The Ongoing Birth of Hip-Hop
A Theological Appreciation of the Creativity
of DJ Kool Herc and Cindy Campbell
see also The Hip-Hop Impulse by John Gill and Jay McDaniel
'Herc became known not only for having the biggest sound system and the hottest records, but also for creating a safe zone off the streets. At Herc's parties, rival gang members called a truce. Hip-hop promoted a sense of community and its "crews" of fans, artists, musicians, and dancers provided non-violent protection....more
"We have an opportunity to be connected with LOVE."
DJ Kool Herc and Cindy Campbell,
Father and First-Lady of Hip-Hop Culture
Always we are connected to one another. That's good Buddhism and good science. Everybody knows "everything is interconnected."
But Kool Herc, the father of hip hop, and his sister, Cindy Campbell, the first lady of hip hop, know that connections can be dominating or kind, oppressive or just, cruel or compassionate. At their parties they provided safe haven and non-violent protection for rival gangs, so that people could do what they really wanted to do: dance without killing each other.
Of course any hip-hop theology worth its salt begins with where Buddhism begins. Life for many people is filled with dukkha, with suffering.
Some hip-hop stays with the suffering, and fixates upon anger or self-anesthetized rage.
Herc and Cindy are as sensitive as any to these dimensions of life, but they do no valorize violence and they sing a different song. They say that, with help from hip hop and lots of other things, we have the opportunity to be connected with LOVE.
They capitalize the letters because it's so important to them and also because they sense that LOVE is cosmic and not simply human. If that's good hip-hop theology, it's also good process theology. There's a cosmic side to love and it's more than a product of human agency. It's a love at the heart of the universe and, happily, you can dance to it.
Are you new to process theology? Let Herc and Cindy be your guide. There are at three ideas that are important to them, as expressed in the interview on the left, that are also important to process thinkers: novelty, mixing, and love. Maybe even a fourth.
Listen to the interviews with Herc and Cindy. Herc describes how he "tried something new" in 1973 by mixing samples from different tracks, helping initiate what has come to be called hip-hop culture.
"Trying something new" is important in process theology, too. Whereas some theologies might say that our task is to repeat the past, process theology says that our task is to explore new possibilities and experiment with new futures, even if we aren't sure what will happen.
Indeed, in process theology the future is open even for God, Even God doesn't know exactly what will happen until it happens. Even God is in process.
Nevertheless God invites us to take risks and shares in the risk. To quote a theologian who, while not a process theologian, shares this image of God as having an open future, God is The God Who Risks.
In process theology this means that God shares in the sufferings as well as the joys that emerge from risk. Our very own dancing, on the dance-floor of life, takes place inside the heart of God.
Mixing and Remixing
A second theme that emerges in hip-hop theology is mixing and remixing. This, too, rings true to process theologians. Like Herc and Cindy, we believe that at every moment of our lives we are taking sounds from the past and mixing them in the present, often hoping that we and others might dance to them.
In process theology the sounds of the past are the things that have happened to us and also things that have happened to others. They are the "many" that are "becoming one" in the present, through our feelings of them. Moment by moment we are making music inside our hearts and minds, and this is our mixing.
The experiences that we are mixing were themselves mixings, which means that we are unmixing and then remixing what has already been mixed. We are not solid substances enduring unchanged over time, we are activities of mixing, and mixing, and mixing, from birth (and perhaps before) to death (and perhaps afterwards).
Sometimes as in hip-hop, we add our own voice, and sometimes, as in mashups, we simply combine them, without adding new ourselves. Either way there is novelty, because the new experience is a new experience.
The question we face at each moment of our lives is not whether to mix but rather how to mix. Shall we mix the experiences from the past with cruelty or kindness, hatred or forgiveness, apathy or love. Herc and Cindy prefer love. Process theologians do, too.
In process theology love has two sides: a receptive side in which we listen to others and share in the subjective states, and a responsive side in which we respond to what is happening in their lives with kindness.
Process theologians believe that there dwells within each of us a beckoning voice, a calling, which says, in effect: Mix in a Loving Way.
The love of this loving way is more than ecstasy in dancing. It is kindness in daily life. Call it Buddhist Hip-Hop.
God the Divine DJ
Why be kind? Perhaps it is simply because we are all in it together than share in each others's sufferings. But process thinkers believe there is something more afoot. They believe that as we dance through life we are guided by an aim that is hard to put into words but deeply democratic or "open source" in spirit. We want everyone to dance -- the people to be sure, but also even the hills and rivers -- in full aliveness.
This aim makes almost no sense in the face of a society that is riddled with pain and injustice, where "haves" have so much compared to "have-nots" who struggle just to live. For process theologians as for hip-hop artists, it is very important to be honest about the injustice, to lift the veil of polite convension and speak truth to power. Sometimes the most loving act is simply to be honest about the way things are, to tell the truth of the streets, whatever truth that is.
But ultimately, as Cindy Campbell explains in her interview, hip-hop is about love. It came out of love and it returns to love. Our it ought to.
And the love at issue is not small love. It's big love: love for each and all. It takes a little craziness in order to articulate this aim and live from it. A little novelty. We must listen carefully to the call of productive novelty, the call of our inner DJ.
God is the divine DJ. God is the great remixer, magnified by infinity, combined into a single spirit who is everywhere at once. The Mixer is filled with unbounded love and present within each person as a lure toward the fulness of life.
Does God play music? You bet. God is mixing sounds that we have surrendered to heaven and then playing them back in a way that tailored to each person, in his or her situation, to and the needs of the whole.
How big is the dance floor? About a jillion light years wide. The stars and planets have come into being from the DJ's calling, and we can do the same, if we have ears to hear. Herc and Cindy are exactly right. It's the call of LOVE. You can dance to it.
Many people think that hip-hop began in 1973 at a birthday party in the Bronx. It's arguable that it began about thirteen billion years earlier, with the beginning of the universe, or even before that, with a dancing within the divine mind. It's arguable that even then there was a mixing and a remixing, the entertainment of some possibilities for novelty, for community, for love, of which the first molecules were examples. Then the stars. Then the planets. Then the plants and animals and the people. And on the seventh day, or perhaps a bit more, God had party in the Bronx.