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Black man's world?

Hip hop doesn't just dominate urban youth culture; it's also the music of choice attracting suburban white-and Christian-kids

Black man's world?

Justin Klein, 23, is dressed like many other white residents of affluent St. Louis suburbs: blue jeans, a pair of tan Timberlands, and a black Ecko sweatshirt. But he also wears a blue bandana and loves to freestyle rap.

His best friend Jonathan White, also 23, looks typical as well in his blue jeans, crisp polo shirt, and black leather jacket. But his life is so immersed in hip hop that he dropped out of college after his sophomore year and moved to Las Vegas for private instruction in the art of hip-hop dance.

The musical tastes of Mr. White and Mr. Klein are neither unusual nor uncommon. Hip hop rules urban youth culture in America-but it is also wildly popular among white suburban kids. Forbes reported that whites purchase nearly 80 percent of all music produced by the $1.5 billion hip-hop industry. Hip hop, not rock, is king in a lot of affluent areas where many suburban kids are bored and privately live highly self-sabotaging lives.

If Christians want to know the pulse of American culture, they should listen to hip hop, says Mr. Klein, who met Mr. White at Parkway West High School, part of a school district where the average family income is $95,704. They became close friends later in a youth program at Twin Oaks Presbyterian Church and realized they both had from childhood a love for hip hop.

Jonathan White's hip-hop journey began in a neighborhood with African-Americans in north St. Louis. Captivated by the music of Young M.C., he later embraced Vanilla Ice, MC Hammer, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Snoop, 2 Pac, Notorious BIG, Puff Daddy, Master P, and DMX. When Jonathan at age 9 moved to suburban Ballwin, Mo., which has an African-American population of 1.86 percent, he brought his love for hip hop with him.

Justin Klein by the third grade was rapping in class and on the playground. In high school he befriended African-Americans, mostly bused in from St. Louis city as part of a desegregation program, and would invite them over to spend weekends at his house: "The neighbors would give me looks like 'What's this black kid doing in our neighborhood?'"

Bakari Kitwana, author of Why White Kids Love Hip Hop, notes that some are immersed in black youth culture and are personally at ease with African-Americans. Many white hip-hop fans, though, have no black friends but still practice hip-hop arts, including dancing and rapping.

For suburban kids living a mundane, materialistic, consumer-oriented existence, hip hop gives their lives flavor-materialism plus adventure.

Mr. Klein says white kids generally love hip hop because it reflects "the vices of our culture like materialism and hypersexuality." They listen to hip hop while smoking blunts (a cigar stuffed with marijuana instead of tobacco) and getting drunk because the music "adds an ambience that you're not going to get simply sitting in your boring West County environment smoking a blunt and drinking beer."

Mr. Klein knows this firsthand. Before becoming a Christian as a high-school senior, he said he "lived like the rap songs that were popular in high school. Selling drugs, womanizing, idolatry in all its popular forms, sex, materialism, pride, etc." With hip hop, suburban kids can now do those things with a new and exciting cultural identity-flashing gang signs or wearing their pants below the waist.

A recent Manhattan Institute study by Jay Greene examined the shared lifestyles of urban and suburban kids. Mr. Greene reports that urban and suburban high schools are virtually identical in terms of drug use and sexual activity. According to the report, two-thirds of all suburban and urban 12th-graders have had sex-and most of them have had sex with a person with whom they did not have a romantic relationship.

Alcohol and drug use follow similar patterns. Mr. Greene reports that 63 percent of suburban 12th-graders and 57 percent of urban 12th-graders drink without family members present. About four out of 10 12th-graders, in both urban and suburban schools, have used illegal drugs. About 20 percent of suburban 12th-graders and 13 percent of urban 12th-graders have driven while high on drugs.

A key difference in this shared lifestyle is that white suburban kids often have opportunities to opt out of situations in which many lower-income kids see themselves trapped. Last month Proof, an Eminem protégé whose real name was Deshaun Holton, died at age 32 after being shot in the head during a bar fight in Detroit. Suburban white kids hear about that report but don't see the same thing happening to them; the inner-city perspective is often different.

The appeal to suburban kids is also heightened by hip hop's movement away from the violent, anti-authoritarian gangsta rap of a decade ago. Mr. Klein notes that today's rappers deal with "the latest politics, struggles with pornography, addictions, depression, and any other issue that anyone else deals with." Mr. White never embraced the lifestyle celebrated in popular hip hop but relished the athleticism and technique of hip-hop dance.

Today, both Mr. White and Mr. Klein prefer "underground" hip hop instead of the often vulgar and vain type mainstreamed on radio stations and cable stations like MTV. Underground hip-hop artists like Glue, Timothy Brindle, Mars Ill, Atmosphere, and Deep Space Five rap about the brokenness of the human condition and the need for redemption.

For example, an emerging artist like Matisyahu-in his recently released song "Youth"-raps in a Jamaican accent about his contemporaries: ". . . some of them don't know what to be / some of them don't know where to go / some of them trust their instincts that something's missing from the show / some don't fit society, / insides are crying low / some of them teachers squash the flame before it had a chance to grow / some of them embers do glow / them charcoal, hushed and low . . ."

Mr. Klein now lives with his grandmother, works full-time for a cleaning business, and attends a local college while he considers a calling to church ministry. His own raps deal with issues in his life and attempt to show "the true reformed religion of Christ in lyrical form." In his "Inherently Infected," Mr. Klein raps about the human condition:

"It's just another blessing from / the Holy God that made you / and through whom all wisdom comes / the greatest gift to some / but still others just reject Him / reflectin' an infection for which we must be reckoned / wretched treacherous men live in deception. So when it comes to sin; / Man has NO depth perception!"

Mr. White, trying to get his hip-hop dance-instruction business off the ground, lives with his parents and works in a restaurant: He is saving money for his wedding, scheduled next month. His dance students, who range in age from 13 to 29, include both African-Americans and whites. Some drive for over an hour from neighboring Illinois to learn dance moves like the "shoulder roll" and "gliding," which gives the illusion of frictionless movement across the floor.

The two hip-hoppers, along with other young St. Louis evangelicals connected with the website, visit local churches to put on hip-hop dance exhibitions that include testimonies and gospel presentations. The group has raised money for victims of Hurricane Katrina, and for kids whose parents are in prison. Fundraisers have included sales and displays of hip-hop art, group dance contests, and individual breakdance competitions.

When asked if hip hop is just a phase, Mr. Klein laughed and said, "Picture the stereotypical 50-year-old guy chillin' in his basement with his buddies drinking a Miller Lite listening to Abba: We'll probably be doing that at 45 with underground hip hop." The music that teens have found meaningful over the past decades is likely to remain as popular among them as the music of Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones has remained among their elders. Will members of the hip-hop generation find answers to their deeper questions?

Anthony Bradley

Anthony Bradley

Anthony is associate professor of religious studies at The King's College in New York and a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.