Over the years, agnosticism has caught a bad rep in popular culture. The “I’m not religious, but I am spiritual” cliché has become somewhat of an insult to a portion of the population deemed indecisive and existentially contrived.
Without kickstarting a religious diatribe, there’s no shame to me in being indecisive when it comes to pondering forces outside our realm of perception. While I’ve assembled my own sort of spiritual pasta salad that allows me to sleep at night in the face of infinite unknowns, I’ve never felt strongly compelled enough to allocate faith to the existence of one particular deity or force. I simply try to be a good person and encourage others in whatever religious or scientific infrastructure helps them do the same.
My daily interactions with the internet, however, reveal a populace with far less tolerance when it comes to people expressing their beliefs. If I had a nickel for every time I saw a Twitter user bash an artist like Kendrick Lamar for tackling religion in their music, I’d have enough to gladly pay tithes to churches I don’t even attend.
I understand religion is a divisive topic, and understandably so. It is, however, the backbone with which millions of people live their entire lives, and considering seven billion of us are simultaneously trying to do our own thing in these close quarters, there will inevitably be some existential clashes.
Years ago, while reading KRS-One’s The Gospel of Hip Hop, I was initially taken aback by his constant use of the term “God,” especially considering the multiple musical indictments of religion his discography contained. I remember reading one passage, in particular, where he acknowledged that possible discomfort and told readers to replace “God” with whatever they held dearest, even hip-hop.
In my life, hip-hop may as well be a Godly force, and so that message resonated with me. When I see Kendrick or Chance or anyone else rhyming about religion, I’m able to understand their lyrics from a perspective that fits into my personal reality, as well as from an objective perspective of genuinely wanting to be educated.
I’m not a religious man, and yet religion is one of my favorite subject matters in hip-hop. I love to hear artists talk about their relationships with their God. I love that the dedication to their beliefs brings inspiration out of them that they didn’t even know they had.
The more zealous atheists I’ve encountered in my life have asserted the belief that religion is a detriment to society, and while I’m not educated enough to agree or disagree, when I hear an album like DAMN. or Coloring Book, I can’t possibly deny the clear benefit these artists’ religion provides for them.
Moreover, artists like Kendrick, Brother Ali, Lecrae and many others are continually bridging the gap between secular and religious hip-hop, making both sides more accessible to those unfamiliar with their tenets and making fantastic, faith-fueled music in the process.
I’ve never lived my life by the words of the Old Testament, but I still get chills when Kendrick speaks on the ominous words of Deuteronomy. I’ve never been to a mosque, but hearing Brother Ali’s soulful declarations of his devout Muslim beliefs is riveting.
Much in the same way I’m able to enjoy the vibed-out sounds of today’s hip-hop youth because I understand the balance it presents to the hyper-lyrical rap I grew up on, rhymes focused on religion offer a balance to the hedonistic, often violent content that permeates the mainstream representation of the culture and much of its subsets. It helps that none of the artists I mentioned are attempting conversions through their music, either.
This is faith as inspiration, an eternal take on the earthly love that’s inspired music since the dawn of time, and it's creating some beautiful music, provided you're open enough to listen.