According to guest contributer Matthew Linder, Lecrae’s song-length partnership with mainstream rapper Big K.R.I.T. is a step toward creating more truthful Christian art.
Christian rapper Lecrae’s album Gravity debuted at the #1 spot on the iTunes charts (peaked at #3 on the Billboard 200), and it features 18 tracks of gospel-centered music tailored for a mainstream, secular audience. There is much to praise about an album that so effectively communicates the gospel in a musical language which can be understood and appreciated by those in the mainstream hip-hop world. However, the track “Mayday” features a collaboration with the rapper Big K.R.I.T., which has raised some questions over the appropriateness of Christians working with secular musicians. Owen Strachen, in his review of Gravity at The Gospel Coalition, had this to say about the collaboration:
Some think Lecrae shouldn’t give non-Christian artists a microphone, arguing that darkness has no place with light (cf. Eph. 5:5-8; 2 Cor. 6:14). Other Bible-loving believers don’t strictly object, citing Lecrae’s self-expressed desire to be a cultural missionary (per Matt. 28:16-20). I am sensitive to the former group’s concerns. I would surely find it troubling were Lecrae to move beyond what one could conceivably call bridge-building and into more serious partnership with non-Christians. That said, though, if you or I were a painter or a classical musician, might we host a show or concert with a thoughtful, philosophically minded unbeliever who grapples with life’s great questions? It’s possible.
If you are familiar with Big K.R.I.T’s albums, then you know that they are full of sexually explicit material, drug references, and violent behavior. Which makes one wonder why Lecrae would feature K.R.I.T. on his album? In an interview with BET, Lecrae commented about his collaboration with K.R.I.T., “I had heard glimpses from his former projects… Him talking about his upbringing and it was like, ‘I wanna sit in my room and read my bible, but a girl is calling’… I would always hear the internal battle to do what he knows is right, but just struggling with it.” Then speaking with Billboard about “Mayday”: “The beauty of it is, is it’s not a sermon, it’s not ‘Hey, K.R.I.T., come up to the pulpit and say something.’ It’s a confession.” Given Paul’s admonition not to partner with those who are sexually immoral and covetous (Eph. 5:5–8) and that such a partnership would be “unequally yoked” (2 Cor. 6:14), how should we view the collaboration between Lecrae and Big K.R.I.T. and address the valid concerns presented by Strachen?
Lecrae answered those questions in context of the above biblical passages for the Rapzilla Web site:
Well one is you know being unequally yoked verse is taken out of context so many times as it pertains to what you know we do as artists… Like Tim Tebow should not have teammates that are not non-believers if we are going to talk about non-believers in that context but that is not the context it is written in. Even Ephesians when it talks about don’t partner with those who are evil doers the partnering in the original language is be imitators of, like to work with them, you know, in doing dark deeds. So it’s more about holding hands with them to accomplish the works of Satan than it is about doing something else. Now I won’t say the things we’re talking about are neutral, we are talking about the things of God. I’m not giving an artist that I don’t believe is a Christian a platform to speak from an authoritative standpoint… but I would allow them to express their wrestle, their struggle, paint a picture of a particular circumstance/situation.
With “Mayday,” Lecrae has allowed Big K.R.I.T. to present his wrestle: “It’s hard to live and serve when you on the Devil’s turf… Don’t get it twisted, I ain’t no saint, I ain’t no pastor.” It is not entirely clear if K.R.I.T. is a non-Christian as he says of himself, “A non-believer I never have and never could be.” If the song ended with K.R.I.T.’s verse, then I would agree with Strachen that there is cause for concern since nothing would differentiate this song from any other song K.R.I.T. has produced (see Live From the Underground and Live From the Underground (Reprise)). However, Lecrae continues, calling K.R.I.T.’s verse a “confession,” and he allows gospel content to have the final word: “But when I look at Jesus, He lived the life I couldn’t/ Suffered for my crimes so I wouldn’t.”
The church in the United States has long had the inclination to fear conversations about struggles with sin and doubt in Christian music, thinking that these discussions will somehow reduce the power of the gospel message (see Christ and Pop Culture writer Drew Dixon’s Why I Quit Listening to Christian Music). As related by Josh Jackson, founder of Paste magazine, in his Q Conference talk “Signs of Life” this apprehensiveness also permeates the CCM industry, that sanitizes Christian music “so that only these happy, everything’s alright because I’m saved feelings come through” (emphasis mine). Mark Heard, a musician, record producer, and frequent critic of CCM, in the Summer 1992 issue of Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion, describes this “sanitization” process:
He [guy from the record company] proceeded to play us a few songs that were making it on Christian radio. Surprisingly, they were not necessarily heavy in theology—in fact quite the contrary. The lyrics were safe and warm and positive with a bit of mild social concern thrown in now and then… We were recording a song called “I Don’t Ever Want to Be Without You.” The same Christian record company radio guy called me and asked me if we could change the song’s title and lyrics. When I asked why, he said, “Because there are two negative words in the title-don’t and without … I’d like some positive ones; can you call the song, ‘I Always Want to Be With You’?” [emphasis mine]
While the American church and Christian record companies tend to discourage musicians from expressing the truth of a fallen humanity, this positivist approach leaves out a crucial aspect of the redemptive-historical narrative. Without a holistic portrayal of Creation, Fall, and Redemption/Re-creation in Christian music, one of the church’s most successful evangelistic endeavors through popular culture will fail to present a gospel which is truly good news. Displaying Christians who struggle with sin, even after they have been saved but are in the process of being perfected by “Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Heb 12:2), demonstrates the truth of the gospel more powerfully than the standard “perfect” Christian model manifested repeatedly in Christian music. Jesus called the Pharisees hypocrites and fools for fixating on outward perfection while ignoring inward unrighteousness (Luke 11:37–41), and the world states much the same about Christians who posture themselves as perfect superficially. So when Lecrae grants a man struggling with his faith the opportunity to voice his wrestle with the gospel, Christians and non-Christians alike benefit from K.R.I.T.’s sincerity, seeing that Christians are not perfect but they trust in the One who is.
Furthermore, the arts provide an excellent framework for Christians to earnestly voice their fears, struggles, and doubts. For instance, after David was confronted by Nathan regarding his affair with Bathsheba, David did not discuss with Nathan the entirety of the anguish he felt over his sin but merely stated, “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Sam. 12:13). David then pleaded with God for forgiveness (and his unborn child) and in the process penned one of the most honest and beautiful songs of the entire Old Testament, Psalm 51. The beauty of this song is that we can all see ourselves in these words. We are the person which David describes, one who is full of sin, deserving of God’s judgment and yet, we yearn for restoration with God. We must begin to understand as a church that when someone feels tension between his sinful life and wanting to honor Christ that this is a good thing. If people have no inner turmoil over their sins then they lack the desire to seek out God’s salvation through Christ. It is art concerned with being truthful about the Christian experience, like this Psalm and “Mayday,” which I hope the church can embrace and leave behind art that whitewashes the Christian life.
Matthew Linder is married, a father of a 2-year-old daughter, a music professor at National University and University of Phoenix, and a blogger. He loves Jesus, the Church, biblical theology, and of course, music but despises ketchup. While he appreciates a wide variety of musical styles, he prefers hip-hop, metal, and classical but could live without 90s Christian music. Follow Matthew on Twitter @TheRetuned or at his music blog www.theretuned.com.