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“It’s Not the Beat, but It’s the Word that Sets the People Free”: Race, Technology, and Theology in the Emergence of Christian Rap Music

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In an effort to address lacunae in the literature on hip hop, as well as to explore the role of new music and media in Pentecostal traditions, this essay examines rap music within the narratives of American religious history. Specifically, through an engagement with the life, ministry, and music of Stephen Wiley — who recorded the first commercially-released Christian rap song in 1985 — this essay offers an account of hip hop as a window into the intersections of religion, race, and media near the end of the twentieth century. It shows that the cultural and theological traditions of Pentecostalism were central to Wiley’s understanding of the significance of racial ideology and technology in his rap ministry. Additionally, Wiley’s story helps to identify a theological, cultural, and technological terrain that is shared, if contested, by mainline Protestant, neo-Pentecostal, and Word of Faith Christians during a historical moment that has been described as post-denominational.

Affiliations: 1: Columbia University New York, Email:


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