by Trillia Newbell
Christian hip-hop appears to be at an all-time high. This influence is broad and wide and can be evidenced as we watch independent artists like LeCrae catapult the genre into the mainstream and organizations like Desiring God and Christianity Today continually feature hip hop artist. Most recently the genre was named as one of the top twelve reasons for the resurgence of the Calvinist movement.
Although many Christians have embraced the genre, the stigma of its name “rap” and “hip hop” and the associations with the mainstream music leave others wondering. Curtis Allen, formally known as rap artist Voice, seeks to answer theological questions about the popular music in his new book Does God Listen To Rap?: Christians and the World’s Most Controversial Music.
In this interview, Allen shares more about his life, his book, and the influence of Christian hip hop.
You have a remarkable testimony. Could you tell us about your story?
I grew up in the DMV (DC, Maryland, and Virginia metropolitan area). As early as age seven, I started getting arrested for various crimes. My mom would eventually move us to the suburbs, and it was there that we met a family that shared the gospel with us. I responded to an altar call one Sunday morning, but with no discipleship and some clear hypocrisy in the church, I returned back to the world. Because I was trying to get a record deal, but felt soft because I had moved to the suburbs, after high school, I jumped back into the streets with something to prove. For six years I immersed myself in the underworld of gangs, drugs, murder, violence, and prison. All for the sake of credibility. After two shoot-outs with a rival gang, I was investigated and eventually charged with multiple criminal counts facing 43 years in prison. When I was in the courtroom, waiting to be sentenced I noticed that no one from any hood that I had been in was there to see me spend the rest of my life in prison. The Lord used that to show me that the world was a lie. God showed mercy literally, as the judge at my trial dropped all felony charges and I pled guilty to possession of a gun, and reckless endangerment. He also suspended the majority of prison time I was facing, and when he sentenced me, I went from facing 43 years in prison to serving less than six months. It was incredible. Around that time a close friend had given his life to The Lord and I thought it best to recommit mine. We walked our faith out together for years and eventually it became clear to those around me that I was called to the pastorate. But not before The Lord allowed me still do rap music. But this time it was for him and not myself. I actually explain some of that in chapter one of Does God Listen To Rap?
Why did you decide to write a book about rap?
Mostly because I really felt like there hasn’t been a well thought-out explanation of rap and its ability to glorify God. While many people accept that it does, there is still that hesitation from some people, as well as a weak justification for the genre from others. I wanted to bring as best as possible a biblical perspective on rap, in hopes that it would help people think through issues that scripture doesn’t directly address, like styles of music. What I didn’t realize was that I would be bringing a biblical perspective on something much greater than a genre of music.
It seems the Christian hip hop industry has grown tremendously in the past few years. Why do you think this is?
Good question. And I’m not sure that there is a good answer. I think a lot of younger Christians have chosen rap as their musical expression. Hymns and some other Contemporary Christian worship songs don’t always translate beyond a gathered worship service. At least not for some people. Rap, when done for the Lord, has a unique ability to disciple people through music. They get exposed to teachers, and doctrines that no other musical genre promotes as well. Rap is very accessible. It’s very honest, and it captures the kind of emotions and thoughts that people often have but won’t usually say.
There is no denying that reformed, white, male pastors have greatly influenced many of the most popular hip hop artists, why do you think this is? What is in the message that draws the men in?
Despite what everyone thinks they want, the one thing we are wired to want is Truth. Because God is Truth, he created that desire in us. It’s why so many people are searching for something greater than themselves, or for the real answers to the perplexing questions about the meaning of life. People want Truth. People, by design, are absolute Truth seekers. Despite the reality of sin often blinding us to the right application of Truth, people still want it. Unfortunately, the truth that they get isn’t absolute at all. But, a lot of the white male pastors, such as John Piper, have given a lot of hungry young urban kids Truth. And since rap really prides itself on a bold proclamation of what’s true, it was a natural progression to include excerpts from sermons etc. On a deeper level I think these white male pastors are drawn to a raw urban desire for truth. And I believe God is slowly but surely distinguishing church as those who love and live truth regardless of their cultural background. Rap is bridging the gap between two different worlds and is accomplishing more gospel unity than possibly any other artistic effort the church pursues.
Who should read your book?
I hate when people answer a question like this, and they say, “Everyone. My book is for everyone.” But I think this book really has a broad audience in mind. It’s for the parent whose worried that their child will be influenced to wordily things by listening to Christian rap. It’s for the elder who’s trying to understand if and how exactly does rap glorify God instead of a misogynistic, homophobic, aggressive and rebellious message. It’s for the fan of rap to get a brief historical knowledge, but also a biblical basis for the music they love. And because it’s a short read, anyone could read this book in two hours.
What do you hope readers will gain from reading it?
Ultimately, I hope people get a fresh perspective on not just rap but how to think about the arts and how they glorify God. I think people are going to be very surprised by the content of this book.
How important is the genre to you and how important is it for the genre to continue?
I think it’s important for the church actually. As I stated earlier, rap is bridging a racial gap in the church today. Cultures, seasons of life, and differing doctrinal positions, come together in some senses united by Christ and a respect for rap music. Older men (and women) are finding themselves able to appreciate a younger person’s art form. And in turn find some commonality in ways previously difficult. Obviously, more is going on to make that happen than just rap, but rap is definitely playing a role.
Do you still rap? If so, do you have an album or project set to release?
Yes I do and yes I am. I haven’t released an album since May 28th, 2010. That album was called “Christ The King” and I was an artist named Voice. Voice has since retired and I plan on finishing my musical career under the moniker “Curt Kennedy.” Kennedy is a name I’ve used for years when I would speak in public schools and other places that are more evangelistic minded. Voice was more about doctrine for the church, Curt Kennedy is more the street dude that got saved. He’s a little edgier than Voice. I’m excited for people to hear the album. It’s called “Frustrated Christian” and it drops on iTunes, Amazon, and everywhere on 12/10/13.
There are people who would say that rap is the “devil’s music.” What would you say to them?
That’s funny. All this time I thought Country was the Devil’s music. I would say to that person, read Does God Listen To Rap?
Trillia Newbell is a wife, mom, and writer who loves Jesus. She is the author of United: Captured by God’s Vision for Diversity(Moody Publishers, March 2014). You can follow her on twitter @trillianewbell.