Why Christian Hip Hop Is Not a Failure

Editor’s Note: A while back, CAPC writer Scott Schultz wrote a post called “The Failure of Hip Hop” which resulted in quite a bit of conversation between Scott and what seemed like every Christian hip-hop fan on the planet. The biggest complaint: Scott didn’t know what he was talking about. Kiel Hauck – Christ and Pop Culture’s first official guest writer – on the other hand, knows Christian hip hop well. Kiel Hauck took it upon himself to write a lengthy response to Scott’s post.

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This post is a response to the article The Failures of Christian Hip Hop posted on April 29th of this year by Scott Schultz at the site Christ and Pop Culture.

The article has received an abundant amount of feedback from hip hop fans and non hip hop listeners alike, as it raises several questions about the effectiveness of Christians in hip hop and the success of the genre as a whole. Schultz admits in the article to being an outsider of Christian hip hop and makes his arguments based on what he has seen from the genre.

Back in 1999, I came to know Christ as my personal Lord and Savior thanks in part to a good friend of mine who knew I was into hip hop sharing music with me from several Christian rap artists. We soon started our own group, recording a four song ep, played shows around the area, and even got our own Christian hip hop radio show on a local station. In the past several years, I have had the pleasure of hosting other hip hop shows, writing for sphereofhiphop.com and Feed Magazine, and interviewing and spending time with many different Christian hip hop artists. I feel like I have a pretty good history and understanding of the genre, albeit not as much as others, though I do believe I can give a good defense of the genre and explain why it’s not a failure and why we may need to redefine our definition of success.

First, hip hop is community based

Have you ever wondered why you can usually name the hometown of any rapper you’ve ever heard of? Why can’t we do this with other genres? (Sure, there are other bands and artists that we could easily state where they’re from, but the fact is that this is much more prevalent in hip hop). The reason is because of the strong sense of community that lies in the roots of hip hop music. Even the beginnings of hip hop involved a desire to embrace your community and represent the area you call home. This is why so much respect lies in one’s community and why “beefs” often erupt and cause divisions based on city, coast, area, etc.

Even rappers who don’t “make it big” as far as radio play and MTV rotations are concerned can still be some of the most respected and locally famous rappers around. If you want proof, begin going city to city and polling people on their favorite rappers. You’ll find that from city to city, the name of the rapper will be different and will always consist of rappers from the area.

A perfect example of this is Playdough. Playdough is one half of the group ill Harmonics and is also part of Phonetic Composition and Deepspace 5. While ill Harmonics garnered some attention in the 90s as part of MTVs show “The Cut,” Playdough and the other acts he has been involved in have never had breakthrough success that resulted in million plus record sales. However, on your next trip to Dallas, Texas (Playdough’s home city) begin asking around about him. He’s been a regular fan-favorite battler and freestyler in the area for years and just last year was on Dallas 97.9 The Beat’s weekly listener-voted freestyle battle. Playdough reached the maximum amount of consecutive wins before having to be retired so others could have a chance.

Even in a hip hop mecca like Los Angeles, local crews like Tunnel Rats and LA Symphony have the respect of their peers and local hip hop listeners. In college, I was part of a weekly hip hop talk show with three other people, one of which was Salimar Madera from L.A. Upon meeting her and asking her if she knew who LA Symphony was, she replied “Of course! Everyone knows who they are.” San Francisco hip hop listeners are focused on the rappers on their local label Quannum Projects. You may have heard one of the rappers from this label, Lyrics Born, in a Diet Coke commercial a few years back. Otherwise, you’ll have to hit the local clubs and radio stations to get a taste of what San Fran hip hop fans listen to. For many rappers, gaining the respect of their city is the highest achievement you could ask for. Even those who manage to breakthrough to mainstream media still pride themselves in their hometown. For someone who doesn’t understand the importance of respect that lies deep in the heart of hip hop, a locally respected rapper with little to no mainstream success could easily be considered a failure, despite indications that point to the opposite.

Second, the Christian market failed to understand hip hop

The final remaining urban label in the Christian market, Gotee Records, recently cut ties with their major distribution companies and went back to being an independent label. In the process, they were forced to cut all hip hop acts besides John Reuben. In the late nineties and early 2000s, it looked like Tooth and Nail sub-label Uprok Records, along with Gotee, Grapetree, and several other independent hip hop labels signed onto major Christian distributors were destined for success that would have made this whole issue irrelevant. Instead, the big wigs in the Christian music industry dropped the ball on marketing the music to hip hop fans, and instead attempted infiltrating suburban youth groups and failed to see real results. What happened next was an arms-in-the-air “we give up” fire sale which resulted in hip hop acts in the clearance bin and a complete shutdown of record labels, leaving respected hip hop artists with no home and no money wondering how they were going to continue making music.

