The Failure of Christian Hip Hop

The Failure of Christian Hip Hop April 29, 2008

Editor’s Note: This post was written by Guest Writer, Scott Schultz. Be sure to check out the response to this article, Why Christian Hip Hop is Not a Failure.

“Most of these cats is featherweight.”-Talib Kweli

I’m a little reluctant to publish this piece for a couple reasons. One, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m an expert on the history or state of hip hop music. I’m not. In part, this should be automatically obvious if my general thesis is true. Second, while I quite enjoy hip hop music and have for some time now, I realize that my doing so is all sorts of ironic, given my own social standing and upbringing. Additionally, I know that my take on these issues are as much shaped by regional factors as it is by socio-economic and racial factors, and so a good bit of what I have to say here requires being taken with a grain of salt. With these caveats firmly in place, I’d like to account for the utter failure of Christian hip hop.

These musings stem from a recent concentrated meditation on the work of hip hop artist Mos Def and to a slightly lesser extent, his partner in rhyme, Talib Kweli. It’s worth noting that listening to Mos Def was recently listed as something that white people like to do. In fact, I have to admit that I received my copies of Black Star and Black on Both Sides from a gifted upper middle class white kid. Much more, the only people I knew in high school who listened to Mos Def were people of a similar demographic stripe. Fully aware of this, I still have listened to these CDs intently for years, unmoved by the fact that I’m just a statistic. And with every listen, I’ve fallen into a deeper and deeper appreciation of the craft that Def and Kweli offer.

Ashamedly, I have to admit that I am basically ignorant of the growth of these two artists over the past decade, knowing only that each of them have released several independent albums which I hope to obtain for myself one day. I can, however, speak to the immense critical praise that their debut production meritted. Allmusic calls them one of “the most intelligent rappers to grace the vapid hip-hop scene in the late ’90s.” Largely influenced by several social activist influences of the twentieth century, Def and Kweli emerged from the Brooklyn underground as articulate social critics of the violence and general depravity that quickly became associated with their genre, not to mention with African-American culture in general. Breaking stereotypes of the black man trapped in a vicious socio-economic cycle (a point they implicitly make in a soundclip opening the track “Brown Skin Lady”), they conceive of themselves and their work as less entertainment and more something like prophecy. The fusion of counterculture ideology with sensual beats and flowing rhyme is known in some circles as “conscious hip hop” so named for its appeal to transcendent human qualities such as wisdom, contemplation, ethics, and reason – features pervasively absent in the baser, more violent forms of rap and hip hop.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of Mos Def and Talib Kweli is the mere fact of their success. To be certain, a major selling point for the Black Star duo is their simultaneously provocative and tight lyrical wordplay, cast over somewhat classy beats, a mixture of old school simplicity and jazzy sampling. Having first established themselves within the indie hip hop scene, their musical credibility has never been a question – and yet, these gentlemen began their career selling gold albums infused with moral exhortation and spiritual reflection (cf. the intro to Black on Both Sides, wherein Def waxes thoughtful on the need for people to realize that they are made by God). The only comparable entity that comes to my mind is that interesting creature known as “Christian Rap.”

The situation in brief.

Without doing much research, I think it might be a sound estimation that the first established combination of Christianity and rap can be found in dc Talk (even though they danced from genre to genre over time). While dc Talk made the idea of simultaneously rapping and loving Jesus plausible, their primary offering was novelty more than it was anything like aesthetic experience. Alongside rock counterparts such as Jars of Clay and Audio Adrenaline, a brand new market of alternative contemporary Christian music exploded into existence, and as this market expanded and matured, so did the diversity and complexity of its genres. As this pertains to Christian rap, one label took up notable prominence (probably due to a lack of competition): Gotee Records, founded in part by dc Talk member Toby Mac.

Likely without exception, Christian rappers (and their fans) draw from a peculiar sect of Christianity known as “evangelicalism.” Evangelicalism is generally characterized by post-fundamentalist disinterest in confessional concerns of the Church, and even formal ecclesial institutions in general, focusing the brunt of its energy, rather, on the more missionary tasks of evangelism and conversion of individuals. It may very well be the dominant religious presence in America, but if it is not, it is at least one of the largest – and if not the largest, at least one of the most powerful. This is evident simply in light of the fact the President George W. Bush – an evangelical – was elected for even a second term.

