I was going to write about 1 Corinthians and how our staff is reading through it together, but then something happened last night to change a long-held bias of mine…
Despite any illusions to the contrary, Christian hip hop/rap isn’t a genre I took too seriously in the past. Sure, I listen to a small number of Christian rappers and spoken word poets, I hang out with a Christian rapper from time to time (check out Javie on iTunes!), and I even dabble in spoken word myself, but for some reason, I always saw something inherently silly about Christian rap. Maybe it’s the mental image of TobyMac in an oversized top hat or Carman speak-singing over synthesizers, but for some reason, Christian rap always seemed goofy and awkward to me (not to mention lacking in authenticity, much less street cred). Of course, there are a few standouts like Lecrae who bring some gravitas to this medium, but for the most part, I just found the whole endeavor a little funny.
Rap and Christianity seem like pretty strange bedfellows. Even though some rappers use the medium for social commentary (like Tupac), rap and hip hop at their core are mostly about self-promotion and indulgence. Rap usually involves bragging about income, sexual exploits, and often murder or jail time, and humility is almost a foreign concept. Most of today’s rappers insert their own names the way a normal person would use punctuation, and even the greats like Tupac, Biggie, Jay-Z, etc. referenced themselves in the third person from time to time.
With rap centering so much on extravagance, individualism, and sin as a bragging point, it seems pretty contrary to the Christian message. For that reason, listening to Christian rap is often a bizarre experience as Christian rappers seek to capture that same tough image while changing the substance. You know how movies with a lot of swear words get humorously dubbed over when they appear on television? Multiply that oddity times 1,000, and that’s a pretty good description of most Christian rap. Even with this apparent contrast, there’s some surprisingly compelling Christian rap out there, and it turns out that L.A., Portland, Chicago, and New York have been breeding grounds for some incredible underground Christian rappers.
Last night, Jim and Stephanie Neill and I got to experience some of this rap firsthand as KB, Propaganda, Skrip, and HeeSun Lee were performing at Crossover Church. Jim and I have become Propaganda fans thanks to his youtube presence (you may remember his “Be Present” video from Encounter last Sunday), but the others were new to us. Sure, some of Skrip’s rhymes were a little cheesy, and HeeSun Lee’s lyrics were almost too fast to comprehend, but the overall mood in the room was diehard enthusiasm for Christ, and it was refreshing to see a group of artists who were staying true to their points of origin while also worshiping God. Even more so, there was a sense of reclamation and mission as the rappers rallied under the call of “God Belongs in My City.” You just got the sense: these guys are for real. Even though KB completely brought the house down at the finale, Propaganda was the real standout of the night for us, and his story is a fascinating one.
Growing up around Compton, CA (arguably the center of West Coast hip hop), Jason Petty a.k.a. Propaganda was one of the few black people in a Latino neighborhood, and when his family moved out to a predominantly white suburb, he found himself still an outsider as a Spanish-speaking black man. He took to rap and poetry, and this interest diverted him from more harmful pursuits (like membership in the Crips who were dominant in his area). He wound up going to college, getting a masters, and serving as a teacher before pursuing a fulltime career in rap. With that background, Propaganda can speak with authority about being an outsider but still finding peace and hope in Christ. His rhymes are not self-aggrandizing; rather, they focus on the tough issues facing American Christians (including our history of racism). Needless to say, I’d rather our youth be listening to this kind of stuff than a lot of the other rap that’s out there.
So, do I still find Christian rap kind of goofy? Honestly, yes, because much of it still is. Even though the artists we saw last night at Crossover had a truly heartfelt message and didn’t get too caught up in the rap image, there’s still a lot of that going on in the world of Christian rap (which makes me appreciate artists like Propaganda and the rest of the humble rapper movement even more). I doubt I’ll be a regular at these concerts, but I’ll be keeping an eye out for events like this in the future, making our youth aware of some of these rappers, and maybe even taking my own spoken word attempts a little more seriously. After all, Ephesians 4 reminds us that we are a body with many parts. We have many skills and gifts, but we pursue one calling. And it’s awesome to see a group of truly gifted rappers handing that skillset over to Christ as they respond to His call.
Grace and Peace,