Where two worlds Collide: How Gospel connects Hip-Hop and Country
Lil Nas X released his genre-busting song, Old Town Road, back in December and it went viral on music charts and in news stories in the Spring of 2019. I first came across it in April while chatting with my roommate and perusing news on my phone. While the Internet and media debated whether the song belonged in country or rap categories, I realized Gospel music is a bridge between the two.
The artist originally described the song as country-trap. And it was an instant hit, landing a place on The Hot 100, Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, and Hot Country Songs. Shortly after that his song was removed from the Country charts because it was deemed not country enough.
“Billboard removed the song for several reasons, including its trap beat, a lack of country airplay, no involvement by Sony Music Nashville and mixed categorization and playlisting on leading streaming services,” wrote Melinda Newman in Billboardmagazine in April. Heated debate followed on how to classify the song and instigated conversations about country music and racism.
Hip-Hop & Gospel
Curiosity struck me when I listened to the song. I was immediately impressed with the beat and the fun nature of the song, portraying Lil Nas X as an outlaw. It only got better when Billy Ray Cyrus decided to join on the remix version for the song.As a southerner, I appreciate country music. And, as an African American, I appreciate hip-hop/RnB deeply not just because it sounds good but because it's part of my culture. With controversy surrounding Lil Nas X straddling these two genres, I started wondering, “what connects both?”
I got an answer to that question: Gospel Music
Gospel Music is a genre that focus on telling the revelations of Christ. The genre traces back to African-American worship in the 17th -19th century.The community sang songs relating to their troubles of slavery.
Florida-based professor, author and minister Dr. Terriel Byrd, who wrote“By This Shall We Be Known” knows how hip-hop embraces Gospel in its music.
“Gospel is the good news of Jesus Christ. But if you remember Snoop Dogg did a gospel album with Fred Hammond. He said it was a dedication to his grandmother who always wanted him to do a gospel album,” Byrd said. “There is some interesting content value to those songs. Not only are they good in terms of their beats and rhythm. But the content that they are saying is of giving God praise, and thanking God, so it's very religious in content.”
Country & Gospel
Like hip-hop, country music often references God with mainstream stars such as Dolly Parton, Charlie Daniels and George Strait sometimes turning around and dropa gospel song or album.
Carrie Underwood’s career testifies to the diverse outcome of country music. She demonstrates secular world-weariness with songs like “Before he Cheats,” and “Cowboy Casanova.” And she also has Christian hits such as “Jesus take the Wheel,” and “Something in the Water.”
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Esteemed country artist Josh Turner released his first long-awaited gospel album I Serve a Savior.
Upcoming country artist and songwriter Auburn Mccormick pursued a career in country music for several years. Appreciation for the Gospel sound led her to pursue the genre.
“When I got into high school, I kind of ventured out of Christian music and ventured into the country world, which my parents actually liked, because of the gospel undertones. Country music can have their shows and they can get away with singing a hymn,” Mccormick said. She describes how in other genres those quick changes might not be encouraged. “That's something that I love about country and why I wanted to go into country is the fact that I am a Christian. And when you're in country music, you can portray that you're a Christian, and people don't hate on you for it. They almost like you even more, and you can write songs about God, you can write songs that have Christian undertones.”
The raw, outlaw nature of Hip-Hop & Country
Hip-Hop music has always been raw and, at times, provocative. When God is mentioned in hip-hop songs, we often find powerful reminders of people’s need for a higher being, beyond the struggles of physical life or feelings of being surrounded by cultural problems in a community or lifestyle.
Legendary rap artist Tupac Shakur was known for pioneering Gangsta Rap in the 1990s. Throughout his career his songs brought up God during troubles in his life and community. His 1996 song “Only God Can Judge Me,” references all the bad done to him and things he’s done. But he made it clear, (hint the name) that only God had the final say.
In the song “Murder Was the Case” in 1993 by Snoop Dogg, God is shown coming in as a savior during a close encounter with death.
I stop breathin', damn I see demons'
Dear God, I wonder can ya save me
I can't die my Boo-Boo's bout to have my baby
I think it's too late for prayin, hold up
A voice spoke to me and it slowly started sayin
"Bring your lifestyle to me I'll make it better"
And how long will I live?
"Eternal life and forever"
And will I be, the G that I was?
"I'll make your life better than you can imagine or even dreamed of
So relax your soul, let me take control
Close your eyes my son"
My eyes are closed
Byrd believes the harshness is just a product of cultures in society.
“I think that is based upon the cultural and social context. And so hip hop is only speaking the language by which their culture has produced, so their culture and their social world is harsh,” Byrd said. “And so the response to that harshness of society is seen and verbalized in their music. So, and I think that in many ways, the culture of the country music speaks to that world and it may not be the same kind of harshness but sometimes country music can also be raw.”
As one example, Country star Johnny Cash sang about violence, addiction and redemption such as his 2006 song, “God’s Gonna Cut You Down.”
I've been down on bended knee talkin' to the man from Galilee
He spoke to me in the voice so sweet
I thought I heard the shuffle of the angel's feet
He called my name and my heart stood still
When he said, "John, go do my will!"
Go tell that long tongue liar
Go and tell that midnight rider
Tell the rambler
The back biter
Tell 'em that God's gonna cut 'em down
Tell 'em that God's gonna cut 'em down
You can run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Sooner or later God'll cut you down
Being in the industry Mccormick sees the appreciation of Gospel within the Country music industry. For her it’s great to see a connection between two genres that are so different.
“I think that as long as hip-hop and country are telling different sides of God, because there are so many sides of God that we can even comprehend, as long as they're telling a side and it's correct, and it's Biblical, then I am all for it,” McCormick said. “And I love it. And I love that hip hop is going to reach one side of the world and country is going to reach other.”
Princess Jones is an intern with Religion Unplugged and an editorial clerk at The New York Post. She is a recent alumna of Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, Tenn., and of the NYC Semester in Journalism at The King’s College in New York.