Lecrae wins a 2013 Grammy for “Best Gospel Album” (Photo courtesy of Newscom).
Two men. Both Black. Both Grammy award-winning hip-hop artists. Two completely different messages. Within one week both Lil’ Wayne and Lecrae made headlines for their music, but for very different reasons.
Last week, Christian hip-hop artist, Lecrae, won a Grammy for “Best Gospel Album” at the 55th Annual Grammy Awards. The prestige of music’s highest honor is noteworthy enough, but Lecrae’s achievement as a vocally Christian rapper is rare.
The part of the line that has caused so much controversy is the reference to Emmett Till. In 1955, Till, just 14 years old, was brutally murdered in Mississippi after allegedly whistling at a White woman. The tragedy sent ripples across the nation as graphic images of the boy’s mutilated face (his mother had insisted on an open casket to display the brutality) were splashed across newspapers and magazines. The two White men charged in the crime were both acquitted by an all-White jury.
Wayne’s lyric serves as painful reminder of the importance of Black History month. Many will miss the offense of Wayne’s reference if they fail to understand the identity and significance of Emmet Till. The maiming of Till’s memory, however, is just the start.
Wayne’s words speak of doing violence to a woman’s reproductive organs and reveal the misogyny that has become commonplace and even celebrated in much of hip-hop. His line also reveals the distorted and grotesque picture of manhood – one that defines masculinity in terms of sexual exploits and violence – that he and other hip-hop artists often portray.
In contrast, Lecrae uses his lyrical talents to pen lines like, “Ain’t dope dealin’, ain’t Po pimpin’, talkin’ ‘bout my own folk killin’/ We on that Jesus soul healin” (from the song “Fakin‘”). Lecrae talks openly about being a Christian and makes it clear his faith drives his art. An urban evangelist, he hopes to use his talent to penetrate mainstream hip-hop with an alternative message for the listeners.
Lil’ Wayne is not the anti-Christ and Lecrae is not sinless. Each of these men, like all of us, are sinners. We all have wicked hearts and no one has lived in perfect obedience to God as we were designed to do. But there is a difference between these two artists. Redemption.
The Redemption of Culture and All Creation
I can’t make any judgments about Lil’ Wayne’s or Lecrae’s salvation. I simply see the fruits of each man’s life and art. Lil’ Wayne’s lyrics seem to be essentially human-centered. Instead of looking up, his lyrics encourage listeners to look within. By focusing only on the self, life becomes defined by personal pleasure and material prosperity. Lecrae’s music encourages people find their identity in God first, and then act in harmony with their status as God’s children.
As believers we must begin working out redemption here and now. Christ calls His followers the light of the world, the salt of the earth, and a city on a hill (Mt. 5:13-15). So, culture-shaping cannot be left to an elite few. Whether a hip-hop artist, a hair stylist, or a health inspector, all Christians must strive to be agents of redemptive change wherever God has placed us. If we live this way then, in many respects, the contrast between the redeemed and unredeemed life should look as stark as the contrast between Lil’ Wayne’s and Lecrae’s lyrics.
HOLY HIP-HOP CONTROVERSY: Rapper Propaganda’s blistering critique of Puritanism’s racist history has some Reformed listeners crying foul.
Rapper Propaganda created a tornado of criticism with the recent release of “Precious Puritans” on his new album Excellent (available here). In the song, Propaganda reminds his audience to increase their cultural intelligence by caring about the black experience in America and to recognize the fact that, like the Puritans, we all have blind spots and need to have our minds constantly renewed (Rom. 12:2) by God’s word. The song also challenges those who uncritically treat the Puritans as a protected class that stands outside of the Bible’s command to “test everything” (1 Thess. 5:21).
