Understanding the Gangsta’s God – An Interview with Dr. Ebony Utley

Dr. Ebony Utley

Recently The Hiphopscholar had an opportunity to sit down with Dr. Ebony Utley, Associate Professor of Communications Studies at California State University Long Beach and discuss pop culture, research and her latest book, Rap and Religion: Understanding The Gangsta’s God. Dr. Utley’s new work examines what appears on first appearances to be contradictory-references to God in rap music. She deftly demonstrates through the pages of her book everything is not what it seems when it comes to rap and religion. Professor Utley is no stranger to difficult conversations as her research explores issues such as race, racism, gender, and relationships and marriage. In addition to her teaching Dr. Utley is a sought after public speaker and her writing has appeared in Black Women, Gender, and Families, Critical Studies in Media Communication, Huffington Post, Marriage and Family Review, Ms. Magazine, Truthdig, Religion Dispatches, and Women and Language.

HS: Dr. Utley would you share a little bit about your research interests and what led you to the subject of your book, Rap and Religion: Understanding the Gangsta’s God?

EU:I love black people and I have always been impressed with the black American experience and particularly interested in how African Americans use language to vie for power. As a scholar I have studied traditional political rhetoric, abolitionist rhetoric, civil rights discourse and black power discourse to figure out how African Americans have used language to advocate for more power in the public sphere. When I was considering something contemporary it lead me to my research on Hiphop. Hiphop is the place where young black people at the time were using language to tell other people about their experiences and to express their frustration and address stereotypes about black people. As a feminist you know that the personal is also political . . . so while examining personhood [the personal] one recognizes there are also stereotypes in interpersonal relationships.  There are stereotypes about black women being unlovable and black men being sexual studs.  I really wanted to spend some time doing romantic relationship work to examine these stereotypes. Because the research says there is love in Hiphop, there is love in African American relationships and African Americans do have unique definitions of marriage. It’s not that we can’t get married or don’t want to get married we just have a different historical relationship to marriage than the dominant population. I really wanted to shed some light on that as well but the unifying theme for me returns to the struggling for power, power over stereotypes and power over oneself and if you have been in a relationship you know that there are often power struggles within them as well and that is what draws me.

rnrbookHS: Very insightful. I had another thought related to something that is not specifically about your latest book, but still relates.  I wanted to acknowledge and appreciate your thoughtful response to the article “8 reasons why Black women should marry white men”. Your reply really addressed some of the layers in that kind of rhetoric and in some respects self-hate. Second, which may be connected to your current work is the theme of conversations around power and agency. In your book you write about agency and power. Do you see the gangsta persona in rap music as a source of agency and power, which to most people reads a lot different than how the rappers themselves may be applying it?

EU: Yes. I do think the gangsta personas are attempts at empowerment. They are also masks over vulnerability. I think any “gangsta” that has come from the hood that has seen people die around him or her before their time, has seen the effects of under-education, knows that there is no grocery store in walking distance from where they live, feels vulnerable, those kinds of experiences shape who you become. The experiences suggest that no one really cares, it suggest your government doesn’t care, that public policy doesn’t care, it suggests that investors don’t care and sometimes in unfortunate circumstances that even your family doesn’t care. The best way to cover that up, to feel like you are somebody, as Jesse Jackson would say, is to assume a gangsta persona. To get back at that establishment of institutionalized forces that are going to ignore you and sort of force the “gangsta” into those spaces. I think that God, outside of religious affiliation, serves this purpose because if God will ride or die for you who is going to take you? If only God can judge you, then you can do whatever you need to do. Having God on your side allows you to have that same cover over your vulnerability so you feel less vulnerable in the world and more powerful.

HS: That makes a lot of sense. Do you feel that since the publication of your book that you have been able to have more conversations about love and Hiphop? I ask because so often you only hear that Hiphop is sexist, misogynist, exploitative and there just does not seem to be any discussion of love.  However as you argue, as do some others, that part of understanding love and Hiphop is about context, or a lens, understanding how people are negotiating their own identities in ways that aren’t necessarily mainstream. As I read your book and other pieces you’ve written you are saying there is love. Are you finding that your book is helping to open up space for dialogue on love?

EU: I would like to say absolutely but the real answer is meh.  I haven’t had as many explicit conversations about love as I would like to, but my lens between God and love is that if you have a God in your life you then that God should help you love your strangers, family members, and yourself. If God isn’t doing those things for you then I don’t know how functional that God is. Outside of religion God should help you love yourself which is what I was saying before about vulnerability and this extends to your homies and your girls.

You do see a lot of that in rap music there is a lot of loyalty and commitment.  Yet the next level is dicey, like the strangers, the people you don’t really know. I don’t know if we have really gotten there in Hip hop; people feel like its too risky. To risk your heart is a very bold and courageous thing to do whether its an interpersonal relationship or communal relationships I don’t think we have arrived there yet. I’m more than willing to have that conversation. Maybe with the conversation about love in Hiphop I haven’t done as good a job showing the link between what is going on between rap and love. However on the B- side I have had wonderful conversations about identity and identity building. Almost every time I talk about the book I’m definitely talking about identity and how its shaped and formed. Also the social construction of God and how that is shaped and formed, these are conversations I certainly wanted to have and we are absolutely having.

HS: Having read some of your work I certainly think it opens up the space to have these conversations. Books like this are important because of the intellectual stretching they require us to do.

EU: I wanted to shift the conversation a bit. To younger readers, high school age or even younger who may not know of Hiphop beyond blogs and music gossip sites what would you say your book offers them?

