Heaven And Hell: Hip Hop's Difficulty With Christianity
From Mase to Lecrae and No Malice, both listeners and emcees often have a hard time reconciling Hip Hop with a message of Christianity.
Before rappers had multimillion-dollar endorsement deals with shoe manufacturers and makeup companies, it was commonplace to see even the most mainstream emcees speak out on controversial issues. In the wake of Hip Hop’s commercial boom from the late 90’s through the early aughts, and the subsequent commercial drought we’re witnessing now, most mainstream emcees on major labels sidestep anything remotely controversial.
Moments such as Lupe Fiasco calling President Obama “the biggest terrorist” or Kanye West quipping, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” are now generally the exception and not the rule. In an effort to create dialogue on issues many of the most popular and commercially successful emcees are afraid to touch, HipHopDX is launching a “Taboo Series” of editorials. Whether readers agree or disagree with the opinions brought forth, our hope is to play a small part in returning the level of discourse in Hip Hop back to the days when mainstream, major label, commercially viable artists weren’t afraid to tackle uncomfortable and thought-provoking subjects.
From September 5 through September 7, HipHopDX will post these Taboo Series editorials daily, addressing topics the top mainstream rappers no longer talk about. Do you agree with the choices? Do you agree that such subjects have become taboo for Top 40 emcees? Weigh in, starting today
Heaven And Hell: Hip Hop's Difficulty With Christianity
Just a little over eight years ago, after leaving the game to pursue a higher calling, Mase released his third studio album, Welcome Back. Since then, the Harlem emcee, noticeably unable to decide between pulpits and popping collars, has resurfaced a few times on your favorite urban radio station. First alongside 50 Cent and his G-Unit constituents, then on a few remixes by Drake and Wale to name a few. And now, after a performance at Hot 97’s Summer Jam concert this spring, it appears the former Bad Boy may be down with M-M-Maybach Music (in my sexiest voice). While I don't doubt Mason Betha’s love for Jesus Christ or even his road to Damascus conversion, he does appear to struggle with balancing Hip Hop and holiness.
Whether “M.A. dollar sign. E” continues to keep one Gucci loafer in the game and one out, the bigger question remains: Why are Hip Hop and Christianity mutually exclusive? What is so inherently bad about the genre that once rappers find God they must make their way to the nearest fluorescent exit sign? Fellow reformed Bad Boys Loon and Shyne also ran for the hills (literally) once they found salvation. It seems rappers aren’t able or given permission to continue making dope music with a different message. Admittedly, that might be a tall order given the climate of the culture. Hip Hop often, but not always, promotes living in the “Y.O.L.O.” moment with quick money, arrogance, promiscuity and dishonesty. While Christianity represents principles like self-control, love, patience, joy, honesty, humility and self-denial. It’s tough to reconcile the two.
A Paradox Of Rebellion And Religion
“I walked into church with a snapback / And they tellin’ me that’s a no-no / That’s backwards / And I lack words / For these actors called pastors / All these folks is hypocrites / And that’s why I ain’t at church / Truthfully / I’m just doin’ me / And I don’t wanna face no scrutiny / As long as the church keep wildin’ out / I can justify all my foolish deeds…” –Lecrae, “Church Clothes.”
My strong belief in Christ has led to many internal debates about my faith and if the things I consume with my eyes and ears are in line. Something seems off when my iPod goes from Meek Mills’ "Amen" to Donnie McKlurklin’s “Holy.” There is nothing godlike about the music I most enjoy. The Hip Hop I adore—the music I fell in love with in the ‘80s and bumped on my pink boombox in the back of chemistry class and lowered when my parents came into the room—was about being a rebel. It was about breaking rules, pushing boundaries and sometimes being disrespectful. And I’ve always had trouble bridging the gap between these things and my faith. Quite honestly, I think some rappers may have trouble with the paradox as well.
