Faith leaders and Christian musicians have taken issue with hip hop, a genre the church can’t ignore if it wants to remain relevant.
“We don’t challenge any heresy in the church!” John Perkins declared at a recent meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. “We don’t challenge the ugliness and dehumanization of rap in our community because it makes money for rappers.”
In the evangelical world, the 84-year-old minister and civil-rights activist is treated as a prophetic figure. Younger pastors refer to him as their hero, and the Christian rock band Switchfoot even wrote a song in his honor. Church leaders had gathered to discuss the “the gospel and racial reconciliation”—a longtime struggle for the Southern Baptists, a denomination that split off from other American baptists in 1845 so that its ordained members could still own slaves. Of the many challenges to contemporary race relations in the church, Perkins said, one of the most pernicious is rap music.
“Somebody’s gonna say to me, you’ve got Christian rap, like they think that I’m a fool. I understand that,” he said. “You’ve got to challenge immorality—that’s the whole idea, especially if it’s pathological.”
Pathological immorality: That’s a heavy charge to make against an art form, particularly one that resonates deeply with minority groups that have often been marginalized in the Southern Baptist church. But for young Christian rappers, Perkins’s viewpoint represents a fundamental tension in their art: How do you make music that feels authentically Christian and authentically hip hop at the same time, when so many of the messages commonly heard in hip hop are at odds with a Christian worldview that opposes violence, substance abuse, and promiscuity?
Some artists have chosen to make music without worrying whether it will be church-approved. Missy Elliot, a Baptist, got her freak on throughout the aughts. Kanye West won a Grammy for his confessional song “Jesus Walks,” but he’s also been nominated for songs like “Mercy,” in which he and his co-artists memorably dedicate four lines to vulgar metaphors crafted from the word “ass.”
But for those who express their faith more explicitly in their art, it can be awkward to avoid sounding preachy. “I always feel kind of like a step child,” said Trip Lee, a Christian rapper, in an interview. “You’re not going to hear me or other rappers on the radio. It’s too Christian. They don’t know what to do with it.”
The 26-year-old is something of an anomaly. He’s made two albums that have hit the top 20 on the Billboard 200, and his albums have also hit the top 20 in Billboard’s rap and gospel charts. He’s also a committed evangelical; he recently left D.C. to plant a new church in Atlanta. His lyrics are pretty Jesus-y: The final song on his most recent album, Rise, ends with a woman singing, “A crown of thorns declares you’re King … They nailed your hands, you nailed our death, from the cross you reigned … Oh Jesus, you won it all.” Yet, his music doesn’t sound like anything that usually shows up in contemporary Christian music.
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