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and people of color, like myself, have grown up indoctrinated with the idea that Christians are to be distinct and withdrawn from the world, and that includes our art and music.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…
PureFlix Entertainment, a trusted name in faith-friendly movies, has an urban inspirational film called Do You Believe on the way to theatres.
Director Jon Gunn, recruited by producer Harold Cronk and screenwriters Cary Solomon and Chuck Konzelman (the trio behind the 2014 release God’s Not Dead) is bringing to life a multi-layered emotional journey with an ensemble cast, headlined by Cybill Shepherd (“Moonlighting”) Lee Majors (“The Fall Guy”) and Ted McGinley (“The West Wing”) and also featuring a bevy of accomplished actors and stars-in-waiting, including JJ Soria (The Fast & The Furious, “Army Wives”) Mira Sorvino (“Falling Skies”) Senyo Amoaku (The Expendables), Sean Astin (The Lord of the Rings), Delroy Lindo (“The Chicago Code”) Tracy Melchior (“The Bold & The Beautiful”), former UFC champion Mavrick von Haug, and rapper Shwayze.
In October, I traveled to Grand Rapids, Michigan for a meet-and-greet with several members of the cast and crew, and then visited the set, on location in sleepy Manistee (right off the coast of Lake Michigan), in order to get an insider view on how the film was coming along.
Full disclosure, the travel costs were covered by PureFlix and their promotional partners, so of course, I heard 48 hours of nonstop praise for the film. However, I have a pretty active layer of skepticism whenever I’m subjected to boilerplate marketing copy, and I still came away from the experience feeling pretty good about the movie’s prospects, not only as a successful commercial investment, but as a vehicle for evangelism.
Here are three reasons why…
1. It has a relatively diverse cast.
Borrowing from the Crash playbook requires a wider variety of characters than what we saw in God’s Not Dead, and it appears that with Do You Believe, we’ll get it. Cybill Shepherd and Lee Majors may be headlining as the graceful diva / elder statesman combo, but in the clips we saw and the cast that we heard from directly (as well as other cast referenced whose shooting schedules didn’t coincide with the set visit, such as the aforementioned Delrey Lindo), it seems like diversity is a priority in this picture. That doesn’t ensure greatness, of course, but for audiences who prioritize it, it’d be a reason for a second glance at the multiplex or the Redbox.
Ensemble films can be hit or miss, because they require a lot of story juggling and have less time for character development or plot exposition. But this one seems to be well cast. I’m particularly looking forward to seeing more of JJ Soria’s character, who is one of the film’s heroes, and who has an extended action sequence during the finale. The last time I saw a faith-based film with a strong Latino lead was Eduardo Verástegui in the 2007 indie film Bella. In the cast Q&A, Soria mentioned that he often turns down faith-friendly scripts because they’re too cheesy, but in this case, he made an exception. Here’s hoping that JJ Soria can keep building his faith-film curriculum vita.
2. The tone seems to be less combative than the previous film.
From the title itself to the poster art to the scripted showdowns between professor and student, God’s Not Dead clearly appealed to a subset of Christian audiences who are conservative, weary from being disparaged by secular press, and in the words of character Howard Beale from Network, “mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.”
In this film, that strident feel seems a little toned down. The issues of Christian identity in the public square are still there – one of the characters’ life is turned upside down after sharing his faith in the middle of a work-related crisis – and they might still have the same thought-provoking result, but the clips that we saw didn’t seem to be as shrill or confrontational.
This bodes well for the film, because I’m sure the release date is designed to coincide with Easter and facilitate a massive campaign for churches to invite nonbelievers to the local multiplex for a screening of the film. Living in the Pacific Northwest, one of the most unchurched regions in the country, it’s been my experience that people who aren’t believers don’t like being lectured to onscreen.
3. Bigger budget, actual action sequences
The financial success of God’s Not Dead has given the filmmakers a larger margin of error, which has given them a bit more creative freedom to stage more of the kind of dramatic sequences with action and spectacle that are cost-prohibitive when filmmaking on a shoestring budget. Obviously, no one will mistake this film for a Michael Bay or Jerry Bruckheimer production, but the location of Manistee, MI seemed like an inspired choice, not only for its bucolic views and enthusiastic locals, but because many of the costs associated with staging and fabricating stunts and stunt vehicles can be done more inexpensively and with less red tape in small-town Michigan than in New York City or Los Angeles.
These three factors by themselves certainly do not ensure a successful film, either commercially or artistically. However, the sneak peek I got from PureFlix Entertainment makes me think that this spring, Christian audiences will be in for a treat.
Here’s to hoping they’re right.
Welcome to Part 2 of Testifyin’ or Signifyin’, an analysis of whether the many choir appearances and Christian allusions presented at the Grammy Awards were doing good work or perpetrating a fraud. As a reminder, here is the scale that I based my assessment on:
-Artistic style points: How does the choir enhance or detract from the overall experience?
-Social buzz: Did it look like a stunt to get attention, or was it a naturally buzzworthy performance?
-The faith factor: Does the song sound like an authentic expression of faith?
-Special circumstances: Is there anything else that elevates or detracts? Is there a certain je ne sais quoi about the musical performance?*
From this thoroughly biased, quasi-scientific process,** each song was given an appropriation index, and a final verdict. Is the choir appearance in this song one that testifies to the goodness of God, or is it signifyin’ – playfully insulting the faithful with irreligious or profane imagery?
Let’s go (back) to the tape!
Appropriation index: 3
Pharrell performing “Happy” at the 2015 Grammy Awards.
