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Professor Trill

Bun B examines hip hop and religion in his Rice U course

"Don't you think this is a bit much?" Bun B inquires in his baritone voice.

It's 71 degrees in Houston and a throng of journalists is jostling for position inside Rice University's Duncan Hall, all waiting to pick the brain of Distinguished Lecturer Bernard Freeman, known to most as Bun B.

He was expecting two or three journalists (including this one), but a miscommunication between his handlers has tripled the tally. "Why did they have to travel all the way down here?" wonders the rapper. "We could have done all this over the phone."

Bun has just finished co-teaching "Religious Studies 331: Religion and Hip-Hop Culture" to 250 students as part of a curricular initiative known as Houston Enriches Rice Education (H.E.R.E.). He's tired, famished and facing a familiar conundrum: If he stays, ten more minutes could turn into ten hours. If he walks away, these media wolves will paint him as a mean bastard. Lose-lose.

He leans back in his seat and mulls his options. Eventually, he decides to field questions for about 40 minutes and reschedules the remaining interviews. Bun gets to refuel his chambers. The journalists get their story. Win-win.

Not only is Bun B versed in the media game, he's also a rapper's rapper. His peers think very highly of him. In a recent Houston Press poll of other Texas rappers, Bun B was unofficially elected Governor of the Lone Star State. J. Cole also paid homage on the 2010 track "Bun B for President."

Dr. Anthony B. Pinn, who heads the H.E.R.E. project, is thoroughly enamored of his teaching partner.

"Not only is he a tremendous figure in hip-hop culture," says Dr. Pinn, "he's such a deep and thoughtful thinker. In addition to the skills and talents he brings in terms of deep thoughts and his status within the hip-hop culture, we just had quite a connection."

Pinn and Bun established a rapport after the rapper gave a guest lecture in his class two years ago. "I knew I would be cheating myself and my students if we didn't figure out a way for him to have fuller engagement," Pinn says.

Pinn, who grew up in Buffalo, New York, has a gift for instant connection himself: Great eye contact, a confident smile, earnest charm. As a young college student with big aspirations, he shaped his identity through an art form then gestating in New York City.

"My early formation as an academic, as a black man and as a citizen of the United States was shaped through hip-hop," says Dr. Pinn. "Hip-hop provided me with the vocabulary to understand what was taking place in the world and to articulate my demands."

Pinn tapped Bun B to give young Houstonians what he enjoyed as a young man. "Our concern is to get Rice off campus and get Houston on campus," he says. "So, with Bun B co-teaching this course, we bring in the expertise, the talent, the cultural prowess of Houston to the classroom and rethink education."

At exactly 2:03 p.m., Bun B meets the Houston Press at The Brochstein Pavilion, a small, seductive glass box where students and faculty hang out on campus. Bun sets down his backpack, sinks into one of the sprightly chairs and joins the music of noisy souls chattering in the coffee shop.

Bun B's journey to the classroom started in his Southern Baptist Port Arthur home. Young Bernard and his brothers were ushers at the church. Their father, a deacon, made Sunday service a requirement at the Freeman household.

"My parents wanted to make sure I had a spiritual background before I got out into this world," says Bun.

His religious background notwithstanding, Bun wondered if he was qualified to teach faith in the classroom. "I think that spoke more to the religious aspect of the course as opposed to the hip-hop aspect," he says.

"I was certain that I was capable of conveying hip-hop. I wasn't sure of how the argument was going to relate to religion. But once Dr. Pinn gave me his definition of religion within the context of the course, it made more sense."

Dr. Pinn defines religion as a quest for greater life meaning. "Religion at its core is wrestling with the big questions of life — who, what, when, why we are," he says.

"Sometimes that gets expressed in institutional forms: Christianity, Judaism, Islam. But it doesn't always. Our argument is that hip-hop culture is one of the most important public wrestlings over these questions to take place in the 20th century."

His definition of religion creates a vein of existentialism that opens the door for endless possibilities. The walls of righteousness that have always made hip-hop an easy scapegoat disappear in Dr. Pinn and Professor Bun's class.

Where Bun B sees a connection between hip-hop and religion, casual observers may see a contradiction between the two worlds. But that's missing the point.

"We're not talking about hip-hop and religion being the same," says Professor Trill. "We're showing instances where hip-hop and religion have the same goals and ideology in common within the context of the culture. Of course, this doesn't relate to everything that hip-hop is, because everything that hip-hop is isn't necessarily religious."

Essentially, hip-hop is a reflection of the human dichotomy that exists in all walks of life: The philandering preacher who saves a couple's marriage through counseling, the drug dealer who puts his nephew through medical school, the crooked cop who talks a teenager out of suicide.

Like everything else, there are some instances where religion comes in sharp contrast with hip-hop.

"You can always pick the worst example out of an element, use that to represent the element, and say that that is what the element is. That's what people are doing with hip-hop," Bun explains. "They're taking the worst example of expression and entertainment in hip-hop and using that as a litmus test, so to speak, to basically say that all hip-hop is like this."

What critics overlook is that hip-hop and religion have never been mutually exclusive. Prominent rappers like Freeway and Lupe Fiasco are also devout Muslims. Hasidic Jew Matisyahu came into prominence by merging hip-hop and spirituality. Wu-Tang Clan and Brand Nubian's emergence in the '90s brought considerable attention to The Nation of Gods and Earths.

Dr. Pinn sees a parallel between hip-hop expression and religious expression: "The way in which folks who are embedded in hip-hop culture would dress and what that means is very similar to the church mothers with their hats and their outfits, or the deacons with the suit and the matching Stacy Adams," he says. "It's all a statement of 'I'm here. I'm important. Recognize me.'"

Historically, faith has provided refuge to African-American communities. Hip-hop, a culture that grew out of black America, is now a support system and identity for people of all backgrounds, a sanctuary for those who seek shelter. Just as faith flows from the church even when she is sometimes sinful, light springs from hip-hop culture even if it's sometimes eclipsed by darkness.

Bun, meanwhile, has just learned that two other journalists are ­heading toward­ The Pavilion. One of them made the trip from Beaumont.

This time, he flashes an easy smile and cracks some jokes. He's been in a blissful mood all afternoon. He compliments Dr. Pinn's perfectly laundered gray suit.

"Doc is always clean."

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