As his star rises among evangelicals, the Grammy-winning musician faces complex questions of race and faith.
The black rap star came on the white evangelical’s radio talk show to discuss his memoir, a tale of surviving drugs, crime and sexual abuse. Only a few days after its release last month, the book by Grammy-winner Lecrae had already hit the New York Times bestseller list.
But within a couple of minutes, the interview took a turn.
Host Eric Metaxas raised a controversy from a few days earlier, when liberal black comic Larry Wilmore used the n-word to refer to President Obama at the White House correspondents’ dinner.
“Can I say what he said to the president of the United States?” the preppily dressed, 53-year-old Metaxas asked his younger, T-shirt-wearing guest. “Surely if he said that to the president of the United States, I can say it?”
“I’m pretty sure that’s not a good idea,” Lecrae said gently. Lecrae then chuckled and the collegial interview went on, just two traditional evangelicals chit-chatting about the greatness of God.
It was classic Lecrae: deflecting, attempting to avoid the deep gulfs among Christians that have been laid bare by the candidacy of Donald J. Trump. His skill at resetting conversations about race has made Lecrae one of the biggest musical stars alive among his fellow evangelicals — white ones in particular, who make up three-quarters of this huge faith group. Yet this fan base, Lecrae is finding, is complex — and combustible. The 6-foot-4, smiley former drug dealer has become a lightning rod as his stature as an evangelical leader has risen. He is trying to navigate those who embrace his increasingly nuanced approach to burning social issues and those who think the Christian rapper is in the process of selling out.
Long-standing assumptions about American Christianity are exploding in public every day of this divisive campaign season.
Is an evangelical someone who prioritizes fighting abortion and gay marriage or instead a pragmatist who looks for middle ground? Does it go against Christian values to support a candidate who wants to deport Muslims and who uses “Mexican” as a slur? And is there an “evangelical” position on police treatment of blacks in 2016?
Cruising Manhattan in the back of a stretch black SUV on a recent afternoon, pin-balling from one corner of the American culture war to another as he promotes his book, Lecrae Devaughn Moore knows he presents a new evangelical archetype. And he loves it.
“What I bring is unique; no one else brings to the table what I am,” said the 36-year-old. “That’s how I look at myself — a clear voice in the middle of it all.”
Many evangelicals who love Lecrae do so not in spite of his middle-of-the-road stances but because of them. American Christians, particularly young ones, are dying for leaders willing to walk away from partisan polarization, and for some, Lecrae may be the model. They fill his concert tours, like the one in April that hop-scotched from one largely white Christian college town to another. They buy his books, listen to his lectures and watch admiringly when he’s on national news doing something like when he brokered a truce between a cop and protesters near his home in Atlanta after the post-Ferguson riots.
“This generation doesn’t have a Billy Graham,” said LaDawn Johnson, a sociologist at Biola University, an evangelical school outside Los Angeles where Lecrae performed in April. “We’ve lost any kind of significant evangelical leader people could point to, and Lecrae is in a position where he could definitely for many young people be that voice and be that model.”
Lecrae was raised mostly by his mother and grandmother in crime-troubled parts of Houston, Denver and San Diego, where, he writes in his memoir, “Unashamed,” he tried to fill the hole left by his absentee father with drugs (using and selling), dreams of being a gang-banger, tons of sex and explosive fights with various violent men who dated his mother. He showed early interest and talent in music and theater, and hip-hop rushed in to fill his void.
Rappers are able, Lecrae believes, to give voice to the pain and sadness of inner-city boys who would be pummeled if they actually complained about the hands they’d been dealt.
He writes about yo-yoing back and forth between violent street life and the artistic crowd, the Christian scene of his holy-roller grandmother and the secular scene of the rest of his world, and very much between white kids he met in high school and later college and the black kids who had been his world before then. He wondered whether his role model should be his gun-toting uncle or Theo Huxtable from “The Cosby Show.”
It was only after a near-suicidal, angry, breakneck drive one night on a dark highway that he landed in rehab and, eventually, in a college ministry aimed at African Americans. That group, called Impact Movement, was the first time Lecrae heard Jesus described as a character a street kid could love.
The Jesus he’d always pictured “was frail and weak and bashful,” Lecrae wrote in his memoir. But the one Impact described, who was beaten and bloodied while carrying the cross, “was someone I could respect and trust at the same time.”
The 19-year-old convert was a zealous one. Believing he could no longer kiss girls — even while acting in a play — he quit theater and lost his college scholarship. Purging secular music, he dumped his massive, beloved CD collection in a dumpster. Half the world was holy, or good, and half secular, or evil.
But as he became a bigger star, Lecrae started to wonder whether his dogmatic style was the most effective kind of evangelizing. One could see him charge into public debates and then stop and pause.
In 2013, he asked fans on Facebook what could be the basis of marriage equality. “What if I love my sister? A 13-year-old? An animal?” Perhaps surprised by the thousands of evangelicals passionately commenting on all sides of the topic, he followed up that day with a post saying he wasn’t asking in a religious sense. “If you are a homosexual, I apologize for any hate spewed your way,” he wrote, saying he was aiming to create a dialogue.
In a 2014 lecture before a mostly white evangelical ministers’ conference called Resurgence, he compared homosexuality to selling drugs, but said Christians need to remain in the culture in order to change it. “I’m grateful to be there,” he said. Church values are fading in America because Christians have become just a shell of “morality and religion and rules.”
In his book, which came out the first week of May, he says he’s changed and is now wary of rigid faith, of “a spiritual high that can lead to legalism.”
In an interview, he says he used to be more idealistic, unable to handle what he now characterizes as the beautiful gray. He talks often and openly about his perspective on race and how it’s in flux.
In the 2014 lecture, Lecrae described growing up in a “militant” household, with a mom who studied the Black Panthers and wanted him to embrace her understanding of blackness. (“You 12 black people out here, you know what I’m talking about,” he cracked to laughter).
“I wore African medallions. … I had a feeling I didn’t need you,” he said as he bounded across the slickly-lit stage. “Then Jesus reached me.” The sense of resentment toward white people, “it’s not there anymore! Jesus changed me — we’re cool.”
The image of a superstar rapper — his last album hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 — preaching to a bunch of white evangelical pastors isn’t the only seemingly contradictory scene in which Lecrae appears. He has made a cause out of criticizing obscenity in his own genre of hip-hop, yet jetted after Metaxas last month to Wilmore’s liberal show, where he appeared following a skit in which actors did obscene things with a banana.
Lecrae’s concerts are packed with white evangelicals — young people and soccer moms — as well as black and Latino youths. Then again, this is hip-hop without obscenities. This is hip-hop about Jesus.
That’s because Lecrae wants to be that role model Johnson described, particularly to his fellow evangelicals.
He has launched a media campaign called “Man-up” aimed at encouraging young urban men to embrace traditional roles as husbands and fathers. He travels to the Middle East and the Far East as a kind of celebrity conflict-reconciliation facilitator. He pens editorials on the need, post-Ferguson, post-Charleston, for more racial healing. He says he wrote his memoir specifically as his career is soaring to show troubled young people his scars so they know they can move on.
He wants to be a cultural role model in part because he knows that the field of traditional Christians who become mainstream superstars is, well, very thin.
“There were others who wanted to be Christians and artists” but seemed to slip into moral decay, Dimas Salaberrios, a Bronx pastor and radio personality, said in an interview with the rapper that sunny Manhattan morning last month. “I pray for your strength.”
“The concern is having no role models,” Lecrae told him. “I’m trying to be a voice in the culture.”
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