What do you think about when you think about rap music?
For many of us raised in the early 90s it brings back memories of parachute pants and M.C. Hammer and DC Talk reminding us that love is, in fact, a verb. Or maybe it brings to mind Tipper Gore, NWA, and anti-police lyrics.
It wasn’t that long ago that rap was a niche genre that featured simplified rhymes largely ignored in American culture. But in less than 30 years the rap genre has become one of the most profitable music industries in America, and deeply important to understanding the cultural makeup of our country. Rap often flows from a culture that can seem foreign and unappealing to many listeners unfamiliar with it, and yet there are some very good reasons to get past this hurdle and understand why rap, especially for church leaders, is an important world to become familiar with.
RAP BUILDS UNDERSTANDING OF A DIFFERENT CULTURE
It’s cliché to say, but our country is deeply divided. A great example of this is the black/blue/all lives matter debate. Regardless of how you feel about the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s impossible to fully understand what BLM is without understanding the culture it flows out of. Since the Gospel of Jesus has from its inception torn down racial, economic and gender walls, it’s our job as His followers to increase our understanding of where groups of people that look, act and think differently than us are coming from. In a way, rap music can help build empathy–something that’s deeply needed today, especially from the church.
Many rappers have for years been eloquently and angrily describing what it feels like to be a minority in America. Artists like Talib Kweli (see above), Mos Def, The Roots, and many, many others express their point of view with a poetic power that helps the listener feel their perspective. Even the controversial 90s rappers NWA – if you’re able to move past their deliberately incendiary lyrics – are trying to say “we’re angry because we feel like the system is deliberately slanted against us.”
You don’t have to like rap music, that’s not the point, but as leaders we can’t afford to ignore what God is doing through this movement–even if it’s a little uncomfortable to engage for some of us.
RAP CREATES SPACE FOR THE LAMENT
It’s easy to overlook how raw the emotions in the Bible are. Jeremiah – the lamenting prophet – says in Jeremiah 20 that God has deceived him, physically overpowered and taken advantage of him. In the Hebrew Jeremiah uses much more provocative language to describe this. In Psalm 137 the writer says his captors are demanding he sing a happy song but instead says he would be happy to see their baby’s heads dashed against the rocks (presumably the writer has seen this done to Hebrew children). Now watch the above video from the brilliant yet clearly struggling Kanye West and ask whether his song Jesus Walks has a place in this psalmic tradition of lament.
While there’s a place for art that encourages and uplifts, if all we ever listen to is music that’s positive, encouraging and safe for the whole family we have limited ourselves to only a part of the Biblical spectrum of expression we’re called to experience. Rap is a genre that is inherently about struggle and pain. Not all rap songs are about this, but the psalmic lament runs deep in the genre. Take for example this scathingly angry song from Christian rapper NF:
Rap music creates space for it to be okay not to be okay.
RAP IS AN INCREASINGLY CHRISTIAN ARTFORM
The above clip is from one of my favorite artists, Chance the Rapper sharing the Gospel via rap on Saturday Night Live. While I haven’t read Chance talk about it, something clearly happened to him between his last mixtape and his most recent one, Coloring Book. Chance has started rapping proudly about faith, and Jesus and one of my favorite songs from Coloring Book uses the worship song “How Great is Our God” as a jumping off point for one of my favorite rap verses of the year.
Chance and another rap artist named Kendrick Lamar have released some of the most critically acclaimed rap music of the year, and while both artists mix the sacred with the profane in a way that will be uncomfortable to many evangelicals, there’s also no denying the very real Christian faith underlying much of their music.
Beyond that, there is a growing group of vocally Christian rap artists making great music. TobyMac and Lecrae are the most famous, but there are younger up and coming artists making fantastic music that captures both the cultural empathy and lament discussed above while avoiding the sexual immorality and extreme profanity that for some makes rap a non-starter. Rappers like Andy Mineo, NF, Tedashi, KB, Trip Lee and Propaganda are making great music that comes from a Christian perspective.
For church leaders who want to expand their cultural viewpoint, this explosion of Christian rappers makes it easier than ever to engage. It also allows us to become more conversant with a growingly diverse culture which desperately needs to hear the message of Jesus–whether it comes from the pulpit or the mic.