What Humanism Might Learn from Hip Hop

Anthony B. Pinn

We humanists have made our presence felt. Often our rhetoric is self-assured. Vividly displayed is our willingness to confront the theism-bias embedded in the workings of the United States. Despite all this, humanist activities still appear entrenched in an apologetic mode—a significant expenditure of resources meant to say, “We are here, and by the way, we are good people.” Even more aggressive forms of humanist engagement—those meant to challenge the religious and convert them through strong confrontation and mockery—betray, from my perspective, the same apologetic tone. Neither what some derogatorily call a “conformist approach” (accommodationism) nor the more self-righteous confrontational approach provides a sufficiently constructive and robust depiction of what humanistic orientations promote. This type of posture toward our work doesn’t allow for the accomplishment of our full agenda to diminish the theism-centered discourse (and structures of interaction) guiding so many dimensions of public life. And this is because we are still playing by the rules offered by theists. That is to say, there is embedded in our approach an effort to get theists to appreciate (perhaps even like?) humanists. But why worry about that? Furthermore, is this type of regard even achievable?

It can still be problematic to embrace humanism openly. Yet our typical approach does little to change this dilemma, in that our marginality is embedded in the very rhetoric of the nation—and has become, tragically, the grammar of the public sphere—while it is guided by the temperament of the uninformed. Even if this weren’t the case, being liked hasn’t done much to change the outlook for other marginalized groups. What it can produce is paternalism—patronizing attitudes that actually stymie advancement and inclusion.

Perhaps we might aim to be disliked but respected. But what does “being respected” entail for us? What’s the look, the texture, of this respect? And what does securing and keeping it require of us?

Help from an Unlikely Source: Hip Hop

Needed at this point is more attention to the construction of an alternative grammar of life, along with new modalities of ethical/moral insight and practice that speak to the benefits of humanistic thinking and doing. We have demonstrated some creativity in generating this message, but we still seem a bit stuck and in need of inspiration. Mindful of this, I want to propose a source of assistance worthy of consideration—hip-hop culture.

What I have in mind extends beyond an appreciation for the outstanding work of humanistic hip-hop artists and instead includes attention to the pedagogical possibilities offered by the larger cultural movement. So, no need to worry; I’m not asking you to turn your baseball caps backward or forget about your sensible shoes and conservative clothing choices. I’m not calling on humanists to become hip-hop advocates or fans. Rather, I am suggesting that hip hop provides a particularly compelling heuristic. My aim is to encourage recognition of hip hop as an interpretative tool by means of which we might learn how to do better what we say our humanism is all about—and to do it in ways that appreciate the creativity lodged in our relative marginality and despised status.

A link between humanism and hip hop is not as absurd as one might initially think, not when one considers the common epistemological root marking much of the thinking that undergirds them both. That is to say, both humanistic sensibilities and hip-hop culture share a human-centered and earthy ontology. Both stem from a similar perception of evidence-based freethought (although there are nuances to this) and a signifying of supernatural claims and trans-historical assertions. Furthermore, in U.S. culture, both humanists and members of the hip-hop community are labeled as marginal, problematic figures whose activities and beliefs fly in the face of normative moral and ethical structures of life.

I propose that we embrace this epistemological connection and pay attention to all that can be learned from the successes of hip-hop culture. While it has its problematic dimensions—elements of violence, homophobia, misguided materialism, and so on, as borrowed from the storehouse of American culture—there are ways in which this cultural force has offered important challenges to the “American way of life.” It has outlived calls for its demise and pronouncements of its fad-like quality. Even those who fear or dislike hip hop have been forced to recognize it and to address life in this historical moment in light of it.

Lodged within the decaying infrastructure of urban life in New York City during the late 1970s, hip-hop culture—the music, aesthetic, dance, and the visual art known as tagging or graffiti—provided a mode of communication and exchange for typically disenfranchised young people. Hip hop is not the first cultural form to wrestle with the existential and ontological difficulties and limits marking the (post)modern period. Yet, it does so with a type of rawness and through images that push thought about, and experience of, the world beyond affected representations. The traumas and angst of the world are expressed in graphic form. In certain ways, hip-hop culture offers a new language, an alternative grammar and vocabulary for articulating the nature and meaning of life. In other words, the various genres of rap—what might be described as status rap, socially conscious rap, and gangsta rap—offer perspectives on this basic arrangement: How does one make life meaningful within the context of an absurd world?

