State Speaks: Associate professor Roy Whitaker on religion, hip-hop and atheism

by Staff

THE DAILY AZTEC: The Daily Aztec previously profiled you as the “hip hop” atheist, what does this title mean to you?

ROY WHITAKER: This is really interesting, coming full circle! What had happened is that after The Daily Aztec initially interviewed me, and I’m not sure where the “hip-hop atheist” name came from, somehow they found out about my research. What had ended up happening was, I believe, an editorial decision. So I never claimed that title for myself. I can understand why the author did that, because I teach a course in atheism, where I make an argument for atheism within religious studies, and I also teach about hip-hop and it’s connection to religion, so I believe they put two and two together.

DA: So, do you identify as an atheist?

RW: Within my own journey, I have flirted with the idea of atheism as a live option, and I’m very interested and convinced by the arguments presented by atheism. However, I wouldn’t call myself an atheist because I don’t want to do an injustice to those who call themselves an atheist in the capital-A sense. To be more exact, I consider myself a religious humanist, and part of being a religious humanist is open to an understanding of an ultimate reality that is there. In terms of my own metaphysical views, I wouldn’t be a traditional atheist either. However, if I outlined the basics of what I believe, I think these are human constructions.

DA: Is religion more of a philosophy or a cultural entity, rather than spiritual?

RW: I think religion provides an orientation to the world. People are able to reconnect, with that which is the source of all. In some respects, it is the philosophical approach to life. I also believe in religion as a cultural force. I think most atheists agree with me, that religion provides a narrative to understand where we came from, where we’re at and where we’re going to go, as a community.

However, there can be someone who’s an irreligious Catholic. So you can work within the framework of a religion and push up against ideologies you may not agree with. What this says is that I may not believe with what my religion tells me, but I do believe in specific aspects, maybe the aesthetics of religion. I can appreciate the aesthetics of religion, I can appreciate the art that’s been produced and even the love produced within these communities.

DA: Is there a fear that atheism is becoming anti-theistic, or anti-religion?

RW: I think very much so. Atheism as a construction where there is no God, so inherently there is going to be this notion that an atheist is anti-theist. However, not necessarily so. The term itself, is to not have a god, does not mean to be anti-a-god, it means something as simply as “I don’t have a class today.” That’s what an atheist is. But there are versions of positive atheism, where they do deny god. So there are rings within atheism that do deny that the god exists. However, there is nuance within the atheist community.

DA: What are the connections between religion and hip-hop?

RW: Many religious studies have been about text-based or tradition-based. So what’s happening recently is that religious scholars like myself are saying, wait a minute, maybe we can go toward pop culture and see issues we’re dealing with in religious studies.

Often we ask about what was going on thousands of years ago, but few ask what’s going on in New York with Latinos, African-Americans, Jewish kids and white kids? What was happening while summer was going on? When there’s two turn-tables and a microphone, and they host these block parties and let’s bring in some funk; some James Brown and they fused all of this together into something that they didn’t know at the time would become the most important international movements — which is hip-hop.

They had the rapper, the DJ, the dancers, and the graffiti artists. These are the key four elements of hip-hop. Then, you look at more contemporary artists, like Kanye West and “Jesus Walks,” or TuPac and Nas, talking about the “thug mansion” and what it’s like to live in heaven, in the afterlife. Tupac is going to address the issues of death and dying.

So it’s pushing up against the grain of traditional thinking of religion. This is part of the history in how many of us are dealing with connecting hip-hop and religion together, and learning how hip-hop artists are constructing religion within their own framework.

Many of us can make the argument, whether it be the rapper, the DJ, the graffiti artist or the dancers, that it becomes their spiritual outlet — hip-hop can be understood as a legitimate religion.