Centre News

Students take a fantastic voyage in Rap, Rock and Religion in America

January 24, 2013 By Elizabeth Trollinger       
Matthew Pierce Visiting Instructor of Religion Matthew Pierce (above) taught a
class on “Rap, Rock and Religion in America” this CentreTerm.
“I liked learning about different music genres and how religion
ties into that,” says Caty Herd ’16.

Musical artists like Jay-Z and the Rolling Stones are not usually studied seriously in the context of religion in the United States. Then again, CentreTerm classes are anything but the usual.

In “Rap, Rock and Religion in America,” a first-year studies course taught this CentreTerm by Visiting Instructor of Religion Matthew Pierce, students looked at how the two powerful music genres have been affected by religious perspectives, and vice versa.

“We have explored the relationship between popular music and religion in America from multiple angles. First of all, we considered the tension which has existed between major religious leaders and the ideas and trends found within certain music subcultures, especially since the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll,” Pierce says. “In contrast to that tension, however, we have also traced some of the history of popular music in America, taking note of the profound ways in which rock ‘n’ roll emerged out of, and has been inspired by, religious traditions and modes of worship. Rock music in America has been, and continues to be, inundated with religious themes, motifs and imagery. Much of the profoundly influential power that formative musicians have channeled to the public has been through their ability to grapple with and reflect upon religion. This can be seen from Elvis to Bob Dylan, the Beatles and James Brown.

“But the third aspect of the class has really been key,” Pierce continues. “We have tried to pay particular attention to the ways in which people's experiences of music can be a type of religious moment itself. People have transcendent encounters while listening to music or attending a concert that they often can find no way to explain except through religion. Further, many music subcultures have emerged in the last four decades whose members function in ways very similar to religious communities. This is true of the psychedelic ‘deadheads’ of the ’70s, straight-edge hardcore fans starting in the ’80s or hip-hop’s Zulu Nation inspired by Afrika Bambaataa.”

Pierce became interested in offering this course because of its interdisciplinary nature—and also because he has often found music and religion to have an important coexistence.

“As a scholar of religion, I am continually interested in the variety of ways in which people think about religious questions in relationship to their own cultural systems of meaning. This process of constructing meaning in our own lives is often done outside the parameters of conventional, institutional religions,” Pierce says. “Like many others, I’ve often gravitated toward music that I felt expressed some type of feeling or conviction that resonated with me. Plus, I have pretty wide-ranging taste in music—from folk to punk rock and hip-hop—so I have been eager to combine all of that into a class.”

Students in Pierce’s class have thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to study religion and popular music at once.

“I’ve liked learning about the different music genres that I’d never really considered before and how religion ties into that,” says Caty Herd ’16. “My previous definition of religion was not as broad, so this gave me an opportunity for critical thinking.”

The class took a trip to a musical mecca—the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland—to get an in-depth look at how music affects American culture and life.

“The field trip to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was really cool. I learned a lot from the museum,” says Maya Porter ’16. “It really gave me a good perspective on music as a whole—about all the genres of music and how they all stemmed off of each other via rock ‘n’ roll, especially Motown and blues. It was really interesting to see where it all came from, especially as a singer and guitar player.”

“I felt like our trip—or pilgrimage, if you will—to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland was a meaningful experience,” Pierce agrees. “Not only did we make a journey to this veritable shrine devoted to rock legends, but we were able to observe the way in which the Hall of Fame manufactures a meaningful encounter for the many devotees who make the journey. And, of course, we got to see a lot of amazing artifacts of American music history.”

CentreTerm is special for the wide variety of courses it offers students—and this class, with its unique perspective and curriculum, was especially suited for it, says Pierce.

“I believe this is an ideal course for a CentreTerm. Not only do the students learn about the culture in which they live, but they are challenged to think critically about that culture,” he says.

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