While one could write endlessly critiquing this trend, that’s not quite the agenda I have in mind. But as as the sins of a father often pass on to his generation, so do the main weaknesses of evangelicalism penetrate the work of its artists. I think these sins can be listed severally:

  1. Evangelical Hip Hop is confessionally shallow. Evangelicals’ basic suspicion of doctrinal nuance and distinction leads to a shallow understanding of the gospel and the world. This generates an obnoxious reductionism, wherein believing the gospel is reduced to having a personal relationship with Jesus, and the world is nothing but the battleground of conversion. Thus, each song can only become reiteration of a single, simple theme. This is fine, of course. The gospel ought to contain the entire narrative of the universe as it does involve the one in whom we move and live and have our being. But evanglical hip hop tells a lie by reducing that single theme of the entire cosmos to something so dimly existential as yours and mine own “personal relationship with Jesus.” A more robustly confessional influence would free Christian rappers to appreciate the subtleties of existence and maybe even enable them to celebrate aspects of their lives as created goods to be wholly received with thanksgiving.
  2. Evangelical Hip Hop is vocationally confused. This is the classic problem of the parachurch. Christian rappers often view their own work as a ministry of God. That is, there is a very real and present consciousness among the Christian rap artist that not only is he an “ordained” minister of the gospel, but that he depends on that fact to validate his entire project. In the Bible we see that the ministry consists of things such as the preaching of the Word, the washing of the Baptismal Waters, the fellowship of the saints, prayer, the absolving of sins, partaking in Holy Communion, and so on – and all these things under the care of duly appointed elders. Both this and crafting songs for the general populace can be done unto God, with thanksgiving and his blessing – and both, too, can be said to be a response to our “calling” – but there is a very real sense in which we must never conflate these two things. This popular misconstruing of “the priesthood of all believers” has resulted in the abhorrent belief that the graces of the media of film, music, and writing are on par with the graces granted by the practices which God has specifically commanded and to which God has promised his certain blessing if we attend to them. Ironically, in attaching sacred importance to their labors, Christian rappers undermine the credibility of their own product and distract believers from the primacy and basic sufficiency of ordained means of grace. Rather than trusting in the encouragement of the sermon, many individuals feel that the grace granted through the publicly preached Word can be substituted with anything they like – even hip hop. This is clearly a problem that goes much deeper than a subgenre of a subgenre, but it certainly shows its fruits here.
  3. Evangelical Hip Hop is a misapplication of a medium. While the saying “the medium is the message” may have some problems, there is some truth to it. Rap is a specific genre developed in a very specific cultural context by a certain people that gives it a special integrity. Evangelical wasps, to a large extent, do not share in the same history as most rap musicians. Thus, it ought to be an open question whether or not the medium of hip hop music is an appropriate medium for evangelical agendas. This is not to say that spoken word over percussion is somehow antithetical to the gospel, but it is to say that we ought to consider a bit more closely what sorts of things appropriately “mediate” the gospel.

What can we learn from Mos Def?

In these failures of Christian hip hop, we can see where Mos Def and Talib Kweli succeed. First of all, Def and Kweli have a fairly literate grasp of the world around them. Their interests aren’t so esoterically circumscribed by the phenomenon of personal conversion that they’ve forgotten the world around them and its complexity. They can comment on global politics and religion as much as they can talk about local the social and ethical complexities of urban living. That is to say that Black Star loves (or at least knows) the world they speak of.

Secondly, Def and Kweli don’t suffer from the same false pretenses that their Christian counterparts do. To be sure, there is some analogy between the prophetic tone of “conscious hip hop” and Christian rap, but even when Black Star is at its preachiest, it’s not at the cost of entertainment – which, to some degree, is what all music is. The bottom line for a sound rap musician is impressing his audience with his lyrical creativity and vocal competency, and this against the backdrop of head-bobbing beats. Christian hip hop forgets this sometimes, and as a result replaces aesthetic dynamics with frustrating didactics and propositional finger-wagging. But according to Entertainment Weekly, this is precisely what Black Star does not do. Christians should take note.

Finally, though, we should note that the Black Star project, like much of hip hop, is a community project. Just taking into account the liner notes, adding up the number of producers and performers that show up on a single LP, we count something like 14 individuals, many of these having well-established music careers of their own. No doubt Christians have employed such collaboration in their own hip hop efforts (cf. the DJ Maj mixtapes), but the mere collaboration is not the point. The point is that hip hop as a fixed genre is something deeply linked to a community of individuals, a community that informs and is even somewhat held together by its music. Whatever amount of criticism or social commentary that Def and Kweli offer, that criticism and the style in which they present is an organic outgrowth from the values and beliefs of their own people. Largely drawn from suburban middle class white kids, Christian hip hop seems to parody this.

Co-opting a genre that bears the mark of a culture basically alien to itself, Christian rap lacks the proper “street cred” necessary to make its testimony convincing. Much more, it makes light of the very romance and intrigue that rap music offers its outsiders, supposing that it can simply transplant a culturally saturated style from its origins, substituting in its own evangelical ideology and simultaneously sanitizing the genre of the very rough edges that distinguish it. Thus, no self-respecting music lover can ever take Christian rap seriously. It’s a classic case of divorcing form from content, a perennial no-no in all things aesthetic. Insofar as Christian hip hop does this, we must conclude that it is a failure.

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