The art of spoken word poetry is one of the most compelling and least understood of the contemporary verbal arts. It’s similar, in certain ways, to acting, public speaking, preaching, and even stand-up comedy. Like the beat poets of the 1960s and 1970s, and the slam poets of the 1990s, spoken word artists have evolved with the times. Their oratorical creations borrow and remix the dominant forms of the day, which is why the art form that spoken word most resembles and intermingles with is hip-hop music.
And yet, spoken word artistry is still quite distinct from hip-hop.
From the beginning, hip-hop has been about taking forceful poetic rhymes and amplifying them with energetic beats and street-authentic rhythms—the “yes, yes y’all” with the “boom boom bip.”
But in spoken word, the power is in the words themselves. As they are delivered with an intensity so potent, they can’t be locked into musical bars. Great spoken word artists use an internal sense of rhythm to arrange the literal and the literary into sentences as stanzas, using sharp timing, tonal contrast, and vivid imagery. And like great thespians, preachers, and emcees, spoken word artists transmit those words with the power of their voice to maximize meaning and audience comprehension.
Some even compare the techniques used in spoken word to those used in rap. In fact, many of the best spoken word artists have the same kind of swaggering dynamism common to great rappers.
And some artists switch between the two genres. Jason Perry, Jackie Hill Perry, and Ezekiel Azonwu are leading the charge in Christ-centered spoken word artistry, but they’re also gifted rappers. Rather than opposites, the two art forms complement each other.
Azonwu made it onto the national radar after several of his spoken word videos went viral on the Passion 4 Christ Movement YouTube channel. But his entry into the form started with rap. During high school, he participated in freestyle rap battles on the topic of guns and violence. After becoming a follower of Christ in college, he changed his subject matter, keeping the same aggressive approach.
But eventually, something changed.
“I stopped rapping with beats because I hated that people would bang out to the music and wouldn’t hear what I was saying,” he said in an interview with David Daniels of Rapzilla.com.
When a friend introduced him to the idea of sharing the Gospel through spoken word poetry, he tried it, and it left an impression.
“It was crazy,” Azonwu said. “It was just my testimony. I didn’t really need swag to do it. I didn’t need a beat to do it. And finally, for the first time in life, people were able to hear and relate to my words.”
The first verse in the book of John confirms an essential element of the biblical creation account: “In the beginning the Word already existed” (from John 1:1, NLT). The ultimate expression of creative declaration is the Triune God, speaking the very world into existence. And as human beings made in God’s image, we bear both the privilege and the responsibility to do something similar—to use words as a way of expressing our ideals.
Nowhere is this dynamic more clearly brought to life than in spoken word artistry.
It’s this emphasis on the word—and on the Word, the author of all truth—that makes spoken word a compelling alternative to hip-hop in the articulation of a Christian point of view. Thus, in the spirit of iron sharpening iron (Proverbs 27:17), here are several things to consider if you want to try your hand at spoken word poetry.
And who knows? These tips could also make you a better rapper, too.
Great spoken word artists use more literary tools than simple rhyming. Assonance and alliteration; similes and metaphors; repetition and parallel phrasing; personification; theme and variation; strategic contrast; even onomatopoeia. Get to know these literary devices, what they mean, and how they work. Once you do, find examples in popular spoken word pieces and recognize how they make the poems more effective. Or even better, find these literary and poetic devices in the Bible itself. For example, in the book of Proverbs when Solomon describes wisdom as a lady, that’s personification. When the Apostle Paul calls the church “the body of Christ,” that’s a metaphor.
Listen for a sense of spoken rhythm and cadence. Great preachers do it. So do great poets, great rappers, and great actors. Find the text of a well-known poem, song, or sermon and experiment with different ways of saying the same words, emphasizing different words, stretching out and shortening vowel sounds, sharpening or slurring your consonants.
Veteran screenwriter Aaron Sorkin said this about dialogue, but it applies to spoken word as well.
“Remember that when you are doing this—what you’re writing is not meant to be read. It is meant to be performed. So anytime words are spoken out loud for the sake of performance, they have now all the same rules that apply to music. So it needs to sound like something.”
No one can tell your story like you. Your story may have elements in common with other stories, but there is no story exactly like yours. Don’t run from your story, but own it. Take time to dig into it. See a counselor, therapist or if those aren’t options, consult your pastor. If you can fully inhabit your own skin and take the time to tell your story with all of the authenticity, pathos, and technique that it deserves, you’ll be able to make a connection with an audience, and that’s what all spoken word artists try to do.
