Questions about God’s existence are irrelevant to the power already invested in the word itself by society.
“Does God exist?” is an age-old question to a very old human obsession over belief in one thing or another, usually a “higher power.” So much so, that words like religion, religiosity, spirituality, meaning-making, and faith are quite often blindly associated with and connected to some idea of God.
In fact, I would suggest that our God-obsessed American imagination has much difficulty in conceptually and analytically separating the words “belief” and “God”; as if God not existing renders the notion of belief bankrupt and analytically void, or as if God really existing means that the concept of belief is always associated with an idea of the divine.
The question of God should not necessitate a concern over belief, and the idea of belief does not mean that one believes God actually exists. As a scholar of religion(s) who uses social scientific theory to make sense of the things people call religion, the very question of “Does God exist?” does little to help us understand and uncover the socio-cultural uses and public utility that this idea of God continues to make possible in the world today. In other words, the fact that the word “God” carries weight in our linguistic lexicon is what seems to matter most. If such is the case, then questions about God’s existence are irrelevant to the power already invested in the word itself by society and history.
“I am a God”
For instance, consider the song “I am a God” from Kanye West’s new album, Yeezus. Already considered nearly blasphemous for naming his album after the figure of Jesus, West goes even further by claiming to be God himself: “I am a god, even though I’m a man of God. My whole life in the hands of God, so y’all better quit playing with God.”
Here, West capitalizes on the weight of God-language in order to situate himself as the Most High of the rap game, letting the listening public know that like God, he too sits on a throne and deserves similar respect.
While this song caused a flurry of outrage in some believers in God, others were interested in knowing what West really believes. He packages his stardom in a God-complex and quickly reminds his listeners that he is a man of God, drawing a metaphysical line in the sand between his material self and a higher power — meaning he falls below God in power and worth.
But for the rap game, West considers himself the Most High. He also raps that his whole life is in the hands of God, but quickly puts himself back on the throne as God when he says: “So ya’ll better quit playing with God” – a word of caution for those that have yet to give West his sociopolitical respect. One would assume that such a distinction signals something about his own religious belief in an actual God.
West's use of God is a lyrical interplay, where the concept of God is simply used as a stand-in for claims about the artist’s own hubris and power. West is not trying to state his belief in God. Rather, he knows that God is an idea that easily translates into something of power, authority, and omniscience. That is not to say that West doesn’t actually believe in God, but such claims to belief cannot be extracted based on his rhetorical use of God.
Thus, the question over God’s existence is a matter of little to no consequence in a song like, “I am a God.” Belief is not as important as what this idea of God can do for West. What matters most is that West is aware that this term carries a social and cultural weight, regardless of whether this “thing” is in fact, real or not. The significance of using God-language will have the intended effect whether God actually exists or not. With West, the question of “Does God exist?” gives way to the question: “What can this idea of God do for him?”
God is my Chauffer
While 2004’s “Jesus Walks” gave West a certain type of respect among left-leaning and progressive Christians — due to his lyrical liberation theology that depicted the figure of Jesus walking with the most oppressed of society — Jay Z, who has been known to refer to himself as Hova (after Jehovah), has long been charged with being not only blasphemous but also a part of the Illuminati: a secret organization thought by some to control world affairs. His new album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, is helping to continue such speculation.
For example, some have recently suggested that Jay Z's song, “Heaven,” proves his membership in the secret society and aligns him with the highly controversial Five Percent Nation — an offshoot of the Nation of Islam started by Clarence 13X in Harlem in 1964, and famous for proffering the idea of the black man as God. Do these supposed connections matter, and can they tell us anything about God or belief?
In “Heaven,” Jay Z begins his lyrical dive into theology by making a move similar to West – claiming to be God in the flesh: “Arm, leg, leg, arm, head – This is God body.”
A clear reference to the Five Percent Nation, Jay Z sidesteps Christian notions of God for something a bit more polemical and obvious: that God is nothing more than flesh and bones. God is real. God is not real. Asking about belief or existence is beside the point. God is human. Human is God.
Taking on claims regarding his Illuminati connections, in “Heaven,” Jay Z also calls out his hecklers as nothing more than: “Conspiracy theorist[s] screaming Illuminati [who] can’t believe this much skill in the human body.”
For Hova, because his skills as a rapper and businessman exceed the expectations of most, charges of being a Satanist (à la Illuminati membership) simply suggest that people are jealous of his artistic and entrepreneurial abilities. That is to say, anyone conflating or confusing belief and God have trouble making sense of a human so capable and effective at their chosen endeavors.
Moving beyond his role as rapper, Jay Z waxes philosophical and reminds his listeners that religion is something that should always be questioned, not embraced: “Question religion, question it all. Question existence, until them questions are solved.”
These bars are followed by his REM-inspired proclamation that he is “losing [his] religion.” Jay Z then reminds the listener that “God is my chauffer,” but whether he is talking about another Five Percenter “god body” at the wheel, or a metaphysical reality, is unclear. The story does not end there for Hova – God might be driving him around in his Maybach, but he professes in the next line that he is “God in the flesh” for those that might have forgotten, and quickly follows with the statement that he is a “prophet.”
God, Race, and Culture
Here, the ideas of god, belief, and existence give way to a more ardently humanist stance where no longer is God a metaphor for hip hop prowess (as in West's example), but the idea of God is subsumed underneath a portrait of the human being as immensely capable. Social and personal interests are presented in a manner that renders God as an entity, a thing, an idea as disconnected altogether from religious belief itself. More plainly stated, the use of God here is solely a rhetorical strategy. The only belief present is one in the self.
The theological (in)coherence and dizziness concerning the use of God in popular culture — here, rap music in particular — is quite reflective of the ordinary ways in which most people make use of God-language. While debates regarding the existence of God continue to flourish, one has to wonder whether attention to such concerns are productive, or even matter, for solving real social problems like poverty, identity-based forms of oppression, or even simply human physical suffering.
The idea of God not existing does not strip away the immense amount of power and traction that the word and idea will continue to hold and harness for centuries to come. God really existing does not change the many ways in which the word “God” will be used to create a wide variety of effects for a host of social interests.
It is for this reason that I often chuckle when asked in interviews what rappers mean and believe when they use words like “God.” My answer that (a) “belief” is of no consequence in answering the question, and that (b) uses of such language say nothing about belief itself, usually draw unnerving silence.
Many “believers” grow uneasy at the idea that God might not exist. Many “nonbelievers” and “believers” alike further dislike the idea that although the question of God’s existence might matter to them on a personal level, such a “belief” has little bearing on what others believe or on the social circumstances “believers” or “nonbelievers” meet up against each day – even if some of the beliefs held might suggest otherwise.
Rather than focusing on what a group might believe based on what they say — which seems to be grounded in an erroneous perspective that we are always conscious of why we do what we do — perhaps an exploration of what uses of such language accomplish might serve our curiosities in more productive ways.
Asking if God exists is like asking if race exists. Whether you believe your race is real (to the extent that it matters) or not (just a socially constructed label) doesn't really matter, nor does it change the ways in which the idea of God is (and has been) used to accomplish a wide variety of social and cultural interests.
So, to ask if God exists in hip hop, is to ask if race exists in hip hop. God is to the world what race is to culture and society. The use of God in society, as can be seen here in the examples of Kanye West and Jay Z, say less about belief and more about what we can do with the weight and authority that certain words carry. For hip hop to be so grounded and centered on words, lyrics, and wordplay, then, the question of “Does God exist in hip hop?” answers itself.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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