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Rapping for Jesus: Religious hip-hop isn't quite what you think

POSTED June 15, 2017 10:31 a.m.
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To the average person, the idea of Christian hip-hop registers somewhere between Crocs sandals and minivans on the scale of “super lame things for white people.”

A person who has never listened to the genre might imagine it to be preachy, overly evangelizing and a little corny. As with most things, however, expectation and reality are two different things.

“People think Christian music is defined by how safe, conservative, and family-friendly it is,” said one Christian hip-hop artist, Propaganda, to the Deseret News. The truth according to Propaganda, born Jason Petty, is quite the opposite. “There are a million things that are safe, conservative, and family-friendly that aren’t Christian, and the Christian life isn’t always safe, conservative, or family-friendly."

Take Propaganda’s song “I Ain’t Got an Answer,” for example. The song’s narrator is a father struggling with the challenges of raising children in a changing and dangerous world. It addresses racism, greed, teenage pregnancy, abortion and sexting. The song’s tone isn’t preachy or condemnatory. Rather, it presents these issues as the realities of modern life many people are faced with. The song ends with Propaganda stating he doesn’t have the answers — only the Savior does. It is the only part of the song that listeners could consider explicitly Christian.

“I make music that is descriptive, not prescriptive. I’m not trying to provide the answers, I’m just telling stories,” Propaganda explained.

Hip-hop, in general, has a bad reputation among a lot of people who feel that it promotes violence, drug use and sexual promiscuity. A 2013 survey by Public Policy Polling found that 68 percent of people hold an unfavorable opinion of the genre, compared with only 19 percent who view it favorably.

Yet, just because a song portrays actions that are seen as controversial or immoral is no reason to disregard it, according to Propaganda.

“If people don’t like having anything negative in their music then they’re going to have a hard time reading the Bible," he said. "The Bible has some dark moments in it, but ultimately it’s redemptive."

Propaganda says he’s not afraid of tackling political or social issues either. “Social issues are naturally embedded in the gospel message,” he said. “Jesus was born into a culture that was in subjugation, and he was subversive against the authority at the time and ultimately received capital punishment.”

One Christian hip-hop artist, Lecrae, tackled the issue of police brutality in his 2016 song, “Can’t Stop Me Now.” It is a personal exploration of it rather than a political one. He raps that after the killing of Tamir Rice by Cleveland police officers in 2014 he “started to doubt God” and question his purpose.

In an interview with Billboard, Lecrae explained what drove him to write the song: “The loss of lives from Michael Brown and Eric Garner to Tamir Rice and Philando Castile … these men and boys represented people who could be my family: nephews, cousins, brothers. So it grieved me deeply.

"I found that when I spoke about this, there was a large contingent of people with whom I may have shared similar beliefs in terms of faith. But they were completely on the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of sharing my grief for the loss of these lives.”

“We don’t aim to be political,” said Marcus Hollinger, senior director of marketing for Lecrae’s label, Reach Records. “It’s not a political agenda as much as it is a “God loves justice' agenda.”

As with many labels, it is difficult to define exactly what it even means to be a Christian rapper, especially because its qualifications are fluid.

“You have to consider a lot of factors,” said Propaganda. “The audience it’s marketed towards, the content, the intent of the artist.”

There are artists who satisfy all three criteria and others who may only fulfill one. Propaganda cited the example of Kendrick Lamar as one artist whose lyrics don’t contain Christian messaging and who isn’t marketed specifically for Christian messages, but whose music is inspired by his personal Christian beliefs.

“Christian artists can exist on a spectrum,” Hollinger told the Deseret News. According to him, there is one end of the spectrum where the artists’ Christian message is on the surface, like the group Beautiful Eulogy. On the other end of the spectrum, there are artists like Lamar or Chance the Rapper who engage with Christian themes or imagery less directly and less frequently.

Chance the Rapper’s latest album "Coloring Book" that won the 2017 Grammy for Best Rap Album, has some strong Christian elements. One song titled “How Great” prominently samples from the song “How Great is Our God” as performed by Chris Tomlin, a contemporary Gospel performer. The first two minutes and 45 seconds of the song contain no rapping — only a Gospel choir singing, “How great is our God, sing with me, all will see how great is our God.”

In a 2016 interview on "Good Morning America," Chance elaborated on why he was driven to incorporate elements of Christian Gospel music into this album.

“All my music to a certain extent is about freedom,” he said. “There’s a lot of taboos in hip hop that people try to stay away from. I think a big one is that people are afraid to speak about God to a certain extent and I think if you’re not free to speak about God, then you’re not free.”

“How Great” and other religiously themed songs off "Coloring Book," like “Angels” and “Blessings” sit beside other tracks that are not religious in nature, such as the song “No Problem” which features a handful of language people wouldn’t likely encounter at a Sunday service.

In a way, the ambiguity of "Coloring Book" and the Christian hip-hop genre in general can be viewed as a microcosm of Christianity itself. Like the Bible, it is open to interpretation. Just as lines are blurred in what it means to be a Christian rapper or rap album, so too are there differing opinions on what it means to be a Christian. In the world of music, labels may be useful for selling albums, but as listeners seek both entertainment and inspiration, they may find themselves looking beyond the labels.

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