These Gods Got Swagger

Avatars, Gameplay, and the Digital Performance of Hip Hop Culture in Machinima


  • Elonda Clay Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago



Hip Hop, Religion, Avatars, Video Games, Machinima


This paper expands the topography of contexts in which research on hip hop and religion takes place by investigating the ways in which video game engines and video editing software are used by game players to produce films within virtual environments. My investigation highlights the online dramatic form of "machinima" (machine-cinema) - a creative, often unintended user adaptation of video game engines and movie-making software. I argue that ‘swagger’, a collective of black cultural expressions that signify confidence, success, rhythmic body movements, and highly stylized appearance, is reconfigured by gamers for virtual environments, resulting in the creation of highly stylized virtual worlds, the modding (modifying) of simulated characters, and the re-composing of the game’s narrative architecture into player-created storylines. In this regard, this article proposes that digital performances and emergent authorship have multiple implications for the study of African American religions.

Author Biography

Elonda Clay, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago

Elonda Clay is a doctoral student in Religion and Science at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Her dissertation, “Seeing DNA is Believing?: Diaspora, DNA Ancestry Testing, and the Mediated Redemption of African Descent,” focuses on the multiple modes and uses of spiritualized, scientific, and visual rhetoric in media presentations of personalized genomics.


Brambilla, Marco. 2008. “Civilization (MEGAPLEX).” Video Clip. or at

Chang, Jeff. 2006. Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetic of Hip Hop. New York: BasicCivitas Books.

Cobb, Jelani. 2007. To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic. New York: New York University Press.

Dolan, Michael. 2004. “The Future of Video Gaming,” The Video Game Revolution. Public Broadcasting Service. KCTS Television.

Fouche, Rayvon. 2006. “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud: African Americans, American Artifactual Culture, and Black Vernacular Technological Creativity. American Quarterly 58: 639-661.

———. Interview. Campus News, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “More Than Meets the Ear: Rensselaer Researcher Studying the History of Turntablism.” February 13, 2006.

Itzkoff, Dave. “A Preview of Kanye West’s ‘Power’: Apocalyptic in a Very Personal Way.” New York Times, July 29, 2010.

Long, Charles. 1986. Significations: Signs, Symbols, and Images in the Interpretation of Religion. Aurora, Colo.: The Davies Group.

Lowood, Henry. 2005. Real-time Performance: Machinima and Game Studies. International Digital Media and Arts Association Journal, 2: 10–17.

Pinn, Anthony. 2003. Terror and Triumph: The Nature of Black Religion. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Rose, Tricia. 1994. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press.

———. Interview with Kurt Andersen. Studio 360. “Afrofuturism and Jazz, Funk, and Hip Hop” Public Radio International. December 15, 2008.

Schloss, Joseph. 2004. Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip Hop. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press.

Schur, Richard. 2009. Hip Hop Aesthetics and Intellectual Property Law. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Tori1424 (Tivana). 2007. [Machinima production of the song]. “Int'l Players Anthem - I Choose You.” Video Clip.

Watkins, S. Craig. 2006. Hip Hop Matters: Politics, Pop Culture and the Struggle for the Soul of a Movement. Boston: Beacon Press.

West, Kanye. 2010. “Power.” Video clip.



How to Cite

Clay, E. (2011). These Gods Got Swagger: Avatars, Gameplay, and the Digital Performance of Hip Hop Culture in Machinima. Bulletin for the Study of Religion, 40(3), 4–9.