Have you seen it yet? Yeah, we’re talking about “Gangnam Style.” The YouTube video has more than 230 million views. The song is utterly infectious. The crazy dance is ubiquitous. And, most interestingly, South Korean rapper PSY is bringing attention to a whole new pop-culture scene.
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?
SNOOP DOGG NO MORE : The eponymous rapper has been “reincarnated” as Rastafarian reggae singer Snoop Lion.
It can be difficult to take a spiritual awakening seriously when it’s presented as part of an album, film, and book promotion, but rapper Snoop Dogg said at a press conference yesterday that he has (at least temporarily) been christened “Snoop Lion” by a Rastafarian priest in Jamaica. Snoop was there working on his first reggae album, “Reincarnated” (with a documentary film crew in tow), and said “the spirit” called him to do it.
Explaining the new moniker, Snoop said he was visiting a Rastafarian temple when the high priest asked him what his name was. When he answered “Snoop Dogg,” the priest looked him in the eyes and said, “No more. …You are the light, you are the lion.”
When asked by Sway Calloway of MTV if he was converting to the Rastafarian religion, Snoop said he learned that Rastafara isn’t a religion, but “a way of life.” “I feel like I’ve always been Rastafari. I just didn’t have my third eye open, but it’s wide open right now,” said Snoop.
ReligionFacts.com says “the Rastafari movement is a ‘messianic religio-political movement’ that began in the Jamaican slums in the 1920s and 30s” and its most famous adherent was Bob Marley, whose music brought it to international prominence.
“There is significant variation within the Rastafari movement and no formal organization. Some Rastafarians see Rasta more as a way of life than a religion. But uniting the diverse movement is belief in the divinity and/or messiahship of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I, the influence of Jamaican culture, resistance of oppression, and pride in African heritage. The Rastafarian lifestyle usually includes ritual use of marijuana, avoidance of alcohol, the wearing of one’s hair in dreadlocks, and vegetarianism,” the article said.
At Complex Music, Rob Kenner introduced his interview with the rapper by saying, “Snoop’s name change was not done on a whim. He was actually baptised in a sacred Rastafarian ceremony. For Rastafarians, the Lion is a symbol of the black God incarnate, His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia—also known as the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah.”
Kenner also said Snoop has been referring to himself as “Bob Marley reincarnated” for some time now. “At first it seemed like a generic weed reference, or perhaps a touch of rebel flair. But at yesterday’s press conference it became clear that since his recent trip to Jamaica Snoop has been taking this ‘Reincarnated’ project very seriously,” said Kenner.
Marley’s son Rohan was at the presser and said his family is cool with Snoop’s claim. “Music in general is universal. Remember Jamaica is a part of music as well, you know, so we really don’t separate ourselves. And we embrace Snoop, not only through music, but through a divine order, because you see it’s all about life and what you’re going to give. So once you’re going to profess a positive vibration and give pack to the earth, and the land, and the people, and be an instrument of good, we receive that as well,” said Marley.
In his interview with Kenner, Snoop said the Rastafarian elders had given him a new sense of direction. “When you accept the role of leader, you have to know why you’re leading and where you’re leading. And I didn’t know. I always knew I was a leader. I was a good leader, but I needed information to make sure that I was leading people to the light as opposed to the darkness,” Snoop said.
Snoop wants to make music that his kids and grandparents can enjoy, he said. Not that he’s denouncing his gangster rapper past. Rap no longer challenges him though, he told a reporter. “The music I made as Snoop Dogg was who he was. I was young, I was fly, I was pretty, I was flamboyant, you know. I was the greatest of all time. That’s what it called for me to be. But now, I’m a grown man with a family, with kids, with wisdom, with guidance, with understanding, so it’s only right to pass this on,” said Snoop.
In response to another journalist’s question about his evolution, he added, “I could never become Snoop Lion if I was never Snoop Dogg. …Snoop Dogg created Snoop Lion, but Snoop Lion is the elevation of Snoop Dogg.” He’s one of a long line of musicians who’ve claimed spiritual awakenings. Check out these ten rappers who have at Newsday.
The first single off “Reincarnated”is the upbeat “La, La, La,” which sets the tone for the record, Snoop said. Another song is “No Guns Allowed.” He described that one as “spirit inspired” and said it was a song he wouldn’t have been allowed to make as a “gangster.”
