Snoop Dogg: Straddling the spiritual and secular

Stephanie Renée Home Row 1

This lyric, ladies and gents, is how the world was introduced to Snoop Dogg.

Creep with me as I crawl through the hood
Maniac, lunatic, call him Snoop Eastwood
Kickin’ dust as I bust, f*ck peace
And the motherf*ckin’ punk police
You already know I gives a f*ck about a cop
So why in the f*ck would you think that it would stop?

April 2, 1992. Release date for the film soundtrack title track of Deep Cover, starring Laurence Fishburne. Dr. Dre, already world-renowned for his work as producer for the group N.W.A., was chosen to provide his platinum-selling urban flair for the project, in the rapidly-expanding genre of gangsta rap. From the shadows of obscurity, he brought along a new voice to lace the track: a kid who spent years in close contact with (but, supposedly, never an official member of) The Crips, in and out of lockup for petty drug offenses until 1990 when convicted for felony drug possession and sale. Unlike many of his rap counterparts, Snoop didn’t just rhyme about the gangster life.

He lived it.

Yet, in the midst of what many may have assumed would amount to a stereotypical existence of drugs, violence, and incarceration, Snoop had also begun developing a charismatic lyricism and natural musical ability. As a child, he played piano and sang as a member of Golgotha Trinity Baptist Church, where his mother served as Evangelist. With the commercial success of hiphop music and culture, by the sixth grade, young Calvin Broadus turned his childhood nickname into a rap persona. He honed those skills with his cousins Nate Dogg, Lil 1/2 Dead, and friend Warren G, recording mixtapes under the name 213 for the area code of his native Long Beach, California. Young Snoop, it appears, was restless and anxious to live a lifestyle that was not readily available to young men who were abandoned by both their biological father and stepfather, surrounded by gang violence and drug culture, yet respectful of the loving environment created by his mother and grandmother, encouraging him to be more.

Could he be in the world, but not of it, and find some kind of professional success that wasn’t linked to the criminal enterprise of his surroundings?

Turns out that Snoop is more of a both/and kinda guy.

One wouldn’t have to strain to imagine that he feels blessed and covered, in the parlance of the church, for even surviving his turbulent upbringing. Riding on the success of the Deep Cover single, Snoop began working on his debut solo project, Doggystyle and was subsequently arrested and charged with murder. Charges from which he was later acquitted, thanks to representation by the late, great criminal attorney Johnnie Cochran. And how does Snoop respond to this benevolent reversal of fortune? He turns it into another hit song, titled “Murder Was The Case.”

No more indo, gin and juice
I’m on my way to Chino, rolling on the grey goose
Shackled from head to toe
Twenty-five with an izz-el, with nowhere to gizzo, I know
Them niggas from the other side recognize my face
Cause it’s the O.G. D-O-double-G, L-B-C
Mad dogging niggas cause I don’t care
Red jumpsuit with two braids in my hair
Niggas stare as I enter the center
They send me to a level three yard, that’s where I stay
Late night I hear toothbrushes scraping on the floor
Niggas getting they shanks, just in case the war, pops off
Cause you can’t tell what’s next
My little homie Baby Boo took a pencil in his neck
And he probably won’t make it to see twenty-two
I put that on my Momma; I’ma ride for you Baby Boo

That could have been his long-term reality. But God, it seems, had other plans.

Looking over Snoop’s discography, filmography, TV appearances and other accolades, one might be surprised to learn that he has worked consistently in entertainment since 1994. His presence, on and off-screen, is iconic. Qualities that may have sunk the aspirations of any other young Black man have seemingly buoyed Snoop toward even more fame and financial success. And, all the while, just under the immediate headlines, has been a search for and exploration of the crossroads of spirit and the art.

Wake up, jumped out my bed
I’m in a 2 man cell with my homie Lil 1/2 Dead
Murder was the case that they gave me
Dear God, I wonder can you save me
I’m only 18, so I’m a young buck
It’s a riot, if I don’t scrap, I’m getting stuck
But that’s the life of a G, I guess…

Those lines, from the first verse of “Lil Ghetto Boy” on Dr. Dre’s The Chronic album, frame a mentality that can be found on virtually every street corner in urban America. Young men of every conceivable ethnicity, who prefer not to yield to the prevalence of easy money from illegal activity that has infiltrated their communities, yet see no feasible alternative. Snoop never removed himself from these influences or their lessons; he merely transformed the context through which he would engage them. Instead of selling marijuana and cocaine, he became a first-class consumer of the substances. Rather than be pimped by the system, he spent two years as an actual pimp, until some of his elder mentors convinced him that family life and fatherhood were far more progressive choices. Instead of succumbing to the negative language and tone of gangsta rap critique, he lured suburban white teens to adopt his Izzle slang. Snoop became a master at observing the game and changing the rules to his liking. In a different physical frame, with a more aggressive presence or style, Snoop’s antics would likely have gotten him killed. As it did Biggie. As it did Tupac.

But he’s on a mission, and Spirit is never out of the picture.

Snoop fans have noted his brief explorations of both Islam and Rastafarianism. His well-documented fervor for marijuana has, in more recent years, been spoken of as a gateway to both his creative talent and his connection to a higher power. Maturity and the mainstreaming of his image have brought about previously-unimagined creative collaborations and opportunities, including a cooking show with Martha Stewart and hosting duties for the game show, Joker’s Wild. Reality shows examining his roles as father and peewee football coach. Normalcy, for all intents and purposes.

And for that, Snoop is thankful. So thankful, in fact, that he embraced his church roots earlier this year as talent and executive producer for a double gospel album he named Bible of Love.

Enlisting the services of a Who’s Who of gospel and soul luminaries, including Patti LaBelle, The Clark Sisters, John P. Kee, Tye Tribbett, Faith Evans, Charlie Wilson, Fred Hammond and B-Slade, Bible of Love asks some of the same questions that Snoop has had to answer for himself throughout his life and career, and offers listeners a chance to figure out where they stand as they are faced with similar trials and decisions.

Have you figured out how to listen to The Creator and be grateful for your journey, even if you continue to fall down and turn away from your purpose? And are you willing to get back up and keep moving to the success you deserve, designed just for you?

Churches facing waning attendance and congregants with crises of faith would do well to look toward Snoop as an example. Admittedly flawed, but striving. Counting his blessings and leading by example. One step, one choice, at a time.

This fall, theatrical producer Je’Caryous Johnson is giving Snoop his first starring role on stage, in a play titled Redemption of a Dogg, loosely based on Snoop’s life. Co-starring Tamar Braxton, yet another contemporary music star raised in the church, who has struggled to find her voice and place in an industry and a world who sees her as a problem. The tour stops in Philadelphia October 12 & 13, and I may just find myself in the audience. Mr. Broadus is always full of surprises, and he might be able to preach a good word on life, living and believing by telling his story, in character.

From gin and juice to grace and deliverance. Imagine that.

About the author: Stephanie Renée, The VibeMistress of Soul Sanctuary, is a native of Washington DC, but has long ties to the city of Philadelphia from childhood, when she spent a portion of every summer with family who lived in the Wynnefield and Mt. Airy sections of the city. Over the past 16 years, Stephanie has shared her gifts on the national and international stage, and on a long list of successful recordings. Her love for the arts and a passion for education led her to several partnerships with national non-profit organizations to develop curricula in creative expression and multicultural/diversity literacy.

This article was written for WXPN’S GOSPEL ROOTS OF ROCK AND SOUL. GOSPEL ROOTS OF ROCK AND SOUL has been supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.