The only remaining hip hop acts signed to a Christian label are KJ-52, John Reuben, and Manafest, who now apparently define Christian hip hop as we know it. I don’t want to use this particular post to bash these guys, but I will say that the Christian music industry was and is clueless when it comes to marketing hip hop. But hey, KJ sells well to the youth group crowd, so why not keep it up?

You could easily point the finger at “lackluster” artists without knowing what good hip hop is and without hearing the stories of those involved in the situation who saw CEOs that didn’t care to listen to what people were saying about the genre and how it should work and watched their careers and their music get slapped in the face. Many of these artists are now signed to underground secular labels, independent labels, or are just releasing their music on their own via the internet or the ol’ “out of the trunk” style. Despite the failures of the Christian labels, good Christian hip hop music is still around and is still making an impact if you take the time to look for it.

Third, hip hop is still affecting lives for Christ

This next section has nothing to do with platinum records and MTV Video Music Awards. Call it corny if you like, but Christian hip hop artists (through the creation of good and relevant music) have been and are still having an effect on the lives of listeners in the name of Jesus Christ. I’m just one example of someone who came to know Christ partly through good Christian hip hop music.

Crossover Ministries in Tampa, Florida, is a Christian community developed over a decade ago that is influencing thousands of lives through urban ministry in the form of hip hop. Cross Movement Ministries, a project of the Cross Movement, is doing the same in the Philadelphia area and beyond. Likewise, other communities are seeing the affects of hip hop ministry in their areas. The fact of the matter is, as much as everyone would like to see some of these deserving Christian artists sell a million records, the absolute number one reason for making this music is to use it to share the love of Christ with listeners. That doesn’t mean that both can’t be done together. I know someone will say, “Well, [insert mainstream rapper here] is sharing their message and is having a bigger impact on their listeners than any Christian rapper I know of.” Sure, and show me a media or artistic outlet where a Christian group or artist is having a bigger impact than its secular counterpart. It CAN be done, but we can’t measure our success based on whether it is or not. We’d all love to see talented Christians dominate the music charts, but at some point we have to realize that the message of Christ, however loud or subtle it is, is not welcome in the hearts of unbelievers unless the door is opened by Christ himself.

These are just three reasons I find it foolish to call Christian hip hop a failure. There are more reasons, and there are certainly areas we can point to and say “Yes, Christian hip hop failed here.” However, I feel that despite the “failures” I’ve seen in the genre and in the careers of artists I know and love, I’ve seen much fruit and hearts that are dedicated to delivering good hip hop music to those who would hear it. I know some will still see me as naive and unable to see failure where it exists. That’s fine. I’ve seen the success of it in my own life with my own ears and the same in the lives of others I know.

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Kiel Hauck is just your not-so-average seminary student in Louisville, Kentucky. He’s married to Teresa, and they are looking forward to a career in overseas mission work. He loves music very much, as well as movies, spending time with friends, and just goofing off. Kiel Hauck writes for his own personal blog, “he’s only chasing safety.”

  • http://scottedwardschultz.blogspot.com/ Scott Schultz

    Keil, I appreciate your efforts here, but from what I can tell, your post doesn’t seem to answer any of my criticisms.

    And I just wanna clarify something real quick (though this should have been obvious from the comments on my original post): While I have never been a resident of the Christian hip hop scene, I’m not oblivious to it. I know most of the artists you bring up, and I considered them when writing my post. Maybe I’m not immersed in their material enough to make a sound judgment of their genre – maybe – but I keep feeling like you think that I think Christian hip hop = KJ-52. Gimme a little credit.

    As per your points, I was a little amazed from the get-go that your first defense of Christian hip hop was actually one of my main criticisms of it. Not that I am against a community-based genre, but I find the fact that rap music is so intimately linked with African-American culture, taking on their unique history as its driving basis for existence, that attempting to “redeem” the genre and claim it for Christ causes problematic conflicts of interest. Because, whereas the African-American narrative involves liberation from the residue of European imperialism, the Christian narrative involves a much grander and more important sort of liberation. In fact, I actually believe that the Christian narrative provides a proper basis for a distinct community that creates a culturally distinct sort of music. I don’t intend to debate “worship styles” here, but I think that properly Christian music is liturgically-intended “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” I have some ideas of how that affects the secular sphere, but for now, that’s neither here nor there.

    As for your second point, I’m not sure what this has to do with my argument or yours. The fact that the Christian market mishandled Christian rap, while sociologically interesting, hardly establishes anything about the music as we are discussing it. If anything, your point may lead to conceding my own: Maybe Christian culture and hip hop culture are not finally compatible.

