From Tupac to Lorca: Finding the “Soul” in Hip-Hop and Literature

By Alejandro Nava, author of In Search of Soul: Hip-Hop, Literature, and Religion

Taking its name from a song by Bobby Byrd and James Brown, Eric B. and Rakim released a single in 1987, “I Know You Got Soul,” from their album Paid in Full. By sampling the funky rhythms and throbbing drums of James Brown’s signature sound, the rap looks backward to soul music while at the same time looking forward to a new age that will put on wax many of the hip-hop generation’s distinct idioms, brags, syntaxes, and struggles. The song epitomizes the fresh new prosody and poetics of the hip-hop generation, a generation that will use ghetto tongues to name and scrutinize American possibilities and shortcomings, American opportunities and grave injustices. As time goes on, other rap artists will jump aboard the soul train and pilfer its propulsive beats and energies, but they will also increasingly bring with them the weights and burdens of black lives in the twentieth century. As the title of their tenth album suggests—How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul—Public Enemy, for example, drags these issues to the forefront. Typical to their prophetically charged vision, the album philosophizes and raps with a hammer, warning its listeners to the commercial and cultural forces in American life that seek to steal and cheapen the soul. In our own day and age—the age of Trump—Kendrick Lamar has burst on the stage of hip hop with some of the same anxieties and judgments. In song after song—“For Sale,” “How Much a Dollar Cost?” and “Mortal Man,” to name a few—he describes and dramatizes a soul in anguish, fighting and grinding for survival in a culture of consumption and callousness, doing what it can to resist the temptations of “Lucy” (his epithet for meretricious charms of Lucifer).

Though my book, In Search of Soul: Hip-Hop, Literature and Religion, is broader in scope than the soundscapes of rap, I see it as sharing the same airwaves and preoccupations as hip-hop artists in the mold of Lauryn Hill, Tupac, Kendrick Lamar, J Cole, Immortal Technique, Chance the Rapper and others. Simply put, the book is a response to the crisis of the soul in our age, and it considers the pressures by way of money, power and greed that can tarnish the highest ideals and values of the soul. More specifically, though, it explores the different nuances in the meaning of soul, from religious interpretations to profane and musical accounts. Part I of the book defends the basic values associated with the soul in the Jewish and Christian traditions: contemplation, compassion, spiritual depth, and fundamental human rights. I follow the lead of Lauryn Hill when she remarks that we need to “change the focus from the richest to the brokest,” as well as the famous adage of Jesus, “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?” Part II, then, moves to a cultural, artistic, and musical exploration of “soul” in African American and Hispanic traditions. In this second inflection, “soul” is a metaphor of artistic excellence and cultural/musical creativity. By examining the transformation in the grammar of “soul” from W.E.B. Du Bois and Ralph Ellison to Federico García Lorca and hip-hop, I consider how this concept became a counter-cultural trope and a weapon of protest against oppressive forces in American life. In the hands of these artists, it became synonymous with a spiritual force that could repel and overcome powerful tides of injustice.

By weaving together these different strands of “soul,” the book draws not only from my experiences in the classroom at the University of Chicago (where I studied religion), or at University of Arizona (where I’ve been teaching courses on religion and hip-hop); it is also a product of my schooling outside the walls of the university. For whatever else is true about the question of the soul, it is certainly the case that there is something fundamentally inscrutable and uncanny about the concept, something that requires an existential commitment to untangle its labyrinthine mysteries. In my own life (as in the religious, literary and hip-hop artists that I consider in this book), the pursuit of soul has taken me down surprising and uncharted roads, beyond the restricting borders of academic codes and norms, beyond the divisions of the sacred and profane. In learning from the street scribes of hip-hop, I have come to realize that whaling can be one’s Harvard and Yale (Melville), that the slums and tenements of New York can be the finest tutors (Stephen Crane), and that “beyond the walls of intelligence, life is found” (Nas).

