COOL CLASSES: “Rap and Religion: Rhymes About God and the Good”

This course explores the historical origins and existential and ethical dimensions of hip-hop.

Class name: “Rap and Religion: Rhymes About God and the Good ”

Taught by: Assistant Professor of Religion Terrance Wiley

Here’s what Wiley had to say about his class:

This course draws on literatures and disciplines in a way that allows me and students to simultaneously survey the American historical terrain, refine and expand our social theoretical understanding and skill set, and engage contemporary popular cultural phenomena as primary objects of inquiry. One rationale for placing contemporary popular cultural forms at the center of the inquiry is to use the fact that the forms are popular and familiar as an occasion to realize and reflect on how in our waking lives, beyond the classroom, we so consistently fail to pay as much attention as we could to the substantial content and significance of what we encounter, whether it be natural beauty, social misery, artistic expression, or another person’s sincere utterance.

Rap music strikes me as a uniquely appropriate place to turn for this kind of exercise, an exercise that is, of course, intellectual, but also existential, in that one can so easily listen to rap music without considering its history and how reference to that history might need to inform its meaning. But even more basically, something about the form allows for persons to hear and even memorize lyrics without ever spending time to consider the implications, normative or otherwise. On this point, I am struck in fact by the number of students who register in the class and secretly doubt whether it makes any sense to have a class called rap and religion, owing to an assumption that rap has nothing to do with or say about religion. And then one reengages Tupac and one rediscovers him as an artist obsessed not merely with mortality, but also morally and theologically charged questions such as, “Is there heaven for a G?” He poses the question in unnervingly to-the-point terms. How can we reconcile an idea of a good God or gods and the suffering of black persons in the American empire?

This is one example of what I have in mind, but I hope that the class pushes to the limit what we can learn by tending to the familiar with fresh intentions and perspective. To that point, while the content matters and the interdisciplinary performances during the course are meant to instruct, as much as anything I want participants to carry away from the course the sense that we can do much more by way of thinking and living and maybe there is no difference between the two. And if we do that, at our best we will be better situated to create more beauty, more justice, more friendship, and even more meaning. I think that we can do more than one thing at once and in more than one way. Teaching and learning is a serious process and I teach and learn about oppression and resistance and I believe quite strongly about the importance of experimenting with fun—very fun—modes of learning and teaching about such things. Studying hip-hop and rap music in a formal academic setting provides an opportunity to establish how easy or hard it is to learn and how fun it can be doing it.


See what other courses the Religion Department is offering this semester.

Image: (cc) Leo Gonzales

Cool Classes is a series that highlights interesting, unusual, and unique courses that enrich the Haverford experience.