Reincarnated is an album, film, and photo book that emerged spontaneously, said Snoop’s manager Ted Chung. The trailer for the documentary, which will air at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, glides along in a haze of smoke. Given Snoop’s history with the drug and its religious significance in the Rastafarian movement, one assumes it’s marijuana smoke.
“This project, if you look at it from a business perspective, it’s this multi-platform media entity that’s going to have a very, very long life. And, what’s awesome about it is that it’s important on so many different levels, but the intentions were really pure,” said film maker Suroosh Alvi.
What do you think?
Is Snoop’s rebirth for real? And if so, is a marijuana-soaked message better for children than the one he was previously selling?
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?
Wanna learn how to start a fire in religious circles? Pay attention to Jefferson Bethke, the spoken-word rapper/poet responsible for the viral video “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus.” When it comes to starting fires, Bethke is an Eagle Scout.
(Click THIS link to read his lyrics and watch the video.)
In “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus,” which at current count has registered some 17 million views, Bethke opines over the lack of authenticity in religious leadership, calls into account the dangerous compound of faith and politics, and berates the self-righteous. (Amen!)
However, in making a few good points, Bethke may have thrown the baby out with the bath water.
If you’ve ever played the Blame Game before (who hasn’t?), then you know how this works. Something goes wrong, someone gets blamed. This literally takes on “biblical” proportions when you think about the scapegoat and its origins. As long as humankind has existed together in community, it’s been someone else’s fault. Why do we always need something to execute?
Wars have indeed been fought in the name of God. Priests, vicars, monks, nuns, and pastors havelied, cheated, stolen from and exploited the innocent. Politics and religion do make strange bedfellows, and the Religious Right does have a “special” (almost impressive) way of loving Jesus while ignoring the ethics of the gospel.
Bethke is right. There are huge churches that condemn single mothers and fail to feed the poor — a huge mess. But “spraying perfume on a casket”? One day he’s gonna want those words back.
Besides the conflation of terms (“RELIGION” is not a monolith); or the tautology of using the Scriptures (a religious text) to argue against religion; or quoting scripture in irresponsible ways (God does NOT call all religious people “whores” in Jeremiah 3), there’s the grandiose, re-tweetable statements like “Religion is man searching for God/Christianity is God searching for man.” Whether Bethke knows it or not, his statement was likely influenced by Rabbi Abraham Heschel, a very religious man whose classic books God in Search of Man and Man Is Not Alone build an argument for the philosophy of Judaism and the practice of religion. Bethke’s statement almost sounds like Rabbi Heschel; instead, it comes off as pretentious nonsense.
There’s no need to maliciously pick everything apart; it is quite clear that Bethke has good intent. He wants people of faith to have more integrity; for their ethics to match up with their jibber-jabber; for our theology and praxis to align. Is this not also what God wants?
BREAKING IT DOWN: A screen shot from Jefferson Bethke's video, which is edging toward 18 million views.
Bethke’s honorable goal of encouraging authentic faith has been the aim of religious practice since we started ritualizing our history by burying the dead (which is arguably the beginning of “religion”). *Vast Generalization Alert* One arc of the Hebrew Bible rails against folks who have become too loyal to law and ritual to connect with YHWH. This is what Jesus comes to do: reorient humanity to the Law, not abolish religion. After all, did he not then come back and use Peter to start a CHURCH!?!
And here is the whole point. Jesus came back and created community. He didn’t start a new religion; he simply said, “Here’s a better Way to live. Now go out and create communities of people who can live better together. Create disciples of this Way.”
Religion is ALL ABOUT COMMUNITY. If you’ve ever stood in a circle and shared prayer requests together, you know this. If you’ve ever been to a funeral, you know this. If you’ve ever sat around and shared old stories with your family, or if you’ve ever felt the warmth and comfort of being around other people … These are religious impulses, and they are so ingrained in our daily experience that we cannot avoid them.
It’s a messy world, and religion finds a way to still create community. Better than any other institution or worldview. And I believe that nothing has more potential for fostering genuine, loving, ethical, Beloved Community than religion. That’s why I am a pastor.
Jefferson Bethke’s poem seems focused on the problems; our vision should be consumed by the potential. He sees the dirty water and calls for a cleansing; we should see the baby in the tub. For all the woes of this world, and the many ways our faith has caused them, there yet remains hope in the gathering of a few who believe in something greater than humanity. For all we’ve done, for all we’ve ignored, for all we’ve hurt — God still calls us together. God still loves us.
Jefferson Bethke apparently does hate religion: his video inspires no community and breathes no hope. But I’m not sure that’s loving Jesus.