The Christian Hip Hop Debate
In this series of posts I have been examining the contemporary relationship between Christians and music. I have looked at the options and responsibilities available to both the Christian creative and consumer of art. I focused on the specific medium of music because it is an ideal entry art form into the larger discussion of the intersection of faith and art. I am not discussing music just for its own sake. Music is so ubiquitous it is a grounded, easily accessible reference point for talking about art in general. I am not as interested in the content of individual pieces of music as I am in the ideas and ways of thinking that inform the music we make. Music in particular plays such a vital role in Christian life it is important that we understand the art form and how art in general works.
Throughout these posts, Christian hip hop (CHH) has been very prominent, the most obvious reason being I love CHH. I do not listen to too much of it nowadays but as a genre it has been very influential in informing my musical palate. Through it I began to appreciate and fully enjoy the wider parent genre of hip hop. As much as music is a great for discussing art in general, I think hip hop as a genre is great for discussing contemporary music.
Musical forms and genres are always associated with culture because they are a natural part of it. I will not belabour a point I have made adequately elsewhere which is every society has its type of music. Music is representative of a people and a way of life, a way of seeing the world. Hip hop clearly illustrates the social value of music because it is not just a style but a typically American sub culture. It is unique form of music in world history that could have only emerged in a particular milieu of shared experiences and worldviews. It came on the scene only recently, the pioneers of hip hop are still alive and active, and it has aggressively taken over the world. By looking at hip hop we have the opportunity to witness the organic creation of a new phenomenon in human culture. It is like a naturalist capturing footage of wildlife in their natural environment that no human eyes have ever seen before. (Thoughts of the terrifying baby iguana chase in the Planet Earth II documentary series spring to mind.) Through it we can more easily appreciate what informs the creation and consumption of art in the contemporary world.
Hip hop allows us to check the pulse of contemporary music. Even though it has finally gained mainstream acceptance, CHH has not yet reached that stage in the church. A difficult situation is further compounded by not being accepted by the mainstream hip hop scene either. Christian hip hop inherits the tensions and baggage of both hip hop and Christian sub cultures, an unplanned child unloved by both parents. When something has popular appeal we take it for granted. CHH is straddling an awkward divide so it does not have that luxury. A lot of thought and introspection has to occur. The internal debates of the CHH community are therefore often very lucid, penetrating and earnest in discussing issues of faith and art. Questions of theology, the philosophy and history of the art form, and the quality of its technical execution all come up. These are the types of conversation the church needs to have especially looking at the quality of local and international Christian popular music. What the CHH community is doing is not at the abstract, theoretical level but in the real arena of the music and artists they listen to and enjoy in their daily lives. Long gone are the days when you thought of Christian hip hop it was the cheesy rap lines you hear in songs made for Sunday school kids in an effort to be young and “hip” that just made you cringe.
Now one of the biggest debates of recent years within CHH surrounds Lecrae and his record label’s philosophy. Reach, Lecrae’s label, has moved away from doing music which is explicitly Christian, characteristic of their earlier work to stuff in the last 3 or 4 years that is not explicitly Christian. Reach artists distance themselves from being labelled as Christian artists to simply being known as hip hop artists, the same way that only plumbers exist not “Christian” plumbers. There is so much history to cover in this debate as well as the arguments for and against it. (You can to go to this interview of Lecrae to see where things are at or go to Rapzilla, the premier CHH website, to follow the larger debate with CHH artists and fans.) Now I do not think 116 family of Reach artists are sell outs. As I said in my previous posts, biblically speaking the Christian artist is allowed to freely express themselves but they do have a responsibility to God and his church. They are unashamedly and freely identify themselves as Christian but as professionals they do not want to be recognized as such. Plus they do a lot of Christian ministry serving the church. Even though I do appreciate what they are doing and their reasons for it, I think they should take a second look at shedding the Christian label.
Reach records are the leaders of the new school of CHH which has crossover appeal. Not to say no Christian hip hop artists have ever enjoyed mainstream appeal before them but none of them have done it sustainably at this scale before. Reach Records is the most successful Christian hip hop label by far and Lecrae himself is a multiple nominated, Grammy award winner. In fact his Grammy two years ago is illustrative of how he is pushing CHH forward. His music cuts across previously dissociated genres so the American recording academy has had to change its award categories. The awkward divide between the streets and pews I spoke of is something they are pioneering new ways of bridging. Lecrae said on his track If I Die Tonight of his critically and commercially acclaimed mixtape Church Clothes 2,
/Sometimes the first one to lead, is the first to make big mistakes/.
Even though he knows he is a luminary in his field he knows his execution has not been flawless. Missteps have been made which goes to show there is always room for growth and constructive critique. In the spirit of furthering the genre I think we need to first briefly summarize why the relationship between hip hop and the church and why it has taken a new turn.
