Michael W. Waters: The church should embrace hip-hop

Photo courtesy of Michael W. Waters

In his new book, “Stakes Is High,” an AME pastor writes about issues of justice, race and hope. In this interview, he also talks about why he thinks hip-hop can help revitalize the church.

The Rev. Dr. Michael W. Waters speaks out.

He’s an advocate for justice in Dallas, deeply involved in that work on many fronts, from gentrification to police shootings to LGBTQ issues.

He has spoken at memorials for police shooting victim Jordan Edwards and serves as a coordinating committee member of Faith Forward Dallas, a multifaith coalition of pastors, imams and rabbis across Texas who work together on managing peace and justice.

He also addresses a national audience through his column for The Huffington Post, in which he writes about events as they unfold and tries to help his readers place them in historical context.

“As I’m observing and processing constantly, there are these very special moments -- kairos moments -- where the observation and experience provides inspiration for writing,” he said.

Some of his columns have been collected in the book “Stakes Is High: Race, Faith, and Hope for America.” In it, he addresses topics from police shootings to the Charleston massacre to hip-hop music. The book is part of a series in partnership between Chalice Press and The Forum for Theological Exploration (FTE), which highlights the vocations of an emerging generation of young prophets and teachers who are leading social change through faith communities. 

Waters is the founder and senior pastor of Joy Tabernacle AME Church in Dallas, Texas, one of the fastest-growing AME churches in the state. He also serves as the senior pastor of Agape Temple AME Church in Dallas. The two congregations work together as one body under one pastoral vision.

Waters spoke to Faith & Leadership about his new book as well as the significance of hip-hop to the church. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: Why is it important to you to write for The Huffington Post -- especially with all you’re doing in Dallas?

In many ways, writing for me is a spiritual discipline. As I am observing the circumstances around my community, and as I am observing events on the national and international scale, there are all these intersections for me in terms of ministry and movement.

Writing provides an opportunity to process those things in a holistic way and to direct our work to make the corrections necessary for a beloved community.

I don’t necessarily consider myself a writer or an author, but I write by inspiration. So as I’m observing and processing constantly, there are these very special moments -- kairos moments -- where the observation and experience provides inspiration for writing.

If we don’t really understand the history, we can’t truly understand the matters at hand.

For instance, when I wrote about the pool incident here in McKinney where the young lady was assaulted by the officer, I had to also talk about the very strong and painful history as it relates to blacks and other pools.

That was the tension that was present there, and to separate that tension from the current reality is to really miss what’s going on at the present moment.

Q: Tell me a little bit about what’s going on there in Dallas and what you’re involved in in the aftermath of the shooting death of Jordan Edwards.

We hosted a memorial for Jordan Edwards at one of our church campuses, Agape Campus, and received local and national figures in that space.

I was also invited to speak at another vigil very close to the shooting site. Of course, I’ve been in strategy sessions as we seek to challenge the district attorney and others to take rightful actions in the way of justice.

The main thing is to not allow this moment to pass. This is a very important time, with the national attention brought to this case, to push ahead on reform, both locally and nationally.

Q: So is your main focus, in terms of activism, police reform?

You can’t just stand in one space. Literally, what impacts one impacts us all.

After Orlando and the killings there -- and there have been a number of assaults within the Dallas area of the LGBTQ community. We were there speaking out against violence against that community. I stood with our Jewish community as they received bomb threats locally.

I mean, you name it -- if there’s an injustice, we’re seeking to be present and to work together for a solution.

Q: Another one of your projects is to explore hip-hop music and the church. Talk about that.

I really believe that hip-hop serves as a vital theological conversation partner for our present-day work. Hip-hop is without peer in terms of its cultural influence.

It is a global phenomenon, and there is an entire canon, an entire text, that the church has yet to explore. It really speaks to me like the narratives in Old Testament history that speak of communities under oppression facing marginalization and trying to identify where God is at work to liberate them in the midst of their struggle.

So when I hear Tupac, I hear St. Paul, and I also hear St. Augustine, as they struggle with issues of soteriology.

Q: Some church leaders may think of hip-hop as a way to connect to youth. But it sounds like you are talking about something deeper than that.

We can no longer talk about hip-hop solely as a youth movement, because hip-hop as a cultural artifact is now coming up on its 44th anniversary, from August of 1973. Some of the founders of the hip-hop movement themselves are approaching mid-60s or early 70s.

So we’re really talking about something that is far deeper than just young people in high school.

We’re talking about how generations interact with the world. It has articulated their hopes and dreams as well as their pain and despair.

In many ways, the church in the Northern Hemisphere, particularly in the westernmost portions, is dying. But I still believe that there are persons who long for community. They long for deeper faith and spirituality.

I think we have to shift our way, our mode, of connecting with individuals.

I think, biblically, of the apostle Paul in Acts when he goes to Athens and goes to the [Areopagus], and in that space, speaking to Stoics and Epicureans, he speaks to the unknown God. And as he begins to preach in that space, he does not draw his authority from the Torah.

He draws his authority from Athenian poetry, and he uses their conceptions of God as a means of presenting the Christ to them.

I believe we have the same opportunity in terms of engaging hip-hop, using that as a cultural artifact to bridge the gap between the culture and the church.

So we can provide a greater conception of who God is and of who God has called us to be.

Q: You also mention in one of your columns actually preaching on Tupac Shakur.