So take a chance. Try immersing yourself in the power of spoken word poetry—whether as a listener, viewer, or performer. It’s time to let the Word speak.
What up, y’all… can you believe it? Thirty years of Christian men and women rockin’ mics and reppin’ the name of Christ.
I keep having to say that to myself and to others, not only to remind myself that this particular segment of what we call the Christian music industry has come a long way, but also to inform other people that it didn’t start with Lecrae. Seriously, few of the mainstream music journalistic outlets that cover Lecrae and/or the Reach Records / 116 Clique movement ever take the time to dig into the scene. It may be new to certain people, or certain places, or it may have made new gains that haven’t been made before, but Christian rap is not a new thing. I know this because I’ve been listening to Christian rap since I was ten, and I’m about to turn 40.
So this is a collection of 30 rap songs by Christian artists that I consider to be significant or meaningful. They’re all good, in their own way… some of them I still bump on a regular basis. Some of them may sound a little dated now, but back when they came out, they were bangin’ (or, def, the bomb, or the hotness, whatever slang was big at the time).
Note that I’m not claiming that these are the best Christian rap songs from the last 30 years, because that’s an argument that can’t be proved. I’m just going with the songs that I feel are or were notable, special, or interesting. To hedge my bets a little, I’m also including a bunch of “honorable mention” titles, which are songs that are just as good and worthy of exposure, but which I just couldn’t write about since I’m only doing one song per year.
Also, I’ve included YouTube links for ease of playing, but when possible, I’ve also included links to purchase the music. If you really want to support Christian hip-hop, support the artists who’ve helped lay the groundwork for the plethora of great hip-hop we have to listen to today.
So without any further ado, take a ride with me into the wayback machine as we celebrate 30 years of Christians in hip-hop…
As another high-profile unjust killing fills the headlines across the nation, I can’t help but lament our current state of affairs – and the complicity the evangelical church shares with it.
Yes, the militarization of police is a problem. Yes, the police need better training. Yes, even though some police jurisdictions are using body cameras, there needs to be better civilian oversight regarding their deployment and the use of the resultant footage.
Nevertheless, there’s a connection between disproportionate uses of force (whether by police or civilians) against black people, and a fundamental misunderstanding of a popular passage of Scripture – Ephesians 6, where Paul describes “the armor of God.” As in many tragic illustrations of fallen humanity, the active toxic ingredient is fear.
Bad Experiences Can Generate Fear in the Hearts of God’s People
In the 2003 remake of The Italian Job, there’s a scene with Mos Def (now known as Yasiin Bey) as an explosives expert named Left Ear participating in a stakeout. Left Ear mentions that the person the team is surveilling has a dog on the premises. “I don’t do dogs,” he said. “I had a real bad experience.”
The team leader, played by Mark Wahlberg, chimes in. “What happened?” Left Ear claps back with a quickness.
“I HAD A BAD EXPERIENCE,” he says, stretching out the word ‘had’ for emphasis. It’s a funny moment because you can tell whatever that bad experience was, it left a significant mental scar, and he does not want to talk about it.
Unfortunately, this is the lens by which too many Christians view their engagement with the world around them. Maybe they were victims of crime, maybe they were made fun of for being a Christian at school or at work, maybe they experienced legitimate persecution for their faith, but whatever it was, they had a bad experience, okay?
These bad experiences often generate fear in the hearts of God’s people, and in an effort to avoid those them, sometimes we assume postures that are, let’s say, less than loving. We may get defensive and behave like everyone is a potential threat. (If you grew up in a household where no secular music or television was allowed, you know what I’m talking about.)
Or we may go on the offensive and behave as though it’s our job to eradicate the forces of evil around us. Any potential source of secular encroachment on our religious liberty, we treat like a national crisis. (If you’ve ever known anyone who thought about suing Starbucks because their cups read “happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” then you know what I’m talking about.)
Again, don’t forget … the operative word here is “fear.” It is fear of unbelieving, secular humanity – and the evil that can sometimes reside in the hearts of those who don’t know God – that drives people into these defensive or offensive stances.
Thus, when someone in this fear-driven mindset reads about the armor of God in Ephesians 6, they subconsciously go into full-on vigilante mode. Even if they don’t own any guns or weapons or whatever, because of how much our broader culture glorifies violence, they can’t help themselves. I mean, I grew up on action movies in the 80s, and I did this too. When I first was presented with teachings on what it means to “put on the full armor of God,” I had an image of Arnold Schwarzenegger gearing up for battle in the first Predator movie.
This is why we must read the Scriptures in context.
