When Dr. Anthony B. Pinn and Prof. Bernard Freeman (better known as Bun B) began teaching their Hip-Hop and Religion course at Rice University in 2011, there were a few goals in mind. Of course, they wanted pupils to become more knowledgeable on the topics of hip-hop and religion, but it was also a means to enhance students’ critical thinking skills to ask good questions and demand good answers. The course is the brainchild of Dr. Pinn, professor of religious studies at Rice. In his past life, he was a Christian theologian, but he now identifies as a non-theistic humanist, a label some would categorize as atheism. “I’ve been an academic for 22 years, but I’ve been a fan of hip-hop for much longer,” explained Dr. Pinn. “It only made sense to me, to bring into the classroom a form of cultural expression that meant a great deal to me and to my students. They boil hip-hop down to its worst elements and don’t see its complexity. Once you get folks to see the complexity of hip-hop, it’s much easier for them to understand why it’s so important to wrestle with it in college and university classes.”

During the course, Dr. Pinn and Prof. Freeman lecture to the class about hip-hop and religion separately, and then explore ways in which they meet. For example, rappers use scripture and religious rhetoric, such as Kanye West’s allusions to Jesus, Pastor Troy’s name, and the Wu-Tang Clan’s use of Five Percenter lingo (i.e. “son, “god,” “peace,” etc.). However, being a college course, the professors were restricted to only 200 students. In an effort to expand, this past semester, Rice offered Dr. Pinn and Bun B’s course online to the public for free (unless enrollees opted to pay $25 for the certificate of completion) in a six-week course. The scholar and rapper became “fishers of men,” trying to lure lifelong learners (without the time or means to attend the class at Rice) regardless of whether they were hip-hop fans, loathers, or indifferent.

One of the first to bite was Jesse McDaniel, better known as Dallas rapper Jesse Is Heavyweight. Jesse enrolled in the course as a means to perfect his craft: rapping. He learned of the course while prepping his new album, Gravy Train: An American Success Story, the follow-up to his Sony debut album, So Southern. This go-round, Jesse wanted to approach the project with a more worldly perspective in order to bring his following a more quality product. “I kind of wanted to really go into my bag and create a classic album,” said Jesse. “I wanted to do the proper due diligence. I knew I had to take advantage.” It was also an opportunity to learn about hip-hop from one of his idols growing up in Texas, Bun B.

Jesse identifies as a devout Southern Baptist Christian, and while some would be turned off by learning about religion from a non-believer, he was open to it. “Some people could say this is blasphemous, but without free-thought, there is no progress,” he said.

As to the rigor of the course, Dr. Pinn said, “It’s not a listening lab.” After hearing lectures, watching videos and reviewing the required readings (all available for free), students had to write various essays answering questions like, “What do religion and hip-hop have in common? How do you see religion and hip-hop offering similar options for the making of life’s meaning?” which they graded themselves. While this might intimidate some, Jesse wasn’t shook. He was used to college-level work from when he was a philosophy major at Howard University (after turning down a scholarship to Rice), the place where he started his Heavyweight Entertainment imprint with comrades and his rap career took off. “Going to Howard, I learned the importance of education, information, and going to class and learning things,” Jesse said.

Of the many lessons learned in class, the topic that resonated with Jesse the most was the concept of “complex subjectivity.” Dr. Pinn defines this as humans’ quest to make life meaningful. “In religion, if you pull away all the scriptures, doctrines, creeds, and rituals, what you are left with is the effort of humans to find meaning,” waxed Dr. Pinn. “Hip-hop, like traditional forms of religion, is a vehicle folks use to try to make life meaningful. How does it try to make life meaningful? By giving folks a moral and ethical code for living, a way for being in relationships with other folks, a way of ritualizing success, and a way of mourning life. Hip-hop gives us a road map for working through life.”

Jesse listened, read, and wrote and found that hip-hop can, in itself, be a religion, or a vessel to finding meaning in life. In Jesse’s own life, hip-hop has certainly made life meaningful. In sixth grade, he wrote the official school song rap for Mark Twain Elementary, and from there, it’s been hip-hop for Jesse. “For me, personally, I’ve been deep in this longer than I can remember. I was immersed in it from day one,” said Jesse. “Even to this day, people ask [me] about hip-hop. It’s a way of life for so many people, and it has been for so long. I can’t imagine life without hip-hop. You could say, hip-hop has made life meaningful more so than the Church to a lot of people.”

“I can’t imagine life without hip-hop. You could say, hip-hop has made life meaningful more so than the Church to a lot of people.” —Jesse is heavyweight

Jesse sees people like himself who have used the rules of the hip-hop game to win in life. “If you attack things from a hip-hop mind state, you excel in the corporate world. You see that when you see artists like 50 Cent or Jay Z or Puff Daddy or Jermaine Dupri. They won because hip-hop molded their sensibilities,” he surmised. Conversely, he felt, “At the same time, it’s taken lives, too. I can’t negate that. That’s why this course is interesting, because it can be kind of polarizing due to the negative effect hip-hop has had on the culture and society.”

The semester has concluded, and Dr. Pinn and Bun B are planning for the future of the course. It is unknown whether Rice will approve the online course again for next semester, but the professors truly believe in the subject matter and will keep trying to find ways to bring it to the people. “These are two cultural developments that folks generally don’t put together,” said Dr. Pinn. “They think these two are very different moral and ethical worlds. We wanted to point out that they share a lot. We also wanted to show that hip-hop culture has done heavy lifting not only in entertainment; it’s provided strategies for living.”

As for Jesse, he will frame his certificate when it comes and use the knowledge he received to deliver substantive material from an informed standpoint. He sees Dr. Pinn as a harbinger-of-sorts. “I don’t like to throw this word around, but I think Dr. Pinn is a genius for putting these things together. He’s like the John the Baptist of this thing,” proclaimed Jesse.

“I walked away from this course knowing that, as an MC, I’m more of a prophet. My fans are more like the congregation. My team are more like disciples,” laughed Jesse. “I think about being a young man in South Oak Cliff, Dallas, Texas, listening to Bun B and Pimp C on K104 in the middle of the day, trying to figure out what life is, and I’m listening and I’m learning how to be a man out here. The lives they influenced, they go on to be people like me that release albums and get endorsement deals. You never know what seeds you’re planting, and planting seeds is what life is all about.” He added, “If you’re a rapper and know that as a result, you’re a prophet, now you gotta say something good. Now, you’re like, 'Bun! You a prophet outchea, breh!'

Ryan K. Smith can be found talking about God knows what on Twitter at @MeWeFree.

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