So, I’m a little late to this particular party, but I wanted to address a little brouhaha that flared up a few weeks ago in the evangelical community over so-called “holy hip-hop.” It seemed like a good opportunity to enlarge upon my own philosophy of music when it comes to some of the more, well, un-musical genres. Consider this post a continuation of my earlier, hastily penned offering on the perennial question “What is Christian music?”
I’ll be honest: I agreed with about 90% of what I heard in that video. Was it a little over-the-top in some places? Sure. Judging by the way they just passed right over rock and roll, like “We all know that’s Satanic so we don’t even need to go there!” I’ve got stuff on my ipod that would freak some of these guys out. Also, one or two comments were a bit on the harsh side regarding the personal character of the rappers (though the one pastor has since apologized for the “disobedient cowards” line).
However, it’s entirely possible to view what Lecrae and his ilk does as regrettable or unfortunate in some ways without calling it sin.
My first problem with attempting to redeem the rap form is one that also extends to genres such as heavy metal: It’s not artistically worthwhile, musically or lyrically. The “music” is ugly, and the lyrics are typically incoherent and void of poetic merit even when they’re not outright profane. Yes, yes, I know the drill: “Well just because it’s not pleasing to YOU doesn’t mean it’s not good,” etc., etc., yakkity-yak, yadda-yadda-yadda. I’m also familiar with the people who will argue that there is great complexity involved in both hip-hop and metal “music.” (Really, you should hear metal-heads ramble on about the “amazingly intricate patterns” going on in their favorite artists’ music.)
…with this specimen of angelic singing:
So, there’s that problem. Simply put, this “art” is ugly, so why are we even trying to rescue it from the dumpster of pop culture in the first place?
Secondly, we’re not talking about a tribal chant that we’ve just stumbled across in some remote island jungle. We’re not talking about some untouched jumble of melody and rhythm that’s completely divorced from the culture. We’re talking about highly specific, instantly recognizable “musical” forms with concrete cultural connotations. The first question to consider is what this means for crossover collaboration. What does it mean for As I Lay Dying to tour with Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden, or for Lecrae to invite profane secular rapper Big K.R.I.T. onto a collab track from Gravity? It means they’re legitimizing profane art, whether or not their own art is profane. The gesture is what it is.
So how do we deal with densely theological, Reformed hip-hop on its own merits? Unfortunately, we still have a problem: You can’t scrub out the connotations of the sensory assault that is rap “music” just by pasting the Westminster Catechism on top of it. I found this paragraph from Owen Strachan’s review of Lecrae’s latest to be very telling:
We get another superb beat on Track 7, “Violence”—this one from the mysterious Tyshane, who also contributed the beat to “Black Rose” on Church Clothes. The track is itself an act of violence against your speakers, though in it Lecrae decries glorified brutality, another staple of hip-hop music.
I don’t know whether I find that more comical or just sad. A blend of both perhaps. Again, the immediate question is why? Why is it so vitally important that you use this degenerate form of music to get across all these great messages against violence, misogyny, etc.? What’s the point?
“Well, it’s what the kids are listening to.” Oh I see, so we’re just throwing all notion of beauty and excellence out the window. Please, spare me the smug “missional” talk-talk.
Let’s cut to the chase: The reason why all these otherwise conservative pastors are so specifically touchy about hip-hop is white guilt. That’s it. That’s the whole debate in a nutshell. Of course, it’s most starkly apparent in more liberal Christians, who are so overcome with the mystique of “the Other” that they are fascinated even by the most offensive manifestations of hip-hop. At least Christian reformed thinkers like John Piper are unequivocal about the sinful destruction of secular rap music. Yet they are intensely uncomfortable with criticizing rap in a way that casts aspersions specifically on black culture, even though the form is blatantly reflecting the ghetto’s toxic cycle of sexuality and violence. And they are so self-conscious about their whiteness, so desperate to “build bridges” to the black community, that they very nearly view it as a sin to imply that we should discourage black Christian rappers in their “art.” Anybody who does so is instantly suspected of harboring some hidden animosity towards black people qua black people, which is rarely distinguished from a distaste for the toxic elements of black culture fueling its music.
Now, I see that hand: You’re going to ask me, “Well, what about rock and roll? Was that music not also wedded to a culture of debauchery and hence unfit for Christians to redeem?” Well, there are several factors to consider here:
2. Rock and roll was simply not as consistently vile as rap music. There was a much wider array of artists, many of whom produced music that wasn’t even offensive.
3. Even when rock and roll songs were problematic, the level of problematic is scaled up in rap music. I would argue that a song about torturing and beating your girlfriend is even worse than a song about making love with her, assuming the latter is merely implied without graphic sexual imagery. (But be it noted here that I’ve not held back in criticizing this type either.)
4. Although the sound alone of rock music may once have held such immediate cultural connotations as rap music holds today, some water has passed under the bridge since then. It’s been decades since rock music was the soundtrack of the culture. Today, an innocent, sheltered young person who isn’t being spurred on into temptation in a volatile cultural context can re-discover and enjoy rock music as simply good music. Now, some problems may still remain for those who are old enough to remember the emotions and temptations they might have felt when rock was young. We need to respect that and allow such people to make their own choices. At the same time, we can make the case that rock music as an art form has been effectively rendered harmless by the passage of time. Could it be that this same thing may happen to hip-hop three decades from now? Perhaps, but that time hasn’t come yet. End rock and roll digression.
Now, Lord knows we need all the allies we can get in these culture wars, and I want to stress that I’m grateful for the work of TGC and the Reformed conservative movement. But if they have one blind spot, it’s that they pride themselves on being deeper and more nuanced than old-guard fundamentalists. This is the one area where they take on that disagreeable, superior tone usually reserved for the Christian left. But unfortunately, precisely because we need their alliance so badly, they have the influence and the power to make demands on other types of conservative Christians. Witness the fact that they’ve now wrung apologies out of several pastors on that panel, who’ve gone well beyond retracting the most exaggerated statements to embarrassed foot-shuffling all round. More is the pity. There was little to “apologize” for.