Of Christian Metal and Holy Hip-Hop

Of Christian Metal and Holy Hip-Hop December 19, 2013

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?”

In a nutshell, a panel of fundamentalist pastors was asked to weigh in on the “Reformed rapper” phenomenon: young, theologically conservative men conveying rich scriptural truths…through hip-hop music. The panelists’ response was largely negative. Here is the link to the entire 13-minute session. (I wanted to embed it but WordPress isn’t cooperating, apologies.)
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).
But so many other points they made were dead-on, not just for Reformed rappers but Christian artists like (white) rapper Toby-Mac, who fuses the look and feel of hip-hop with pop. The one pastor was absolutely right that Toby-Mac’s “backwards cap and ready to rap” look is unbecoming for a man of his age. It’s the job of older men in the church to help younger men into mature Christian manhood. And however sincere your heart is, the image you present is part of that process too. Another pastor brought up reverence and proper mood-setting, extending his thoughts to repetitive “7/11” worship songs or even “something you could waltz to.” Surprisingly, he even disparaged certain songs from his own hymnal as  joyless “funeral dirges.” Although the cultural connotations of rap were (rightly) key in the panel’s objections, these additional criticisms of “white-bread” Christian music underscored the fact that they weren’t speaking from racism or “fear of the Other. ” They were presenting a cohesive philosophy of worship and art that, at its core, has nothing to do with the race of the people performing it. This isn’t news to anybody who really understands the fundamentalist approach to these things.
However, it was only a matter of days before the race card was being played all over the place in outraged reactions to the panel. People from The Gospel Coalition and other outlets immediately began castigating the pastors as old, white, racially insensitive, Philistine louts who “don’t get creation.” I wish I were exaggerating. Frankly, I’m rather embarrassed for TGC, as they usually have higher standards for discourse and reasoning. Even Owen Strachan, one of my favorites, was offering hopelessly hackneyed arguments like “well, pianos and trumpets didn’t fall divinely from the sky, so what’s wrong with using certain sounds as a vehicle to proclaim the gospel?” Right Owen… because pianos and trumpets are just like an entire genre of music that’s previously been dedicated to glorifying all manner of filth and obscenity.
Look, I understand that some Christian conservatives have no problem with “redeeming” rap. I also understand that the intentions of such rappers are pure as the driven snow, that they truly desire to bring the gospel to young people, and that in particular they desire to model upright masculinity for young men. The lack of male role models is a gaping need in the culture at large, but particularly in the black ghetto culture. I believe it’s silly to create a false dichotomy where either you think everything about Reformed rap is awesome, or you think Lecrae is a dirty rotten sinner for doing it.
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.)
And you know what, I’ll grant that maybe heavy metal composers are creating complicated patterns. And maybe it requires some skill to produce them. And I will acknowledge that you need an objectively good sense of rhythm to make a rap song flow consistently. But mere complexity and skill requirements do not good music make. There needs to be an element of beauty. And folks, let’s be real: Beauty is not simply in the eye of the beholder. I know it, and so do you. Sure, there can be grey areas where one man’s Mozart is another man’s Miley Cyrus, but at a certain point, it’s pointless to keep up the facade of musical relativism. For example, compare this desecration of “How Great Thou Art” (you have my permission to hit pause at roughly 0:30…)
…with this specimen of angelic singing:
If you can look me in the eye and tell me both of these versions are just as aesthetically beautiful in their own way, you might as well stop reading right now because you are clearly past the point of no return!
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.

I don’t deny that some Christian rappers have used rap as a tool to introduce young people to the gospel, but how many more young people have been left confused, thinking “I thought I left all this behind me?” Honestly, the best thing we can do for young black men coming into the Church from the ghetto is to urge them to make a clean break from that toxic background. If they retain a burden for ministry there, they should view it as a mission field, not an essential part of their identity. Although Lecrae’s lyrics may be full of biblical truth, the style in which he’s delivering them doesn’t encourage that kind of clean break.
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:
1. Rock and roll was an art form capable of producing excellence.
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.
In conclusion, I see this whole mess as little more than a branding scuffle. There seems to be a clash here between two different conservative Christian types. There’s the “blue-collar” fundamentalist old guard,  now viewed as gauche, un- “missional,” and out-of-touch, and then there are the “white-collar” new reformed Christians. Some of the latter may actually have a taste for hip-hop, but I suspect that some of them are forcing themselves to like and defend it, motivated by a combination of misplaced duty and cultural snobbery. You heard me correctly, cultural snobbery. They want to accuse the fundamentalists of being culture snobs, but the truth is quite the opposite.
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.
If you consider yourself a part of the “young, restless and reformed” camp, please know that it’s not my intention to offend you. I’m just pointing out that even our heroes can have weaknesses and blind spots. Just because your favorite pastor said it doesn’t mean it’s without flaws. I can’t demand that everyone be as cynical as I am, because we all have our own personalities. But I hope we all have some measure of common sense and a basic knowledge of what is artistically worthy and beautiful. Let’s use that, even at the risk of rubbing shoulders with some old fundamentalist fuddy-duddies.

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