Publishing on the 23rd of April in the US and the 18th of June in the UK, Religion in Hip Hop, edited by Monica R. Miller, Anthony B. Pinn and Bernard "Bun B" Freeman, spans a host of topics, questions and debates around the intersection of religion and hip hop, and its relationship with American culture. We talked briefly with two of the editors about their new book:
1. What particular areas of religious studies interest you and why?
Over the years, we (Drs. Anthony B. Pinn and Monica R. Miller) have involved ourselves in the study of African American Religions; Black Theology; theory and method in the study of religion; constructive theologies; religion in/and culture; religious humanisms; religion and embodiment, youth cultures and new black religious movements. In many ways, attention to religion and hip hop require interdisciplinary approaches, so our efforts cut in many directions across the humanities and social sciences.
Shifting from methodologies to content, a couple things about religious studies come to mind, and they’re connected. In our individual work and in our continued collaborative efforts, we’re interested in complicating discourses of meaning and expanding data, the everyday practices for the study of religion in culture in black life. Our larger intellectual efforts at this, however, extend beyond any one particular group. That is to say, we have an ongoing scholarly fascination with the ways that people transform their various contexts (social, economic, racial, etc.) into their doorway for understanding and exploring the larger world. Of course, framing it that way is a bit misleading, as if people have much of a choice regarding their contexts, but doing so helps to explain that we have a mutual curiosity about the relationships between the particular and the universal, and how various tensions between the two seemingly “construct” meaning.
At the same time, thanks largely to Pinn’s earlier methodological interventions in the study of African American Religions, in combination with the larger trends in theory and method in the study of religion, building from this and with Miller’s more recent efforts, we also have a growing interest in critically methodologically interrogating even this assumption that the things people are doing when they make music, dance, write, act “religiously” is about meaning at all. Maybe it is more simple than that. Perhaps these things of culture are simply the stuff people do. So we’ve been interested to rigorously evaluate not just people “out there”—the scholar’s traditional “data—but ourselves as well, as scholars, looking at the ways scholars and scholarship are part of these same processes that we write about.
Our collaboration with prolific recording artist Bun B is a testament to this back and forth between our “data” (hip hop) and ourselves (as scholars). The collaboration was a natural fit, in that Bun B has been a long-standing cultural leader in hip hop for many years now, and Bun has a concern to safeguard and preserve the rich cultural material of hip hop, but also a desire to look back, and reflect critically on what hip hop has been for so many, and what it might be now.
2. How would you describe your book in one sentence?
A fast-paced, but incredibly substantive, exploration of cutting-edge scholarship at the intersection of the academic study of religion and hip hop culture.
3. When did you start researching for this book?
We started working on this book roughly 16 months ago, but Pinn and Miller have co-authored or co-edited a number of projects, and our efforts to expand what we know about hip hop culture goes back years. Pinn, in particular, is one of the first scholars in religion to give attention to hip hop culture.
Pinn’s first book Why Lord (Continuum, 1995), was one of the very first in the academic study of religion to take seriously hip hop culture and rap music, in particular. Thanks to his vision and leadership, younger scholars have been supported and compelled to double-down on his efforts. Studies in hip hop and religion have brought with them the need to do the work exploring hip hop, but also undergird the necessity of that work in the larger field of religious studies. Pinn’s been instrumental on both fronts. And we’re just now, really, in a space where the topic of hip hop is no longer in need of a marketing campaign, and all of our efforts are directed at doing the actual work of fully unpacking the rich material that hip hop offers.
So to answer your question, this particular volume has been in process about a year and a half; the research going into it years before that. But in some very real ways as well as some figurative ways, we’ve been working on this book for a very long time!
4. What’s the meaning behind the title?
As hinted towards in the second part of the first question, the most important words in the title of this book are “in” and “mapping.” That is, religion in hip hop speaks to the co-constitutive nature of religion in culture, rather than a competition model between the sacred/profane that would suggest something like religion and hip hop. This part of the title is a methodological invitation to consider, more seriously, what sorts of social, cultural and political interests are part and parcel of classification/categorization in the academic study of religion more broadly. That is not to say that all of the contributions in this volume follow such a “neat and tidy” approach. Rather, readers will be confronted by the back-and-forth play with and between such constructed designators of in/and throughout.
Additionally, the word “mapping” speaks to the manner in which we see this volume connecting the dots of religion and/in hip hop scholarship, not only in terms of expansion of data, but also, highlighting and charting the coordinates of such a map (for the field), while remaining self-conscious about reminding ourselves that while we seek to construct such representations, we are also, actively constituting the field, as such. Hence the “ing” in mapping. And Bun B’s participation brings a voice internal to hip hop as to remind the field, ourselves, and so on that this map belongs as much to hip hop as it does to the academic study of it. This mapping begins in the Preface with the inimitable words of one we consider among the most formative and prolific in carving out a space this area of study in religion, Dr. Michael Eric Dyson. His foregrounding presence in the volume nicely provides historical context for a new generation of readers who have new-fangled and varying starting points for the study of religion and/in hip hop culture. We are ever grateful that it is here, discursively and historically, we begin the work of this volume.
5. Which part of writing a book have you enjoyed most?
The interactions with the contributors who come from a wide variety of fields and areas of study—the opportunity to gain greater perspective on how various disciplines and contexts are brought to bear on this shared concern with the synergy between two significant cultural developments.
It has also been a joy to bring Bun B into this project. The collaboration has allowed for a rich exchange of ideas that would not have been possible otherwise. Bun B’s critical feedback on the volume, as well as a lengthy and robust interview and Afterword that we’ve included in the book, help to add layers to the project. The final product, we feel, has one foot firmly in hip hop culture, and another in the academy. And this is a very good thing. Breaking down the walls of the “ivory tower” in this way has been challenging, but rewarding, and we hope the efforts speak for themselves.
6. Any tips for people reading the book?
Social media has forever changed the way we interact. We’d encourage readers to tweet about, give status updates, and otherwise read “actively” with the use of social media tools. Tweet back to the authors with questions, and we’ll do our best to respond. The book is very much a conversation, so with new means of interaction, we hope the book isn’t the last word on the topic, but only some of the first words. So find us on Twitter @religionhiphop, @anthony_pinn, and @BunBTrillOG.
Other than that, Enjoy!
7. Where will your research go from here?
[Pinn] There still things I want to investigate concerning the intersections of religion and hip hop. Regarding this, I’m turning my attention to the ways in which death and dying are described and explored within hip hop, with a primary focus on how hip hop has altered the grammar of demise within popular culture.
[Miller] I have a number of different pots on the stove, so to speak. I have an ever-expanding interest in hip hop culture, so I’ll keep on with that. I have some forthcoming volumes that work to situate religion and/as identity formation and studies in identity with the Culture on the Edge scholarly collective of which I’m a part; aside from some edited volumes, my next monograph is tentatively titled New Black Godz, an outgrowth of my current major research project that explores contemporary black legibility and illegibility—that is, in what ways do we today “see” black humanity, and who do we see it in, and why them?
8. If you could have dinner with one person, living or dead, who would it be?
[Pinn] I can’t narrow it to one person.
[Miller] Wow, this is a fun but weighty question. Okay, let me think…Derrida or Tupac, Derrida or Tupac…okay, Tupac Shakur. Without question. I’m a deconstructionist at heart, and although Derrida may have given us the vocabulary to deconstruct, for me Tupac holds within himself and his memory not only an intense deconstructive edge, but also a constant reminder of why deconstruction is so necessary for intellectual as much as social engagement.
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