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.
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?
If I hear one more contemporary gospel song talk about God’s favor, I’m gonna lose it.
“Favor,” wails Karen Clark Sheard. “You will never want for anything.” “Nothing can stop the favor of The Lord,” proclaims Israel and New Breed. “It’s my time for God’s favor,” shouts Kurt Carr. “I ain’t waitin’ no more!”
Since these aren’t exactly new songs, let me offer instead an example from the world of holy hip-hop, a song called “Favor” by William “Duce” Branch, a.k.a The Ambassador (formerly of The Cross Movement), from his latest album entitled Stop the Funeral:
It wasn’t a fancy car, it wasn’t a diamond ring / it wasn’t friends or lovers at the end of the day / ‘cause we know this life’s hard, and it can bring trouble / in the midst of this trouble, no one can take it away / you need His favor, His favor, His favor, His favor
I don’t want to sound like Debbie Downer here, because the truth is, I really like each of these songs. They’re good songs. Musically and emotionally, they have been a blessing to me at various times.
But I’m concerned that by continually singing songs like these, gospel musicians might be unintentionally sending a bad message.
The truth about favor
The problem with songs like these is not that they’re not true at all, but that they contain enough truth to be dangerous. (After all, the worst lies are mixed with the truth.) So for example, I do believe that as Christians, each of us do have divine favor. We love and serve a God that is for us, and not against us. And this favor isn’t because of what we’ve done for Him, but because of what He’s done for us — specifically that He made us alive in Christ, even when we were dead in our transgressions.
But this news isn’t complete if we are not articulating more clearly and accurately the basis of God’s favor on our lives. After all, most Christians believe that God loves everyone, but I don’t think the folks who sing these songs believe such favor is universally accessible to everyone regardless of faith background or life experience. We sing these songs with the mindset that God’s favor rests exclusively on those who are … well … Christians.
In other words, God’s favor may not cost money, but it costs something. However one defines the Christian life, that’s what it supposedly costs.
The view from the outside
Unfortunately, what we on the inside see as a joyful celebration of God’s favor can appear from the outside to nonbelievers as either selfish gloating (“Favor? Why you and not me?”) or indulgent self-delusion (“Favor? Who are they kidding?”). This misunderstanding often comes because of moralistic therapeutic deism, which says, among other things, that good people go to heaven because they do good things (like going to church). So if you’re not socially accepted within your church circle, too bad. No church, no heaven, no favor.
This is clearly NOT the gospel message, but we shouldn’t be surprised when people get it twisted up. Gospel music has become so appreciated and appropriated by mainstream culture that the very term “gospel” means and connotes Black church style more than it does a message of salvation through faith in Christ.
I suppose it’s fair to say that different songs are aimed for, marketed toward, and enjoyed by different segments of people, so that a song written by and for Christians shouldn’t be evaluated by non-Christians, because that would be like an apples-to-oranges comparison.
Except that I compare apples and oranges all the time. (I like oranges better.)
And it’s also fair to say that one song should not have to serve as an overall theological representation of a particular artist, church, or organization.
But what if one song is all that gets heard?
In the marketplace of competing ideas and ideologies, we Christians can’t afford to ignore our public perception. We need to be aware of what it might look like to our nonbelieving friends on Facebook if or when the dominant themes reflected in the gospel songs we share are about a divine favor that looks and feels alien and inaccessible to those not steeped in Black church culture.
Theology from below
The truth is, God’s favor truly is open to everyone. Anyone can receive the good news and become a follower of Jesus. You don’t have to know the lyrics to “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” to get in on it. An authentic Christian life does not need to be stamped with cultural markers for divine approval.
So part of what we need is to be able to view our theology “from below” — that is, with the needs of the marginalized in mind so that we can make sure that what we’re saying actually sounds like good news to those who need it.
The bitter irony in seeing The Ambassador record a song about favor is that he operates within a cultural persona that is, in the Black church, particularly unfavorable. First, he is a hip-hop emcee, so by cultural association he is seen as loud, audacious, and overly confrontational (or borderline demonic if you ask G. Craige Lewis). Second, he has recently rebounded from an infidelity scandal that could have torpedoed his marriage and career, though thankfully both have survived.
Either way, his artistic and pastoral voice represents a growing segment of Black men who no longer feel at home in the church. So in the context of all the other songs about God’s favor that fail to address many of the social ills that afflict Black people, Amba’s song “Favor” seems like another example of a popular Black artist drinking the prosperity Kool-Aid in order to gain broader acceptance within the church.
Having listened to the rest of Stop the Funeral, I don’t really think that’s true.
But that’s how it looks.
My plea is for Christians who make music for a living to pay closer attention to the words and ideas they use, and do the best they can to be as accessible as possible to listeners of different cultural backgrounds.
Because Ambassador is right — God’s favor is a wonderful thing.