Within rap music, there are strong representations of this absurdity, with perhaps the most compelling being death. Humanists are well aware of death; we know the science behind it and are quite reasonable and logical with respect to it. Yet, we live in cultural worlds that are not fully explained by means of scientific formulas. Our living toward death requires a particular cartography, a peculiar map that marks out the cultural contours of our existence. And for this, we should turn to hip hop, in that there are ways in which hip hop promotes significant attention to the tensions and paradox associated with efforts to map out life structures within a context marked by the look, feel, and smell of death. It offers a compelling way of describing and addressing the grotesque dimensions of our demise that are much too graphic for most polite humanist conversations.

Through a creative signifying of dominant strategies for life and more graphic modes of expressing life-meaning within the context of absurdity, hip hop marks a demand for visibility in a world more comfortable with invisibility. It has offered a way of speaking about and speaking to the tragic nature of human existence without surrendering to the nihilism that theistic intellectuals like Cornel West fear. Instead, it provides comfort with paradox and imagining of marginality as place for transformation.

Whereas hip hop has turned its status as a despised and troubling but short-term fad into a powerful tool for shaping cultural worlds across a global geography, humanist movements have not been as fortunate in their effort to create status and more transnational influence.

A Hip-Hop Posture for Humanists

Humanists are trying to fix this situation through public conversation and praxis and through organizational infrastructure expanding beyond North America. However, there is a flaw in this approach in that such effort tends to involve strategies tied (at least loosely) to the methods and logic associated with the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century. These methods and this logic require acceptance of an assumption that moral outrage made visible constitutes the means for advancement. There is in this arrangement belief that progress is somehow linear and human history purpose-driven. I am not pushing for rejection of the civil rights movement, and of course, humanists aren’t alone in appealing for inspiration to this process and this particular moment of struggle. After all, some important shifts in policy resulted from that movement. Yet, there are ways in which appeal to mid-twentieth century techniques may not be the best strategy for the godless.

For instance, popular imagination regarding the civil rights movement is overwhelmingly (but not of necessity) connected to a romanticizing of certain communities of struggle—particularly the churches. And the rhetoric used to articulate that civil rights struggle draws from the language of those communities. In addition, left in place after the civil rights movement is an ethical posture toward the world based on a privileging of supernatural claims and assumptions—a spiritual ontology, as well as an accompanying sense of sanctity afforded to theism that humanists otherwise reject. Why maintain an approach to the transformation of thought and quality of life that historically has privileged some of the very things humanists hope to eliminate?

Instead, humanists might take seriously as a source of information and strategy the best of hip hop’s framing of, and posture toward, sociocultural and political struggle. This process might begin with several considerations related to our posture toward the nature and meaning of the humanist movement, as well as its self-understanding and its work. I’d like to offer three examples of this rethinking.

Example 1: ‘Thick’ Diversity

Hip-hop culture has demonstrated an impressive ability to trouble rigid cultural boundaries of nation-states and in this way to promote diversity of expression, opinion, and the like. To speak of hip hop is to mention an array of racial and ethnic groups, each with celebrated contributions to its development. There is a depth and thickness to diversity as modeled by hip-hop culture— despite some of its shortcomings. And while humanists voice an interest in diversity—and in certain ways promote it—such effort tends to produce what I will call “performative diversity.” By this I mean symbolic appreciation for “difference” as a marker of strength. It produces more visible “minority” communities of humanists but does little to change decision-making and the array of concerns promoted within these movements and how these concerns are arranged and ranked. Yet, as hip-hop culture has demonstrated, more substantive diversity requires production of an organic system of symbols and signs that draw from the sensibilities of a wide-ranging group of participants. Adherents, so to speak, have to see themselves reflected in the workings of movements, to see themselves as having real potential for involvement (such as leadership positions that shape the form and content of movements), and to see the humanist movement’s lexicon come to reflect their language of life. Getting to this point requires changes to our internal workings and also our recruitment strategies.