For those who may be unfamiliar, Puritanism was a Christian reform movement that arose within the Church of England in the late 16th century. The movement spilled over into New England well into the 17th century and had a significant influence on the mores of America’s founding. Theologically speaking, the Puritans were committed to the doctrines of grace that emerged from the Protestant Reformation, with their particular emphasis on the intersection of sound doctrine and personal piety. In recent years, many young white Baptists and non-denominational evangelicals have been looking for substantive, theologically driven, analytic approaches to personal piety rooted in a tradition they found lacking in their own backgrounds. Thirsting for depth and history, these “new-Calvinists,” with the help of well-known pastors like John Piper, have found spiritual enrichment by studying the Puritans.
“Precious Puritans” simply raises a caution about loving the Puritans too much because, although they had sound doctrine on issues like personal piety, that tradition was complicit in perpetrating injustice against Africans and African Americans during the slavery. The song opens with these words:
Pastor, you know it’s hard for me when you quote puritans.
Oh the precious Puritans.
Have you not noticed our facial expressions?
One of bewilderment and heartbreak.
Like, not you too pastor.
You know they were the chaplains on slave ships, right?
Would you quote Columbus to Cherokees?
Would you quote Cortez to Aztecs?
Even If they theology was good?
It just sings of your blind privilege wouldn’t you agree?
Your precious Puritans.
They looked my onyx and bronze skinned forefathers in they face,
Their polytheistic, god-hating face.
Shackled, diseased, imprisoned face.
And taught a gospel that says God had multiple images in mind when he created us in it.
Their fore-destined salvation contains a contentment in the stage for which they were given which is to be owned by your forefathers’ superior image-bearing face. Says your precious Puritans.
The song continues to highlight ways in which the black experience in the Puritan tradition is mishandled within white conservative evangelicalism. However, instead of leaving it simply at critique and dismissal, like we might find among some black liberation theologians, Propaganda ends the song by confessing that he is no less flawed than the Puritans, as his wife can attest, and offers praise to God because “God really does use crooked sticks to make straight lines.” That is, Propaganda is calling for humility in recognizing that, in the end the noetic effects of sin are present in the Puritans, in himself, and the rest of us. As such, what is to be praised is not any class of men but the providence and sovereignty of God that He fulfills his mission through messed up people. (Check out the video for “Precious Puritans” below.)
What’s been so odd to me is the tribalist attacks from those who fear that Propaganda is in some way throwing the Puritans under the bus to never be read again. A lamentable example of this is a blog post by Professor Owen Strachan, Assistant Professor of Christian Theology and Church History at Boyce College. In his post, Strachan suggests that the song might be dangerous because he wonders “if Propaganda isn’t inclining us to distrust the Puritans. He states his case against them so forcefully, and without any historical nuance, that I wonder if listeners will be inclined to dislike and even hate them.”
Is this a slippery slope? Does testing and critiquing leads to this? Did Martin Luther’s comments about Jews incline people to hate him and reject him? Or John Calvin’s execution of Michael Servetus? Or Abraham Kuyper’s racism? Or Jonathan Edwards slave owning? I could go on.
The answer, of course, is “yes” and “no.” Those who would reject the Puritans because of their white supremacy will themselves struggle to find much of anyone in Western Christianity to embrace. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God in some way (Rom. 3:23), including all of those we hold in high esteem. There is an obvious “no” because this is not how the Bible teaches Christians to engage in cultural and historical analysis. We are to eat the meat and spit out the bones. This includes those who are both inside and outside the tribe. There is much meat in the Puritans but there are also massive bones.
Propaganda’s point is that if white evangelicals do not talk about the bones of their heroes they run the risk of doing great harm to people of color. Many of us are beginning to wonder why white evangelicals do not seem to care much about this and seem willing to trade off “honoring” their forefathers for their own comfort over doing what is necessary to build racial solidarity. Some of my liberation theology friends, in the end, would see Strachan’s critique as a dismissal of acknowledging the importance of caring about how the Puritans are presented to African Americans and would constitute a racial microaggression or a micro-invalidation.