When you take away the music, when you lift away the bass and treble and the scratching and deal with the lyrics that are present, they point -- particularly the work of Tupac -- to very deep and abiding questions and concerns regarding faith and morality.

He articulates them in a way that reaches communities that have not been shaped and formed by our Sunday schools or catechisms. So there’s great power in putting the laments of, say, a Tupac Shakur or a Kendrick Lamar in conversation with the laments of a King David.

There are some questions about the meaning of life that these artists pose that are easily found in Ecclesiastes.

I think the church has failed to engage hip-hop lyricism in particular because they have not done the work, or we have not done the work, of truly listening to hear the angst as well as the power of what is being presented.

Tupac asks what is for me the most significant theological question of the latter half of the 20th century.

It’s a question that he asks in one of his songs, “So Many Tears,” where he laments the numerous friends and loved ones who have died. This was during a season of mass incarceration of the war on drugs during the late ’80s into the early ’90s.

He asks the question, “Is there a heaven for a G?” -- which has so many layers to it.

“G” usually means “gangster,” but when he says, “Is there a heaven for a G?” he’s actually asking several questions concerning soteriology.

One is, is there a place in God’s heaven for someone like me? You can say that in the sense of someone who has made mistakes, someone who has had some challenges in the environment they’ve grown up in, someone who feels like they may have fallen short of the glory of God.

Is there a space in God’s heaven for me?

But then there’s another, pressing against that, that Tupac is posing, which speaks to the racial dynamics of faith and how faith has been expressed for centuries in America.

It’s really asking, Who is this God? Is it the God of those who colonized us and who perceived us to be subhuman, or is this a benevolent God who is truly the Creator of all, who created all in God’s image and makes a space and place for us in God’s heaven?

So he’s asking that question in the face of the racial politics that often manifest in faith.

I also think there’s something really speaking to communities. Is there a place in heaven for someone who is from Oakland or from South Dallas or from any community that you would perceive to be the other side of the tracks? Can anything good come out of Nazareth, as it were?

Ultimately, in many ways, he leans on the side of hope and kind of presses into that hope -- at least leaves room open that there is something better.

Q: Probably a lot of people can see your overall point, but a lot of church folk are going to get stuck on the lyrics.

I think maybe this exposes sometimes the hypocrisy that is present within our churches and within our society, wherein we become readily offended when certain lyrics or images are used in certain settings.

I pose very directly the question: Have you truly looked at Scripture to see that there are some very seedy moments?

I actually think people would draw closer and maybe even have greater reverence for the Bible today if they really understood the complexities that are present in it and the very real human challenges -- if we didn’t seek to whitewash Scripture but to really look at it for the hope and horrors that are presented there.

Q: Hip-hop lyrics also come under criticism for the way they often talk about women.

I’ve had the opportunity to lecture on the subject matter in a number of conferences and other spaces, and that’s one of the questions you get: “Well, what about the lyrics? What about this? What about that?” And I’ve often said that you’re basically seeing the tip of a mighty iceberg.

There are many voices that speak from many vantage points into the hip-hop space, and sometimes their voices complement each other, and sometimes their voices challenge each other.

But as a whole, I believe that the art form has much to give to the church.

One of the challenges that I think mainstream persons unfamiliar with the art form have is that the hip-hop that has largely been presented to them has been commercial rap. But hip-hop is multifaceted. There are so many expressions.

I grew up listening to hip-hop during a time when a woman’s voice was valued -- with the Queen Latifahs and the MC Lytes and the Lauryn Hills and the Missy Elliotts of the world.

There were male artists who frankly could also be considered feminists in the sense of how they also spoke up for and defended the sanctity of and the contributions of women.

That’s even part of the complexity of a person like Tupac. You may listen to a few of his songs and you would think this man is a misogynist. Then you listen to other songs, like maybe “Dear Mama” or “Keep Ya Head Up,” which are odes that celebrate the power of women.

Q: Many of the arguments you’ve made about hip-hop and the church would seem to go for white audiences as well as black audiences. Yet that brings up the question of cultural appropriation. What do you think about that?

I think you minimize the power of hip-hop if you only think of it as a tool and/or a gimmick. If that’s the approach, I think you’ll run into significant issues.

The most powerful pastors or preachers we know -- they’re always reaching for stories or illustrations that come from cultures beyond their own.

If there is that same level of appreciation for the work and voices that are encapsulated within the hip-hop culture, that would help keep persons from merely appropriating it and truly understand it as a voice they need to hear.

I think the reason hip-hop is so meaningful and the reason it spread globally is because hip-hop lyricism is about resistance. And I think the Scriptures are also about resistance.

We’re talking about an oppressed and marginalized community in their pursuits of freedom and liberty amid oppression, and there are pains and there are points of despair that translate across cultures and experiences.

I think hip-hop is very powerful in conveying those very intimate expressions in ways that can transform the heart. I also think it invites certain people into a community they may not know.

I’m often asked by individuals of a certain social class, “I want to be more connected with marginalized, oppressed communities. I feel a call to come alongside, but I want to be respectful. Where are some places I could begin?”

I say, “Well, you begin with a relationship. You begin by forming authentic relationships.”

The same is true with the church and how we preach. By forming an authentic relationship with hip-hop culture, we pull from a wealth of expressions and experiences that can draw us closer to God because it draws us closer to our brothers and sisters.

It puts us directly in the midst of their struggle, and it challenges us to do something about it.

I believe that’s the gift of hip-hop to the church.