William & Mary

Studying religion and hip-hop sent student back to school for Ph.D.

  • Collected works:
    Collected works:  Travis Harris is a Ph.D. candidate in American studies at William & Mary, researching in Africana studies at the intersection of religion and hip-hop. His office is full of books he is referencing to make a comprehensive study of hip-hop around the world.  Photo by Jennifer L. Williams
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Travis Harris knows the exact moment he decided to return to a university.

Never mind that he had sworn off further schooling, had a job and was on a path to become an Army chaplain. All of that changed when worlds seemingly collided.

“I was like, what? Studying hip-hop and theology?” Harris said. “I can do that?”

These days Harris is a Ph.D. candidate in American studies at William & Mary and associate editor for The Journal of Hip Hop Studies. He researches in Africana studies at the intersection of religion and hip-hop and is doing doctoral research on the predominantly African-American neighborhood of Magruder in York County that was displaced in the 1940s when the Navy built Camp Peary.

Harris earned his undergraduate degree in religious studies at the University of Virginia in three-and-a-half years, while serving in the Army Reserve and missing a semester for training. He struggled at UVA and said he wanted nothing to do with more school.

Working at a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., Harris joined the Army’s chaplain candidacy program, which had a requirement that he attend seminary. While grudgingly earning his M.Div. at Virginia Union University, he had what can only be called an epiphany.

While taking a course called systematic theology, which is a comprehensive understanding of God primarily in the Christian context, Harris heard hip-hop artists Trip Lee and Tedashii rapping about the theological term homousia.

He brought it up with his classmates, one of whom suggested studying it.

“I didn’t even know that was possible,” Harris said. “I didn’t even know that world existed.”

He broached the topic with his church history professor, and the first thing he said was that the topic could be a dissertation.

“So from that point forward, I decided to go ahead and pursue a Ph.D.,” Harris said.

His master’s thesis at Virginia Union was titled, "Listen Up: Why the Church and Academia Should Study and Embrace 'Holy Hip-hop'," which contends that more attention should be paid to Christians in hip-hop.

“I didn’t even know at that time period that I was actually on the cutting edge of hip-hop and religion,” Harris said. “Because at that time period there weren’t that many articles published on hip-hop and religion.”

There were few books and a journal article or chapter here and there, but work in the area was scant. More books started to emerge on the topic.

Because of its inter-disciplinary approach, Harris entered W&M’s American Studies Program in 2014. At that time, Michael Brown was shot by police in Ferguson, Missouri, at the start of a string of such incidents that roiled the national consciousness. One of the MCs Harris was following, Thi'sl, is from St. Louis, Missouri, which has been the site of racial tension between residents and police.

“So then I decided I could do my dissertation on Thi'sl because that brings in both the stuff that was happening at Ferguson after Michael Brown was killed and hip-hop and religion,” Harris said.

His American studies master’s thesis, "Putin' on for Da Lou: Hip-hop's Response to Racism in St. Louis," analyzes how three MCs from St. Louis, two of whom are “Christian rappers” — Flame, Thi'sl and Tef Poe — responded to Michael Brown's death.

“The longer I studied here, I became more and more interested in systemic racism,” Harris said.

He continues to study Christians and hip-hop, while working on his doctoral dissertation on the Magruder neighborhood. Currently Harris is co-editing journal special issues on global hip-hop that will publish soon, and the just-published issue on hip-hop and religion.

As part of researching the African diaspora, Harris is examining hip-hop’s growth both globally and as it manifests in localities around the world. His office is full of works he has collected on the culture in various countries and regions, all of which he studies collectively towards developing a holistic picture. This includes all aspects of hip-hop culture beyond just the music.

“Other than ‘An International Bibliography and Resource Guide,’ there is no systematic study or research that brings all these pieces together,” Harris said. “So that’s what I’m doing. … I can look at globalization, culture, religion, sociology all at the same time to paint a better picture of what hip-hop is.”