    As for your last point, I think it really reveals the heart behind your arguing. You clearly have deep emotional ties to the genre, and are gratuitously thankful for your coming into the Christian Church through it. It’s not my intention to take that away from you Kiel. I have the same inclinations toward Evergreen Terrace, In Due Time, Stretch Arm Strong, Zao, Norma Jean and .hopesfall., but part of maturity, for me, has meant that there is a difference between good, better, and best. I think it’s a good thing what you’re perceiving in Christian hip hop, the influence it has on peoples’ lives and such. I’m glad it did and does. But my critique stems as much from ecclesiological concerns as from aesthetic ones. There is something deeply problematic with the idea of “hip hop ministry.” Now, I think you probably don’t agree with me, and that’s fine. I have a deep suspicion of many sorts of parachurch ministries, and find them to be a real threat to ministry proper. I’m a Word and Sacrament guy, and will do anything I can to keep people from placing their hope in lesser glories (e.g. various cultural wares). This is a much larger discussion, and I don’t know if I want to have it here, like this. But maybe you can at least appreciate a bit more where I’m coming from.

    Scott Schultzs last blog post..Jenson on the Theology of the Church

  • http://hesonlychasingsafety.blogspot.com Kiel

    Scott,

    While my post is a response to the idea that Christian hip hop has failed, which is part of your original post. I’m not necessarily addressing all of your points, I’m just making a defense in general for why it’s not a failure. As I said before, I think you made some good points in your post – you also made some poor ones. Also, I realize you’re not completely oblivious, but as for the idea that you aren’t very educated on the subject, you seem to have brought that on yourself. I’m not trying to harass you and make stuff up about you, I’m just going from things you said during your first post.

    First, I believe that the community aspect of hip hop is absolutely PERFECT and not a conflict of interests at all. Rich and I have had discussions on this very same issue, and he sides with your stance. That’s fine though, no one is asking you to jump on board with hip hop ministry. However, while it may not be part of your ministry in particular, I think you may find it beneficial to at least see where God is working respect that work that people are putting into their ministry in this area. Personally, I see no indication that we need, or are required to have, some sort of universal community of worship and while it may be desired, it will not be fulfilled until Christ comes again. In the meantime, as we can see in the life and ministry of Paul and others (including Jesus) the local community is a good place to start.

    The second point has everything to do with my argument. The artists and the art they make are not (fully) to blame. The blame of good and relevant Christian hip hop music not reaching a wider audience is the fault of the suits who didn’t understand how to market it. This does not prove anything other than money-hungry CEOs failed the artists – not that Christianity and hip hop are incompatible. I find that point absurd.

    I also understand that “emotional tie” arguments often times come off as romantic and far fetched, so you are welcome to take the stance you do. However, you are very wrong if you’re assuming I have not somehow matured beyond my childish musical tastes as you have. Just because something was beneficial in what it did in the beginning, does not mean that it needs to be left behind for something better. There IS good, artistic, relevant, and real Christian hip hop music. To assume that I perhaps am clinging to some romantic idea that Christian hip hop music is good just because it influenced me years ago is just wrong bro. I have no way of proving that point to you though, so I guess you’ll just have to take my word for it (and the words of many others).

    My wife (my wiser half) has told me that you and I more than likely have a different view of success and failure, thus making this a never ending debate. It also appears that we have a different view of what ministry is and what tools can be used in the process. We are planning on being career missionaries, most likely in Japan, where we will be working in hip hop ministry there (as in the past decade, a Japanese brand of hip hop has begun having a huge impact on youth there opening doors for ministry, but this is another topic altogether).

    In the end, I’m not sure what more there is to say. We’ll agree to disagree I suppose, and I’m sure you can understand why I felt the need to make my own defense of something that I felt couldn’t be left without response. Thanks for the reply.

    Kiels last blog post..When I Get Home You’re So Dead

  • Pingback: Why Christian Hip Hop Is (and is Not) a Failure | Holy Culture

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    The saddest thing about the Holy Culture trackback there is that it encourages readers to look for more articles by The Schultz—that is, encouraging readers to sift through CAPC’s archives fruitlessly for articles that were never meant to be, for poor young The Schultz, harried by that most fabled of creatures, the Hip Hop Fan, was to be seen no more, whether to be done away with by his own hand, an accident of fate, or the nefarious engine of destruction the resides in the cold heart of CAPC is uncertain. Fare thee well, young The Schultz. I was sorry not to intervene on your behalf whilst you were rent asunder by the villainous hordes, but I did not want to mess up my shirt.

    It was new.

    The Danes last blog post..20081119.ChurchLies

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    The other saddest thing is that I somehow have both first and second place as Top Commenter of the Month.

    The Danes last blog post..20081119.ChurchLies

  • Ashley

    Scott & Kiel-
    Brothers, brothers! I appreciate and understand the pure blessing God gave us in having and being able to freely express opinions, but come on brothers, YOU’RE ON THE SAME TEAM! Don’t forget that!
    See what the devil has done? He’s got 2 Christians battling eachother.
    Be a Christian who’s into killin the works of the flesh! Call it killin for a righteous cause!

    Maybe giving artist suggestions would be more benificial to those who are reading?

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