Telling the story of the King with the local voices of the street

I am increasingly aware that many people in our area are non-literate people.  Not illiterate, but non-literate.  They can read, but they do not read.  They primarily get their information and ideas from non-literate sources.  Music is one of these key non-literate sources.  Music and literature are two totally different types of source materials.  As a result the way they are taken up and inform the cultural stories told in our neighbourhoods are vastly different.

While never replacing the Bible as a source document I think we need to recover some of these other forms of communication so that people might hear the gospel in their own language and cultural form.  Just as Bible translation (hearing the Bible in their own language) is a key component of mission work everywhere, so perhaps we need to reconsider supplementary modes of communicating that truth.   Hearing the gospel in their own cultural forms of communication.  Cultures throughout history have shaped their culture and understanding of the world through story-telling, music, artwork and drama.  As evangelicals we have often been too shy to seriously and robustly engage in other, non-literate, modes of communication lest we downplay the centrality and significance of the Scriptures. We must resist the temptation to reduce this to an either-or shoot out between faithfulness to Scripture and appropriating new cultural forms.  The reality I suspect is a far more dynamic and integrated process.

One surprising mode of alternative communication that is gaining ground in reformed circles is hip-hop and spoken word.  As a young man this was (and I still is in many ways) my meat and drink.  I resonated deeply with the rhythms, the lyrics, the substance and the edginess of hip-hop and more particularly of late spoken word.

“In the early 1970s a musical genre was born in the crime-ridden neighbourhoods of the South Bronx. Gifted teenagers with plenty of imagination but little cash began to forge a new style from spare parts. Hip-hop, as it was then known, was a product of pure streetwise ingenuity; extracting rhythms and melodies from existing records and mixing them up with searing poetry chronicling life in the ‘hood.” (Kurtis Blow: The History of Rap)

Hip-hop became the  voice of a generation that refused to be silenced by urban poverty, injustice or lack of access to the resources of the music industry.  Instead it became the voice of the streets.  Young black men and women who had no voice for their social and political concerns in a society still ravaged by racism and injustice, created their own voice.

Hip-hop became the voice of the disenfranchised streets.  Using complex wordplay and socio-political commentary it spoke to the fears, the anger and the world of the marginalised youth.  It gave young people a voice, a sound that belonged to them and began a movement that spoke to their harsh, edgy and yet hopeful, world.  While most of the history of rap and hip-hop will reference the DJ’s, the clubs and the records produced, perhaps the true impact was in the thousands of crews that grew up all over neighbourhoods of New York (and then spreading to other cities and countries), finding their voice and forging local communities gathered to celebrate the sharing of their stories through their unique mode of communication.  A mode of communication that  embodied their language, their joy, their pain… their story.

While the world has moved on… dramatically so.  The internet for one has dramatically changed how we receive, tell and hear the stories of our world.  But for all the good of globalisation I wonder if we have lost something significant when we lose our local stories and our local story-tellers.  Hip-hop as a vehicle for our stories and our hopes and our frustrations has not died in my neighbourhood, despite what the superstars have done to it. But too often we no longer tell our local stories, we no longer have our local MC’s, our local crews or B-boys that tell our stories.  Its far too easy to plug in your iPod and download other stories, slick, well-produced and mostly insipid stories.  But what if we dreamed of our local stories again?  What if we dreamed of finding ways to tell our local stories  again?  What if we rediscovered these modes of telling our stories and infused them not only with our small stories but the greater bigger and altogether more glorious gospel story?

What if among other cultural forms hip-hop and spoken word could become a powerful tool to reclaim place as a powerful component of our stories?  And what if we recovered place as a powerful component of telling the gospel story?  Not merely the gospel as some esoteric disembodied set of principles but as the true gospel, the good news for these people in this place.  The God of all the earth wishes to bring good news to this people in this place through his “new-life people” as they tell his story through all available means, making sense of the one true and great story, by translating it into the language and communication modes of this people in this place.

I know it is not local but I love the work these guys are doing in using appropriate cultural modes in order to retell God’s story.  Perhaps this can inspire some of us to dream about what it could look like to tell our story of His Story here in the East City…

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