Dear New South Wales Electoral Commission,
You’ve asked why I should not be fined for failing to vote in my local council election this year. As you can see from my returned form, I am citing my right to abstain based on religious freedom.
My religion is hip hop. Not rap, although that’s an important part of it. You might even call me a fanatic because I’ve dedicated most of my life to exploring, participating in and promoting the overwhelmingly positive energy that is hip hop. It is more than breakdancing and street art and music, it is a system of belief and a guide to better living. A religion.
I’m sure your neck muscles are already tightening in anticipation of slamming down that ‘rejected’ stamp you have in your hand. You think I am audacious for suggesting that hip hop could hold the weight of Christianity or Islam. Perhaps you think I’m disrespecting the seriousness of your office. Please suspend your judgment. I’m sincere in my convictions, and it’s the responsibility of your office to test my appeal without prejudice.
Let’s start with the most likely objection: how can hip hop be considered a religion? Religion is defined as: a set of beliefs about the cause, nature, and purpose of the world or universe; the group of people that follow those beliefs; or the behavioural code expected of those followers.
The beauty of my religion is that its beliefs involve seeking out and warmly embracing all others. Hip hop judges you as an individual. You can be as Jewish as The Beastie Boys or a Five Percenter like Big Daddy Kane. We party to avowed Christian Kanye West collaborating with Sunni Muslim Lupe Fiasco. Snoop Dogg’s Reincarnated reflected on his life through the values of Rastafarianism. Hip hop is open to all these philosophies because it is about expanding one’s knowledge. We understand that knowledge is power. That is why hip hop is anti-censorship. No topic or viewpoint is off the table. Sometimes people say things that offend or disappoint us, but we respect the value of their opinion and their right to it. Listeners are able to take what interests them from various great thinkers and philosophies and make up their own mind about existence. My scriptures can be built from the atheist Action Bronson or even the now Scientologist Will Smith.
Common illustrated the point with his verse:
As a child, given religion with no answer to why,
Just told believe in Jesus cause for me he did die
My mind dealt with the books of Zen, Tao, the lessons
Qur’an and the Bible, to me they all vital.
Rap is both a vehicle for expression and a celebration of the power of that expression. Anyone can pick up a microphone and be judged on their content and conviction. It doesn’t matter if you are obese with a lazy eye like Notorious BIG, or offensive and frantic like Eminem: if you can tell a story and portray a truth that the audience connects with, you will be deemed worthy.
The great rap lyricists are famed for their ability to communicate with precision and use words with artistry. In this sense, hip hop is ultimately concerned with truth and beauty. An Outkast song captures a truth of life using lyrical and sonic artistry. Hip hop allows us to celebrate, vent, preach, prove ourselves and question the norm. Rap allows us to speak about the cause, nature or purpose of the universe, and articulate our place within it. It can bring a deep, elevating sense of satisfaction to both the artist and the listener.
This fulfils the first definition of religion. The second refers to a body of followers, and there is no denying that a hip hop community is thriving across borders and languages. The kid with the headphones on blast, the internet technician with the Wu-Tang tattoo. You know who I mean. We walk amongst you. International hip hop festivals occur on every continent but Antarctica – for now. Search online and you’ll find images of a community united by a love of music, creativity and knowledge. See the photos of the Japanese b-boys grinning as they spin on their heads at the International Breakdancing Championship? See the German festival put on by 20-somethings who found employment promoting their favourite rappers? See the backstage pic of the Aussie kid meeting his idol Kendrick Lamar, whose album about escaping poverty and overcoming society’s hurdles makes it a moment that kid will never forget?
These stories and messages, this energy, this inspiration, this education, is spread through an international network of open-minded listeners. They are French policemen, Russian criminals, Dutch backpackers, Aboriginal teachers, American presidents, Indonesian taxi drivers, British nurses. Anyone is welcome to join this religion because its basis is equality. As long as you are open to what hip hop can teach you, and you allow yourself to see it as a means of self improvement, the sky is the limit. For an informed (if admittedly dense) introduction try the 832 pages of The Gospel Of Hip Hop by KRS One.
And of course, unlike other religions, believing in hip hop is free. No donation plate, no guilt trips, no subscription to cancel. Hip hop is freedom and freedom doesn’t want your money. You can support artists by buying albums and merch, but that money goes to their bank accounts, not some central authority. Nor do we actively worship those individuals, though we openly admire and learn from them.
Those we admire have captured our imagination for good reason. They are individuals who flourish against the odds, who display a will and intellect beyond most humans. Jay Z went from ducking bullets in housing projects to owning basketball teams and socialising with the president. J Dilla was producing Donuts on his deathbed, writing classic instrumentals as his lupus advanced to its final stages. 50 Cent was shot nine times and still became a star. Lauryn Hill possessed the wisdom of a generation and condensed it into one classic album. These are the people – prophets, even – whose stories of strength teach and inspire us. The thread connecting Tupac and Nas and Q-Tip and Busta Rhymes and RZA is that each embodies the core values of hip hop: dedication, integrity, originality, vision, intelligence, fearlessness. These are the values my religion teaches.
So why not vote? No, hip hop doesn’t prohibit voting. But it has taught me not to support just any wack motherfucker who’s demanding it. It has taught me to be suspicious of those who grandstand and lust for power. The warnings that Chuck D gave about political systems when I was 17 are even more relevant now that I’m 29 and subject to a frightening government. Hip hop has taught me to trust my instincts, walk my path, give my energy to positivity and step away from nonsense. If I go against my conscience, I’m not hip hop.
So to vote, I need a candidate who is willing to keep it real with me about things that matter. Someone who’ll admit that yes, we could have cheap solar and rainwater tanks throughout our neighbourhoods. Who’ll admit that Joe Hockey was lying, there is no economic crisis, and the corresponding cuts to social services are bullshit. Who’ll admit there’s no justification for hundred-dollar parking fines, the council just got greedy and wanted to seeing how far they could push it. Who’ll say that of course there should be more money going into education, not less, and that they’ll work to change that. You know, honesty.
Of course, it is always possible to cast a donkey vote – send in my ballot with no candidate selected. But that still endorses a system that is fundamentally broken. That system as it stands encourages dishonesty, corruption and catering to the base and selfish parts of people’s natures. So, respectfully, I to refuse to participate until I see a candidate with the integrity to win my support.
So please. Stamp your stamp, tick the box, whatever you need to do. A government can’t tell me I can take my life lessons from ancient scrolls describing magical events, but not from a song written last week by a talented lyricist living in the modern age. Why can I seek guidance from a ghostly entity of unproven existence but not a breathing human who inspires me with their talent, guts and determination? When you start running candidates who will keep it 100 with me, I’ll cast my vote. Until then, it’s against my religion to support any candidate or system that insults my intelligence and compromises my ethics, and I’ll swear on a stack of Illmatic that’s the truth.
The Tongue (aka Xannon Shirley) is a Sydney-based MC who has released three full-length albums. His current album Surrender To Victory was nominated for the Australian Music Prize.