In some cases, direct confrontation has increased our numbers; however, the assumption that such tactics work in every context is a type of arrogance that shows disregard for cultural nuance. Not many African Americans leave churches because of direct confrontation. To think that they should shows ignorance concerning the late-twentieth-century patterns of growth for black churches—patterns that have little to do with theological commitment and more to do with networking opportunities and cultural connections. Simply denouncing and ridiculing Christian theology and belief does little to persuade. What do we offer as alternative sources of networking and cultural community? The assumption that reason can trump theology also fails to recognize the manner in which theology mutates and theism can transform itself. Its contemporary manifestations are less rigid than the pre-Enlightenment theologizing we tend to target in our critiques. Talk of “the end of religion” also fails to acknowledge regional differences and ignores new (and successful) religious formulations such as the Prosperity Gospel and the mega-churches that adhere to it. These churches do not fall victim to our typical critiques in that the most glaring examples of bad thinking are softened; instead, they highlight the Bible as a tool for advancing one’s economic goals.

Theism is flexible and does not die easily. While attempting to dismantle it, we must also recognize the short-term need to work in ways to lessen the negative impact it has on quality of life. If you think I’m wrong, think again. The “look” of the typical humanistic gathering—and the perpetual asking of the “How do we recruit people of color?” questions—do more than suggest that I’m right. Deconstruction of theism’s flaws is required, but that must be followed by constructive projects and conversations that actually offer alternatives. Smash the idols, yes; but replace them with deeply human and compelling meaning-making opportunities and platforms.

Our approaches have suffered from an underlying assumption that there is one way to promote humanism, but this is wrong because people are messy, and communities are difficult to capture. And so, we should think in terms of multiple approaches to our work—an array of strategies that mirror the complexities of our social arrangements. Thinking this way and acting in light of such a philosophy of engagement might also cut down on the amount of infighting we experience on occasion. But again, this requires an organic language—a vocabulary and grammar robust and descriptive enough to capture the imagination of humanists across various lines of tactical difference and constructive enough to translate to those outside our groups.

Example 2: Significance of the Ordinary*

It is often the case that in order to expand our presence and counter the foolishness of theistic orientations, we highlight the unusual, the atypical and grand figures and moments within the history of our movement. Or, when the ordinary is highlighted, it is juxtaposed to what we consider the markers of greatness. I would suggest such a move does not serve us well. Instead, we should give more attention to the significance—the invaluable importance—of the mundane and the ordinary. I am not suggesting that we fail to ritualize major life developments and challenges; rather, I am arguing even these rituals must remain committed to the importance of the mundane, and in this way provide means by which to appreciate (as individuals and in communities) the wonders of everyday life. This is one of the strong contributions we make to social existence—an unwillingness to look beyond the stuff of mundane existence, an unwillingness to demand the extraordinary as the only valuable marker of importance. This has been one of the lasting contributions of hip hop to the construction of cultural worlds. It is preoccupied with the ordinary, with the everyday and mundane patterns and moments of life; and it seeks to provide a lexicon for discussing and moving through those moments. In this way, it tackles head-on the moments of discomfort, of paradox, of uncertainty that trouble us—and by so doing, it provides means by which to address the complexities of life. What such a move might allow is an earthy basis for our ethics. Hip hop teaches valuable lessons—both positive and negative—concerning the people involved in these efforts and the sociocultural arrangements by means of which these people move through the world.

Bodies are real in that they live and die, and humanistic ethics should be concerned with the consequences and connotations of this real-ness. Our message, borrowing some cues from hip hop, might be the beauty of our ordinariness, the value of simple moments and events—and the need to appreciate this dimension of our existence—as individuals and in relationship. Doing so will trouble some humanists because it means forgetting some of the images of our godless liberalism. For example, on too many occasions, nontheists will proclaim that they “do not see” race; they do not give attention to difference in that way. They wear this proclamation like a blue ribbon, not realizing that it is a statement representing a problem, not a solution. Anti-black racism and other modes of embodied discrimination aren’t challenged and fought by ignoring them, as if difference itself must be cast as a problem. Hip-hop’s approach to difference is much healthier, much more realistic, in that hip-hop culture understands difference not as a dilemma to solve but as a benefit that serves to enhance creativity, expand knowledge and perspective, and shape cultural connections in healthier and productive ways. So, see race. We gain nothing by pretending not to see “colors.” This illusion expends a lot of mental energy, generates a lot of social anxiety, and doesn’t impress “racial minorities”—which are, after all, minorities only if we fail to think globally.