See, you can’t fully understand Ephesians 6:10-20 without first reading and taking in the other five chapters of Paul’s letter.
So, here’s an overview of those five chapters:
In Ephesians 1, Paul tells the Ephesians what an incredible, mysterious blessing of inheritance that they have in Christ. In Ephesians 2, he talks about how they were dead but became alive again, and because of this new life, the old ethnic categories that used to divide them would do so no longer.
In Ephesians 3, Paul explains that the mysteries of God that had previously been revealed to Jews like himself were now available to everyone. In Ephesians 4, Paul urges them – in light of the great opportunity for unity that the gospel affords – to live with unified maturity, following up in Ephesians 5 to remind them to reject any improprieties (sexual or otherwise) that could undermine that unity or maturity.
Note the lack of fear mongering! Paul isn’t trying to get them riled up and afraid, he just wants them to live a blessed life. For the rest of that fifth chapter, and going into the sixth, Paul begins to break down how that life of unified maturity applies to various common relationships – between spouses, from children to parents, even from masters to slaves (which in current vernacular is more like boss to servant).
This is the point where Paul then writes this iconic passage:
“Finally, be strong in the Lord, and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes” (Eph. 6:10 NIV).
Once you read it in context, it becomes clear – the image isn’t an armed vigilante gearing up, but of a peace officer who vows to serve and protect.
Paul wants the Ephesians to have the armor of God, not in order to strike back at their enemies but to preserve the unity and maturity they are supposed to live out as a witness to others. This is why Paul has to remind them in verse 12 that their enemies aren’t flesh-and-blood people because he knows that it’s easy for people from differing cultural and ethnic backgrounds to fight and feud with each other. This is why he refers to having feet covered with a readiness to share a gospel of peace. Paul isn’t trying to inject fear, he’s trying to remove it.
But therein lies the rub – often, the people most often who are governed by fear are those who are supposed to be trained to rise above it – actual peace officers. And when officers are, to use the language that is most often employed in defense of these kinds of shootings, “afraid for their lives” then the kind of snap judgments that result in these shootings are often driven by fear.
And fear can be a useful emotion. It can help motivate us to act, in order to neutralize a potentially deadly threat. Soldiers are often trained through the use of fear. A broadened sense of fear can promote the tribal instinct to band together against a dangerous Other.
Unfortunately, too many churches are doing exactly that – promoting a misunderstanding of Ephesians 6 by teaching people they should be afraid of people who aren’t like them, and that they should strike back against those trying to take away their religious freedoms. This climate of fear is toxic for our faith, which is part of the reason why so many churches are in decline. Evangelicals – particularly white evangelical leaders – tend to use fear as a motivator, and not only does it endanger black lives, but it betrays the very Scripture that they profess to love.
But 1 John 4:!8 tells us that perfect love casts out fear. So this is where God’s people need to live. Where there is fear – especially when that fear is fed by anti-black bias – it needs to be honestly and consistently addressed and rectified. And those of us who carry firearms, whether as part of law enforcement or for other reasons, absolutely MUST be willing to confront those fears and admit those biases if we want these kinds of tragic shootings to stop.
More importantly, we cannot afford to wait for police agencies to do this work on their own. If we are to hold police accountable to the motto of “serve and protect,” we must also be willing to model servant leadership, extending both grace and discipline in equal measure. Churches full of Christ-following, Spirit-led people can create a spiritual climate where all of God’s people can be loved and valued, and in places where that is happening, it’s easier to hold accountable those who twist Scripture out of context to justify their violence, particularly when that violence is racialized.
If police forces are supposed to serve and protect, let’s be people who love to serve, creating an environment that’s worth protecting. In 2018, the church doesn’t need more soldiers of fear, it needs more servants of peace.
During the 2018 NBA playoffs, variations on the same argument raged all across barbershops, playgrounds, and social media. Between Michael Jordan and LeBron James, who’s the GOAT – that is, Greatest of All Time? Many Gen-X-ers are more loyal to Jordan because we remember watching his dominance throughout the ‘90s. Similarly, Millennial NBA fans tend to give their allegiance to LeBron, citing not only advanced statistical metrics, but his incredible eight consecutive Finals appearances.
If the argument is confined to what happens on the court, it will rage on for years. But if you factor in off-the-court impact, then there’s no comparison. Because LeBron James just did something that not even “His Airness” can claim – he launched a public school.
Almost a decade in the making, the I Promise School is a collaboration between the LeBron James Family Foundation, Akron Public Schools, and a variety of community partners. It opened with just 240 third-and-fourth graders, but it’s projecting to have around 1,000 students from grades 1-8 by 2022, all of whom will have access to free uniforms, free bikes and helmets, free breakfast and lunch, and free transportation for any students more than 2 miles away.
