I'm Not Religious, But I Believe In Hip-Hop

Music makes blood relation transcendent.
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My mother is a fortune teller. She learned to turn cards into little windows into the future while on a trip in her youth to Estonia, along the Baltic Sea, from a woman she encountered on the beach. She spent several days as her apprentice of sorts, absorbing as much as she could from the woman. As the story goes, my mother was not allowed to be taught directly what each card represented, but after her time with the woman on the water, she got mailed a thick list of what each card stood for and so she took her weeks’ worth of knowledge and her belief in something greater and became my beloved oracle from the age of 12.

I say all of this to say, I am not religious—though I identify proudly as Jewish—I am spiritual. I believe in fate and the future, and I believe everything my mom flips on the river of the cards, how they’re arranged and how they’re suited, to be relatively true. She uses playing cards, but the deck cannot be used for games—it would lose its magic that way. When my heart is broken or I am crippled by anxiety, my mother reads my fortune, and I get that quick hit of stability. I have something to believe in, and I believe in it with all my being. This is, I imagine, why people turn to God in times of strife. Having something to believe in makes life easier. But, of course, nothing is without complications.

For one, my mother couldn’t care less for my sexuality. When the Queen of Hearts is drawn, there is a tension between us that is thicker than sin and sharper than all blades for all-time. The one thing missing from our fortune-telling sessions is community. What religion has over my rigged methods is the sense of community and wholeness that comes from stepping into a place of worship. Religion is a source of family. That wholeness, that crop of kinship, does not come when you sit across from someone who wishes you were different, but that wholeness and family love does come from music.

Music and religion have much in common—both have followers, fanatics, strains, rules, figureheads, idols, hierarchies, and the list goes on—but their most important shared quality is the communion between the art and the artist; the sense of family. 

This is what Janelle Monáe spoke about in her them. cover story with Lizzo. Monáe was asked about her coming out, and the declarative power of Dirty Computer, and the public impact of the record. 

“I had to be able to talk about what it meant to identify as bisexual. What does that mean? How would discovering that impact the relationship I was in at the time? How do I talk about it with my family? How do I go back to my church? The bottom line is I had to have conversations with myself and the folks that love and care about me, and realize they may not understand what it means for me to be a person who identifies as queer in this world. I’ll also add that it wasn't like I wanted to even make it a declaration. I knew that by being truthful through my art, people were gonna have questions, and I had to figure out a way to talk about it. And in having those talks with myself, I realized it was bigger than just me. There are millions of other folks who are looking for a community. And I just [leaned] into that. I leaned into the idea that if my own church won't accept me, I'm gonna create my own church.” —Janelle Monáe

Hip-hop is my church, and moreover, hip-hop is my family. When you’re in any marginalized community, you often get the following advice in the face of exclusion: go out there and pick your family. Music is my chosen family. Music is the site of my communion. Tyler, The Creator, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Abstract, these are the members of a larger collective who understand what it means to be depressed, to be queer, to be isolated. These are also the artists who teach me what it means to celebrate the self. 

In publicizing their identities, these artists create a space for me to be myself and to feel the love and support I am otherwise missing from my blood relatives. Blood may be thick, but music makes blood transcendent.

When I need a filter for my anger as a means of processing what it means to be gay and ashamed, I can turn to Tyler, The Creator’s Flowerboy for moral support and wisdom. I can listen to Tyler process his coming out and his fear, and rightfully work through my own. When I want to sit in the angst that is being closeted—as I still am to large portions of my family—I can revel in Kevin Abstract’s American Boyfriend, and hear my story told over the setting of football fields and late nights with a straight crush. And when I find myself in the mood, I can celebrate and shake off anxiety with Janelle’s Dirty Computer. I have the whole range of life as a queer person locked away in these artists, and they are gracious enough to share this life with me.

When Janelle speaks on creating her own church, when I slot myself in as one of her followers, we create something deeper than community. We create a means of survival and a means of living, truly living. To hear your story as one of joy in places where there are people lurking to extinguish it is a revolutionary feeling. Janelle is right, her coming out will always be bigger than herself because there will always be people looking for an idol when they are turned away by those who we might otherwise expect to bring us solace.

I have my fortune read because uncertainty makes me miserable. The cards are my solace, but they are not my family. A glimpse into the future brings me comfort, but music provides something even greater. 

Yes, when you hear the bare stories of artists fighting through their struggles, you get the same comfort about the future. We will make it if they made it, is the lesson of an album like Dirty Computer. I find that to be just as rich in prophecy as flipping over a nine of hearts: love in the immediate future. 

But what makes music more special than the cards, in the end, is that there is a person to connect to on the other side of the speaker. You cannot become kin with playing cards, but Janelle Monáe can go from an artist to light, to a human being we come to trust and admire. These artists are something to believe in, but they are also people to share this life with.

Music will always be my chosen family. And I know I will always need my chosen family. I know I need these artists to take me to church when I am feeling lost. I run to the cards when I am feeling sick in the soul, but I turn to the music just as quickly. 

I understand, through music, why people might run to church in their times of need. I run to press play. When an artist like Janelle Monáe uses her platform to foster community, to make herself available to be part of our chosen families, I find myself experiencing something comforting and holy.

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