Meet Monica Miller, Professor of Hip Hop
Her new book, 'Religion and Hip Hop,' is out Aug. 1
Helen Silvis Of The Skanner News
July 20, 2012
Dr. Monica R. Miller is a visiting Assistant Professor in Lewis and Clark’s Religious Studies department. She earned her master’s degree from Drew University and her Ph.D. from Chicago Theological Seminary. She’s an expert in religion in Pop Culture. Miller says that Hip Hop gets blamed for all the ills that afflict poor urban communities, while Black and Latino youth get labeled as deviant, nihilistic or just plain bad. But Hip Hop doesn’t deserve this bad rap, Miller says. Her first book, "Religion and Hip Hop," will hit stores Aug. 1. She spoke to The Skanner News July 17, in downtown Portland.
Where did you grow up?
New York. I grew up in Long Island in a little town called Southold. It’s not really like Portland, but it does share the lack of diversity. I graduated from high school in a class of about 30 people and you could pick out the few students of color. So I definitely felt exclusion at a very young age. If I looked around, I could see: Well the janitor looks like me and some of the people working in the kitchen, but is there anyone like me in the school leadership? That has a psychological effect on a young person.
When did you first get into Hip Hop?
Because of where I was raised, I grew up listening to punk and heavy metal music. I wore the ripped jeans and jacket with the anarchist symbol on the back, and the black eye makeup. I can tell you every song Metallica has ever written – and Guns N Roses. At that point I felt I was living my life in flux – in between –because I was not black enough to be accepted in black culture and I was too black for the dominant culture. I felt torn culturally.
So I found Hip Hop late, when I was in high school and what attracted me was the rebellion and the in-your-face expression in the lyrics. Biggie Smalls, Tupac, NWA: I saw Hip Hop as having a lot of political potential.
I’d be saying their words but I meant it for me. Hip Hop gave me a language and a voice to talk back. Whenever I felt people in authority were not treating me right, and I wanted to speak back, I would turn to Hip Hop.
At 14 or 15, I started reading autobiographies –people like Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, and Malcolm X. That’s when I realized how important black cultural productions are for social protest. That’s what I saw in Hip Hop.
Why did you write Religion and Hip Hop?
To state it plainly, I wrote this book because I had to. Really, I did. During my graduate studies, I became fascinated with Hip Hop, especially the many uses and shout-outs to religion in rappers’ lyrics, and religious symbols and imagery that pervade music videos.
While I found this to be fascinating, there were few books and articles in the field of religious studies that would help me make sense out of what I was seeing and hearing. I had very little to work with when I began writing my doctoral dissertation on the topic. Because of this, I literally wrote the book I wished I had, when I was writing what became Religion and Hip Hop.
Krump dancing started in Los Angeles and was featured in the documentary RIZE. Miller examined RIZE and Krump in the book.
Moreover, I became frustrated with the all-too-common cookie cutter approach to religion in Hip Hop, often couched within a Christian frame of analysis and within a certain understanding of religion as belief and confessionality.
The book brings three things together: the demographic of youth, Hip Hop and the academic category of religion. Originally my intention was to look at the “quest for meaning” in Hip Hop, so that I could “prove” its moral weight. I thought if I could show or prove that a “quest for meaning” is there, (like an apple waiting to be plucked from a tree) then I could also argue that this quest is inherently religious. Unconsciously, I wanted to clean up Hip Hop’s dirty public image!
But what happened was that I got 150 pages into the book and changed my mind. I had to throw everything away and start again from scratch with different questions.
So how did you change your focus?
After I was forced to “begin again,” with a new approach in hand, I realized that that using the formula of “quest for meaning as religious” is another sanitization technique grounded in a manufactured divide between the sacred and the profane.
Traditionally, scholars have looked for religious value in Hip Hop by looking at themes such as good and evil, suffering, pain, and sacrifice, redemption, God, and so on. For many, those ideas constitute the “search for meaning” that is considered religious. At the same time, Hip Hop is full of references to sex, violence, drugs, criminality, and capitalism, all considered profane. Thus, we set up Religion (as sacred) and Hip Hop (as profane) – seeming shocked that such a debased culture could have some sacred in it.
I call this the collision model, and I wanted to get away from this kind of dualistic thinking. I wanted to go beyond analyzing and moralizing about rap lyrics and expand this conversation. I often say my book Religion and Hip Hop finally settles the score between the sacred and the profane.
Children from the Rosewood neighborhood in East Portland showed off their Krump-influenced dance moves at a spontaneous party in June.
So how do you view Hip Hop?
Hip Hop is as American as cherry pie. And what I mean by that is that it reflects, internalizes and refracts everything that the larger American experience has created. The image of the gangster has been around for a very long time in American culture. Hip Hop didn’t cause violence, misogyny, exploitation, homophobia or criminality. It’s just easy to pick on.
Not that we should excuse Hip Hop. We have to call it out and hold it accountable. But what I realized was that trying to prove the moral worth of Hip Hop culture by picking out references to religion was just playing into the very same idea that I wanted to deconstruct. I was initially trying to clean it up and make it respectable.
So I came up with the project of redescribing Hip Hop culture using different questions that were not being asked in the field.
OK, so you’re not trying to show that Hip Hop can be a force for good because it references religion.
Absolutely not! I would not even correlate religion as something inherently good and moral.
