Lecrae (far right) on the set of BET’s popular hip-hop show “106 & Park,” alongside hosts Bow Wow (left) and Keshia Chante (middle). BET has promoted Lecrae heavily over the past two years. (Photo: Bennett Raglin/BET via Getty Images)
A who’s who of conservative celebrities gathered in November in Asheville, N.C., to honor and praise Billy Graham, the famed Christian evangelist, on the occasion of his 95th birthday. Inside the hotel ballroom, Donald Trump and Sarah Palin rubbed elbows with Rupert Murdoch, Glenn Beck, Greta van Susteren and Rick Warren.
“Billy Graham, we need you around another 95 years,” Palin said. “We need Billy Graham’s message to be heard, I think, today more than ever.”
At one of the head tables, right next to Kathie Lee Gifford, sat a 34-year-old rapper who looked out of place among the mostly older, white VIPs. Lecrae Moore had not been raised a Christian, and had not grown up listening to Graham preach. His childhood role models had been rappers like Tupac, and he had spent his teenage years running the streets.
But Lecrae — who was featured in Graham’s recent “final sermon” video — has also become an ambassador for Christendom. His delivery is just a bit different.
Over the last several years, Lecrae has become a successful rap artist with a rare message that is explicitly Christian. His 2008 album “Rebel” became the first rap album to hit No. 1 on the Billboard Gospel chart, and his 2012 record “Gravity” won a Grammy for best Gospel album. He has also become a staple of the Christian music festival circuit, headlining concerts in front of thousands of fans.
But over the past two years, Lecrae has been trying to break out of what he calls the “Christian ghetto,” to some success. He was part of last year’s Rock the Bells tour with Wu-Tang Clan, Common, Black Hippy and J Cole; has become a regular guest on BET’s “106 & Park” and has recorded songs with artists such as Pete Rock, Big Krit and Chaka Khan. One BET executive compared his first listen to Lecrae to the first time he heard Kanye West.
Lecrae’s attempt to infiltrate popular culture while retaining a clearly Christian message is a difficult task, but he embodies a larger trend inside Western Christianity. Lecrae is one of many modern evangelicals who have rejected the path set by the combative “Moral Majority” culture warriors of the 1980s, and instead embraced an assimilation into the mainstream and its formative institutions, hoping to shape it from within.
Lecrae doesn’t want to forsake his beliefs. He wants to take his message with him. But some of Lecrae’s fans have already accused him of selling out, because he appears on stage with other rappers who are non-Christians, or records songs with them.
As Lecrae said last summer, a few hours before he took the stage at the Creation Festival, one of the biggest and oldest stops on the Christian music festival circuit, “It’s such an uphill battle.”
The morning after Graham’s birthday bash, Lecrae flew to Las Vegas to attend the Soul Train Awards. “That was completely different worlds,” he said.
He has been spending an increasing amount of time in the mainstream hip-hop world. He first burst the Christian bubble in the fall of 2011 when he performed in a freestyle showcase as part of BET’s annual awards show — “Hey, this what happen when hip-hop lets the saints in,” he quipped then — and the network has continued to promote Lecrae heavily.
“I will equate that feeling I got when we identified Kanye West,” Kelly Griffin, director of music programming at BET, said of the first time he heard Lecrae. “Like, ‘Wow, we want to take a chance on him.'”
In October, Lecrae found himself inside a cramped New York sound booth next to Sway Calloway, the 43-year-old MTV personality, rapper and journalist whose daily radio show, “Sway in the Morning,” is broadcast nationally on SiriusXM.
“We got a hybrid artist here,” Calloway told listeners. “Now, even I used to say he’s a Christian rapper. But he’s a rapper — who is a Christian.”
A quiet grin spread across Lecrae’s face. That’s a distinction he likes to make often. The way he explains it is you don’t call it Christian architecture, or a Christian pharmacy, or Christian pottery, when it is simply done by a Christian person. Rather, to be a Christian and also be an architect, or pharmacist, or potter, is supposed to mean that an individual performs those professions to the best of their ability, and with passion and excellence.
And as Lecrae points out, hip-hop is full of rappers who practice Islam or incorporate messages of the Five Percent Nation, such as some members of Wu-Tang Clan. They talk about their faith in their rap, but they are not labeled “Muslim rappers.”
Yet even as BET hailed him as the next Kanye, Lecrae drew a distinction between himself and the artist better known as “Yeezus.”
“I deeply respect what he’s doing artistically. I do think there’s a lot of brilliance,” Lecrae said. “There’s a line between being egotistical and being genius or great. And I think he plays with that a lot.”
Still, he continued, saying of Kanye’s most recent album, “I hear a broken person, if I’m going to be honest, when I listen to it.”
“I’d say even the writing, like, from my end, from my perspective it’s not as thought-provoking,” he said. “It feels a little hasty, a little like, ‘Let me just get this off my chest,’ versus, ‘How do I say this in a unique way?”
Uniqueness is a quality that has largely been lacking in Christian music. The genre didn’t really exist until the 1970s, some time after the advent of rock-and-roll. Its creation was the product of a desire among many evangelicals to resist a culture they felt was increasingly non-Christian. But the genre’s downfall — like many of the cultural artifacts that have come out of evangelicalism over the last several decades — was that instead of creating better alternatives, it just made knockoffs.
John Jeremiah Sullivan captured this in a memorable 2004 piece he wrote for GQ magazine about his own trip to the Creation Festival.
“Every successful crappy secular group has its Christian off-brand, and that’s proper, because culturally speaking, it’s supposed to serve as a stand-in for, not an alternative to or an improvement on, those very groups. In this it succeeds wonderfully. If you think it profoundly sucks, that’s because your priorities are not its priorities; you want to hear something cool and new, it needs to play something proven to please … while praising Jesus Christ. That’s Christian rock,” Sullivan wrote.
Or as Cartman, of “South Park,” put it: “All right guys, this is going to be so easy. All we have to do to make Christian songs is take regular old songs and add Jesus stuff to them. See? All we have to do is cross out words like ‘baby’ and ‘darling’ and replace them with, ‘Jeeesus.'”
This subculture was created by the belief throughout much of American evangelicalism that all Christians were required to verbally proselytize for their faith as often as possible. Music wasn’t good — or in other words, approved of — unless it was didactic.
“There’s this whole subtle idea behind Christian music that you always have to be telling people about Jesus. It’s ludicrous, because no one who isn’t a Christian would ever want to listen to that music,” David Bazan, a musician who performs under the name Pedro the Lion, told Andrew Beaujon for the 2004 book Body Piercing Saved My Life.
Lecrae’s goal is to deliver a message of faith and hope to a non-believing audience. But a “faith stigma” can prevent that audience from ever hearing him in the first place, he said. So endorsements from influentials like Sway are a big step toward gaining wider acceptance.
Lecrae “makes being a Christian cool,” Griffin, the BET director, said. “It doesn’t feel preachy. It doesn’t come off as holier than thou, but speaks to people’s circumstances, experiences, and just life in general, just like regular hip-hop.”
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SOURCE: The Huffington Post