Editor’s note: The following article was one of our ministerial student writing contest winning submissions.
Sabbath morning. Congregants in their fineries stop to exchange greetings, while slowly making their way to the pews. An atmosphere of worship fills the sanctuary; surely the presence of the Lord is in this place. The worship leader stands and invites the congregation to invoke God’s presence. Heads are bowed, eyes are closed, and hands are raised in a posture of worship. At the end of an unscripted and powerful invitation to usher in the already present Presence, the congregation and worship leader say together the Lord’s Prayer, “ ‘ “Our Father in heaven, / hallowed be your name . . .” ’ ” (Matt. 6:9, NIV).
Previous night. Clubgoers in their freshest outfits, with bling2 to match, stand in a line that wraps around the building in anticipation of the party inside. Music is pumping, drinks are flowing, and bodies are gyrating. Inside, the disc jockey (DJ) grabs the microphone to introduce the next record and invites the crowd to get up and go wild. The beat drops, and as Jay-Z3 begins the verse, the crowd is on their feet, with hands raised, chanting together, “They call me J-Hova cause the flow is religious.”
Issues of identity have been weighing heavy on me. If someone were to ask me who I am, I would respond with a list that includes Christian, African American, woman, artist, teacher, and hip-hop lover. As I’ve pondered my identity, and how my decisions and behaviors are influenced by who I am, I have become aware of how my identities work in relationship with one another.
Prior to rededicating my life to Christ five years ago, at times I felt attacked and devalued by the booming beats and lyrical land mines of the hip-hop music that I learned to love. When I surrendered my life to the Lord in 2002, my already turbulent relationship with hip-hop worsened. Not only was my esteem as a woman quaking, but my values as a disciple of Christ were in conflict with most of the values communicated through hip-hop music. In an act of extreme obedience to the voice of the Lord, one evening I incinerated all of the music that was in opposition with my life as a Christian. I think I had about ten CDs left in my collection after the great cleanout. While my music collection was sparse, my heart was open to a mighty move of God.
Admittedly, there was a day when even I danced as Jay-Z proclaimed himself, J-Hova, the god of the rap game, a reference to the holy name of God. Those were the days before I knew Jesus as Lord and Savior and before becoming more intentional about cultivating my relationship with God. Once aware of the awesome nature and name of God, it was difficult to raise holy hands in worship to God and pump my fists to Jay-Z. This awareness led to a multiplicity of questions: Why does Jay-Z call himself J-Hova? What, if anything, is at stake by his use of this name? How do I understand the holy name of God? What should my response be? How does this affect other Christians who listen to and purchase his music? How can we discuss this issue without attacking Jay-Z and hip-hop? If Christians accept and endorse this usage of J-Hova to describe an ordinary man, what are the long-range implications for the sanctity of worship and the church?
The lure of hip-hop
Answering the questions that were dancing in my psyche required study of the Scriptures, of hip-hop culture, and commentaries about both. Like Bell Hooks, I consider this study to be the act of “cross[ing] boundaries to take another look, to contest, to interrogate, and in some cases to recover and redeem.”4 I was unsettled by Jay-Z’s use of the moniker J-Hova—and redeeming the name of my Redeemer became of paramount importance. Redemption and recovery would not be important if hip-hop were not a powerful force in music and the global economy. Russell Potter states that “it is increasingly clear that hip-hop has become a transnational, global art-form capable of mobilizing diverse disenfranchised groups.”5 The disenfranchised, the very souls we Christians are commissioned to reach with the gospel (Matt. 25:31–39; 28:19, 20), are being drawn by hip-hop’s magnetic ability to give them voice and power. Even Christian youth and young adults, those who have been transformed and saved by Christ, are listening, dancing, and chanting along with Jay-Z.
What’s in a name?
HaShem, or “The Name,” is crucial to our relationship with God. God is first identified, in Genesis 2 as YHWH. The name YHWH, also referred to as the tetragrammaton, written in our English translation of the Bible as Lord, implies a covenantal relationship. This name was so sacred that Jews ceased from pronouncing it in fear of breaking the third commandment, which prohibits taking the Lord’s name in vain. The evolution from YHWH to Jehovah is an interesting one, but it’s important to know that Jehovah is the “English translation of one of the Hebrew names for God. A more accurate translation is ‘Yahweh.’ This name was considered to be very holy, and religious Jews would not take this name to their lips.”6 Though the pronunciation of the tertragrammaton is uncertain, Christians have taken to pronouncing it Jehovah and thus should handle that form of the name with great care.
In the burning bush narrative (Exod.3), when God makes a promise to Moses on behalf of Israel, Moses asks God’s name. Moses knew that in order for his words to carry weight, the people must know the source of the promise. God’s answer to Moses, “I AM,” or Hayah, implied the eternal nature of God and also revealed God’s character. In contemporary worship, the name that we use to address God speaks to the way in which we relate to God. The name that we use to address God is part of our faith language, which “is crucial because it affords human beings the privilege of intimacy with the Ultimate. The language of faith grounds human life in a set of religious narratives that transmit the sheer beauty and integrity of human existence, that affirms our birthright as children of God.”7
When we call on Jehovah, we are recognizing the authority, reputation, and power of God. When we cry to Jehovah-Jireh, we are recognizing God’s ability to see us through any situation. When we call on Jehovah-Shalom, we are recognizing God as the Giver of peace in the midst of chaos. By lifting up the name of Jehovah, we are expressing our adoration, devotion, and honor to God.
