Friday, March 22, 2013

Christian Rap is cool, I promise! (just like MySpace)

This is a post about Christian pop culture. Why do Christians need their own form of pop culture? Some people think that Christianity and pop culture should never have mixed in the first place. Consider this argument for a moment: When in any other time in the past were Jesus and his disciples popular?

If Jesus and his disciples weren't particularly popular from a cultural perspective, then does that mean that Christians should abandon pop culture? Personally, I don't think we have to go that far. However, it should make us think about why Christians are immersing themselves in pop culture. Pop culture has immense cultural influence. It's one of the most effective cultural mediums for communication with large numbers of people. It's also a space where philosophies and ideologies are juxtaposed. So in that way, it seems like the Christian faith should be welcome. However, in the music industry for example, anything related to religion is cast off to a sub-genre -- mostly due to other religious "baggage" that becomes attached to the music.

Is this something that Christians have done to themselves? What are the motives of the Christian content producers? It's clear that pop culture is a powerful vehicle to propagate ideologies. For some Christians, it can be a way to propose a different way of living. But pop culture is entertainment, which is why it's...well...popular. There are some Christians who try to create a cheap substitution for mainstream culture. We have these cheap imitations that are created for the purpose of saying, "Hey, we Christians are cool! We offer everything mainstream culture offers, but we have JESUS! You can be just as cool and have just as much fun without being SINNERS!" They create counterfeit copies of mainstream culture and use them to fight against the mainstream. But let's face it: nobody can beat a competitor by copying their playbook and removing their most effective players.

Let's take hip hop as a case study. It's been around since the 1970's and it came from West African culture, which used lyrical speaking and chants to communicate ideas. It's full of potential because a single song can communicate a lot. Unfortunately, most of the songs in the Top 100 nowadays present messages surrounding ego, fame, fortune, and power. It's particularly appealing because many of most influential artists in this genre come from life situations where they were at the bottom. For many of them, it's a testimony of rising to the top and celebrating their power. That can be quite inspiring. However, in the celebration of power, much of the music over-promotes self-destructive behavior to people who follow in the footsteps of the artists.

Now, many might say, "Whatever, it's just fun music I can dance or bob my head to. Nothing else." I agree on many fronts with that. Hip hop has the catchiest beats and it's certainly a good genre for having a good time. The problem comes from people who look to media for inspiration -- particularly youths dealing with hard times.

Enter Christian hip hop. Where does it fit in this cultural dialogue? It's really up to the artists to define that. Do they want to reach the world with their message, or di they just want to perpetuate Christian living and deepen the divide with the "secular" world? Let's look at some examples of recent album releases.

Exhibit A: Da' T.R.U.T.H. He's had some good stuff in the past, particularly when he was a part of the revolutionary Cross Movement - but he made the bold move of releasing an album with the title: Love, Hope, War. He's been in the hip hop scene for quite some time - hence why his rapper name is so...old. Some of the tracks on the album are pretty solid, but the album overall is geared toward Christians sharing a particular worldview, rather than the entire culture. Take for example the confrontational message in his opener:

One review describes the first song as follows:
Da’ T.R.U.T.H. ... calls for real Christians to stand up, take action, and "tell the world we declare war.”  He says we Christians have been silent for too long.  He points out that "Every time we stop moving they find a way to remove something,” going on to say that’s how they removed the Ten Commandments from courthouses, prayer in school, and more.  He uses his lyrical flow to challenge all of us to take a bolder stand for Christ and stop sitting around, letting things just happen.  He cries out that we are at war and have to stand up and fight.
The problem is that his message deepens the wound that the conservative evangelical movement has been inflicting in the U.S. These messages are closing up opportunities for conversation in the culture and is interpreted by the culture as "Conservative Republicans ('evangelicals') trying to take over the nation."

This is not the type of music that non-Christians can relate with. They won't listen to Da' T.R.U.T.H.'s message, regardless of whether his MC name has "truth" in it. I call this style, rap for Christians only.

Exhibit B: Lecrae. Recipient of a Grammy in the Gospel genre this year for his acclaimed album, Gravity. He got the Grammy for a reason: inspiring lyrics that invite dialogue with the mainstream hip hop community. Here's a playlist with two powerful songs: the first from his recent album. Additionally, his testimony. I encourage you to listen because this guy is as real as it gets.

Lecrae's style isn't to preach at the world, or incite Christians to "war." Instead, he delivers a message that describes his first-hand experiences and how God got him through it all. He's respected by "secular" culture because he's honest and delivers his message in a way that not-so-religious people can understand. I call his style Christian rap for the world.

Now, why did I throw MySpace in this post's title? Remember that social network, anyone? Remember when it was cool to use it? In my opinion, Christian rap or pop culture that tries to perpetuate the Christian agenda or provide cheap alternatives to mainstream culture is like MySpace crying: "Come back to me! I'm still cooool!" Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks have long since overshadowed it with better services. Can we say the same about mainstream culture?

To further drive the point home, I hereby enclose my meager attempt at being a Christian rapper back in college. Guess where the tracks are? On MySpace.
Wake Up (beat by Official Rap Beats)

Want to read more on this topic? Check out this recent blog post.

No comments: