AT FIRST GLANCE, the phrase “holy hip-hop” seems like a writer’s clever mash-up of terms that often carry contradictory associations — the orderliness of sanctuary juxtaposed with the wild concrete jungle. But hip-hop is nothing short of sacred for its millions of fans and cultural participants across the globe. For me, hip-hop is entirely holy. I was “saved” by it in my adolescence. By the time I was 12, I had been expelled from four schools for violence and promoting gang activities. On the verge of my fifth expulsion, I was sent to a boot camp where instructors helped students find “more productive outlets” for our energy. Listening to hip-hop helped me discover mine.

People turn to the church to find that peace, value systems that one can live by and feel proud of. In this way, hip-hop is my church. “Ghetto Gospel,” “Thugz Mansion,” and “PRIDE,” are hymns more familiar to me than those of any major world religion. On Sundays, I listen to Tupac, Kendrick, OutKast, Biggie Smalls; the congregation spits more than it hums. God enters the room through the subwoofers.

Because of my relationship to hip-hop, I was both excited and intrigued immediately by the title of Christina Zanfagna’s Holy Hip Hop in the City of Angels, a thoughtful examination of the development of Los Angeles’s hip-hop culture as it “sounds out” the political, social, economic, and physical eruptions that have pushed so many black and brown Angelenos to spiritual, ideological, and physical conversions, both in the church and the streets. As the site of the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots, the 1965 Watts Riots, and the Los Angeles Uprising in 1992 — a city in which black folks are five times as likely to be arrested than their white counterparts and three times more likely to be killed by police — Southern California remains a microcosm of black experiences in America.

Though Zanfagna’s work focuses on hip-hop in Los Angeles, she carefully recounts the story of hip-hop’s origin from the Bronx; highlighting the similarities between the conditions of New York’s crack epidemic and those of the explosion of gang and police violence in Los Angeles, with the response of the respective black communities to each crisis. Though the particulars of each story is unique, the violence and poverty of 1970s New York and the 1990s escalation of the War on Drugs both gave birth to musical forms as a mode of storytelling and catharsis for the affected people.

If one imagines holy hip-hop as a major response to these events, one could argue that nearly all hip-hop is, as the writer defines, a “musical practice used to articulate both a spiritual and social conception of self.” Spirituals served a similarly expressive purpose for those enslaved on plantations, as did the blues for Southern blacks during Jim Crow. Black Americans have always invented or innovated modes of expression and worship in a language that would ensure their safety. The slaves sang in coded language. They gathered in secret. Jazz clubs became a haven for New Yorkers during the Harlem Renaissance. Basements and warehouse parties were where B-boys and DJs could hide among the faithful. In this way, contemporary hip-hop is a continuation of a long tradition in black music.

Indeed, the writer notes in her introduction that there are no “specific sonic signifiers that distinguish holy hip-hop from ‘secular’ rap.” At least part of the reason for this is presented in the text. Zanfagna explains that in addition to the state-sanctioned segregation — which continues to the present day through redlining and unfair housing practices — “increased poverty and unemployment, gang violence, police brutality, mass incarceration, [and] intergenerational social alienation” drive black and brown folks to hip-hop as a vehicle to find “spiritual salvation, artistic expression, financial opportunity, and local community.”

To affirm these claims, one need only look to artists like rapper-turned-pastor Mase, or Young Jeezy, street entrepreneur and self-proclaimed “trap star.” Jeezy rose to fame in the early 2000s alongside Gucci Mane, Rick Ross, T.I., and a host of rappers whose lyrics center on and celebrate hustling, selling drugs — what they dubbed “trapping” — as a means of transcendence from the United States’s “trap” to keep black youth uneducated, in poverty, or incarcerated.

Though T.I. is credited with and most known for popularizing trap music, his religiosity is present on nearly every album, whether in tracks “Prayin for Help” or, when his time comes, hoping he’ll “Live in the Sky.” Ross’s debut album, Port of Miami, literally ends with “Prayer.” One of Jeezy’s most recent albums, Church in These Streets, finds the artist in a state of confession and repentance for the souls lost to the streets. It seems apparent that even the rappers whose public image is primarily associated with stereotypical ideas of money, drugs, cars, and clothes maintain a level of spiritual awareness. That’s not to suggest that Zanfagna is misinformed. The opposite is true. Her work is comprehensive and thoroughly insightful. Rather, in the words of poet and essayist Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, “What I’m mostly saying is that I know of no secular black people.”