The Psalms repeatedly reveal that we are to praise and glorify the name of Jehovah. My favorite source of comfort is the safety (Prov. 18:10), healing (James 5:14), and salvation (Acts 2:21) we find when we call on the name of Jehovah. The name Jehovah is so sacred and powerful that Christians worldwide should protect it from irreverence in popular culture and other venues.
The naming process
The act of naming becomes crucial in the formation of spiritual, national, and individual identity, with naming of tantamount importance in hip-hop culture. William Eric Perkins writes, “Central to the DJ verbal style was the elaborate rite of passage of naming, of creating an identity and personality that could not be matched. The naming ritual is another essential element in rap’s structure. African Ame r i c an r appe r s adopt names that confer identity and separate them from the crowd, whi le celebrating attributes that embody the personality of the name given. Rhyming and naming thus became a rapper’s birthright, contributing to his or her image and personality.”8
With this in mind, it makes sense that Jay-Z would rename himself J-Hova. Nelson George further explains the renaming process, “Whether anointing oneself royalty or basking in words originally designed to demean, African American males are restless in the desire for self-definition.”9 As an African American male in America, struggling to transcend the world of drugs and crime, he needed a name that would describe the heights that he dreamed of reaching. He gave himself the highest name, without regard for its power, and climbed heights many with his same background could not. His lyrics are mesmerizing and speak with authority, even to the point of listeners calling him the savior of hip-hop.
I am not attacking Jay-Z, his personal decisions, or his spiritual journey. This is part of a larger cultural and societal issue, and the onus is on the church to preserve the name and holiness of God. In a strange way, renaming himself worked. In 1996, Jay-Z modestly began his recording career, performing all of his concerts outfitted in a simple white T-shirt, blue jeans, and a New York Yankees cap. To date, Jay-Z has sold over 33 million records, recently stepped down as president and CEO of Def Jam records, co-owns the New Jersey Nets, and is reportedly worth $547 million.
During my research on this topic, I turned to VH1 Soul10 and happened upon a charismatic Jay-Z performing new material and inviting the crowd to settle into his lyrical landscape.
Though the chorus of the song urged listeners to pray, the crowd moved in reverence and worship of Jay-Z. Their hands were raised in adoration, much like the holy hands that are lifted to God in a worship service. Though captivated by his presence and disgusted by his arrogance, I will not deny his musical genius and smart business tactics, but even those attributes do not warrant him being exalted to a place only reserved for God. Isaiah 42:8 says, “ ‘I am the Lord, that is My name; / And my glory I will not give to another’ ” (NKJV).
Adopting the name of God may be working for him now, but at what cost to himself and the millions who mindlessly worship him?
As pastors, chaplains, ministers, and future religious leaders, we have a sacred obligation to protect the name of God. We do not have the pleasure, as Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden, of physically seeing, touching, and hearing God. Unlike the disciples, we do not have the opportunity for physical encounters with Jesus. Our experiences of God is expressed through our faith language, by confessing Christ’s name. If we believe the Bible and the power of the name of God to heal, deliver, and save, then our responsibility includes making sure of the reverence and respect expressed for His name. In fact, we should delight in defending the name that transformed our lives, the lives of others around us, and countless lives to come.
I do not think it wise to take a steamroller approach to preserving God’s name, for only acts and words of love will truly make a difference. God’s name will be glorified if we prayerfully, thoughtfully, and strategically address the issue without condemning an entire musical genre or specific artists. Within the walls of the church, through preaching, intentional studies, and spontaneous conversations, we must raise the awareness of the value of worship and pride in the sacred.
Without worship, we have defective relationships with God, and without God’s name, we cannot worship. Secondly, it would be appropriate to study popular culture and prayerfully ask the Holy Spirit to guide us in our understanding of how it impacts our relationship with God, each other, and ourselves. We cannot be afraid to become cultural critics, to study the music, television shows, movies, video games, Web sites, and books with which our people are connecting. Then we will be able to have informed, analytical discussions engaging youth and young adults without dumbing down the gospel. With consciousness raised and disciples fully understanding the significance of worship and the name of God, then we can engage in critical discussions with our youth and young adults about words, images, and sounds in popular culture and their relationship to faith. In addition, these discussions will naturally spill out from the walls of our institutions, churches, universities, or otherwise, bearing witness to the world to those who do not know the holiness and power of God’s name. In effect, we will create and sustain communities with worship rightfully directed to Jehovah.
1 “Hip hop music, also referred to as rap music,
is a music genre . . . typically consisting of a
rhythmic vocal style called rap . . . accompanied
with backing beats.” “Hip-hop,” Wikipedia http://
2 “Bling” is a slang for jewelry.
3 Jay-Z is a famous hip-hop rapper.
4 Bell Hooks, Outlaw Culture: Resisting
Representations (New York: Routledge, 1994), 5.
5 Russell A. Potter, Spectacular Vernaculars: Hip-Hop
and the Politics of Postmodernism (New York: State
University of New York Press, 1995), 10.
6 Henrietta Mears, What the Bible Is All About
(Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1999), 429.
7 Michael Eric Dyson, Between God and Gansta Rap:
Bearing Witness to Black Culture (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1996), xiv, xv.
8 William Eric Perkins, “The Rap Attack: An
Introduction,” in Droppin’ Science: Critical Essays
on Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture, William Eric
Perkins, ed. (Philadelphia: Temple University
Press, 1996), 5.
9 Nelson George, Hip Hop America (New York:
Penguin Books, 1998), 52.
10 VH1 Soul is a television program that broadcasts