Hip-Hop Approach to the Gospel

Matt Martinez stood on a stage during the Jesus, Justice, and Poverty outreach in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district last February and crooned, “It’s hard for me to see you, Lord. Because as I’m sitting on the corner in the heart of the city on the wrong side of town and I get impatient as I wait for you to come through and do that healing thing you promised to do.”

Matt, a student at the University of Texas – San Antonio (UTSA), is also a spoken word artist. (Spoken word is a form of literary art in which the artist speaks poetry, lyrics, or stories, rather than sings them, often with musical accompaniment.) For some time Matt has discerned a calling to bridge the gap between the hip-hop culture and the Christian community at UTSA, using the artistry of the spoken word, particularly hip-hop.

The term hip-hop brings with it a host of misunderstandings. More than just music comes to mind when someone mentions hip-hop. Most people imagine a rapper decked out in bling and leaning against a car, surrounded by a group of scantily clad women. It doesn’t help that the media feeds us the impression that hip-hop presents only messages of violence, material wealth, and misogyny. But there is another under-represented side of the culture.

Certainly hip-hop has a particular style of dress (baggy jeans, and extra large t-shirts) and an affinity for expensive material possessions (like diamonds and platinum); but as Matt said, “you would be hard-pressed to find an atheistic hip-hopper.”

Spirituality, although not necessarily Christian, permeates the hip-hop culture. This spirituality and the desire for personal authenticity are hip-hop values through which Matt has found openings to reach this community. He likens some of the less mainstream music of Talib Kweli and 2pac to a biblical prophet such as Amos. Talib and 2pac rap about the suffering that occurs in inner cities and the need for social justice.

An emphasis on the poverty and abuse (drug abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse) that exist in the inner cities of America stands in contrast to the image most Americans have of hip-hop’s messages. Socially conscious messages such as Talib’s tend to be cast aside in favor of the more provocative and violent images. Even though the hip-hop culture is illustrating some important and challenging ideas, the words of Talib Kweli, and others like him, says Matt, lack the hope that biblical prophets gave to the people. Matt’s desire is to bring hope into the already thought-provoking messages of hip-hop.

After spending the summer of 2006 going through InterVarsity’s BAyUP summer project by working with the homeless and poor in various inner cities, Matt returned to UTSA with a vision for starting an outreach to the hip-hop culture on his campus. Instead of focusing on the negatives of mainstream hip-hop, Matt began focusing on the positive influences and the doors through which he can enter with words of hope.

Hip-hop is already speaking out about injustice, and Matt wants to come alongside those in hip-hop cultures with the gospel. “I think that God’s people must be heard in the inner cities, and he is using those willing to speak out – it is our job to be empathetic to the voice of those already speaking out, to help be a part of the solution, and to show them the hope and love of Christ in the situation.”

Matt also wants to begin reconciliation between hip-hoppers and the wider culture – Christians in particular. He said, “I feel that the hip-hop culture has been neglected and misunderstood by the church and the wider culture. They have a warped view of the culture and the people in the culture.”

In recent history the church has become more sensitive about how to reach people around the world; namely, by building up and celebrating what truth may be found in non-Christian cultures so as to share the Gospel, rather than tearing the whole culture down. But as Matt suggests, there is room for much growth in understanding and reaching our hip-hop neighbors.

Matt looks beyond what the mainstream media portrays to what he believes hip-hop is authentically about – spiritual and justice issues expressed through different modes of art. Matt points out that hip-hop quickly rejects anyone who is inauthentic in their beliefs and actions, and yet, ironically, most of the hip-hop presented to the American culture is in itself inauthentic. So, Matt hopes to reach hip-hoppers by being genuine both in his enthusiastic pursuit of hip-hop, and in his love of Christ. “If you are real about your faith as a Christian in word and deed, then people will hear you out and be willing to investigate why you hold the beliefs you do,” he said.

Loving people in the hip-hop culture is Matt’s mission. And the seeds he’s planted for a hip-hop outreach on UTSA’s campus is beginning to come to fruition. Just last month he officially formed a hip-hop group on campus called The Mix.

At first he hopes to simply offer a safe place for people to express themselves through hip-hop forums, hip-hop dance and rap performances, poetry/spoken word nights, and community service events. Building friendships and community is the first step in reaching people. By investing in students’ lives, Matt will eventually be in a place to lead them in discussions and invite them to join GIGs (Groups Investigating God), where they can learn about how God cares for them.

Matt compares his vision for reaching the hip-hop community to building an inviting porch on a house – first inviting his new friends onto the new porch, and then inviting them into the house.

Matt’s awareness of injustice, his ability to take action, and his trust in God have grown significantly because of his leadership role in UTSA’s InterVarsity chapter. His InterVarsity staff workers have been able to walk alongside him and encourage him in his passion for reaching the hip-hop culture on campus. Entering into the positive aspects of a culture is one good way to share the love of Jesus; and because of his incarnational approach to the hip-hop culture, Matt feels prepared to bring them the gospel.

You could hear his passion and his vision clearly when he performed. Matt continued his spoken word performance at the Jesus, Justice, and Poverty outreach, exploring hope where most hip-hoppers speak only of injustice, “in my despair and lack of understanding I turned to see you standing right behind me. You say, ‘my son, you asked me why I don’t offer those starving a bite to eat. Or why I was silent while history was screaming out at me. Well you see, I have left this earth in human form, but left humans as a form of outreach, to be my hands and feet…I’m just waiting for you to be what I’ve called you to be.’”

Matt on video at JJP