Voice from Rikers: spirituality in hip hop artist Lil' Wayne's prison blog.

Author:Lauricella, Sharon


Previously accustomed to performing on mixtapes and freestyling in the South, where he was already hailed as a rap superstar, platinum hip hop artist and New Orleans native Lil' Wayne (born Dwayne Michael Carter, Jr.) (1) performed to a sold-out crowd at New York City's Beacon Theatre on 22 July 2007. Following the show, at which police were omnipresent, Carter was arrested for attempted gun possession (Reid 2009). In keeping with New York's tough gun laws, the Grammy award-winning rapper was sentenced to one year in prison on Rikers Island, which began on 8 March 2010. The circumstances surrounding his rare live performance in New York led to a similarly exceptional public performance online; while in prison, Lil' Wayne posted letters to a blog in order to maintain contact with his fans. The site, www. weezythanxyou.com, hosts ten letters from Wayne, together with thousands of comments from fans. The blog entries express immense mutual gratitude, positivity, encouragement, and a pervasive sense of spirituality and religiousness.

This paper considers the content of Lil' Wayne's letters from Rikers, together with posted comments from fans in the context of spiritual communication and participatory media. The blog posts are analyzed within the framework of the theory of the Life Force, which suggests that spiritual communication involves deeper mutual understanding, healing, and a heightened awareness of the unifying, spiritual force that sustains and connects all individuals. It is argued that participatory media (in this case, a famous person's blog from prison) can facilitate connections on a religious/spiritual level. The simultaneous expressions of spirituality and popular culture are considered in the context of black music history, noting that the sacred (or religious) and the profane (popular or irreverent) have often coexisted in black music and culture.

The Place of Hip Hop in Current Research

Hip hop has received increased attention by scholars in the last decade, with research growing in areas such as hip hop's significance to linguistics (Alim 2003, 2006; Bradley 2009; Morgan 2001), culture (Kubrin 2005; Ogbar 2009; Perry 2004; Pinn and Miller 2009; Rose 2008), and feminism (Henry 2010; Pemberton 2008; Sharpley-Whiting 2008). Hip hop has been analyzed in historical context as a reflection of the disenfranchisement of black youth (Keyes 2002), has been identified as being compromised by the white-dominated music industry (Kelley 2005), and has, perhaps most eloquently, been identified as the voice of a movement already present in communities (Kennedy 2005).

The notion that hip hop--or more specifically, the messages and culture that it represents--is part of a larger community movement can be observed in historical context. Reed (2003) offers a clear chronology of the interplay between spirituality and the more rugged, public concept of music. According to Reed, West Africans, accustomed to a combination of religion, music, and daily life, began to separate spiritual, in-church music from the more "public" expressions of music once they were moved to North America as slaves. Reed traces the link between black music and spirituality from colonization to the post-Civil war period to Motown, and also addresses modern spiritual concepts with popular culture via gangsta rap artist Tupac Shakur's lyrics (Reed 2003, 148-60). Reed illustrates that black music, as influenced by history and culture, is--and has been--at once sacred (or religious and holy) and profane (or popular, irreverent, and secular). While the coexistence of both the sacred and profane in black music and culture is evident, the degree to which they are expressed simultaneously or separately has fluctuated throughout modern history.

While Reed's historical account of black music, the struggles of the black community, and religious underpinnings address primarily Christian denominations, Sorett also traces the history of hip hop through the African Diaspora, though does so via an examination of Islam and a more explicit account of white supremacy in North America (Sorett 2009; 2010a). Similarly, Kelley (1994) and Chang (2005) link hip hop to black history and culture. Historical accounts of hip hop offer a telling story of how music, spirituality, and culture are inextricably linked, thus necessitating a fuller concept of hip hop as a spiritual and cultural expression. Hip hop can therefore be considered a current manifestation of both the holy and profane, making religious/spiritual utterances while maintaining its place in popular culture.

Hip hop should not be considered a blanket label for spoken rhymes penned primarily by black artists; it is multifaceted and like other genres embodies a variety of styles. Cornel West (2004) identified the importance of encouraging what he considers the more desirable "prophetic" hip hop, characterized by political overtones and a culture of protest and social commentary. Artists identified with the prophetic hip hop movement include Lauryn Hill, Nas, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Common, and Dead Prez. Prophetic hip hop stands in contrast to "gangsta" or "constantian" hip hop, the more mainstream, top-40 rap characterized by a glorification of gang violence, misogyny, drugs, and a lavish lifestyle. Jazz great Wynton Marsalis, in his aversion to constantian and gangsta hip hop, called this kind of rap "ghetto minstrelsy" (Lewis 2007).

