Move over Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson, because here comes Melissa Harris-Lacewell. Dr. Harris-Lacewell is Associate Professor of Politics and African American Studies at Princeton University. She has a PhD in Political Science from Duke University and is currentley enrolled at the prestigious Union Theological Seminary in New York - 'nough said. I just learned about this phenomenal sister when watching Bill Moyers Journal this past weekend.
I found myself identifying with most if not all of her perspectives on the issue of race as it plays out in the political and cultural spheres. What really intrigued me was what Harris-Lacewell referred to as the "insurgent capacity" of hip-hop. Take a look at this exchange from the transcript of her interview:
BILL MOYERS: So, how do you expect change to come?
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Slowly and through pressure. So--
BILL MOYERS: But kids don't go out and protest the way they did in the '60s.
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Oh, have you listened to hip-hop?
BILL MOYERS: Well, I've tried to, and I've had people try to explain it to me.
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: But what do you mean? Why is hip-hop bringing this change?
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, I think that hip-hop has the insurgent possibilities and capabilities. Now there's a little bit of a problem with hip-hop, and that is it's a commodity that's bought and sold. And any time you're a commodity that's bought and sold, you-- have at least one aspect of your culture that can sort of go in a profit motivation.
But I will say that hip-hop music like Gospel music, like Blues music, like jazz music is the voice of a generation. And it has within it the insurgent capacity, the capacity to say, "Look, I'm not happy here, this is not enough, I expect more, I'm worthy of more." And over and over again in hip-hop from the mid-1970's until today, there's a strain of it that is saying that.
Read the full transcript here.
I have always been drawn to this insurgent capacity within hip-hop, that persists in spite of the misogyny, crass materialism and glorified violence that plagues so much of it. But, even with those artists who are perceived to be the least redemptive in their lyrical content, at times - in moments of divine grace perhaps - exhibit an uncanny ability to affirm and uplift a segment of society that would be completely forgotten were it not for the hip-hop community. They manage to challenge the injustices that they themselves may be complicit with, just as we who have any degree of privilege are complicit in the oppression of others, on some level, whether we know it or not.
The insurgent capacity of previous generations was cultivated in the church, and the black church in particular in reference to the Civil Rights Movement and liberation movements around the globe (though often with the help of Marxist critiques of the darkside of capitalism). There was a certain theological perspective; a particular understanding of the Gospel that made the birthing of revolutionaries possible. Jesus Christ may be a King who reigns in glory from heaven, but when he walked this earth, he was a man of modest means who was officially executed as a political criminal by the Roman Empire.
Once you move beyond the Protestant/Catholic divide and the infinite denominational borders, the church can really be separated in two primary groups based on their understanding of Christ (or Christology). There is the church of the Insurgent Jesus and the church of the Imperial Jesus. There is the Jesus who says "No" to empire, aggressive militarism and economies that make poverty and suffering inevitable and there is the Jesus who says "Yes" to these structures and policies. Which one is the real Jesus and which one do you serve?