The largest concern is the seemingly tribal nature of many of Propaganda’s Puritan-loving critics. Could this be an example of confirmation bias? As Jonathan Haidt explains in the book The Righteous Mind, confirmation bias is “the tendency to seek out and interpret new evidence in ways that confirm what you already think” (80). In general, according to Haidt, we are good at challenging statements made by other people but when it comes to one’s own presuppositions facing opposition the tendency is to protect it and keep it. Therefore, “if thinking is confirmatory rather than explanatory … what chances is there that people will think in an open-minded, explanatory way when self-interest, social identity, and strong emotions make them want or even need to reach a preordained conclusion?” (81). In this sense, Propaganda broke a tribal code: never critique anyone within the tribe.
Strachan considers the Puritans “forefathers” and in a tribalist way, some would argue, seeks to protect their legacy. Had Propaganda dropped a track critiquing Roman Catholics, Jeremiah Wright, Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, or preachers of the prosperity gospel, he’d be called a hero. During my seminary years I was rebuked once for mentioning Martin Luther King Jr. in a sermon because of his sins. Why? Because King, like the others, are outside the tribe and are fair game to be critiqued in any form. Since they are not “one of us” there is no expectation of extending grace. Grace is reserved for those with whom we agree.
RHYTHM AND POETRY: Propaganda’s latest album, ‘Excellent.’
I experienced this tribal protectionism when I challenged Doug Wilson’s poor historiography of the antebellum South. Theologians Carl Trueman and Scott Clark experienced this recently when stating that complementarianism is not a “gospel issue.” The bottom line is that the Bible provides a model for the importance of confessing the sins of our fathers (Neh. 9:2) and testing everything (1 Thess. 5:21). Why? Because if we do not hold those in the past accountable to God’s Word we will repeat their sins. “Precious Puritans” is the iron that sharpens us. It keeps us from making the Puritans a golden calf. Racism and white supremacy is the other Reformed tradition so we need regular reminders to hold God and his Word in high esteem over the works of mere men.
After reading Strachan’s post I was left wondering if he had ever read Joseph Washington’s books on Puritans and race (Puritan Race Virtue, Vice and Values, 1620-1820: Original Calvinist True Believers’ Enduring Faith and Ethics Race Claims, Anti-Blackness in English Religion 1500-1800, and Race and Religion in Early Nineteenth Century America, 1800-1850: Constitution, Conscience, and Calvinist Compromise). In light of Washington’s research, what Propaganda did in this song is minimal. Candidly, it is difficult for me to see why Propaganda’s song stands out in light of the thousands of pages of published writings of Puritan white supremacy that seems to have had no effect on people treating them as a protected class. In the new Calvinist world, there seems to be a growing trend that you can have “hard-hitting exhortation” as long as it is directed at those who are not beloved within the new-Calvinist tribe. The best critique of Strachan’s tribalism comes from Pastor Steve McCoy, so I will not repeat his excellent points here but McCoy concludes that Strachan completely misses the point of Propaganda’s song.
Lastly, it seems that as a rapper himself, Strachan would not expect much “nuance” in a genre that normally uses hyperbole as a rhetorical device. After all, it is a rap song. Since when does anyone expect “rhythm and poetry” (a.k.a. RAP) to have nuances and qualifications? I wonder why Strachan is not treating the song according to its genre.
Strachan’s defensiveness of his forefathers, who get it right, demonstrates exactly why Propaganda needed to produce this song. In fact, perhaps we need more rhythm and poetry to help us test and confess. If artists like Propaganda are not given freedom to call us to critique our theology and culture, we cannot achieve true racial solidarity in the kingdom. Songs like “Precious Puritans” keep our eyes fixed on Jesus.
ATTENTION GRABBER: On Twitter, rapper Nicki Minaj was ecstatic to have drawn the attention of President Obama with her supposed endorsement of GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. (Photo: Christopher Macsurak/Wikipedia)
Well, good news: Nicki Minaj supports President Obama after all. Whew! That’s a relief.