For an artist like No Malice of The Clipse (who as part of his recent re-dedication to Christ threw a funeral service retiring his former moniker, Malice) this kind of disparity will likely make it difficult to balance words on his new solo project, Hear Ye Him! It takes a lot of heart, courage and skill to spout a message of life to a culture largely drowning in death. But that’s what Christian rappers like Lacrae are doing in their music. Clear about their platform, these emcees have drawn the proverbial line in the sand, declared “Team Jesus” and aligned their verbs and nouns with the heart of God. But there are some emcees out there that are leery of the “Christian rapper” label and the lackluster sales and stigma often attached to the sub-culture? Even Lacrae, who for the record is super nice on the mic, is uncomfortable with the “Christian rapper” title, describing himself as just an emcee—authentically Christian and authentically Hip Hop. Jin, BET’s Freestyle Friday Hall of Famer and former Ruff Ryder, seems hesitant to officially adopt the title as well. He addresses the conundrum in a recent YouTube video. If you’re a rapper who happens to also be a Christian, does that make you a Christian rapper? I don’t think so. We don’t call Yasiin Bey (Mos Def), Beanie Sigel or Q-Tip Muslim rappers. They’re just rappers who speak truthfully about their experiences and beliefs—one of which happens to be the tenets of Islam. Why the double standard? Why the greater acceptance of Islam in Hip Hop? Perhaps Islam, a less mainstream faith in this country (one third of the country identifies themselves as Christian, while less than 1% identify themselves as Muslim) is viewed as a more revolutionary faith, which is more in line with what Hip Hop largely represents.
The Coded Language Of “Christian Rap”
“I been gone away from home for so long / Seems like everything I try to do without you go wrong / I’m confused about a lot of things / But not with my faith / So I’m depending on your Holy Ghost to guide the way / See I’m a sinner in the third degree / Ain’t afraid to admit it / ‘Cause I seen niggas worse than me…” –Scarface, “Someday.”
As a Christian who loves Hip Hop, I’ll admit that I’m not a fan of “Christian Rap.” In theory, Christian rappers should be appealing to me, but they just aren’t. I’ve never downloaded (legally or otherwise) one Christian Rap song. A Gospel song, yes. A Gospel song with a producer spitting a few bars, yes. But a whole Christian Rap song? Never. The genre, quite honestly, always seemed corny. There was one time, however, when I thought the meshing of my faith with Hip Hop could work. I was a junior in college when Kirk Franklin’s “Stomp,” featuring Salt of Salt-N-Pepa, hit the airwaves. I remember being proud that something, or rather someone, I loved was being recognized in the mainstream. God was cool and over 2 million consumers seemed to think so too. But I also remember walking into a club on my birthday weekend and witnessing men and women gyrating to the song. Huh...grinding to Gospel? Moments like that make me wonder if keeping things separate actually makes everything easier. Cleaner. DMX, who seems to be in a constant state of conflict, has been consistent in his message that he needs, believes and trusts Jesus to be his savior. Sure, he usually expresses this via one lone track on his super secular albums. But he’s comfortable and courageous enough to do what so many won’t. Rappers like Kanye West and Goodie Mob, who in their earlier works seemed cool ruffling feathers with talk about God, have largely moved on to sexier topics. In the end, I think it is easier to walk away than try and navigate through the “darkness.” Why submerge yourself in something that is largely contradictory to your belief system. In the Bible, Amos 3:3 asks, “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” Do recovering alcoholics hang out in bars? Certainly not the ones who have been able to maintain sobriety. By removing yourself from things that might not be inherently evil but provoke evil thoughts or desires, you give yourself a fighting chance at being righteous, being holy, being faithful.
Despite sometimes strong convictions, it seems most rappers who profess to be Christians are only comfortable sprinkling in a Psalms 23 here, a “God’s got my back” there and a shout out to “the man upstairs” at an award show. And I understand why. Like so many Christians who compartmentalize their lives (God on Sunday, sin every other day), I have somehow compartmentalized my music life. And I know it’s going to take more than just a change to my iTunes playlist to fix things. It’s going to take a change of heart.
Lakeia Brown is a freelance writer living in New York. Her work has appeared in publications and websites like Essence, The Atlanta-Journal Constitution, New York Newsday and TheRoot.com.