By Aaron Earls
As part of his most recent tour, Kanye West had “Jesus” appear on stage to carry on a conversation with the controversial rapper. Some Christian artists, however, are engaging the hip-hop culture in hopes that Jesus will be an integral part of that world, not just appearing at a concert.
The culturally relevant and doctrinally astute lyrics of the new breed of Christian hip-hop artists give pastors and parents a bridge to the hip-hop culture and their rap-inclined student who may be getting more theology than expected from the top 40 rap song they hear on the radio.
West’s song “I Am A God (Feat. God)” is not only the rapper’s latest and most upfront attempt at self-aggrandizement, the track is one of many theologically-driven rap songs seeking to use the depth of biblical imagery as a cover for shallow proclamations of personal opinion.
Breakout artist Macklemore critiques religious opposition to same-sex marriage in his song “Same Love” by drawing from personal memories of church services. Hip-hop icon Jay Z’s somber “Heaven” encourages his audience to “question religion, question it all” because “religion creates division.” All the while, the man who refers to himself as J Hova (a mash-up of his rap name and Jehovah) boasts that he is a prophet who turns arenas into churches with lyrics that carry the same weight as Bible passages.
Despite their insistence on breaking away from a religious, primarily Christian, heritage, rap artists cannot help but use that imagery in their music. In his blog post “Rap & Religion,” Christian lyricist Trip Lee asserted “few rappers—or any artists for that matter—can shake the urge to include God somewhere in their art.” The question about the art is, as Lee contended, “What are we saying?”
Sounds from the Doctrinal Underground
When Jay Z and his label Roc Nation released “Magna Carta… Holy Grail,” he used three-minute long commercials during the NBA Finals to announce an app specifically for Samsung phones that would allow one million free downloads of his twelfth studio album.
Christian artist Lecrae and his label Reach Records didn’t have such luxuries for “Gravity” or even many radio stations to play his songs, but the Atlanta-based performer’s sixth release still managed to debut at No. 3 on the Billboard 200. Immediately after the debut, three of the top 10 spots on iTunes hip-hop/rap charts, including No. 1 and No. 2, belonged to Lecrae.
In an interview on Lifeway’s webcast, “The Exchange,” the Grammy award-winning emcee told Lifeway vice president Eric Geiger that hip-hop was a “powerful tool” that could be used for good or bad. He views his role as a missionary to the secular rap culture.
“I’m a big fan of looking at Paul in Acts and in the marketplace, but in the synagogue as well, mixing it up in the culture, and knowing who their modern-day poets were and speakers and philosophers and then being able to integrate their ideals and values in his talks as he’s trying to preach Christ to them,” said Lecrae.
For Trip Lee, an artist with Lecrae’s Reach Records, that means responding to religious-themed lyrics from rappers who “don’t understand who Jesus is” in a way that addresses the real problem.
As West’s song was the pop culture topic du jour, Trip Lee wrote on his personal blog that the unbiblical theology from rappers was “a reflection of their hearts.” His solution was for “the people who do know about Jesus to speak up. Not just in songs and blog posts, but at the dinner table, the boardroom and in the classroom. Why? Because this ignorance and irreverence isn’t unique to rappers. Reckless art is just one expression of it.”
But it does need to be in songs as well, which is why Lecrae, Lee, and others have been at the forefront of a growth in theologically rich and doctrinally sound rap. In a talk at Resurgence 2012, Lecrae defended his creating music in a genre of music that has historically glorified sinful behavior, while challenging the mindset of a sacred/secular divide.
He told a story of he and friend driving down the road listening to rap music, when his friend turned down the station as they drove past a church saying, “We’ve got to be respectful.” Thinking back over the incident, Lecrae said, “It’s as if God doesn’t own every stretch of highway we’re driving down, like He just owns those couple of acres where the church is.”
For Lecrae, Christians will only influence culture if they recognize “Jesus’ blood purchased this world. It all belongs to Him.” And as such, Lecrae and others are seeking to be out in culture where many would never hear the truth otherwise. He challenges believers to rehabilitate and redeem culture. “Go and paint a picture of what it looks like when Jesus radically changes someone.”
Music, particularly hip-hop, is an area of culture that is in need of an illustration of redemption because much of it brings a negative influence that can only be countered with the gospel.
Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh analyzed the 279 most popular songs of 2005 based on Billboard charts and found that 77 percent of the rap songs contained a reference to drugs or alcohol. Musical messages that contradict Scripture bombard teenagers, who listen to an average of 16 hours a week.
Music is an especially powerful medium when conveying a message.
“Go ahead, try to say your ABCs without singing the little song that goes with it,” challenged Erin Davis, author and teen girl ministry expert.
“When we memorize information, thoughts or ideas it’s hard for it to stick in our brains,” she said. “But put an idea to music, give it a beat and some notes that tug our emotions and things tend to stick.”
With that being said, those seeking to positively influence students can become bogged down in responding to every unbiblical entertainment choice and miss the bigger issue, according to Ben Trueblood, director of student ministry for Lifeway.
“Don’t make music your ‘hill to die on,’” he said. “Make the Word of God that hill and approach the issue from what God calls us to rather than merely attacking the music.”
For Davis and Trueblood, the most important thing parents and student leaders can do is turn the focus to God and His gospel, which will help a teenager develop a biblical, gospel-centered worldview that enables them to reject false theology.
“Pop culture is always going to churn out junk,” said Davis. “But kids who know who God is will lose their appetite for what’s being flung at them because they know the alternative is better.”
According to Trueblood, real truth and real community will come from God.
“Show teenagers that the Bible really does speak to the issues of everyday life,” he said. “Show them the most real community they could ever experience comes from the unity brought by the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers.”
While Kanye calling himself “a god” may be new lyrical ground, the assertion is as old as the Garden of Eden, and as such the solution remains the same.
“The gospel is what changes minds, changes hearts and corrects wrong thinking,” said Trueblood.
Or as Lecrae says in “Tell the World”:
So I-I’m read’ to go, and I’mma tell the world what they need to know
A slave to myself, but You let me go, I tried getting high but it left me low
You did what they could never do
You cleaned up my soul and gave me new life – I’m so brand new.