Last week, you may recall, the twitterverse was all abuzz after the colorful rapper set off speculation that she was supporting Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Her featured track on Lil Wayne’s latest mixtape caught the rapper sharing some puzzling lyrics that indicated she was casting her lots with the GOP. On Lil Wayne and Kanye West’s song “Mercy,” Minaj raps: “I’m a Republican voting for Mitt Romney/You lazy b***es is f***ing up the economy.”
Almost immediately, the world broke into an uproar attempting to decipher the eccentric rapper’s true intentions behind the cryptic verses. Rolling Stone magazine chimed in on the discussion when it raised the question of whether or not her words were a deliberate endorsement or just a provocative lyric.
But, this week, after President Obama was asked about the song and Minaj’s apparent endorsement of Romney, he told radio station WPYO-FM in Orlando, Florida, that he wasn’t so sure it was a Romney plug. “She likes to play different characters,” he said.
Minaj immediately jumped on the moment. In a tweet, she thanked Obama for understanding: “my creative humor and sarcasm,” then noted: “the smart ones always do …”
In the past the hip-hop star has been known to produce songs filled with controversial lyrics that many felt were for publicity and self-promotion. Rapper Talib Kweli agrees. In a tweet posted last week, he said, “I doubt Nicki seriously supports Romney. Her lyrics ain’t political. She just wants y’all to talk about her & she winning cuz it’s working!”
I particularly enjoyed another tweet from Kweli that helped tease out the irony in the apparent existential crises so many were experiencing after the Minaj mystery hit:
Taking Minaj seriously, Huffington Postcontributor Kia Makarechi observed that, “Minaj is hardly the first hip-hop figure to take a stance on the election.” In fact, Makarechi added that a week earlier Jay-Z had presented a video to concertgoers at his Made in America Festival that highlighted President Obama encouraging everyone to vote in the upcoming election.
One pop star that is definitely not a Romney supporter is Black Eyed Peas leader will.i.am. A couple weeks ago at the Republican National Convention, Gov. John Kasich quoted the band in his speech. Kasich said:
You know, I don’t know about you … but I’ve got a feeling. I’ve got a feeling –- and it’s not just because I like the Black Eyed Peas –- I’ve got a feeling we’re about to elect a new president of the United States of America!
Unhappy with the musical reference and his band’s indirect connection with the RNC, will.i.am tweeted, “Hey Gov Kasich #Igotafeeling that Ohio needed the auto bail out…#unitedamericanotdivided let’s educate our youth #reachforthestars.”
The following day, will.i.am continued to fight back in an emotionally charged television interview with Marlow Stern in North Carolina, to discuss his support for the President at the Democratic National Convention.
In different ways, both will.i.am and Nicki Minaj proved their influence in the culture, not to mention the way that pop music, hip-hop, and the opinions of its artists have become an important part of today’s politics.
REFORMED MIX: Rapper Lecrae inspires both praise and debate with his blend of solid beats and Reformed theology.
With the release of his new album, Gravity, earlier this month, Lecrae is growing in popularity as a hip-hop artist among audiences Christian and non-Christian, black and white. The Associated Press, among others, praised the album, saying, “Lecrae delivers a strong piece of work. He’s not afraid to rap about his past mistakes, supplying inspirational rhymes filled with Christian values backed by well-produced secular hip-hop beats.”
Lecrae (his full name is Lecrae Moore) stands at the intersection of two contrasting cultures: the urban vibe of historically black hip-hop and the theological leanings of the historically white Reformed tradition with its roots in Calvinism.
It’s a cultural mix common in Holy Hip-Hop, says author and “hip-hop theologian” Efrem Smith. Holy Hip-Hop artists often appear in front of white evangelical audiences and receive support from white Reformed pastors like John Piper and Mark Driscoll (who have bothinterviewed Lecrae). But the artists themselves tend to be young black men from inner-city backgrounds who ironically struggle to find an audience among urban youth.
The reason for that, Smith argues, is because the African American church has too often rejected hip-hop culture and because urban youth sometimes dismiss Holy Hip-Hop as inferior to secular hip-hop music.
