Surely one of Houston's biggest music-related events of 2013 was really a non-event: the failed screenings of Kanye West's "New Slaves" video, which was supposed to be projected onto three different local landmarks the evening of May 24. Technical difficulties scotched the events at the Houston Public Library and George H.W. Bush monument, but the big to-to was over at the Rothko Chapel, where HPD showed up and shut down the proceedings before a switch could be thrown.
"Despite the presence of flashing lights and a multitude of electronic bloops and bleeps, performance art this was not," Rocks Off's Nathan Smith wrote the next day.
Tonight, though, Kanye's music will at last be heard at the Rothko. Author and Rice University professor Dr. Anthony Pinn plans to use Yeezus's songs as part of his lecture about how hip-hop is now meeting young people's spiritual needs in a way that more traditional forms of religion are increasingly not.
If Pinn's name sounds familiar, it may be because of the comparative religions he teaches at course at Rice with co-professor Bun B, who he says is "deeply engaged" in the class. The group he'll be talking about tonight is commonly known as "millennials," people between about ages 18 and 30. He's coined his own rather stark term for this generation, "nones." Recent studies have shown an increasing amount of this demographic now claims to be either atheist or the ever-vague "spiritual," with no specific religious affiliation.
For them, Pinn says, hip-hop is more and more becoming a pivotal "third space," a venue where young people can voice their opinions and concerns about their lives outside of school or church. He likens it to barbershops or even Starbucks.
Hip-hop's relationship to religion is definitely growing more complicated. Pinn says that both artists and fans can treat religion one of a few ways: some place their hip-hop identity within their own personal religious traditions (though they may step outside the lines on occasion); others use hip-hop culture to actively attack more traditional forms of religion; while others still behave as though hip-hop is a religion all its own.
Either way, Pinn says it's especially interesting to sociologists like himself because hip-hop has now captured the attention of several generations, including his, and become a culture rather than just a cultural phenomenon.
"It speaks to life issues and challenges in ways not confined by age," says.
Thanks in part to hip-hop helping to fill that "third space," Pinn says its artists can assume multiple religious roles: prophet, shaman, messiah, heretic, and even in the case of rappers such as West or Jay-Z, divine entity. Kanye may issue a withering criticism of the "prosperity gospel" of celebrity preachers like T.D. Jakes in one song, Pinn says, and in another might endorse "a Jesus that understands what people are going through."
He sees a serious divide between the sacred and secular spheres, and says "Kanye exposes that in some interesting ways."
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Pinn says he thinks things got this way because after the Civil Rights movement, religious organizations started promising what they did not deliver, while their leaders' personal shortcomings were often exposed in the media. Meanwhile, hip-hop artists started using their music to address what Pinn calls "hard questions without easy answers" in terms audiences could understand and relate to.
"It's in organic, earthy language that makes sense, and speaks to a reality that makes sense to us because it's ours," he says. "It's started trumping what religious organizations could provide."
Tonight's lecture starts at 7 p.m. Besides Kanye, Pinn says he plans to use artists such as Erykah Badu, Lupe Fiasco, Common, and Kendrick Lamar, as well as more traditional gospel music and spirituals, as a way of charting religious development in the U.S.
"Some of the rather raw stuff I'd like to use, but I'm afraid the message might get lost," he admits. "So I'm not going to play 'New Slaves.'"
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