LeBron James waits as recorders are set before a news conference after the opening ceremony for the I Promise School in Akron, Ohio, Monday, July 30, 2018. The I Promise School is supported by the The LeBron James Family Foundation and is run by the Akron Public Schools. (AP Photo/Phil Long)
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.
While the pop culture cognoscenti are impatiently waiting for another creative masterpiece in the form of Kendrick Lamar’s upcoming album, which is rumored to be released any day now, my hopes are a little more modest.
In recent interviews, Kendrick has indicated that his new album will have more of a focus on God. Whatever it ends up being, I hope that Lamar’s follow-up to the critically-acclaimed “To Pimp A Butterfly” will continue to break down the divide between sacred and secular hip-hop.
I realize that, for a segment of the urban Christian population, this idea goes completely against religious tradition. Many evangelicals and people of color, like myself, have grown up indoctrinated with the idea that Christians are to be distinct and withdrawn from the world, and that includes our art and music.
One need only look as far as last fall’s release of When Sacred Meets Secular by The Ambassador to see an expression of this worldview. In it, Amba raps passionately about his desire to be forthright and uncompromising with the Gospel message. I understand this position, and to a certain extent, I agree.
The Ambassador is right when he says that Christians should be free to share their faith in Christ with the public. However, the problem is that historically, Christian music hasn’t been free to roam in the public square of ideas. It’s been sequestered behind the artificially “safe” walls of Christian bookstores and websites.
And don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with building an audience among people of faith. However, when that becomes the industry standard, it means that artists are sometimes asked to be as non-controversial and “family-friendly” as possible, instead of creating the art that most candidly represents their pursuit of truth and relationship with God.
When the soccer moms and youth pastors are the ones calling the shots, you don’t want to ruffle feathers. Thus, Christians who rap for other Christians often feel pressure to self-censor anything that gets too real in an effort to avoid their music being branded as “unsafe” and pulled from circulation (like what happened with Sho Baraka and Lifeway).
What’s worse is that the problem is just as bad on the secular side, and for similar reasons. Artists know that sex, violence, and tales of the drug trade are all elements that boost record sales. Sure, there are plenty of rappers who talk about those things because that’s all they know, but the flip side is also true.
For many young rappers, it’s all they know because that’s all that gets talked about. For so long, we’ve exposed the young men and women in our community to such twisted caricatures of masculine and feminine behavior, that anything that deviates from the stereotypically “real” portrayal of urban life is derided as corny or fake—labels that Lecrae had to work hard to shake.
But slowly, that tide is turning.
Just about every Christian public figure who experiences a measure of commercial success in hip-hop ends up bristling against the stereotype of what a “Christian rapper” is or is not.
And on the secular side, there is a growing undercurrent of faith from rappers who aren’t known for doing “Christian” music. Not that this is a new phenomenon; rappers like DMX, Nas and even Tupac have been known to intersperse their chronicles of urban, street life with plaintive meditations of faith. But thanks to newer artists like Chance the Rapper and Kendrick Lamar, those meditations have become much more explicit.
During the 2017 Grammy Awards, Chance collaborated with gospel artists Kirk Franklin and Tamela Mann for a performance that included a cover of the Chris Tomlin hit praise anthem “How Great Is Our God.” And, in both of his critically-acclaimed albums (his debut Good Kid m.A.A.d. City and the follow-up To Pimp a Butterfly), Kendrick has included prayers, spiritual meditations, and even a depiction of Christian conversion.
So, where do you stand? Is it possible for hip hop to truly exist in both the secular and Christian space?
Perhaps the two sides will continue to converge, because many would argue that folks need examples of faith that are both relatable and artistically-challenging. They need new, fresh examples of what it means to grapple with faith in the real world.
Where do you stand on the topic of secular v. Christian hip hop? Share your thoughts below.
So another Black History Month is here, and for artists, writers, musicians, and other creative types that hail from the Black community, it’s an opportunity that comes with a burden.
February is a time when your workplace, school, or church might be more open to forms of artistic expression that highlights the achievements of Black people, particularly for those of you who live and/or work in a predominantly White community. And while it’s obviously a great opportunity to highlight the best of our tradition as a community, it also means that from an exposure standpoint, it’s an opening to get your songs, poems, plays, or paintings seen and heard by people who might be able to support you financially.
But the burden is the challenge of successfully executing your art without being swallowed whole by the bitterness of the struggle. I mean, let’s just be honest: struggle might be the catalyst that serves to incubate powerful works of art, but it’s terrible as a sales technique. No one can alienate their audience through their art and simultaneously persuade them to become financial supporters.
The truth is, we’ve come a long way as African Americans. No longer are we restricted to the kinds of gigs and roles that kept us docile and subservient in the minds of the majority. In recent years, there has been a greater level of visibility to the everyday struggle that Black Americans endure, and it’s also helped place a premium on authentic Black art that helps to articulate that struggle.
Still, if we’re not careful, we’ll fall into a false dichotomy, where we feel like either we must keep it fully 100 at all times with our art, or we’re selling out for the money.
But there’s a middle ground.
Discerning the Difference
Ten years ago, I was in a hip-hop duo traveling to a Christian camp to do a concert for a bunch of youth from the inner city. When I arrived onto the campus, I headed to the most logical place for music performance—the chapel.
As I walked into the chapel, I walked up to the sound booth, and told the guy that I was with the hip-hop group that was supposed to perform. He gave me this blank stare, so I thought, “Hey, it’s loud in here, so maybe he can’t hear me that well.” I tried again, a bit louder.
“I’m with the Iccsters… y’know, the hip-hop group.”
Again, he gives me this confused stare. And then he says, “This is Christian camp.”
Right then and there, I almost lost it. I could tell that he didn’t really mean to say anything offensive to me, but it was like all the years of being stereotyped as a young Black man, overlooked and misunderstood as a rap artist, all the times hip-hop had been blamed for all of society’s problems—by other Christians, no less!—almost overwhelmed me. I wanted to set him straight and tell him that there are Christians who perform hip-hop, and his assumption was shortsighted, racist, and insulting.
But I had somewhere to go, so I swallowed that rage, walked out of the room, called my contact, and located my actual destination (a different building with a smaller setup).
Often, when I’m invited to share hip-hop as a form of worship music and find myself in spaces that remind me of that day, I’m tempted to go back to that moment, tap into that rage, and give the audience a piece of my pain.
The wisdom and maturity of age helped me learn how to posture myself, not as someone with an axe to grind, but as someone with something of value to share. And when I share my pain, I do it with an eye toward giving others an opportunity to join me in my struggle, instead of guilting them for not already being onboard.
Sometimes God calls us to stand up and fight; other times, He simply gives as an opportunity to share who we are and how we got here. As an artist, my prayer is for us to flip the script and learn to discern the difference.
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…