“Lecrae and Reach Records are the main reason why Holy Hip-Hop is growing in popularity in urban American and African American communities,” Smith said in an interview with UrbanFaith. “Put the Christian stuff aside for a minute; Lecrae is more gifted and talented than many artists being pushed by secular companies today.”
Lecrae’s Scripture-packed music hits a variety of urban issues, like fatherlessness, drug addiction, and violence. Lecrae himself was raised by his mother in the inner city of Houston and was involved in gang activity before his conversion at age 19. He went to a black church when he first became a Christian, but later visited a white Reformed congregation and was attracted to their take on the Bible.
But as Lecrae said in a video produced by The Gospel Coalition, “To drop Calvin’s name (in the black community) is to drop a curse word.” The Reformed tradition has historical links to racism in the U.S., going back to Calvinists who used their theology to justify slavery.
For that reason, Smith cautioned Holy Hip-Hop artists against depending solely on Reformation theology (which he wrote about in a blog post). Rather, he said, they need to draw upon other theologies that address the concerns of the oppressed, like liberation theology, reconciliation theology and missional pietism, to speak a prophetic message. Smith suggests that’s one area where Lecrae could grow musically, although he likened this constructive critique to criticizing LeBron James’s basketball skills.
“He does a great job of talking about individual sin and individual responsibility and the importance of accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and living by the Holy Spirit,” Smith told UrbanFaith. “What I’d like to see him do more is raise the systemic issues — the corporate issues of sin and injustice in our country and the world — and point to kingdom justice and mercy to deal with these corporate sins.”
For Lecrae, the Reformed tradition describes how he interprets the Bible, and his adoption of that theology is a way to bridge the racial divide.
“I don’t feel like I’m under theological imperialism or whatever,” Lecrae said in a video produced by The Gospel Coalition. “I feel like I’m in search of truth, and I’m going to get it wherever I can find it. And I feel like I am in some senses a contextual ambassador, a cultural ambassador, and I do want to bridge those gaps and tear down those walls.” Check out the video below.
What do you think of Lecrae’s music and Holy Hip-Hop?
Sugarhill Gang regoups as Rapper's Delight: Hen Dogg, Wonder Mike and Master Gee at the Garden State Film Festival. (Photo by Christine A. Scheller)
It’s been more than 30 years since a trio of young men from Englewood, New Jersey, recorded the first cross-over hip-hop hit, “Rapper’s Delight.” After a drawn-out legal battle with their former record label, Sugar Hill Records, two members of the original Sugarhill Gang, Mike “Wonder Mike” Wright and Guy “Master Gee” O’Brien, have teamed up with Henry “Hen Dogg” Williams in a group named for the Sugarhill Gang’s one big hit. The band’s evolution and protracted legal fight is the subject of a new Roger Paradiso documentary called I Want My Name Back.
The original Sugarhill Gang from back in the day, crica 1979.
I saw the film and a brief Rapper’s Delight performance at the Garden State Film Festival in Asbury Park, New Jersey, March 24. It’s a bitter film about how record label owners Sylvia Robinson, her husband Joe Robinson, and their sons allegedly defrauded the group members financially and then trademarked the name Sugarhill Gang and the stage names “Wonder Mike” and “Master Gee.” After Wright and O’Brien left the record label, the Robinson’s son Joe Jr. actually began performing as “Master Gee” with remaining original member Henry “Big Bank Hank” Franklin.
In the film, O’Brien says the Robinsons didn’t seem like crooks to him at first, in part because Sylvia Robinson was going to Bible studies when they met and “praising the Lord.”
Williams, who was a former producer at the now defunct Sugar Hill Records, says, “Big Joe was a crook, but he was an honest crook.” He would tell artists “straight up” what he was going to take from them.
O’Brien says he descended into a “deep state of violent depression” and began using drugs after parting ways with the Robinsons over their alleged thievery. He sold magazines door-to-door and says that helped him emerge from the depths. Because his anger isn’t as raw as Wright’s in the film, I thought perhaps faith or a 12-step program had played a role in his recovery. I was wrong.
