If you follow the Christian blog world, you’ll know that a recent panel of pastors George Bush’ed the button on the Christian rap discussion. By the response of some bloggers you’d think that Joel Beeke put a picture of Lacrae in a tutu on a Summer Jam screen. Others act like they’ve been appointed to bring rap to justice like some kind of the cultural five-O.
But let’s be clear, this isn’t the Big and Pac feud of the reformed evangelical world. The discussion that sparked this debate was incited by a group of men who have little familiarity with the story and function of rap as a legitimate genre of music. When a panelist hesitantly and almost apologetically (sheepishly, I might add) admits to having Toby Mac on his iPod, something isn’t right. I imagine that the underwhelming arguments of the panel will not cause too much ruckus in the Christian rap world. One might wonder why we haven’t ignored it all together.
Born and Raised in the Streets
Rap, just as its musical predecessors, was created as a form to serve a specific function. Since its birth in the 1970’s, rap has undergone a transformation in terms of its medium and primary message. However, rap as a musical form has always served to promote a civil function. Rap was born and raised to give a voice for the urban sentiment of a people who didn’t buy into or experience the suburban American ideal. For those that didn’t fit the American suburban mold, like drops of oil suspended in a glass of water, they coalesced, rap becoming the emulsifier that not only promoted a sense of community amongst all who rallied around this new form of self-expression, but also showcased their legitimate talent, abilities, and potential to an outside world content to ignore and avoid what they couldn’t understand. And by implication, rap artists have helped give a poetic and emotionally charged voice to a whole class of American citizenry. Art always imitates life. And rap serves as the intersection where rhythm is life and life is rhythm.
Rap music gives a window to the soul of American culture. Rap music also speaks in the language of many in American culture. As thoughtful Christians we should take notice of the themes and messages that resonate with millions of Americans – let me add, Americans from every ethnicity and socioeconomic background. This is part of our missionary call. It is because of the resonate power of rap that many Adidas have walked through concert doors and roamed over previously uninhabited concert floors. From a missional standpoint, the medium of rap music has served as another vehicle for the gospel message.
For Every Dark Night, There’s A Brighter Day
We can either retreat to our elitist Christian bubbles and take unintelligent shots from within or sift through Niebuhr’s categories (or Carson’s expanded categories) and think reflectively about Christ and culture. I’ll go with Niebuhr and Carson.
At the very least, I write this blog with more authority than the men on the panel. For a large period of my life I listened to secular rap and hip-hop music. So, my authority comes from actually knowing what rap music is. There is a dark side to this knowledge. The mnemonic power of rap has lodged rap lyrics deep into my mind. Still today, you can lay down an instrumental track from countless rap artists, and I can regrettably recall their Godless and often God cursing lyrics.
From experience I can tell you that most of non-Christian secular rap is full of vulgar and vain vernacular – a stark vision of depraved hearts. Not only do their lyrics leave one wondering if these rappers have been cursed with a curse to just curse, but the main message they’ve proclaimed is primarily about coming from the bottom of the bottom to the top of the top. For them, their justification in life is that they’ve made the change from a common thief to up close and personal with Robin Leach. Understandably, many onlookers wonder if the picture of the good life in secular rap is that of the artist formally known as Snoop Dog, laid back, with his mind on his money and his money on his mind. Even worse, the degradation of women in many secular rap songs reimage them as objects of sexual triumph.
In this ego-centric environment it’s understandable that rappers perpetually compete in a lyrical battle of king of the mountain. Sadly, they hypothetically (and sometimes literally) kill one another to grab everything the capitalist driven media promises can fill the deep voids in their lives. If anything, I can truly understand the hearts of these lost and hurting artists. They bleed on those albums. The reason so many people are drawn to their rap is that they too, have been cut in the same places. However, not all rap is the death rattle in the throat of a dying culture. Judging from the broad generalities made by the panelists, they seemed to make no distinction between secular and solid Christian rap.
What More Can I Say?
We cannot, as the panelists’ desire, snuff out rap music all together. While I have engaged in the ritual of throwing many of these secular albums in the Christian summer camp fire, I am not yet ready to pour out a bottle in memory of the entire genre. Rap music has its place. Sadly, some Christian rap functions like drug store cologne – kitschy mimesis of depraved and self-centered secular rap. However, not all rap is about drawing attention to the rapper. There are legitimately talented and God honoring Christian rap artists who use their distinctive voice to proclaim Christ. These brothers are not “disobedient cowards who have caved into the world” – as one panelist said.
So I raise my glass to the gospel proclaiming, doctrinally solid, and biblically literate rap artists that serve the church. Let the trunks rattle. And let the 16 bars point to the one true God of the universe. As for the medium and the message, Christ-exalting Christian rap is a breath of life in a culturally contextualized voice. I rejoice that Christian rap adds to our spiritual expression as the people of God.
For more, read Dr. Moore.