Hip hop has from the beginning been about providing an alternative narrative, about social commentary and protest. Yes it can be just fun and silly, without substance and a lot of mainstream hip hop is that way. However, that original more substantive element is always present. When Christians started doing hip hop for Christian audiences it was to say more or less hip hop is redeemable, by creating an alternative that is suitable for the Church. They championed the idea that hip hop is a medium so it can be used for something godly. The same thing happened with rock music in the 70s and the hippie Jesus people movement which spawned what we now call contemporary Christian music. When it first started it was every bit as controversial as hip hop first entering the church but it has now become pretty mundane. The CHH movement has over the years has progressed so much. The technical quality of music they make is arguably on par with the best mainstream hip hop has to offer. This new confidence in their ability plus a desire to minister beyond the church means they are trying to reintegrate and constructively contribute to mainstream hip hop. Christian hip hop artists are products of both the church and black American street culture and they want to faithfully represent both since they constitute a major part of who they are. As you can see this part of the larger Christian tension of living in the world but not being of it, missional versus ecclesial life. These Christian hip hop artists feel their music needs to be in the church as well as the streets from which they came.
Now Reach Records in particular has enjoyed much mainstream success. However, they have not been able to fully shed the “Christian label” or be fully accepted in mainstream hip hop. They want to be known as hip hop artists who are Christians and not Christian hip hop artists. I do understand their reasons because as artists they do want to pigeon holed into a particular category but freely express themselves artistically. Limiting what they do to ‘Holy Hip Hop’ does not fairly represent what they have to offer. Yet when it comes to the question of labels I still think they should re-embrace being identified as Christian hip hop artists but not for the reasons usually offered. To help make my reasons more clear, I want to look at the kinds of labels on offer and why they do not adequately fit what Reach Records and the new direction of hip hop done by Christians is going.
The first designation I want to consider is gospel rap. This is hip hop that is explicitly Christian. It usually expresses Christian theology and addresses Christian concerns. It had been the main type of hip hop being done by Christians from the beginning until recently. The accusation of Reach being sell outs is because they are no longer doing gospel rap. The idea that a person’s Christianity is contingent on the music they make or that an artist is duty bound to do only one form of music is ridiculous. The irony is that a lot of this kind of hip hop does not express serious biblical theology but really pop theology. For a time I stopped listened to Christian hip hop because it was theologically shallow both in depth and scope. It was usually about how they used to be sinners and now they are not. It was repetitive and monotonous. Just because a person is doing gospel rap does not make them or their music theologically legitimate.
Now it is quite obvious from Reach Records recent catalogue of music they have stopped doing gospel rap. It isn’t that they said they will never do it but it does not seem to be a major part of their artistic or organizational direction. It is becoming more common to identify Reach as doing conscious hip hop. Conscious hip hop is a type of alternative hip hop which is about social change particularly in the black community. Mainstream hip hop is mostly hedonistic and power driven while conscious hip hop is more philosophical and about personal and societal empowerment. When you look at a lot of Reach’s music, it does overlap with that sub-genre of hip hop. However, I do not think what they are doing is true conscious rap. They do address similar themes and issues in sometimes the same ways, but when you look closely conscious rap does not produce the type and form of lyrical content they make. This because the sub-genre did not emerge from the Christian worldview. Andy Mineo, a Reach artist, has described his faith as integral to his music. I think it goes beyond being a feature to consciously and unconsciously informing the type of music he and other such artists make. It isn’t every song of Reach Records that is firmly rooted in the Christian worldview but when you pay attention to their music collectively, it is obvious that it is coming from a Christian outlook. It is not only in the things they do say but what they don’t that makes it obvious their music is created with in a Christian framework. Conscious hip hop simply does not produce the music of the new school of Christian hip hop.
It is in terms of worldview that I consider the hip hop they do as Christian. The other alternatives are simply not adequate but it does not mean they should re-embrace the old label just as it was. I think the old designation needs to be redefined not just in terms of how we classify it but to accurately represent what these talented are pioneering in music, Christian and secular. It is Christian music that is genuinely Christian and genuinely good music. It is something that Reach artists like Lecrae and Andy Mineo constantly repeat, that they want just want to make good music. By good music I think they mean something that people outside the church can appreciate for what it is and its quality. It being not explicitly Christian is actually not a deficiency but an advantage since it is able to speak to a wider domain of people. C.S. Lewis argued that Christians should not limit themselves to the realm of the church but strive to produce the best work in their respective fields. Since faith in the Messiah undergirds who we are, permeating everything we do, the Christ is represented in one way or other in the quality of work we do.
Now an argument Reach themselves use against the specific label goes like if you have a problem with your wiring at home, you look for an electrician not a Christian electrician. Likewise they simply wanted to be recognised as skilled professionals in their chosen field. However, the analogy goes only so far because in the real world Christians do associate with their brothers and sisters in a common profession. Now when you look at labels in music they are there to help organize things. They should embrace the label of Christian hip hop because naming stuff is so that they can be correctly identified and distinguished from the rest. Their refusal to name what they are doing is a failure to acknowledge what in particular they are trying to accomplish. They have an artistic product that is distinct, even pioneering, so it needs it be correctly recognised as such. It’s as if they have failed to fully grasp that they are doing something new, which means they should take the opportunity to properly define it. I know they do want to avoid some of the baggage of the older forms of Christian hip hop. Perhaps they should christen this new subgenre neo-Christian hip hop or contemporary Christian hip hop. However they choose to call it is, what they are doing is Christian, it’s different and it has potential.