The title has a double meaning – it’s consistent with James’ stated commitment to his hometown of Akron, which he has promised will continue, regardless of where his playing career takes him. (It doesn’t seem coincidental that this school opened during the same off-season when he left his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers to join the Los Angeles Lakers.) But it also speaks to the promise that students make to themselves, to make the most of the opportunity to excel in a place where, as the school website says, “nothing is given, everything is earned.”
For such a staggering display of educational investment, LeBron James is rightly being lauded as a model citizen. But his example is more than just civic responsibility. Whether intentionally or not, James is upholding an important Biblical principle.
When the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah wrote to the people of Israel, he was writing to a people in exile, people who were in a foreign land, a place where they didn’t want to be. And he wanted to give them hope, but he also needed to be honest with them.
“Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile,” Jeremiah wrote to the people. “Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:7, NIV). Instead of the word “prosperity,” many other translations use the word “welfare,” but the idea is the same. Essentially Jeremiah is telling the people, get used to this place, and make it your home.
This was not an easy message for the people to hear. Many of the Israelites probably wanted to be told their exile would be short, and they would soon return to their home. You have to understand, these were a people whose cultural identity was tied up in the idea of keeping themselves separate from foreigners, foreign lands, and foreign customs… and now they were being told the opposite. Love these people and invest in this place, because as they are blessed, you’ll be blessed, too.
It was a challenge for the ancient Israelites, just as it’s a challenge for many Christians today.
* * *
LeBron James is not in exile. His wealth and privilege allow him to move around at will (as the good people of Los Angeles can now gratefully confirm). And Akron, OH, is not exactly a foreign place.
Nevertheless, with the I Promise School, LeBron James embodies the principle of engaging the welfare of a people. In his words and actions, James has consistently recognized the responsibility he has as a global icon, someone who was able to transcend the boundaries of his native Akron, to help make that place better for the next generation. He, like Dr. King, recognized that his destiny is intertwined with others around him.
Which is why it’s so sadly ironic that conservative commentators like Laura Ingraham have attacked James for speaking out against racism and injustice. Because the ideals that James tends to demonstrate are remarkably conservative. In the 16 years he’s been in the NBA, he’s never been involved in any off-the-court scandals. Only those in his inner circle can truly confirm this, but from all appearances, James has been a model teammate, husband, father, and community philanthropist.
This is consistent with the best practices of positive impact. Showy displays of wealth aren’t as effective if they’re not backed up by consistent integrity in one’s immediate context. LeBron’s commitment to children in his hometown of Akron parallels his commitments to his own sons, LeBron Jr. (aka “Bronny”), 13, and Bryce, 11, both of whom are taking after their dad on the basketball court.
And we don’t know much about LeBron James’ inner spiritual life, because he doesn’t say much about his faith other than that he feels blessed by God to be able to play in the NBA. Nevertheless, families like the James’ are emblematic of the ways impact can be multiplied through relationships. Healthy, righteous people can raise healthy families, that righteousness can radiate further and further out, into schools, workplaces, communities, states, and even nations.
In so doing, James is providing an example for other people to emulate. We may not all grow up to be built like a linebacker with the speed and dexterity of a center fielder and the court vision of a point guard, but anyone can make a positive impact by starting local.
In the ‘90s, Gatorade had a series of commercials featuring their pitchman Michael Jordan, celebrating his greatness and encouraging the next generation to “Be Like Mike.”
In 2018, the bar has been raised. Being like LeBron requires way more than just drinking a soft drink or wearing a pair of shoes. It means, among other things, finding your blessing in the welfare of others.
The Nielsen company is most widely known as the company that measures television ratings, but it also wields its considerable research apparatus in the realm of popular music. Recently, its annual mid-year report made headlines around the blogosphere after it revealed that for the first time, more people listened to the combined genres of R&B and hip-hop than any other musical form, dethroning rock’s position at the top.
This shouldn’t be a huge surprise to anyone who’s been paying much attention, because hip-hop music and culture has been steadily moving closer and closer toward the center of American culture for decades now. Nineties rap icons Dr. Dre and Jay-Z have become multimedia moguls with their own product lines and exclusive platforms, and the house band for NBC’s flagship late-night TV show is legendary Philly hip-hop band The Roots, whose leading men Amir “Questlove” Thompson and Tarik “Black Thought” Trotter helped produce the biggest smash hit Broadway recording in decades.
