What up, y’all… can you believe it? Thirty-Five 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 over 40.
So this is a collection of 30 rap songs by Christian artists from the first 30 years 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 35 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 35 years of Christians in hip-hop…
Here at UrbanFaith, we believe that the recent past is a neglected element of black history. Jelani Greenidge, worship musician and music connoisseur, took a look back at some of the most momentous gospel music recordings of our era.
Go Tell Somebody, Light Records, (1986)
I can’t talk about back-in-the-day gospel music without talking about Commissioned. For my parents’ generation, their watershed gospel songs, the ones that strike them with nostalgia, are the Walter Hawkins or Andrae Crouch recordings from the late 60s and 70s. But for me, a (formerly) young member of Generation X… it’s Commissioned, all the way. And man, does this one take me back.
It is tremendously fitting that this song opens with a Fred Hammond bass lick, because Fred was one of the main creative forces of the group, alongside keyboardist and arranger Michael Brooks. And though the album from which this sprang was not their first, it was the one that really put them on the map.
One of the funny things about growing up black in Portland, Oregon is that even though there was a tightly-knit black community in my area, we were a lot smaller in number compared to other cities. And certain trends, dance moves, fashion, etc. took longer to show up here.
Consequently, there were a lot of cultural gaps in the overall awareness of my peers, especially my white peers. There were things they just didn’t understand that I thought would be obvious to everyone. (I mean, didn’t everyone grow up in my family? Oh wait…)
Nowhere was this more apparent than with my enthusiasm for the music of Commissioned. In the late 80s and early 90s, when a new era of male R&B groups was dawning, led first by New Edition and then later Boyz II Men, I kept hearing over and over, not only in their music but also in interviews and liner notes, that virtually all of them had been inspired, on some level, by Commissioned. (It was either them or Take 6.)
So why were Boyz II Men mega-famous, and not Commissioned, my pubescent mind wondered. And the answer came to me, many years later, as I pondered the meaning to the song that had been my jam for so long.
See, in the chorus, when the guys sing, “Victory, victory shall be mine”… that’s God talking. It’s not a celebratory, name-it-and-claim-it type thing. It’s actually a challenge to remain calm and not take matters into our own hands.
Hold your peace, vengeance is mine / enemies will bow down in due time / hold your peace, I will fight your battles / victory, victory shall be mine
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.
Don’t Use Fear as a Motivator
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 4:18 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 2021, the church doesn’t need more soldiers of fear, it needs more servants of peace.
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.
It used to be that you had to be stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic to be exposed to sarcastic, misleading, and — fine, I’ll admit it — occasionally entertaining slogans about politics and spirituality.
No longer is this the case.
If you use Facebook with any kind of regularity, you’ve probably witnessed photo memes popping up like dandelions. And you may have liked them. You might have shared them. You might have even created a few. But I implore you — please stop. You’re making it hard for real communication to take place on Facebook, which is one of the few places where people with radically different worldviews can engage in honest dialogue.
Don’t believe me? I offer several reasons, with examples:
Reason No. 1: They’re often inaccurate or misleading.
Exhibit A in our proceedings is this gem above rebuking Christians for focusing on the wrong things. Now the fact is, the underlying truth behind this is something that I believe in strongly — Christians should be known more for how we help the disenfranchised than for what political stands we take. But the actual statement is just not true. Plenty of Christians line up at food banks and homeless shelters all the time — so much so, in fact, that these days it fails to even qualify as news. But you’d never know it from this meme photo, which relies more on stereotypes than actual data.
And this image is just the tip of the iceberg. With the next big story involving a church or a Christian leader, there’ll be plenty more.
And even the ones that aren’t snarky in tone can be disingenuous. If they include any kind of statistical graph, for instance, they’re bound to manipulate or distort the truth in some way. After all, there’s a reason why Mark Twain referred to statistics as the worst form of lying. The best of these are usually large and thorough enough that they require full-screen viewing to accommodate all the details. But even these should be taken with a grain of salt.
Reason No. 2: They exist primarily to amuse or incite people who already think like you do.
Let’s be honest. People don’t encounter these photos and say, “Wow, perhaps I’ve been wrong all these years, and my long-held political and/or religious beliefs are actually dangerous and wrong.”
It never happens because these aren’t designed to engage people who hold different views. Rather, their purpose is the same as much of the partisan-slanted media we see today — to reinforce your views and help you feel better about yourself for believing that way.
Now, I’m all for exercising free speech — but images have power. And as we know from Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben, with great power comes great responsibility. And if this were only a political issue, I might not be as concerned. But in today’s political climate, where being a Christian is still associated with being Republican, these photos are making it harder for unbelievers to see the truth of the gospel because of all the political baggage.
I believe that everyone, Christian or not, has a right to participate in the political process. But Paul told the church in Galatia to avoid letting their freedom become an excuse to indulge in their sinful nature. For many of us, sharing these photos is a way of sticking it to the people who we feel are “the problem.”
As citizens of a global community, this is wrong.
Reason No. 3: If not misleading or divisive, they’re often so generic as to be meaningless.
Because “if at first you don’t succeed” at motivating your friends, maybe there’s something missing.
And that something is context. Many of these inspirational quotes and images, if they were on my refrigerator, I might find really moving. But the thing is, they would only be there if I put them there. People self-select these things. You can’t pass out inspirational nuggets like candy and expect them to be effective. One person’s inspirational quote is another person’s cheesy platitude.
Reason No. 4: They make it harder to enjoy actual photos taken by your actual Facebook friends.
No disrespect to George Takei, the Japanese-American Star Trek alumnus whose posts get shared like crazy by his millions of Facebook fans, but he’s not my Facebook friend.
I know that in today’s relational economy Facebook friendships are slightly more meaningful than people with whom you make eye contact in elevators … but still. With so many people in my Facebook feed, I find much more meaning and significance in the large and small details that my friends post about their lives. You know, babies, vacations, meals, costumes, graduations, etc. So by constantly sharing these photo memes, you’re cluttering your feed with stuff I’m not interested in.
Because that’s the point of Facebook, right? To make connections and enjoy relationships. So if you want to be someone who builds relationships across the cultural divide, do us all a favor and stop posting these photos.