That ol’ time religion ain’t good enough for me.
Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly has once again taken aim at hip-hop music—and this time, he’s convinced that it’s a major reason why American youth are supposedly turning their backs on Christianity. This week, the anchor declared that “people of faith are being marginalized by a secular media and pernicious entertainment.”
He further explained that hip-hop was a big part of the problem.
“The rap industry, for example, often glorifies depraved behavior, and that sinks into the minds of some young people—the group that is most likely to reject religion,” he said, adding, “Also, many movies and TV shows promote non-traditional values. If you are a person of faith, then the media generally thinks you are a loon.”
The scapegoating of hip-hop has been going on for as long as hip-hop has existed; and the scapegoating of popular music in general stretches back to the early 20th century. But O’Reilly’s ignorance in this particular matter isn’t merely another example of an old guy complaining about “these kids and their crazy music.” It reeks of racist revisionism.
A recent Pew Research report indicates that the number of Americans who identify as Christian dropped from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent between 2007 and 2014. But the rift between young people and Christianity goes back decades. In 1966, famed evangelist Billy Graham bemoaned the decline of Christianity among the youth of America and England and believed that the embrace of the relative hedonism of rock music was the result of young people seeking something that they no longer associated with faith. But it’s much more convenient for a pundit such as O’Reilly to focus on those latest statistics and tie them to a “current” phenomenon and mine the ever-present fear of blackness—as opposed to recognizing how, though the numbers may ebb and flow, the Christian question is representative of a cultural shift that has been happening now for generations.
If one considers what the ’60s counterculture represented (free love, casual drug use, embracing of non-Western ideas regarding spirituality), as well as the emergence of darker-themed heavy metal from bands like Black Sabbath, it stands to reason that these kids’ parents and grandparents were listening to more “anti-Christian” music than they do.
John Lennon famously baited the religious right via song and statement. His infamous “The Beatles are bigger than Jesus” comment is the most notorious example, but three years after that statement led to radio DJs and teenagers in the small town South burning Beatles records, the band released the Lennon-penned single “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” with its tongue-in-cheek refrain of: “Christ, you know it ain’t easy/ You know how hard it can be / The way things are going / They gonna crucify ME.” On Lennon’s first post-Beatles solo album was the track “God,” on which the singer-songwriter declared that “God is a concept by which we measure our pain” and “I don’t believe in Jesus” and “I don’t believe in Bible.” His most iconic song, “Imagine,” asks the listener to “imagine there’s no heaven” and “no religion, too.”
Steely Dan’s “Godwhackers” is a tongue-in-cheek attack on religion and its tendency to oppress: “Yes we are the GodWhackers / Who rip and chop and slice / For crimes beyond imagining / It’s time to pay the price.” Frank Zappa blasted religious faith being used to justify political platforms in his 1981 song “Dumb All Over”: “You can’t run a country / By a book of religion / Not by a heap / Or a lump or a smidgeon / Of foolish rules / Of ancient date / Designed to make you all feel great.”
One of Genesis’ final major chart hits was “Jesus He Loves Me,” a song that some people may have believed to be an earnest ode to Christ, but it was actually an ironic dismissal of televangelism, Christian rhetoric, and hypocrisy.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers aren’t exactly known for “message” tracks, but on “Shallow Be Thy Name,” the SoCal funk-rockers took a jab at Christians: “I was not created in the likeness of a fraud / Your hell is something scary / I prefer a loving god / We are not the center / Of this funny universe / And what is something worse / I do not serve in fear of such a curse…”
Trent Reznor had a monster hit with 1994’s “Closer,” and on “Heresy” from the same album, he slammed the idea of belief in God or the afterlife: “God is dead / and no one cares / If there is a hell / I’ll see you there.” A generation of angry youth gravitated toward Reznor’s one-time protégé, shock rocker Marilyn Manson, in the late ’90s because he antagonized institutions that they had grown increasingly disillusioned with—especially the church. With lyrics like these from “Fight Song”: “But, I’m not a slave to a god that doesn’t exist / I’m not a slave to a world that doesn’t give a shit” and his onstage antics like ripping pages from a Bible and performing against a backdrop of upside-down crosses, Manson became the poster boy for the decline of civilization as we know it and the bane of Christians everywhere.
Does hip-hop have its fair share of religious critics? Absolutely. But it’s also a genre that has openly flaunted religiosity in the form of Islam, especially—and even Christianity has been consistently visible in hip-hop’s history.
Contrary to what O’Reilly seems to believe, hip-hop has actually been one of the most unapologetically religious genres of popular music over the past 35 years. Run-D.M.C.’s “Down With the King”—a group fronted by a minister, Rev. Run—was pretty blatant in its religious overtones. 2Pac’s songs, from “Lord Knows” to “Blasphemy,” were full of Christian imagery. Southern hip-hop legends Goodie Mob injected spirituality into all of their 1990s music, evoking the black church constantly, opening their debut album with a faux-Negro spiritual and including the Serenity Prayer as an interlude. Lauryn Hill’s Grammy-winning solo album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill also contains numerous allusions to faith and nods to gospel music. One of Kanye West’s earliest hits was the 2004 single “Jesus Walks.” Kendrick Lamar’s acclaimed 2012 album good kid, m.A.A.d city opens with a prayer. Rap music has never been afraid to embrace faith. If anything, it’s a genre that thrives on the contrast between the immaculate and the profane. At its best, this music is a summation of the struggle between the soul and the flesh. It’s reflective of the human spirit.
There are countless examples of pop, rock, country, R&B, and hip-hop embracing faith and religion on various levels. And in the past few years, rappers of faith like Lecrae and Trip Lee have risen to mainstream visibility and secular awards. But the tendency of the right to frame hip-hop as the scourge of American popular culture has long been tired and transparent. The Fox News audience may be easily scared by the prospect of those unruly blacks corrupting the minds of American youth, but the hard truth is that Christianity has fallen out of favor with so many Americans because so many of the people championing it think like the Bill O’Reilly’s of the world. It has come to symbolize intolerant, homophobic, patriarchal, xenophobic and racist “values” that many people have decided that they are better off without. Plus, phone sex guru and alleged sexual harasser O’Reilly isn’t exactly one to proselytize about “values.” So instead of looking for a b-boy boogeyman, Bill O’Reilly should challenge himself and his audience to be a bit more nuanced and introspective in regards to where they “lost” the young people.
Or they will never get them back into that “ol’ time religion.”