Reluctant to Adapt
Hip-hop has long been a mainstream form of musical expression.
And since evangelical churches are known for adopting trends and idolizing the notion of relevance, it seems telling that, outside of a few counter examples, very few churches are intentionally embracing hip-hop as a form of worship music.
There are a variety of reasons for this. Chief among them is a centering of whiteness and white cultural norms. Even for people who do not hold any active racial animus in their conscious thoughts (and who would therefore resist the term racist as a self-descriptor), there are still both conscious and subconscious ways that the tastes, priorities and experiences of people of color are marginalized or overlooked in favor of a “mainstream” aesthetic that is often white and middle class. Therefore, most white megachurches have worship bands that sound more like U2 than they do Lecrae, even though in 2017 people tend to listen more to the latter than the former.
But white privilege doesn’t explain the reluctance that many Black churches and church leaders demonstrate in their interactions with hip-hop culture. While gospel music has undoubtedly been heavily influenced by hip-hop music and culture (through trailblazing artists like Kirk Franklin and Tye Tribbett), there are still plenty of Black congregations where the attitude communicated by both leaders and laity is that it’s not holy if it doesn’t have a choir or a Hammond B-3 organ. Though the cultural signifiers are different, there’s still a sense of cultural superiority and a reluctance to get outside of it.
Missing the Point
In my conversations with White pastors and worship leaders, there’s also an expressed sense of apprehension about engaging with hip-hop for fear of doing it wrong; those who do it poorly are rightly accused of disrespecting the artform, and those who do it too well open themselves to accusations of cultural appropriation. Often I hear from pastors who feel like it’s fine for a church to embrace hip-hop, but only if hip-hop is an authentic cultural value of their congregation. When I hear that, I feel like what they’re telling me is, “Sure, you should do hip-hop, because you’re Black and you grew up with it. But my church doesn’t have many Black people.”
This also misses the point somewhat, because what that Nielsen report tells us is that hip-hop music (and the culture surrounding it) is no longer just the domain of a minority subculture. It is a huge part of mainstream popular culture, and as it relates to contemporary music, it is the dominant culture. When Beyonce drops an album, it’s news. After 2016’s Lemonade, even middle-aged white comedians were conversant enough to make jokes about “Becky with the good hair.”
At this point, it seems like most churches end up in one of four quadrants. When it comes to hip-hop, they either:
Tentatively embrace it
Go all out in support of it
It’s been my experience that most churches take option No. 1, while some more reactionary churches end up in option No. 2 (mostly out of fear and ignorance). And the few churches I know of that take option No. 4 do so because they’re in multicultural urban contexts (like colleges, military bases or athlete fellowships) where hip-hop is lingua franca.
I think the best move is No. 3—a tentative embrace.
Alternatives and Solutions
Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting that every church needs to start incorporating trap beats, turntables and air horns into their worship services. It’s still important to maintain a sense of reverence and holiness.
However, what I think is true is that any pastor or church leader who is concerned about reaching people under 40 needs to have at least a basic grasp of certain aspects of hip-hop culture, and—more importantly—recognize that these artifacts are a major part of just how things are today. It could involve allowing the worship leader to experiment with using hip-hop beats as part of the instrumentation.
It might involve inviting local or regional (or, if you have the budget, national) hip-hop artists. It might be learning to incorporate certain hip-hop terms, slogans or mannerisms. (In one overwhelmingly white church, as a guest worship leader I led a call-and-response portion of a song where, instead of saying “amen,” the crowd was encouraged to chant “yes, yes, y’all.”)
Is this risky? Sure. Will there be times when it looks like God’s people are trying too hard to be cool? Probably. Will you make mistakes and offend people along the way? Almost certainly.
But the alternatives are also risky.
A lot of time what I hear from people in their protests of hip-hop is criticism of the rampant misogyny and consumerism, so they feel like their only option is to denounce it. But we also have a ton of consumerism and misogyny in the White House; that doesn’t mean we have to oppose the concept of the Executive Branch. The truth is, pastors should be able to help their people understand and reject the sinful elements in any culture, but you can only really do that well if you can also highlight the honorable elements. If pastors and other church leaders consistently fail in that process, they inadvertently deliver the message that they are out of touch and their judgment is not to be trusted.
And whether they fail consistently, or they just never even try in the first place, the net effect is the same—young people are driven away from the church. Spoiler alert: Jesus had something to say about people who cause others to stumble, and it’s not good.
So this opportunity represents a clear way forward in engaging generations to come with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Let’s hope that God raises up a generation of leaders who are up to the challenge.