While politics and culture play a part in prophetic hip hop, another defining element in this genre is spirituality. Sorett (2010b) traces the trajectory of spirituality in rap back to MC Hammer's gospel track "Son of the King" on his 1987 debut album Let's Get it Started. In 1996 Nas paid homage to the divine by titling his 1996 album It Is Written and his 2001 release God's Son. References to God have even been paid by 50 Cent in his tracks "Many Men" and "Gotta Make it to Heaven." Perhaps most boldly, in 2004, Kanye West released "Jesus Walks," the third single from his debut album The College Dropout. Despite its nonconformity to top-40 rap--for it openly embraced religion and spirituality--"Jesus Walks" was West's fourth top-20 hit and reached #11 on the Billboard 100. Other notable rap artists with a spiritual message include P. Diddy, whose 1999 track "Best Friend" was a single about his relationship with God, and Lupe Fiasco, who remixed West's "Jesus Walks" into the Muslim version "Muhammad Walks," and began his 2006 album Lupe Fiasco's Food and Liquor with a Muslim prayer. A handful of Christian rappers have been noted including the Gospel Gangstaz (Hatch 2002) and other gospel rap acts (Gooch 1996).

While spiritual nuances in rap music have been noted, religious communities have also attempted to bring youth to the church by using rap and hip hop music in services (Herpich 2006; Johnson 2006). The unconventional Hip Hop Prayer Book introduced by Rev. Timothy Holder (2006) in South Bronx exhibits a "rebirth and remix" of the church with the goal to connect with youth (Maddex 2008). Lil' Wayne identifies with Christianity in some form, for leaked photos of his inmate ID at Rykers list him as Catholic. However, while much of hip hop's spiritual tones are Christian in orthodoxy, Pinn and Miller (2009, 3) identify the diversity of religious and spiritual tones in rap music, and suggest that rather than being doctrine specific, hip hop can also be considered an expression of the link between religion and culture. Pinn (2009, 106) poses the challenge to examine hip hop culture in a way that avoids its Christianization, such that we are able to better understand rap music as "a terrain for the articulation of religious struggle and redemption." Sorett (2009) similarly suggests that religious diversity, rather than adherence to a specific orthodoxy, is a defining characteristic of rap music. Examples of this observed diversity include Nava's (2009) outline of the Brown experience in hip hop theology, and Kirk-Duggan's (2009) examination of Lauryn Hill and Tupac Shakur's creation of verse to reflect upon God and spirituality as they relate to the human experience. Spirituality, then, can be considered an "existing sentiment ... being nurtured by the [hip hop] community" (Kennedy 2005, para 4).

Theoretical Approach

In order to conduct this analysis of communication in the form of a spiritual and digital voice, the theoretical framework employed here is that of Hochheimer's concept of the Life Force (Hochheimer 2009). According to this developing theory, the spiritual study of communication considers the energy that flows not only through but also among individuals, thus allowing for perception and expression of meaning. This Life Force energy can be observed in physical form (most basically, in birth and death), the presence of love, compassion, humility, and sacrifice, and the feeling that "there is something greater, deeper, more profound out there among us and in here within" (Hochheimer 2009, 5). In the realm of empalogic communication, or the quest to understand, learn from, and attain peace, spiritual communication involves a "wounded healer" as a way of facilitating personal healing, being heard, and a way of treating others such that they are deserving of love, suffering, recognition of struggle, spirituality, and mutual respect (Hochheimer 2011, 65).

Hochheimer's articulation of the relationship between empalogic media and spiritual communication is integral to this analysis, for we examine the digital expressions of a famous, incarcerated black music artist. Hochheimer (2007) argues that when the healer and the sufferer engage in communication, this, too, is a communicative medium. The interplay between experience (on the part of the healer) and listening (on the part of the sufferer) would therefore lead to understanding, knowing, and meaning. Hochheimer suggests that encounters between the healer and the sufferer result in a fuller...

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