In this second instalment of the Critical Questions Series, we ask scholars of religion how they negotiate the difficult line between “politics” and scholarship. The previous responses can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.
The line between scholarship and politics or, if you like, between theory building and political commitments, is a notoriously difficult one to negotiate. For some, scholarship should only be about describing and explaining, while for others advocacy (i.e., changing the world for the better) is also an important part of what we do in the academy. While making explicit one’s historical and institutional circumstances, along with the logic and process behind one’s methods and theories is an important step in addressing this issue, it still does not answer the question of advocacy—whether or not it should be done or what counts for it in the first place. With reference to your own experience, institutional affiliation and scholarly identity, what are your thoughts on this matter?
Religion and Hip Hop: Keeping Discourse “On the Ground”
The publication of my first book Religion and Hip Hop has sparked a wide variety of curious questions regarding the ways in which these two signifiers are treated and the kind of work the constructed “and” between “religion” and “hip hop” attempts to do. I am often queried about my personal relationship to hip hop culture (and religion) – a question which involves a host of social interests that speak to both identity and politics. “Did you grow up religious or listening to hip hop?”
In other instances, I am cautioned about the peril and dangers of “intellectualizing” religion in hip hop. Why baptize hip hop in the “white” theoretical discourses of the likes of Pierre Bourdieu, Jacques Derrida, and Judith Butler? Thus, keeping what “should be” and is “expected to be” a more (blackened) general public conversation arrested to the quagmires of high (white) theory and (parochial) insider academic debates that don’t “keep it real” (because we know that there are scholars who keep it real on the ground and others who do their work in the sky). These concerns and others highlight the self-perpetuating dangers of protectionist strategies and identity politics rooted in a misrecognition of “keeping it real” that holds tightly to manufactured distinctions often plastic in nature.
These types of concerns are often laden with a variety of social interests that are neither specific nor unique to academic work and research. I often start the semester off by asking (a mostly white class), “what is ‘African American’ about African American Religion?” “If this course were titled ‘American Religion’ would you expect to be studying the sorts of things we’re studying this semester?” These questions often draw blank stares and … silence. On both ends, I am afforded little distance from my object(s) of study by nature of how strategies of identification work. In fact, I’m more often than not assumed to hold some privileged access to the world of blackness – like an oracle of sorts – where my scholarly distance is questioned by nature of my identity and or the protectionist and activist-oriented expectations of readers, students, and colleagues.
Teaching the sociology of (black) religion and hip hop this semester has sparked a wide variety of conversation related to the quagmires of scholarship and identity–“How do we “ground” theory? How is “black” operative in “black religion?” “Why is hip hop more often than not beholden to a narrative of “black” origins?” “What is the difference between “conscious” hip hop and “mainstream” hip hop?” What do we make of the promise/peril/crises/moral panic paradigm that frames much of these debates? Rather than searching for “answers” or resolutions, we explore what makes such distinction possible by asking, “What’s at stake in various approaches?” “What social interests are operative and being protected?” “How are categories constructed and manufactured and for what purposes do they serve?” “How are origin myths constructed and what sort of weight do these narratives hold in maintaining the capital of certain stories?” “Does religion often become a proxy for talk about identity and the social world?”
The religion in/and hip hop game, like any other, has many rules and expectations that rely upon insider/outsider concerns, the distance one has to their data under study, and who can say what about hip hop depending on their social history, positioning and perceived race/ethnicity/politic (Are “they” an “authority” on hip hop? “Is their work “political” enough? Is there enough “weight” to keep their work “on the ground?”).
Irrespective of degree, a certain kind of identity politic and personal experience with our objects of study, seemingly grants authority to speak for and on behalf of our chosen data sets. It would be anathema to think one could riff on religion and hip hop without being a “hip hop head,” right? Or wait, shouldn’t that read differently? What about scholars of “religion?” But if the category of experience trumps in both instances then perhaps we can just talk from the reservoir of memory as a stand in for critical analysis. The idea that one is (or should be) what one studies is a problematic feature of the sorts of essentialisms that exist in a wide variety of fields today – religious studies included.
What ought the “expert” position in religion and hip hop scholarship look like? While hip hop is my data set, my primary motivation for writing Religion and Hip Hop was to interrogate the very object I claimed to study: religion. In doing so, I desired to use and analyze the uses of religion in hip hop in what they sought to accomplish for competing social and cultural interests. I had not planned to save churches, push for one religion or another, advocate for a certain kind of hip hop politic, or bridge the church and the streets, but rather, to contribute to theory and method in the study of religion – African American religion more generally.
Inside and outside of the academy, religion and hip hop sells (and cuts) in many ways. I wanted to offer rigorous and critical religious studies reflection on my data set as to not do scant justice to my objects of study. Highly privatized narratives based on personal experience, motivation, and feeling (while appropriate in certain contexts and institutions) and certain kinds of politics are grossly troubling and anecdotal at best.
My “personal” relationships to and with both religion and hip hop (like my identity) don’t, in the end, grant me privileged access to “advocate” for and on behalf of my objects of study in certain kinds of ways. Nor am I required to “keep my data on the ground” in fear that it’ll fly away.