When Monica Miller was growing up in Southold, she was always getting into trouble.
She was one of few African-Americans in her school, and says most of her early memories are of seeing the only potential black role models working as janitors or cooks on the lunch line.
She rebelled in the ways most teenage North Forkers were rebelling around the time she graduated in 1999. She wore eye makeup and ripped jeans. She got into fights at school. She listened to Metallica and learned the lyrics to every Guns & Roses song.
And then she discovered two passions that have intertwined in her newfound career as an academic: religion and hip-hop music.
She moved to New York to attend college in one of the most diverse cities in the world, then received her doctorate at Chicago Theological Seminary. With that degree in hand took a position just last year teaching religious studies at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore., where she’s once again one of the few African-Americans around.
Now 31, Dr. Miller is about to release a book titled “Religion and Hip-Hop,” which expands on the work she did in her doctoral thesis, and is about to launch a 12-city radio tour.
“No one would predict I would be a professor. I was really bad. I can’t tell you how many times [former Southold principal] Mary Fitzpatrick suspended me for fighting,” she said of her childhood in Southold, where her family moved full-time after her parents split up.
Dr. Miller’s mother, Charlotte Miller, has worked at Eastern Long Island Hospital for 30 years.
“She would always get calls to come pick up her daughter in the principal’s office for fighting,” said Dr. Miller. “It was hard. She was a single mom with three little brown girls. My grandparents, Addie and Alvin Pace in Peconic, helped my mom raise us. We lived with them for eight years.”
Looking back now, though, Dr. Miller sees how her unique upbringing helped her understand the role of the outsider in American culture.
With her new book, she finds herself again an outsider in the society of religious scholars. In her research, she examines frequent religious references in hip-hop music in the light of conventional thinking that hip-hop is in some way opposed to religion.
“ ‘Religion and Hip-Hop’ settles the score between the sacred and the profane,” she said. “There is no divide between the sacred and the secular. It’s a manufactured divide. There is no such thing.
“It’s going to piss off a lot of religious studies professors,” she added.
Her book is being released by Routledge, the British publishing house known for its academic titles,
Dr. Miller said she initially intended to enroll in law school, but realized that her interest in sociology was much stronger than her attraction to the law. From there, she began to explore the social context of religion.
“I wanted to find out what makes us choose to believe,” she said. “Religion is an important part of primary socialization in African-American culture. Pew [Research Center] studies consider African-Americans to have high rates of religiosity, but if you look at youth Pew data, there’s a growing trend of young non-belief.”
She said that while many fewer young African-Americans are going to church, as with their counterparts of other ethnic backgrounds, they still have a high rate of claiming to believe in God.
She points to the trend in Crump dancing, an ecstatic street dance form in South Central Los Angeles, and to the uptick in tattoos in the hip-hop community, as part of a new “faith in the flesh,” an atheistic humanistic trend she believes practitioners describe using religious language because “they have no other language to talk about it.”
“It’s actually something very humanistic,” she said. “You have no faith in the government and the state, or in God, but you do have faith that you and your friends can channel your hurt and anger and dance it out. That’s putting power in the self. It’s very new age.”
She added that when hip-hop artists talk about God and about killing in the same song, they’re only creating a contradiction for people who believe religion is something inherently moral and good.
“You can go through the Bible and see that same kind of contradiction,” she said. “God is also a murderer.
“It’s not our job [as academics] to make religion the moral sanitizers of everything in the world,” she said. “I think religion should be seen as a social construction. We should be critics, not caretakers.”
Dr. Miller has equally blunt words for educators in Southold.
“I got a very good education. It was like getting a private education in a public school,” she said. “But I still felt cultural isolation. There was a void that was not filled in me. I felt my teachers didn’t really believe in me.”
She urges teachers on the North Fork not to judge students and to teach James Baldwin’s works as well as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s.
“Give marginal groups the resources they need so they can build the confidence necessary to live full lives,” she said. “I make my students go to a community outside their own comfort zone and know what it feels like to be the other. It’s really important for everyone to feel that. I felt a lot of that growing up in high school. When I did see black students, they were in special ed. I fought back through knowledge.”
“Religion and Hip-Hop” will be available on amazon.com as of Aug. 15. More information about the book is available at religionandhiphop.com. Dr. Miller will be speaking at Columbia University on Sept. 21, and hopes to come back to Southold to speak around that time.