Back in 2004, Kanye West still thought Christ was controversial. "They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus," he griped on his single "Jesus Walks." "That means gun, sex, lies, videotape, but if I talk about God my record won't get played?"
It turns out the answer to that question was "no": "Jesus Walks" got played plenty, becoming West's fourth top-20 hit in the U.S. That fact may partly explain why he's gone all-in on the Christ talk for his new album, right down to its title, Yeezus. Track No. 3, for example, is named "I Am a God" and features the Chicago superstar bragging about hanging out with the Son of God: "I know he the most high / But I am a close high."
Anyone who's tuned out pop culture in the time since John Lennon caused an uproar by calling the Beatles "bigger than Jesus" might be surprised to hear that there's been relatively little controversy over West's recent self-association with Christ. But the truth is that its claims of divinity are one of the less-shocking things about Yeezus. Rap has been producing would-be messiahs for decades, a symptom of the genre's cultural origins, underdog ethos, and fixation on status.
Hip hop's god complex likely began in the '80s with acts affiliated with the Five Percent Nation, a Harlem-based Nation of Islam offshoot furthering Louis Farrakhan's Afrocentricism. Their doctrine immortalized the black man as God, the black woman as Earth, and reinterpreted Allah and Islam as acronyms for "Arm Leg Leg Arm Head" and "I Self Lord Am Master" respectively. Rakim, a teenage convert and one-half of the pioneering Long Island duo Eric B. & Rakim, often went by "Rakim Allah" or even just "The God" in accordance with followers' practice of referring to one another as "Gods." Given further traction by major-label acts such as Brand Nubian, "Peace, God" became a convention, even a cliché, among East Coast rappers by the early 1990s.
When West proclaims "I am a God," however, he's sending a different message than the Five Percenters. "Gods of the Five Percent Nation have a gnostic theology: They believe that there is no invisible God, but that each black man is god of his own universe--his personal life and family," says Felicia Miyakawa, an associate professor of musicology at Middle Tennessee State University and author of Five Percenter Rap: God Hop's Music, Message, and Black Muslim Mission."They don't say 'I am a God,' they say 'I am God.'"
Christ enters as a self-referential rap figure in the mid-1990s. Around the same time Ol' Dirty Bastard started calling himself as "Big Baby Jesus," Tupac Shakur's 1996 album The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory raised eyebrows with a cover featuring an artist's rendering of Shakur hanging from a crucifix -- a picture lent poignancy by his murder shortly before the album's release date. Hoping to seize a throne vacated by Shakur and fellow slain icon The Notorious B.I.G., Queens rapper Nas (who has also collaborated with West) recorded a video for "Hate Me Now," the second single from his 1999 album I Am..., featuring him affixed to the cross at Golgotha.
Although Nas's early music is sprinkled with its share of "Peace, God"s, his 2002 album and a none-too-subtle abdominal tattoo would subsequently label him God's Son, while the cover of 2005's Street's Disciple places him in the seat of honor in a reimagining of da Vinci's "The Last Supper."
The most controversial hip-hop-and-Jesus moments have typically involved images, not words. A decade after the Don Killuminati album art, criticism broke out when West posed with a crown of thorns for a 2006 Rolling Stone cover. Just last year, Catholic groups reportedly objected to the planned packaging for The Game's Jesus Piece, which portrays a black Jesus wearing a red bandana in a stained glass window flanked by marijuana leaves. One reason for these outcries might by that rap-Jesus visuals not only seem sacrilegious, but upend the common Western vision of a Caucasian Christ, says Edward Blum, an associate professor of history at San Diego State University and co-author of The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America.
"When African American performers present themselves as Jesus it can be disturbing to many because of an ingrained sense that Jesus had white skin, brown or blond hair, and blue or brown eyes," says Blum. Hip hop's reputation as a violent and misogynist genre may also play a role. "For many Americans, their imagined Jesus is humble and peaceful, sexually chaste, and against overt greed," he says.
But the idea here goes deeper than mere provocation. "When hip hop artists deploy the Christ image or story for their own purposes, they tap into a long history of everyday African Americans trying to maintain belief in the Christian God with the realities of their oppression," Blum says, citing W. E. B. Du Bois, Howard Thurman, and James Cone. The Christ archetype has resonated with Nas, West, and Shakur's personae because of their humble beginnings and the persecution they perceived from media and competitors in the rap landscape. Their music claims martyrdom by communicating that these rappers would do sacrifice anything to have their voices heard and messages spread. As Blum says, "For hip hop artists, the resurrection stands not simply as vindication, but as hoped-for promise. They can rise from poverty, obscurity, media attacks, and economic setbacks to tell their stories and spread 'the word.'"
This motive is particularly relevant in Shakur's case, not only because of his death but also due to his obsession with his own mortality, apparent on songs with titles like "If I Die 2Nite," "Bury Me a G," and "How Long Will They Mourn Me?" "It's worth noting that Tupac, whose mother was involved with the Black Panthers, was likely steeped in Black Nationalist rhetoric," Miyakawa says. "There's a long tradition of messianic figures in Black Nationalism."
Hip hop stars' proclivity toward Christ characters might also be traced back to the music's very roots. The genre still thrives on the machismo of rap battles, and self-aggrandizement remains an important part of the rap toolbox. "Boss," "master," "chief," "king" are all common titles rappers have given themselves over the years. But Christianity, America's dominant religion, recognizes only one "King of Kings." It makes sense that the famously self-impressed West, who brags about his achievements like few others can, would eventually equate himself with that honorific. After all, his friend Jay-Z has long asserted himself as a higher power by calling himself Hova, a shortening of Jehovah. At a New York album release party, West reportedly told an assembly, "West was my slave name, and Yeezus is my god name." The most shocking thing about that statement may simply be he hadn't made it years ago.