I just hope his listeners get the rest of the message.
If you’re an African American parent and you haven’t already done so, put this article on pause, and check out LZ Granderson’s take on why he is raising his son to be a nerd.
No, really. Do it now. I’ll wait.
Because here’s the thing. This sentiment is good and true, and if it’s true for African Americans in general, it’s ESPECIALLY true for believers in Christ, especially when it comes to the church.
We need more nerds in the church.
Let me explain.
More Mathletes, Fewer Athletes
Granderson’s thesis is that children these days, especially Black children, need more positive reinforcement when it comes to pursuing academic achievement compared to athletic achievement, because our society’s broader American culture does a better job of celebrating sports than it does celebrating academics.
On one level, this is good for us — and by us, I mean the average, churchgoing Black person who, let’s be honest, probably needs more physical activity than just doin’ a little shoutin’ dance one a week during church.
Since the obesity epidemic has a stronghold deep inside the church, and considering the fact that children have been affected so deeply, and considering for some young folks, sports programs are the best thing keeping them off the street and out of trouble (it’s cliché, but it’s true), I heartily affirm the need for kids — and adults — to participate in sports. Sports are a good thing for people of all ages, because keeping active is an important part of overall wellness.
The pendulum needs to start swinging the other way.
In 1 Timothy 4:8, the apostle Paul points out the obvious — physical training has a measure of value, but godliness is valuable across every facet of life. So the whole reason why Paul used the example of physical training is because, in the time and culture of his day (influenced by the Aristotelian values of ancient Greece), athletic competition was assumed to be the dominant form of celebrated excellence. Paul made his appeal in the context of those values and was challenging his people to turn their attention to something of greater value.
This cultural preoccupation with athletics continues today, and if you’re not sure if that’s true or not, consider the global influence of one of the most dominant sports brands today, named after the Greek goddess of victory.
This is why Granderson wrote what he did.
Musicians: Icons of the Black Church
For Black folks in the church, the officially sanctioned sacred pursuit is not athletic, but musical. For a variety of reasons, music — specifically, gospel music — has been the lifeblood of the African American church experience. And on balance, this is a good thing.
But just like athletes in the broader popular culture, it’s gotten out of balance. In many church communities, musicianship is more of a valued commodity than biblical literacy.
So what we need are more Bible nerds, so to speak. We need people who get excited about textual exegesis just as much as rhythms and chords. We need people whose commentary collections are broader and more balanced than their music collections.
After all, there’s a reason why Paul told Timothy to “study and show yourself approved;” the flock needs to be protected from false teaching. And unfortunately, false teaching is a common side effect when we elevate gifted musicians to the status of spiritual leaders, as tends to be the case with high-profile musicians in the church. That’s not to say that there are no gifted musicians who are worthy of spiritual leadership — indeed, there are many, and we ought to thank God for them and honor them. But we can’t turn a blind eye to character issues or lack of training when it comes to handling the word of God just because a person is blessed with the ability to sing or play an instrument.
People are watching, y’all.
Granderson pointed out the fact that kids can tell what we really value by the way we revere athletes and make fun of spelling-bee contestants.
This dynamic is so, so true in the church. And if you’re a church leader and you doubt what I’m saying, then hold an intensive Bible training conference on the same day as a big time gospel music concert, and see how many of your people you get to show up.
We have to get it together in this area and fast, because our ability to do God’s work is at least partially dependent upon what we believe about Him, and when we prioritize high production values and strong musicality over solid biblical teaching, either as leaders or as followers, we give our watching neighbors the unintended message that music is what saves people, and not God.
No wonder so many musicians have left the church … if music is what saves, then who needs God?
Ministry: Theology in Action
Christian ministry is simply Christian theology in action. So if we don’t pay attention to our theology, then our ministry will miss the mark, no matter how good it sounds coming through our speakers.
I stress this point only because I also don’t want to give the impression that the nerd path is, itself, a path to salvation. Being a nerd is no more intrinsically holy than being an athlete or a singer. The point is not to simply acquire a wealth of knowledge and expertise, because sometimes the only thing knowledge does is make your head bigger. The point is to live out one’s calling as effectively and wholeheartedly as possible.
That’s why you have voices like Efrem Smith, challenging the role of Reformed theology in holy hip-hop. Not because he doesn’t like holy hip-hop or Reformed theologians, but because, in his estimation, that particular theological strain is insufficient in providing a complete foundation from which to make a long-term impact. And Christian emcees like Lecrae and Flame wouldn’t do what they do if they weren’t interested in making an impact.
So let’s get out there and make our God known. Let’s put him on display by giving him our minds as well as our bodies. And if, in the process of doing so, we risk being labeled as nerds or geeks or whatever, then so be it. When Paul said he would be all things to all people, I’m sure nerds would’ve been included in that list, if, y’know, that terminology would’ve been popular then.