Bun B Leads Rap And Religion Debate At St. John's UMC

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Tuesday night, Bun B moderated a discussion panel at St. John's United Methodist Church downtown. It was hard to find any information about the rapper on the Internet, besides the fact that he's from Port Aransas or something.

Bun and his panel started out intending to flush out whether or not rap music belonged in church. The conversation grew organically and quickly to many things (why traditional church might not be relevant; does Jesus think it's okay to say "motherfucker"; etc). Some notes from the talks:

Invited to the discussion were Pastor Rudy, who has lead St. John's for nearly two decades and seen its congregation grow from nine members to upwards of 9,000; Marlon Hall of nondenominational fellowship Awakenings Movement, who wore a trendy jacket; acclaimed producer DJ Revelation, who produced Big Mello's first (and best) album and eventually went on to work with Scarface, Wu-Tang and more; and Von Won, a talented local Christian rapper who would prefer you didn't refer to him as a Christian rapper.

An aside: We were semi-seriously hoping that, within the context of conducting a lecture, Bun B would adopt some sort of wayward academia accent like Laurence Fishburne in Higher Learning. He did not. He didn't even hold a smoking pipe.

The discussion for the evening was to be about whether or not rap belonged in church, which is as layered and thick a topic as one can reasonably conceive. Naturally, it was the very first question that Bun B posed to the panel, with Pastor Rudy's responding first that that yes, it does, inasmuch as gospel belongs in the club. There certainly aren't any mutual exclusivities in either setting, but the proprietors of both the church and the club recognize what people expect to hear when attending either.

From there, the discussion splintered off into several smaller, more specific, and considerably more poignant conversations. The general premise was that both rap and the church are tasked with being expressive of the community, and that both are, at times, not fully adept at handling that responsibility.

There were a couple of moments when the feedback from the microphones was quite abrasive. It's nearly impossible for something to not go right inside of a church and not have a handful of people make "Oh, Jesus must be pissed right now" jokes.

Stats, from Pastor Rudy:

  • Nearly six million people live in the greater Houston area. Roughly 750,000 are in a Christian church each Sunday.
  • 50,000 to 75,000 people are leaving the church each year.
  • Oprah is better at being a church than churches are. Also, some churches are led by irrelevant hustlers.

Von Won made it all the way to 7:47 p.m. before making a sideways mention that he'd like to do a song with Bun B. He snuck it into a statement he was making that also included a swipe at Joel Olsteen and a Devin the Dude hat-tip. Bun sidestepped the Osteen jab and the potential Von collaboration entirely.

Best Question Asked: Regarding the stat about fewer and fewer people attending church each year, Bun asked if they are leaving the church to find alternate routes to Christ, leaving Christ?

Best Conundrum Posed (by Marlon Hall): Christ is the most innovative thing ever, so why is church stagnant and not innovative?

Guy on the Panel Least Likely to Die During the Next Lightning Storm: Von Won. He was once tasered four times. You know what he did after that? Recorded a church rap album. That's incredible.

Pastor Rudy asserted more than once that hip-hop's role is to reflect the community, and that it lacks in that capacity. This doesn't seem entirely true. The reason a song like, say, "Swag Surfin'," which is both fundamentally and vacuous, is popular is because its ideology is in line with the people who enjoy it. It connects with them in no uncertain terms. To imply that there's something wrong with that, or that it isn't representative or anything, seems unnecessarily dismissive of a large segment of the population.

Most Humorous Quote of the Evening (Pastor Rudy): "My mama is a woman."

At exactly 8:33 p.m., Marlon Hall stole the panel when he crafted together an observation that when Michael Jackson died, it symbolized the possible death of pop culture. It's not an assertion we specifically agree with (and, eventually didn't have anything specifically to do with Michael Jackson), but it makes reasonable sense in a grand scale.

The crux of his argument here was that there is no longer a we that can be mass catered to and controlled, instead there is a larger me mass (mostly due to the Internet or something). This is why things like YouTube or MySpace or iTunes or Facebook are so prevalent. If the only real, true sense of culture is individualism or separatism, than you can't have popular culture. And if there's no popular culture, well, that's where everything gets fucked. It's not just church that's losing its grip on people, culture is losing its grip on people.

Von Won, ever the capitalist, had kids posted up at the doors of the auditorium asking people coming in and out if they'd like to purchase a Von Won album.

At 8:47 p.m., a point-counterpoint conversation took place between Von, who started the night as a bit player on the panel but evolved into an interestingly determined figure, and Bun. It served neatly as a microcosm of the evening's underlying narrative. It lasted several minutes, and eventually spread out into a lively talk that included voices from the crowd as well as the panel. If you strip away the filler, it essentially looked like this:

Von: Rappers make music that is inappropriate. There is a little girl in a car right now listening to a song on the radio about someone filming a sex movie with a woman.

Bun: Well, who's driving the car? Not the little girl.

Von: I concede: Yes, some parents are ignorant. But what about the mom that's working two jobs and her daughter is at home listening to the radio? Or when the girl goes to her cousin's house and hears it there? We as artists can not be neglectful of the children simply because their parents are.

Bun: What you're looking for here is a condemnation larger than rap music. -Bun

Two things were clear at the end of the evening:

  • Bun B's title as a professor at Rice University is in no way figurehead-ish. Within the rap-religion construct, his arguments are almost airtight. You can not say something that he does not have an answer for. Also, his beard is impeccable.
  • The answers to the questions posed were not nearly as important as the fact that the discussion itself was taking place. That was likely the most important. More than a couple hundred people showed up. High-fives to everyone that participated, as well as everyone that attended.

Read about Rice's Project H.E.R.E., which put this whole thing together, here.

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