Example 3: Measured Realism

In place of outcome-driven systems, a humanist ethical outlook might locate success in the process.† That is to say, we continue to work. We maintain this effort because we have the potential to effect/affect change, and we measure the value of our work not in terms of outcomes achieved but in the process of struggle itself. Regarding this, I am in agreement with ethicist and senior Institute for Humanist Studies fellow Sharon Welch. There is no foundation for moral action that guarantees that individuals and groups will act in “productive” and liberating ways, much less that they will ultimately achieve their objectives. Therefore ethical activity is risky or dangerous, because it requires operating without the certainty and security of a clearly articulated “product.”‡ This is a more sober—some might argue a less passionate—approach to ethics. It understands that human relationships (with self, others, and the world) are messy, inconsistent, and thick with desires, contradictions, motives, and a hopeful hopelessness.

Humanistic ethical engagement should mirror the complexity and layered nature of the issues at hand. But as it currently stands, we share with traditional theists an unfortunate and unsupported posture of optimism. The reason for this optimism differs for these two camps: for them, it is God; for us, it is science and reason. I am not pointing to the equation of God with forms of scientism (although this type of poor depiction of science does exist). Rather, I am suggesting that both traditional theists and humanists assume beneficial effects to our actions. For them this is based on the balancing work done by the divinity; for us it is premised on the assumption of science and reasonable thought as slow but steady resolutions to our problems. Isn’t it in part because of this assumption that so many humanists proclaim the demise of religion and the reign of reason? Both positions are too optimistic; but hip-hop culture offers a more balanced perspective—something I have on many occasions referred to as “measured realism.”

Hip-hop culture provides important lessons on the need for measured realism—a sense that human progress involves a paradox, advancement within a larger context of pain and misery. There must be awareness that human progress is not victim-free, and it is not inevitable. That is to say, leave certainty to the theists; let their mythological protectors espouse overly optimistic pronouncements of future glory. We should be in a better position than they are to see the world as it is and to adopt a more mature posture toward our work in the world. We have not yet met the challenge, but we should. What is the look of ethical conduct when our efforts are just as likely to fail as to succeed? Hip hop provides a way of thinking about this question, of moving through life without guaranteed outcomes. Like hip-hop culture, we might learn to embrace the tragic quality of life and take from it a sobering regard for both our potential and our shortcomings. From this approach we might just come to a better and deeper appreciation of our humanity.


Some readers will disagree with my assessment, and some will resist giving hip hop such a prominent role in our thinking. Even this disagreement, if seriously engaged in and interrogated, might point us in the direction of new and creative approaches to our humanist thought and efforts. My goal is merely to suggest the importance of a particular conversation, to point out the weak spots in our mechanisms for understanding and acting out our humanism. And for those willing to entertain this conversation, those who are curious enough to want to know more, I end with a few suggested readings.


* Attention to the ordinary presented here draws from my The End of God-Talk: An African American Humanist Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

† Some material in this section draws from the discussion of perpetual rebellion found in my Terror and Triumph: The Nature of Black Religion (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 153–54.

‡ Sharon Welch, A Feminist Ethic of Risk (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000).


Suggested Reading

George, Nelson. Buppies, B-Boys, Baps & Bohos: Notes On Post-Soul Black Culture. New York: Harper Perennial, 1994.

Foreman, Murray and Mark Anthony Neal, eds. That’s the Joint! The Hip-Hop Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Neal, Mark Anthony. Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Pinn, Anthony B. “Handlin Our Business.” In Noise and Spirit, edited by Anthony B. Pinn. New York: New York University Press, 2003.

Rose, Tricia. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1994.

Anthony B. Pinn

Anthony B. Pinn is the Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities and a professor of religion at Rice University. He is also director of Research for the Institute for Humanist Studies. Pinn is the author of thirty-five books, including Humanism: Essays in Race, Religion, and Popular Culture (2015).

We humanists have made our presence felt. Often our rhetoric is self-assured. Vividly displayed is our willingness to confront the theism-bias embedded in the workings of the United States. Despite all this, humanist activities still appear entrenched in an apologetic mode—a significant expenditure of resources meant to say, “We are here, and by the way, …

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