Not unlike the devout Christian or Catholic who accepts their inherently sinful nature as a step toward salvation, the pioneers of trap music understand the limitations white supremacy imposes on black bodies, while asserting their agency through their commitment to economic freedom and ceaseless joy.

Even rappers like Nipsey Hussle or Mozzy, who are most associated with their gang-centric, often violent lyrics, are almost constantly negotiating their concern for spiritual virtue against the limited options presented to them for survival. Nipsey, a known and respected member of Los Angeles’s 60s Crip set, puts his “Right Hand 2 God” on the final track of his most recent album, Victory Lap. Nip makes it clear he wants to “Hussle & Motivate,” while also reminding his listeners that they “got a soul to save.” Mozzy’s 1 Up Top Ahk is a direct reference to God, or rather, “the dude above.” Throughout the album, he laments the “days [he] forgets to pray,” and recalls relatives encouraging him to seek solace in church.

Georgia-born rapper and Kanye West ghostwriter Cyhi the Prynce opens the title track of his debut album, No Dope on Sundays, with an excerpt from the Gospel of Luke and some personal musings: “They say gangsters don’t pray. I beg to differ. […] We pray every night to make it out of this hell we stuck in.” In fact, Khanchuz, one of the primary subjects in Zanfagna’s ethnography, is a former L.A. gang member who was a rapper before he converted and began to “bang for Christ.”

The question I kept circling while I read seemed to refract Zanfagna’s own inquiry: what exactly makes “holy hip-hop” holy? While the church has historically been a center for community building in the black community, hip-hop has traditionally served related purposes. From hip-hop’s earliest moments, DJs like Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa were most concerned with advocating for the sociopolitical and economic freedom of black people and creating safe spaces for black people to congregate and thrive. Kool Herc’s original invitations promised “a fun safe time” to any partygoer. Though I’m not sure there were ever any ordained ministers present, I imagine those original block parties to be no less holy than an Easter Sunday service. I don’t mean that people were absolved of their blackness the way sinners are absolved of wrongdoing, but instead that they were liberated; they could “come as you are,” and be loved for being so.

Zanfagna engages with this liberation most in the chapter “Roads to Zion,” which is probably my favorite in the book. As she ties up her study, the writer highlights and explores hip-hop’s diasporic elements, particularly its coalescence of Muslim, Christian, and Rastafarian religious practices in the continuous search for “Zion,” or “Babylon.” Zion — like the ambiguous North the slaves sought, or Martin Luther King Jr.’s “promised land” — demonstrates the common pursuit of liberation across formerly colonized and enslaved peoples. Zanfagna agrees with Jacqueline Nassy Brown’s assertion that place is an “abstraction, not a set of physical properties.” Thus, finding one’s place in this world, or indeed one’s peace can require invisible conversions, both spiritual and ideological. For people like Khanchuz, converting street corners and alleyways into worship spaces is an act of spiritual self-preservation. His only route to God must be invented. Because he stopped banging, he is no longer accepted in his old streets, but his appearance and musical style leave him excluded from the church as well. Holy hip-hop offers him something nothing else can: sanctuary.

Historically, American Christian ideologies have been deeply rooted in respectability politics that deem blackness — especially blackness as it is commonly presented in hip-hop — unacceptable or inappropriate for a place of worship. This is true even in some black churches.

Though black churches in America were originally established as centers of black community, they were also born because white folks didn’t want black people to worship in their spaces. Unfortunately, the same respectability politics that governed the white church carried into black spaces of worship and serve to generate internal racism within black communities. When arguing for abolition, or speaking out against lynchings, or protesting for civil rights, black people have often worked to demonstrate their adherence to what America defines at the time as “good Christian” values in the hopes that that these traits could yield them real freedom and fair treatment by the government. Unfortunately, that myth persists, which is why rappers like Khanchuz and many — maybe all — black Americans are searching for and building spaces that Pac described as “a spot where we can kick it, where we belong, that’s just for us.”

Perhaps one of the best things about Holy Hip Hop in the City of Angels is that it doesn’t offer solutions to the complex social, political, and spiritual challenges that gave birth to holy hip-hop. There is no point at which the author turns to the reader — or to her subjects — to suggest some action. Zanfagna’s book is demonstrably aware of the injustices that permeate black existence, but to argue policy means to turn away from the victim to the perpetrator. Instead, Zanfagna observes, listens, and records. This book — like the church, or hip-hop itself — embraces its congregation. It says: “I see you. I feel you. We’re in this together.”

¤

Frank Johnson is a poet and essayist born and raised in East Las Vegas. He’s currently an MFA candidate at UNLV, where he is working on his debut book of poems.