The book offers them history. I participate in the Hiphop Ed twitter chat and a recent theme was respect for elders. We were talking about Drake being the worst perpetrator of elder disrespect. Drake said in an interview that he was the first rapper to successfully incorporate singing and rapping, and I was like have you heard of a group called the Fugees? So I think for the 16 year old there are a lot of things that they just don’t know because they have not been exposed to it, or they have been listening to mainstream, or are looking to Drake whatever the case may be.

My book offers them a real walk-through about specific rappers that have talked about God over that past 25 years. I hope they read the book with YouTube so they could look these people up, Google them, go to All Music Guide and look at the videos for what would be an ‘old school’ rapper to them.  It is funny to see 50 Cent as an old school rapper it was just 2003 when he came out, I hope the book helps to contextualize history. I think this is important because we tend to think of rap as a youthful genre but you have artists who are in their early 40s Like L [L.L.Cool J] Nas or Jay Z so its not an oxymoron to think of a historical perspective on rap music.

HS: These are all very good reasons to read the book in addition to the topic itself and we would encourage everyone to get a hold of a copy and begin having discussions about the book. Dr. Utley has some suggestions on her website about how to get access to the book.

Dr. Utley before we wrap things up, I’m interested in your thoughts as an educator and Hiphop researcher on recent things happening with some youth in Chicago, IL. A somewhat recent trend that some are calling “drill music” is leaving a harmful legacy. Young people no more than teens are caught up in beefs that result in fights and in some instances death, as was the unfortunate case of Joseph “ Lil Jo Jo” Coleman.

Essentially young people looking for a record deal and a life of fame and wealth are posting self-produced videos of their songs on YouTube hoping for thousands of viewers and the interest of a major label. Instead many are finding more problems than prosperity. From first impressions it seems this music has lost that sense of spiritual agency and power and is solely focused on material access.  Do you have any thoughts on this?

EU: I have a special affinity for Chicago. It is a city that sort of grew me up and made me into the woman I am today. I am devastated by what is happening there. I have not seen the YouTube videos about the drill music but I have seen the documentary The Interrupters [a documentary about Chicago gang violence by director/producer Steve James] it suggests to me that Chicago is a place that has nothing to offer young people, clearly. I hate when people suggest it is an individual problem that is going on in Chicago, no it is a systemic problem and Chicago has had systemic political issues since the first Daley era. Emmanuel [Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel] has done nothing to eliminate it. He was on the news recently saying, “oh yes there is violence in Chicago but it doesn’t affect the majority of the residents” what that means is it does not affect White people so you aren’t going to do anything about it and when he is pushed on the subject he says they are going to bring in more federal officers. That is not an answer.

Having more police on the street is not keeping children in school and then when Chicago teachers go on strike the conservative response is, “well these teachers need to teach these children and should not strike”. When what these teachers are attempting to do is create a situation that provides better resources for them to be able to do what they need to do. If you have teens producing these drill music videos on YouTube that is because they feel they having nothing else to live for, that schools are not teaching them anything that college is not an option, they will not have a job and probably won’t live past fifteen. This is why you have twelve year olds acting as mini adults because they do not see a viable future for themselves. Unemployment rates are incredibly high in Chicago as the weather got warmer fast this summer the murder rates increased.

All of this started when they got rid of public housing and started dispersing people all across the city with no real plan. This is obviously problematic but nobody cares because the city was more focused on making room for investors in these prime real estate locations. So you spread these black people out in communities where they end up door to door with people who do not share the same affiliation, and no resources; it is a disaster waiting to happen. This is a problem that has been in the making for the past twenty-five, thirty years. Yet it comes out in the press as these young black kids, because it is always some black kids, who don’t have anything to live for because they are vile, amoral and their parents should have taken better care of them. This argument holds no sway with me. I think these situations can go either way, it can go in the direction of “I have nothing to live for dear God please help me” or “ I have nothing to live for, fuck it I’m already in hell”.

Chicago has been here before with previous gangs but now it is not just about drugs or money, at least then, albeit flawed, it was about something. This is much more sophisticated nihilism. I don’t know why some of the elders in Chicago don’t see this. Something needs to change and I don’t know that it will until the violence starts spreading out to other communities. Until the Mayor decides to do something I do not know that we will see any institutionalized changes.

Is it the music’s responsibility to help elevate the situation? Lupe Fiasco is doing something and Common will probably make more public statements about his city. Kanye. . . well when he is not rapping about oral sex he does talk about Chicago, but it’s not the rappers responsibility to shift these institutionalized problems with the schools, prisons, the economic and political systems. While the music could do more and I think it should, we all need to take these issues more seriously.

HC: Dr. Utley thank you for your time and work. As we close the interview do you have any final words for our readers?

EU: As Dead Prez has said it’s bigger than Hiphop. The reason I do research on Hiphop and write about it because it is an excellent opportunity to talk about what is good for us, and what ails us. For example with our conversation, it allows us to talk about violence and institutionalized racism in a city like Chicago.

For people who are quick to dismiss Hiphop as misogynistic, where else are we going to open up conversations about misogyny and music without Hiphop opening that door? People complain about Nikki Minaj but I see it as an opportunity to talk about the feminine masculine and why women feel like they need to appropriate masculine characteristics to be successful. Hiphop allows us the space to have important conversations.

Can you imagine going up to a sixteen year old and saying hi do you suffer from a crisis of masculinity? The music allows us to have these conversations. It also can encourage people to think about Hiphop differently. You don’t have to simply be a rapper you could be a Hiphop scholar, writing about the music and culture that you love. You could be an attorney, professor, a social worker or psychologist who uses Hiphop therapy. There are so many avenues to use the genre that you love to advocate for good.

HC: Dr Utley Thank you so much again for your time