The Art of Prayer in Hip-Hop

The lesson is that prayer can be anything.
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There’s an old prayer that kids are taught to recite before going to sleep, a final offering before the night ends. It goes something like this:

“Now I lay me down to sleep / I pray the Lord my soul to keep / If I die before I wake / I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

The prayer always seemed innocuous, a cute way for kids to learn the importance of religious life, but hidden in the youthful innocence are an aching earnestness and a verbal badge for sorting after death. The rhyme, in hindsight, shakes me as an early lesson in mortality, even if the intended audience was much closer to their beginnings than their ends.

Through adolescence and adulthood, this childish wonder evolves from taught and enforced rhymes to honest conversations, a spiritual practice that puts you in conversation with a god. While some of us may never pray, and others only in private, for many of our favorite artists, from rising stars like duendita, MIKE, and Noname to established talents like DMX and Kendrick Lamar, these prayers are a deeply personal and communal offering. Each act has invited us into the closed spaces of their life so that we can share in their vulnerability.

In 2018, duendita, an R&B/soul artist based in New York City, released “Pray,” a song that simulates the ambient noise of a stroll through a park, replete with the yells of frantic children and the whispers of their watchful mothers. Much of her music shares these same touches—moments of daily life filtered in behind her singing. This signature moves songs from the closeted intimacy of her own whispered reflections and transplants them into a world moving and bustling with its normal energy.

Her latest album, direct line to my creator, is best identified in this intimacy. Her voice is reflective and honest, drawing listeners into spaces that aren’t intended for us as much as we are being allowed entrance into them. “thunder” is a characteristically private conversation with God, an earnest plea asking why an all-powerful being cares about her (You are thunder, but you are my friend / You are perfect, you are great / Why do you care for me this way?). Moments after using “pray” as a mission statement to explain why she prays, to whom she prays, and for what she prays, “thunder” finds duendita questioning why her pleas are even heard.

Privacy permeates “thunder,” but every question she asks perforates what little separation from the listener is still intact from the preceding five tracks. To print your pleas to God on wax mandates an unabashed honesty. It’s the kind of honesty that has followed DMX like the plague, and, much like duendita, the Yonkers MC had used inquisitions into his worth to stand humbly before his creator.

What’s most jarring about DMX’s prayers is the context from which they are born. X has a series of songs titled “Prayer” that arrive at the conclusion of several of his studio albums. Each song in the series is a plaintive outcry set apart from the rest of the album with little to no backing track; a stark contrast to the gruff narration of cuts (i.e. “Ruff Ryders Anthem”) he’s best known for. But his music isn’t senseless as much as it is meditative.

“All I know is pain / All I feel is rain / How can I maintain / With mad shit on my brain? / I resort to violence” —DMX (“Ruff Ryders Anthem”)

For X, violence is the world around him, and while much of his debut album It's Dark and Hell is Hot recounts crimes and losses with the rawness of any person who lived in the depths he survived, “Prayer” and the following “The Convo” take time to question God and ask why.

DMX prays conversationally and eschews formulaic constructions, instead opting to question and thank God openly, contradicting and learning even as he speaks:

“There was somethin’ that I just had to see / that you wanted me to see so I can be what you wanted me to be / and I think I’ve seen it, ‘cause I don’t feel the same/matter of fact, I know I’ve seen it, I can feel the change” —DMX, "Prayer"

Hungry, tired, and weak, DMX screams to God with open arms. From the cold solitude of a jail cell, he recognizes God has responded to the strife of his life with food, sleep, and strength. Through tears, DMX makes the ultimate plea for more suffering if it means the deliverance of his brothers, but he also questions God for his suffering ("Lord why is it I go through so much pain?") and questions God to reveal the direction that’s always guided his life ("And it’s been you who has forgiven me time after time? / It was you who opened my eyes so I could see? / And it was you that shined your light on me?").

