Avoiding hip-hop lets us white Christians ignore the people and the places that aren’t important to us.
Doing so helps us maintain a comfortable distance from the dark realities of the world that we have created for our non-white brothers and sisters: a world of racism, poverty, violence, illness, and death.
Yet we do so at our peril. As the Bible tells us:
A righteous man knows the rights of the poor; a wicked man does not understand such knowledge. -Proverbs 29:7, NIV
In the 2019 song SPEEDBOAT, Denzel Curry prays for Jesus to save his people from the world in which they are trapped. He has personal experience, growing up in the same Miami neighborhood as Trayvon Martin, surrounded by guns, and enduring the death of an older brother at the hands of Miami police.
In SPEEDBOAT, Curry raps about losing a 20-year-old friend to gun violence, about “people getting killed through the peep-hole”, and about “too many guns, too many sons lost in the river of blood in these streets.” (Be sure to watch the video, which includes moving recordings of real people testifying to their experiences:) Watch here.
Like the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, Curry looks at a world built by the rich – in our case, the urban warzones created, in large part by the policies of the white Protestants who built the post-1945 economy – and he sees decadence, sin, and hypocrisy. He sees a world that is not the way it is supposed to be. So what does he do?
Jesus, please deliver us from evil
Please pray over all my people
What you see in life’s illegal
AN HONEST PRAYER – AND THE RUSH TO JUDGMENT
Curry is a rapper. Yet when the hook arrive he lifts his voice in song. It’s an admission of humility, a moment when he leaves behind the braggadocio of the verses, letting us into his soul in surprisingly intimate way.
Then he ends his prayer by singing about his assault rifle:
I don’t wanna use my Desert Eagle
Despite his prayer, it’s clear that Curry is packing insurance in case Jesus isn’t listening. Or maybe it’s because he worries that He is powerless to help? Or perhaps He is just refusing to do so?
Based the society built for him by generations of white Christians, I would not be surprised if it’s the latter.
But what about turning the other cheek?
Well, let’s check our privilege. Before we judge Curry, we need to ask ourselves if any of us has lived the life that he has.
And what about his lack of faith?
Well, we should also ask ourselves if we have ever prayed such an honest prayer. Curry is admitting his doubt that Jesus will in fact save his people. How often do we left up a prayer to God that openly admits to questioning God’s power – or God’s very existence?
By his own admission, Curry is not a Christian.
Yet still he prays.
That is real faith. As the Bible says, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1, NIV)
As Curry surveys the world created for him by those of us with wealth, power, and access, he recognizes that the world does not have to be that way. He turns his eyes toward heaven, to a God who – by the evidence that he cites – has proved either weak, silent, or just plain cruel.
Yet still he prays.
And not only that, as a hip-hop star he shouts his prayer from the rooftop for all the world to hear. That is real evangelism.
The relationship of secular hip-hop to Christianity is a complicated one. (I highly recommend this book, if you are interested.) You might take exception to my claims that this song, written by an atheist – is an example of both real faith and real evangelism. But if you do, just ask yourself the last time you raised such an honest prayer to God in front of millions of people.
Then ask yourself if you think God is listening to Denzel Curry.
LISTENING FOR JUSTICE
As we sing in a church full of white people on Sunday, letting the hymns or sunny worship choruses surround us, let’s not also forget that dozens of hip-hop songs are at the same time noiselessly flowing through our bodies as radio waves. They are spreading out concentrically from broadcast towers across the country, carrying with them the cries of God’s people for justice – as well an implicit judgment on all of us who have helped make the modern world the way it is.
But can we hear them? Do we want to hear them?
For centuries, the best way to negate the value of a kind of music has been to call it “noise”: an unpleasant sound that you wish would just go away. Today, with custom-made Spotify playlists as the digital analogue to segregated communities, it’s easier than ever for white people to ignore hip-hop. But if we close our ears to it we are doing something worse: denying even its status as sound. And in doing so we commit violence against the some of the most powerful prophetic voices in our society today.
Remember the words of the prophet Amos, quoted so famously by Martin Luther King, Jr., in his “I Have a Dream” speech:
“Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:23-24, NIV)
All white people – especially those of us who claim to follow Christ – need to remember Jesus’ famous words: “He who has ears, let him hear. “(Matt 11:15, NIV