examined the ways that Jesus becomes represented in rap music, including by specific artists such as Tupac, Naz, and Kayne West. “If we look at the sheer number of albums that Tupac has released posthumously, it really does match aspects of Jesus’ narrative such as resurrection,” Utley pointed out.
For rap music aficionados, Utley’s presentation was filled with album art, lyrics, and sound bites from well-known and more obscure records. She was informative and entertaining, without slipping into a proselytizing manner that might discomfort secular and non-rap music fans in the audience. During questions, one Carleton student asked if Utley did any rapping herself, since she “had such good rhythm” (the answer was “No.”)
In addressing the question of “Who is God for the gangstas down here,” Utley noted that it “depends on who you ask.” This recalled the beginning of her presentation, when she established God to be a social construct, representing empowerment in various ways, from protecting to showing individuals new experiences.
From this she concluded that because of this important role, “God can both empower you and others.” To her this was crucial to broadening the conversation to include social grievances and power struggles, injustice and morality.
“We need to stop using God as a trump card,” Utley argued. The take-home message was to understand God as empowerment, before starting a dialogue as to why these individuals needed this empowerment in their lives.