The questioning tone of DMX and duendita is also found on “FEAR.,” a standout selection from Kendrick Lamar 2017 album DAMN. Kendrick recounts fears at pivotal stages of his life in the verses, but he leads with a visceral inquisition of his suffering: 

“Why God, why God, Do I have to suffer? / Pain in my heart carry burdens full of struggle/why God why God do I have to bleed?/ Every stone thrown at you is resting at my feet.” —Kendrick Lamar, "FEAR."

Like DMX, Kendrick’s own questions are sourced to the pain that surrounds him. Voicemails from his Cousin Carl explain the origins of this suffering: The Hebrew Israelite belief that people of color are the direct descendants of Jacob and are stand-ins for the Israelites God advocated on behalf of throughout the Old Testament. Inherited marginalization breeds violence and persecution; this is the stage Kendrick, much like DMX, questions God for setting his scene with.

His prayer is a plea of anger and frustration at the continued chastisement of his people. Where Kendrick asked, “Why God do I have to suffer?” DMX asked, “Lord, why is it that I go through so much pain?”

The departure between the two artists is found in response to these questions. Kendrick’s questions on “FEAR.” are rhetorical, directed at a God who watches quietly as bloody stones accumulate at his feet; DMX’s angry pleas are answered in an imagined conversation on “The Convo.” Expecting nothing, but still begging for God’s ear, Charles Edward Sydney Isom Jr’s bridge and Kendrick’s reversed repetition reach for clarity in self-expression.

For Noname, prayer is communal understanding. Adam Ness’ repetition of “Amen, Amen” in the hook of “Prayer Song,” found on the Chicago rapper’s sophomore album Room 25, is like an impassioned crowd reacting to a sermon. The instinctual response is the reflex of parishioners in hot, humid sanctuaries full of big hats and paper fans with the promise of a large Sunday lunch coming after service. With delicate brush strokes, Noname repaints Los Angeles in dull colors that dim the quintessential L.A. sunshine. She colors the police in shades of murderous red and draws nooses and crosshairs on the freemen walking in feigned comfort.

Here, prayer is much less a vehicle for conversation with God, and more a chance to assemble in a communal posture. Noname stands in the pulpit over a crowded audience, and once defenses are down—hands folded, eyes closed, heads bowed—she paints striking pictures of discontent, and the congregation responds “Amen Amen.”

If we’re the congregation, “Prayer Song” is our rallying cry; our chorus when a drive through childhood neighborhoods leads to our ache at the visible touches of gentrification—priced out locals and trendy coffee shops; our outcry when our timelines are filled with images of innocent Black men being shot by the police.

Noname invokes prayer language to stir a revolution, an approach with the opposite intent of duendita’s personal contemplations but equally powerful. She chronicles the uprising of the lost and the establishment of a new religion.

New York rapper MIKE doesn’t share this same ambition; he merely prays for survival. Waking up and trying again is a defiant act. Seeing the shot clock wind down and throwing up whatever pray you can muster is living. Survival leaves room for failure, but doesn’t leave room for giving in; you brick a buzzer beater, but you keep shooting. As MIKE puts it on “PRAYERS,” a standout selection from his 2018 album War In My Pen, “If the last one didn’t work, you try a different prayer.”

For MIKE and Medhane, who is featured on “PRAYERS,” prayer is less an attempt at making sense of the world and more about how to outlive your struggles. They make an earnest attempt at bargaining with God; trying to figure out “What’s the cost for the Lord to assist?”

Unfortunately, there’s no price tag attached to divine intervention. For the present, their prayers share the despondent tone of Kendrick’s steadying chants to see us through to the next day, but with the faint hope of ultimate clarity and joy. The chorus speaks to a life-giving quality of prayer that exists across all five of these artists’ work.

Prayer is a brief suspension of disbelief, a humbling opportunity to set our struggles and securities down at the foot of a higher power. And it has no shape or form. The recorded prayers of duendita, DMX, Kendrick, Noname, and MIKE show us that taking a moment to pray is an act of near boundless possibilities. DMX’s outcries, duendita’s whispered questions, and everything in between is an invitation to witness closeted confessions.

These five artists give us front row seats to their own inner conversations so that we can examine and learn what it is exactly to pray. The lesson is that prayer can be anything.

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