Many theologians and religious studies scholars have been asking this question for a while now, “What is religious about Hip Hop?” Because Hip Hop is “not supposed” to have references to religion – it’s seen as so secular and deviant. I flipped this around to ask, “What do uses of religious rhetoric in Hip Hop culture accomplish for competing social and cultural interests?”
That question yields a totally different analysis.
Here’s an example:
In 2009, three rappers (50 Cent, RZA, and KRS ONE) came out with co-authored books that all played with the concept of religion. One of them was 50 Cent who co-wrote “The 50th Law” with self-help guru Robert Greene, author of “The 48 Laws of Power”. The main theme of The 50th Law is fearlessness. If you know anything about 50 Cent’s life, you know he was shot nine times. So if you can look down the barrel of a gun nine times and not be afraid, you can do anything.
That’s what the book says. So, it’s about trusting yourself. That’s a humanist and a New Age concept. It’s saying, don’t look for an answer outside yourself. Trust yourself. Do for self.
But interestingly they packaged the book like it was a King James Bible, with a heavy black cover, gold edged pages and even one of those ribbons that keep your place. Why? Because it allows them to sell the book to more people.
The religious symbols gave it added authority and weight. And that is it.
But you are also saying that Hip Hop culture has a spiritual dimension of its own, right?
Well, I am not exactly sure. As a scholar of religion the kinds of claims I can make are limited. However, one of my chapters is called “Faith in the Flesh.” It’s a visual ethnography of the documentary “Rize”, which looks at the emergence of Clowning and Krump dancing in South Central, LA.
While some have called this a new spiritual movement in Hip Hop, I suggest that it’s about a sort of faith in the flesh ethic. The body, through style and dancing in this film, for example, is of utmost significance. It’s fascinating.
Hip Hop culture also uses a lot of atheistic and humanist rhetoric than most people realize. But our only measure has been traditional religion, namely Christianity. And most discussion has been about the problem of young people abandoning the church. Or about how to Christianize Hip Hop so young people can be part of the church. Or about how Hip hop understands basic Christian theological concepts, like God.
The concern comes as no surprise. More than 87 percent of African Americans claim belief in God. And social scientists argue that institutional religious participation creates what they call pro-social behavior. These efficacy narratives are part of a larger ideological problematic of what I refer to in the book as “buffer against transgression.”
It’s a model that encourages conformity and social control to, “keep young people out of trouble. “
Some people might read my book and say I’m highly critical of the church, Christianity, or certain academic approaches to religion. It’s not that I’m trying to be overly critical, I just think there has to be a better way to understand these kinds of tensions in scholarship.
It doesn’t have to be “sacred vs profane,” “church as inherently affirmative,” and Hip Hop culture as “deviant.” These are collision models that use polarities to sell one branding over another. The distinctions between these things are social constructions, illusions, and manufactured to create the illusion of a crisis.
You also are doing research in Cuba. What’s that project about?
That project is called “Havana Libre: Youth Cultures in Zones of (Im)Possibility in Cuba.” It’s a joint project with Dr. Ezekiel Dixon Roman at the University of Pennsylvania. We’re looking at how everyday cultural practices are influencing change in Cuba.
|Professor Monica Miller in Cuba with young Hip Hop artists Nuevo Talento|
Basically I get to go where the young people are and just hang out and observe. We want to give a very real picture of what these young Cubans are doing. Most of the world assumes Cuban youth are all very similar, and the Cuban government has worked hard to protect that image. The reality is there is a high level of variability in Cuba and that is what we are trying to capture.
The youth culture in Cuba very much reminds me of a quote from the French social theorist Michel de Certeau’s book, “The Practice of Everyday Life.” He says, “Sly as a fox and twice as quick, there are countless ways of making do.” On the street we call this, making a dollar out of 15 cents.
In Cuba, young people are a great example of “making do”, or “making a dollar out of 15 cents”. With little access to Internet and technology, they find creative ways to keep up. So how they are getting the music? They are passing it around on flash drives. They are in a war of “making do” – and they make this war and art.
We’re hoping to be able to do a documentary film first and then a book manuscript.
Religion and Hip Hop: Miller showcases her forthcoming book
You have completely different kind of book in the works too?
I have been hard at work on “Blacklandia”, which is about the subtleties of race in Portland. It’s kind of a “Portlandia” for people of color.
It’s about awkwardness and social paranoia in a city where there are so few of us. Since I came to Portland I have had so many of these awkward conversations and experiences. I don’t think this awkwardness is about racism in a vacuum, it’s also about racial unfamiliarity– a theme I develop in the book, which is hilarious! It’s not an academic or politically correct book; it’s humorous and pokes fun at these experiences and myself.
So I’ve been keeping a journal of the hilarious things that have happened to me in Portland. One of my chapters is called “Confessions,” which is about the kinds of things White folk will just come up to me and say – like you can just go sit down in a bar and some White person will just come up and start confessing their racial unfamiliarity, awkwardness, insecurities to you.
I had one conversation with a young woman from Central Oregon who told me she hadn’t met a Black person until she was in her teens . When she first saw Black people, she says she cried and thought they were burn victims. She was absolutely serious.
Another chapter is called “Redemption” and that is about the surprising places where I found community in Portland. Each chapter deals with a different aspect of what “Blacklandia” looks and feels like – or what I think is “Blacklandia” – mixed with my own paranoia of being Black in Portland.
"Religion and Hip Hop" by Monica R. Miller will be on sale Aug. 1, 2012.