“I did it myself,” O’Brien told UrbanFaith. “I just walked away from it. It didn’t benefit me. It made me worse, and in the situation, there was enough bad going around so I didn’t want to add to the equation.”
“I believe in the power of positive thinking and self-improvement,” he said. “I trained my brain and I maintained a really positive attitude. I looked at every adversity as a seed to an equal and greater benefit. That just gave me the opportunity to become stronger than whatever it was.”
Rapper's Delight: The hit that made hip-hop mainstream. (Photo by Christine A. Scheller)
Wright struggled with diabetes and asthma after he left the band and the record label, but he also started a successful painting business, got married, had children, and later divorced. He returned to the Sugar Hill label from 1994 to 2005, but says in the film that those years were “the dumbest years of my life.”
Perhaps this explains why the vitriole Wright hurls at Joe Robinson Jr. and Jackson is so aggressive and bitter. He gave the label a second chance and felt like he got burned again. He calls his former bandmate “gutless” and “heartless” in the film for not leaving with him.
But in 2000, when Joe Robinson Sr. was on his deathbed, Wright went to visit him in the hospital. Amidst all the anger and accusations in the film, I was surprised to hear him say he went there to pray with Robinson. I asked him about this after the screening and concert. He said he was able to pray with the man who had done him so much harm because “He [Christ] loved us first before we loved Him, and because He said, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son.’ He forgave the people. He said, ‘Father, forgive them because they know not what they do.’ How many times do we forgive somebody? Seven times? No. Seventy times seven. And it’s grace. Grace can’t be earned. It’s mercy. Mercy has to be shown in unruliness.”
Wright then recounted the story of God’s mercy in delivering the Israelites on the banks of the Red Sea and with manna and a pillar of fire despite their complaining.
He said it was the “prayer of salvation” that he prayed with Robinson.
“I was hoping that he made that move because what they did to us was absolutely terrible–it can’t be overlooked, but eternity is eternity. This is for a small season, and it was really wrong, but you have to overlook that when you’re feet are on the edge of going over to the other side. So, I had to throw all that out the window. And, it really wasn’t hard when it came down to that. When it comes down to crossing over, we’re all one heartbeat, we’re all one breath away from eternity,” he said.
Wright is a person of faith, he said, but he doesn’t want to “put walls” around himself or “any kind of bondage” because “there’s freedom in Christ.”
“I want my priorities to be changed,” he said.
A painful journey exposed: Mike "Wonder Mike" Wright expresses it all in film and song. (Photo by Christine A. Scheller)
It was perhaps a necessary qualification because forgiveness, mercy, and an eternal perspective don’t come through in this film at all. But when he was introducing the band’s song, “I Want My Name Back,” during the concert he said the song and the film were “cathartic” for him. Thirty years worth of frustration and anger spill out on screen. Even after Wright and O’Brien reunited, Joe Robinson Jr. allegedly tried to sabotage their careers.
O’Brien told me the film was cathartic for him too, but said he has never seen it in its entirety. “For me, it’s just a little eerie, so I kind of take it in bits and pieces,” he said.
The music Rapper’s Delight performed was “clean” and upbeat. As someone who is far from being a rap aficionado, I thought perhaps I was guilty of stereotyping a genre, but in an interview with NPR Wright said the group’s message “wasn’t too heavy” and that what he “wanted to portray was three guys having fun.” This, music historians say, is why “Rapper’s Delight” was a such a big hit.
“When we strike up [Rapper’s Delight], the audience goes crazy 100 percent of the time,” Wright recently told The New York Times. “That’s love,” he said. “That’s appreciation. I’ll never take it for granted.”
Why is it that we expect perfect consistency from people of faith? While I can’t imagine myself publicly expressing the kind of raw, intensely personal anger that Wright expresses in this film, I’ve certainly felt it and communicated it in private, and I’ve never had my public identity stolen. Who knows what I would say and do if someone did that to me?