Monday, December 21, 2015

The Impact of Hip Hop Culture on the World of Sport

Since first beginning to consider the impact of Hip Hop culture on the world of sport and, in particular on the players and coaches I personally serve, during a presentation at the Black Coaches Association convention in Indianapolis during the previous decade, I have sought ways to understand and to express it. The clash of cultures experienced by many coaches, sports chaplains, administrators, and even fans may be better understood and better navigated with some contemplation.


I was struck by the presenter’s assertion that the Hip Hop culture was as foreign and perplexing to the mainstream of African-American culture as the hippies of the 1960s were to mainstream Caucasian culture. I have observed players and their families over the twenty-two years of serving sports teams at our university as well as observing shifts in the general culture of the USA. Much more than a musical genre, fashion sense, graffiti, or vein of film, Hip Hop “is best thought about in the same way as radical western philosophical movement.” To think that this culture is limited to African-Americans is terribly na├»ve and misinformed. Hip Hop culture transcends race and class distinctions in the USA and even abroad. Corporate entities have learned how to take advantage of it and use its influence to market products of all sorts.

Beyond such personal observations, I have done some reading and decidedly non-academic research to try to better understand what I have seen. Among the most helpful articles I have read is an article by Anthony Thomas from New Statesman on 12 September, 2007. http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/the-faith-column/2007/09/hip-hop-movements-thought The article contains some language that was most helpful to this fifty-nine year old, white guy from Southern Illinois. “Hip Hop unlike other ways of life does not have a single text that lays out the tenets of culture it does not have a bible, Koran, Torah or Bhagavad Gita, it is not a religion. Philosophically Hip Hop is best thought about in the same way as radical western philosophical movements like existentialism and libertarianism that promote freedom of thought and expression. It is built upon the notion of the open society, there are no fixed moral or cultural codes.” This was very much like the sentiment expressed by the gentleman at the Black Coaches Association several years ago.

Mr. Thomas defines Hip Hop culture like this, 'The cognitive, creative and emotive expression of Western youth of African descent who attempt to find success and meaning within the social realities of their lives that are characterised by poverty, racism and urban decay.'

The article goes on to articulate some of the central doctrines of Hip Hop culture. I would like to list them and to then discuss their expressions in sports culture. 

1. Keep it real.

2. Speak truth to power.

3. Change the game.

4. Represent your hood.

5. Express yourself.

“Keep it real.” This value seems to trump all others in the Hip Hop movement. It finds its expression during interviews with players as they fatalistically say, “It is what it is.” With no idealism or any sense of what something should be or could be, this value defaults to the present state of being. To keep it real is to express your thoughts, emotions, or opinions without regard to the consequences. To exercise self-control over your emotions or your tongue is seen as inauthentic. Authenticity is possibly the highest virtue in Hip Hop culture. This authentic expression of the player may be in direct conflict with the coach, manager, officials, or other authority figures who demand respect and a more controlled manner or expression. Such unbridled authenticity is often a source of controversy in the world of sport.

“Speak truth to power.” Many coaches and others in authority in the sports world bump head on into this Hip Hop value regularly. When a player challenges the authority of his coach or her administration, they present a problem most are not ready to address or to even understand. Demonstrations like the one during introductions of a St. Louis Rams (NFL) game in the fall of 2014, where three players took the field in the posture of the “Hands up, don’t shoot,” movement rising from the Ferguson, Missouri shooting, demonstrations, and riots resulted in outrage, applause, and confusion. Your reaction was determined by your view of the movement and the events, but they felt perfectly justified because they were speaking truth to power. When the University of Missouri Football team announced it would strike, not play the next week’s game, in joining the student protest movement on campus, they were speaking truth to power. Their head coach sided with the players, and soon both the president and chancellor of the university were ousted. This value will challenge authority and often in the most public and inconvenient manner. Sports authorities are in no way exempt.

“Change the game.” Hip Hop is a very fluid movement. Johnson describes it this way, “Hip Hop is a revolutionary culture that revels in its irreverence. A Hip Hop driven life has no time for tradition, Hip Hop is a culture of permanent rebellion, a constant challenge to the status quo making it a culture of outsiders.” Its fluidity is due to the lack of bedrock beliefs, thus anyone can change the game to fit his or her agenda. To change the game can be accomplished via an event, a song, a film, or even a tragedy. Those who know how to change the game can take advantage of a shooting like that of Michael Brown in Ferguson, a tragedy like Hurricane Katrina, a film like, “Straight Outta Compton,” or any of the thousands of Hip Hop songs that capture the culture’s imagination for their requisite 15 minutes of fame. This culture is seen in sport through a myriad of expressions from constantly shifting uniforms, pregame music in the stadium, headphone wearing players who are disengaged from their teammates in team settings, and any other cultural expression that runs contrary to the general culture. To change the game is a virtue in itself.

“Represent your hood.” The breakdown of the traditional family in American culture has led to the totally self-determined Hip Hop definition of family. Family is whatever you say it is. The NFL’s expression of this is in their marketing campaign with the tag line, “Football is family.” Players will refer to their home town neighborhood as family, to their teammates as family, to their clique as family, or anyone else they determine as loyal and true to them. Players will represent their hood via telephone area codes written on their eye black or their shoes, through tattoos on their bodies, or by flashing gang signs in photos. The sense of responsibility and obligation to their hood felt by players who succeed is seen in their foolish use of money and influence. This is certainly one cause of the dramatic prevalence of bankruptcy among professional players who are shortly bankrupt after ending their sporting careers. To misunderstand the loyalty and responsibility felt by players can cause a great deal of grief for coaches, chaplains, and others who care for players in moments of crisis.

“Express yourself.” Watch the NFL, NBA, MLB, College Football or most any high school sporting event and you will see a wide variety of celebrations for touchdowns, dunks, home runs, or even the most mundane accomplishment on the field or court. To express oneself is central to Hip Hop culture, and to do it creatively, uniquely, with style and swagger is of even greater value. This value is expressed in interviews with the media as the player seeks to establish his brand or to show his style by how he speaks. It is seen when team culture and sportsmanship are cast aside for showmanship. It is demonstrated when professional players treat press conferences like fashion shows. It is tattooed and even branded onto their arms and even on their necks and faces. To keep it real and to express one’s feelings, without filter or restraint, is among Hip Hop’s central doctrines. To push back against these expressions will be labeled as racist or bigoted. 

To navigate these cultural waters with players is neither easy nor tidy. We who love them must be willing to deal with the chaos and messiness we feel as we seek to lead them to fulfillment of their goals and God’s purposes. My purpose here is neither to solve cultural dissonance nor to ask that you adopt Hip Hop culture as your own. Rather, I would ask you to seek to understand the culture from which the vast majority of players come and to find new and effective ways to communicate the grace and truth of Christ Jesus in light of it.

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