Playlist on “Soul”

Literary Samples

Federico Garcia Lorca, In Search of Duende

W.E.B Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

Ralph Ellison, The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison

Virginia Woolf, “The Russian Point of View,” in The Common Reader

Michael Eric Dyson, Holler if You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur

Alejandro Nava is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Arizona and author of Wonder and Exile in the New World and The Mystical and Prophetic Thought of Simone Weil and Gustavo Gutierrez.

The “Six” Boroughs: A Focus on the Bronx

This is the second of the “six” boroughs blog series celebrating Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas by Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro. If you missed the first in the series, on Queens, you can read that here.

One of the most enduring images of the Bronx is that of a “burning Bronx.” Memorialized by the now well-know phrase “The Bronx is Burning,” we typically think of the Bronx as a borough of misfortune and loss. In the 1950s Robert Moses and his Cross Bronx Expressway tore through the South Bronx. The 1970s brought the fires, a result of declining property values and poor management of city finances. Today, the Bronx is home to one of the five poorest Congressional districts in the U.S. However, the real story of the Bronx is one of growth, natural beauty, and creativity.

Listen to the Bronx’s Grandmaster Flash with “The Message” as we move through all that the Bronx has to offer to New York City

The Bronx is home to one of New York City’s oldest treasures: the Thain Family Forest, 50 acres of the last remaining old-growth forest that originally blanketed the area. Trees in the forest date back to the 18th century, and are situated within the New York Botanical Garden, 250 acres of over one million living plants. The old-growth forest is not only home to centuries old trees, but to wildlife habitats, including coyotes, bald eagles,  and North American river otters.


The Bronx is well-known as the birthplace of hip hop, but techniques and styles that we take for granted now were groundbreaking and spreading throughout the Bronx in the early 1970s. Grand Wizzard Theodore started scratching records in 1975, when he was only thirteen. In Nonstop Metropolis he shares his memories of growing up in the Bronx.

I lived here in the Bronx, so hip-hop was always around me. When I’d go to the train station I’d see the graffiti on the trains. When I’d go to the parks I’d see the b-boys b-boying. As far as the MCs, there were always guys on the corner harmonizing and freestyling. And then once I saw my brother Mean Gene and Grandmaster Flash with two turntables and a mixer—that’s when I realized I was born into a culture we call hip-hop.

Back the [the parties we threw] were just called jams. We would go into abandoned buildings and do jams and charge people $1.99 or 99 cents to come in. We were doing “hooky parties”—people would skip school and go to the jams and everybody would throw their book bags to the side and we’d play music until three o’clock.

Perhaps nobody better expresses the re-birth of the Bronx than Marshall Berman, whose essay “New York: Seeing through the Ruins” is included in Nonstop Metropolis. Below is an excerpt:

I can remember when I first heard “The Message” blaring from a West Harlem record shop, in the Reagan summer of 1982. Right away I was thrilled. It wasn’t so long ago that I’d lost a kid (Marc Berman, 1975-1980); I’d been pretty low. Was I moving my limbs again? Now these kids from the city’s most horrendous ruins had created a masterpiece that looked the negative in the face and lived with it, and still dreamt of coming through. I thought, if they could dream this, then damn it, we were going to come through. I knew New York still had plenty of sorrow ahead. There were homeless families all over the streets and in the subways. A dear friend of mine had just died of AIDS—and I don’t think it had even been named AIDS. I couldn’t even conceive of crack, our 1980s twist of fate. But I knew our Via Dolorosa had a long way to run. Still, of all the forms of suffering, I thought, the worst is where your imagination shuts down. Once you can imagine getting out of the hole you’re in, even if you can’t imagine how, the worst is past.

Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas is the final volume in our trilogy of atlases by Rebecca Solnit, Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, Rebecca Snedeker, and a host of notable contributors. Following the publication of the critically lauded Infinite City (San Francisco) and Unfathomable City (New Orleans), we bring you this homage—and challenge—to the way we know New York City, an exquisitely designed and gorgeously illustrated atlas that excavates the many buried layers of all five boroughs of New York City and parts of New Jersey. Preorder your copy today.