Rap and Religion

Understanding the Gangsta's God

by Ebony A. Utley


Hip hop culture and rap music in particular are often perceived as being shallow and misogynistic. Many rap lyrics explicitly glamorize murder and misogyny, but how do the glorification of God and acceptance of Jesus Christ fit into this worldview?

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Cover image for Rap and Religion

June 2012


Pages 190
Volumes 1
Size 6 1/8x9 1/4
Topics Race and Ethnicity/African American Studies

This book provides an enlightening, representative account of how rappers talk about God in their lyrics—and why a sense of religion plays an intrinsic role within hip hop culture.

Why is the battle between good and evil a recurring theme in rap lyrics? What role does the devil play in hip hop? What exactly does it mean when rappers wear a diamond-encrusted "Jesus" around their necks? Why do rappers acknowledge God during award shows and frequently include prayers in their albums? Rap and Religion: Understanding the Gangsta's God tackles a sensitive and controversial topic: the juxtaposition—and seeming hypocrisy—of references to God within hip hop culture and rap music.

This book provides a focused examination of the intersection of God and religion with hip hop and rap music. Author Ebony A. Utley, PhD, references selected rap lyrics and videos that span three decades of mainstream hip hop culture in America, representing the East Coast, the West Coast, and the South in order to account for how and why rappers talk about God. Utley also describes the complex urban environments that birthed rap music and sources interviews, award acceptance speeches, magazine and website content, and liner notes to further explain how God became entrenched in hip hop.


  • A bibliography of cited sources on rap music and hip hop culture
  • An index of key terms and artists
  • A discography of rap songs with religious themes


  • Applies urban history to explain why rappers concurrently embrace God and rap about murder, misogyny, and mayhem without defending the oppressive aspects of the music
  • Offers a representative sample of lyrics and videos with religious themes
  • Covers all genres of rap from each distinct region from the 1990s through the 2010s
  • Devotes an entire chapter to women and their relationship to God
Author Info

Ebony A. Utley, PhD, is assistant professor of communication studies at California State University, Long Beach, CA. Her published works include coediting Hip Hop's Languages of Love, a special issue of Women and Language, as well as articles in Critical Studies in Media Communication, Rhetoric & Public Affairs, The Journal of Men's Studies, and The Western Journal of Black Studies.



"Rap and Religion is a compelling read. It will provoke the reader to examine their attitude to a genre that arguably has hegemony in popular culture. Utley vividly describes some of the video footage referred to, enabling the reader to follow the line of academic argument. But there are times when you will simply need to ‘‘YouTube'' a track. Utley enables the reader to recognize that the Hip Hop genre has reinterpreted a Jesus with a strong survival/elevation ethic as opposed to a liberation ethic, helping the gangsta 'to make it through' and embrace success. An outstanding book and a must-read for every academic and practitioner serious about engaging popular culture in an urban context."Black Theology

"Utley . . . presents a unique study of the cultural and sociological context in which religion and hard-edged rap intersect, mainly from the mid 1990s to the present. Also, the book's laid-back prose offers a quick read. . . . Summing Up: Recommended."Choice

"[A]n important contribution to an understanding of how people mobilize cultural resources in ways that give meaning to their lives. Utley's writing is engaging and accessible, and is inviting to audiences for whom hip hop culture is more than an academic interest, and rather a central aspect of their lived experience."Rhetoric & Public Affairs


"The intellectual range with which Utley explores the spiritual contours of rap and hip hop are perhaps only matched by the vocalic range of the lyricism she examines. In this fascinating, thought-provoking, experience-driven, and often encyclopedic journey through hip hop's multifaceted legacies, Utley makes a compelling case about rap and hip hop's spiritual relevance, leaving us both breathless and re-energized."
—Ronald L. Jackson II, Author of Scripting the Black Masculine Body: Identity, Discourse, and Racial Politics in Popular Media

"Hip hop has not abandoned Jesus they have reinterpreted Jesus. Utley has done for us in this book what James Cone did for us in The Spiritual and the Blues. Her book like Dr. Cones' book is destined to be a classic."
—Dr. Ralph C. Watkins, Author of Hip Hop Redemption: Finding God in the Rhythm and the Rhymes and The Gospel Remix: Reaching the Hip Hop Generation

"This book is a must-read for anyone who has interests in popular culture, biblical interpretation, or theological ethics; as well as a whole generation who has done incredible self-reflection and self-revelation and packaged it as rap."
—Reverend Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan, PhD, Professor of Religion, Shaw University Divinity School; Coauthor of Wake Up!: Hip Hop, Christianity, and the Black Church

"Rap and Religion is elegant, compelling, and desperately needed. Utley's bracing exploration of the godly and divine in rap music illuminates new, powerful, and poignant intersections between the politics of religion, race, gender, and commerce. A remarkable scholarly achievement, and a gift to hip hop fans everywhere."

—Michael P. Jeffries, Author of Thug Life: Race, Gender, and the Meaning of Hip-Hop, Assistant Professor of American Studies, Wellesley College

"A close reading of mainstream hip hop lyrics and artists of the last three decades, Rap and Religion uncovers the place where God, spirituality, and Christianity meet. Hip hop aficionados have long proclaimed that hip hop is a culture. If this is true, what is its spiritual philosophy? Ebony Utley offers a persuasive answer."—Bakari Kitwana, Author of The Hip-Hop Generation

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