I give him one thing right off the top – Pharrell Williams is nothing if not eclectic. And considering how ubiquitous his hit was in 2014, you knew that for this special night, he was going to have to do something different.
And different, it was.
From the dramatic spoken word opening (interpreted in various foreign languages) to the string-heavy orchestral accompaniment, to the impressive solo from Chinese pianist Lang Lang, to the phalanx of players, dancers and singers accessorized in white, black and yellow, it seemed like the production was designed to elicit gasps every 30 seconds. By the end of the song, I was expecting military helicopters to detonate the roof so that a UFO could abduct Pharrell with a beam of light, “Close Encounters” style.
Ironically, the one emotion this song didn’t seem to really capture was happiness. The first chorus was in a minor key, and hearing the sound of the choir belting out the words about happiness to minor string arpeggios felt a little ominous. During the solo, his brown-skinned, black-hooded dancers, adopted the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” pose, which has become the universal sign of nonverbal protest against police brutality. That was great! I loved that he put that in there, but that’s not exactly a posture of happiness.
Matter of fact, It took almost four minutes for the arrangement to sound at all like the song we’ve all grown to like, love, and then get tired of.
So on the one hand, I give Pharrell a lot of credit for trying to endow more significance to a song that was initially just about being so happy that you don’t give a bleep what people think. On the other hand, I think his exuberance and willingness to jam so many ideas and images into one song made it feel chaotic and scattered. Whatever unity of message he was trying to deliver was sidetracked by the variety of spectacle and the thematic disconnect between interpersonal happiness and societal injustice.
But those yellow-sequined shoes, those were kinda fly. Was that enough to make up for the existential crisis we all witnessed? It’s hard to say.
The verdict: BOTH TESTIFYIN’ AND SIGNIFYIN’
Beyoncé, “Take my Hand, Precious Lord”
Appropriation score: 1.5
Beyonce performing “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” at the 2015 Grammy Awards.
Okay, so here’s the thing.
Beyoncé sang “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” accompanied by a choir of tuxedoed black men. It’s the same song that the Mahalia Jackson was famous for singing, widely reported as Dr. King’s favorite.
As Kevin Bacon said in A Few Good Men, these are the facts, and they are indisputable.
But if you were on social media at all during the telecast on Sunday night, then you know this much already. And you’ve likely heard a hundred different takes, all clustered around two basic questions – did she do the song justice, and/or should someone else have been invited – namely Ledisi, who played Mahalia Jackson in Selma, and who’s garnered a reputation of her own as an incredible soul singer.
Here’s my take.
I think she did a nice job. Not a great job, but a good one. I would’ve preferred Ledisi do it, but it’s obvious that eyeballs rule when television decisions are being made, and no one can deny that Ledisi wouldn’t deliver anywhere near the number of eyeballs as Queen Bey.
That said, it was clear from her performance that the song was meaningful to her, and just in case the performance wasn’t convincing, she also had someone cut a brief rehearsal documentary to talk about why she wanted to do it and why she had a choir of black men up there with her. In it, she mentions the struggles her parents and grandparents faced, and she talks about how she wanted to sing from their pain.
I think that’s an admirable goal, but slightly misguided. Struggle and pain are not exactly synonymous with the Beyoncé brand. Not that she doesn’t have problems like the next person, but, well, no, she doesn’t. Not that she doesn’t have problems, but they’re not like the next person’s. (I’m resisting the obvious Jay-Z joke there.)
So yeah, it looks a little hypocritical to win a Grammy for “Drunk In Love” and then get up to sing that song. She certainly had a right to do it, and it made plenty of good business sense to do it, but I think it would’ve been classier to at least share the stage with Ledisi. Especially with her sheer, flowing quasi-wedding dress look, the whole thing just looked a little self-indulgent. The tenor of the performance was grounded enough overall that the whole thing still went relatively well. But, in this case, she needed the choir a lot more than the choir needed her. I could’ve just watched the choir by itself and been fine.
Also, I could’ve lived without a few of her runs, and maybe a little less of her rapid vibrato.
The verdict: TESTIFYIN’ (mostly)
John Legend featuring Common, “Glory”
Appropriation score: 0
What’s a zero appropriation score mean? It means they brought it.
Common & John Legend performing “Glory” at the 2015 Grammy Awards.
The rap bars were passionate and on-point. The lyrics were full of Scriptural references that embodied the struggle for civil rights. And, more than anything else, it seemed that both Common and John Legend, in their respective rhyming and crooning, were using their voices as proxies for the collective whole, not grabbing the spotlight for themselves.
And the choir was perfect. Dignified, but still full of fighter’s passion. Restrained, but pulsating with rhythmic intensity. As Common’s wordplay danced between the staccato bows of the strings, and John Legend’s plaintive wails echoed against his stark piano chords, the choir continued to respond to their call. Purely aesthetically, it was amazing.
But most importantly, the song seemed to echo God’s truth for all people – that we long for the Lord’s coming because His return will usher in a new era of justice and peace. And in that judgment, on that cataclysmic day, we will not only see the Lord’s glory, but we’ll be able to partake in it.
What I loved most about the arrangement was the very end, right when it looked like it was over, the strings kept playing as the lights dimmed on the two soloists, and the last moment left was the voice of the choir, vicariously standing in for all of us who yearn for His return, proclaiming in one voice:
The verdict: TESTIFYING!!! (add more exclamation points as needed)
But that’s just my take, what’s yours? Leave it in the comments.
*Yes, I realize the irony of borrowing a French expression in an article about cultural appropriation. Welcome to America.
** In this case, “quasi-scientific” is a euphemism for “not at all scientific.”