Christian hip-hop typically has two different types of rappers. There’s the youth pastor who uses hip-hop to spread the gospel to youth, and there’s the reformed hustler who zealously uses the gospel to share his love of hip-hop.
But Chance the Rapper, who isn’t a pedantic minister or a hardened rapper condemning the ills of the world, exposes ruptures in the Christian hip-hop genre. His affinity for celebratory Christian themes and collaborations with gospel artists is in stark contrast to much Christian hip-hop, which tends to align itself with the rock-leaning sounds of contemporary Christian music. While Chance looks to the black church pews, Christian hip-hop often looks to white megachurches. As the Grammys’ Best New Artist winner blossoms into rap’s golden child, while remaining oblivious to Christian hip-hop norms, artists associated with the genre are forced to ask difficult questions.
“What Chance did,” says Propaganda, a veteran emcee and spoken-word artist from West Covina, “is causing us to answer a greater question, which is: What is Christian music? And what makes an artist Christian? At the end of the day, we have yet to actually answer that.”
Christian music, Propaganda explains, is unique in that “it’s the only musical genre that is defined by its content. Every other genre is defined by its sound. So, if it’s defined by its content, how can you not say that Chance or Kendrick [Lamar] put out a Christian album?”
The definition of Christian music can be a slippery slope, because having the right content can be less about biblical topics and more about acceptable language. Sho Baraka’s overtly pro-black album The Narrative, despite its strong Christian themes, was pulled from Lifeway Christian stores in January because his lyrics contained the word “penis.”
“If Christian music is just an infrastructure, then you can talk about anything,” Propaganda says. “We have to say, what is the ‘consumer’ actually asking for? And what they’re asking for is not Christian music; they’re asking for safe music.”
This unfruitful quest to please the gatekeepers of Christian hip-hop may be why some CHH artists feel disgruntled by Chance the Rapper’s success. “Some of it is jealousy,” DJ Wade-O, a longtime DJ and Christian hip-hop tastemaker, admits via email. “You have a guy who didn’t really come up in CHH per se, reaching the highest level of success in the music industry and saying he is a Christian rapper, yet he curses in his music and has a lot of content that is not really Christian. A lot of us have been grinding for years, and so I totally understand how someone being successful but not really being totally ‘sold out’ to the Lord would ruffle feathers.”
Canon, a rapid-fire lyricist in the Christian hip-hop scene, is dismissive of some of his peers’ criticisms of his fellow Chicagoan, Chance. “There’s always going to be an artist [that says] I’ve been putting out content, I’ve been rapping about Jesus, I’ve been rapping [from] a faith-based perspective my entire career [but] I don’t get any kind of awards,” he says. “First and foremost, you have to look into why we do what we do. We don’t … rap about what we rap about for awards or for a pat on a back.”
Sketch the Journalist, a writer who documents Christian hip-hop, thinks many Christian rappers feel more conflicted than jealous regarding Chance’s success. “Some people see Chance as a ‘baby Christian’ just trying to find his way and are thus open to showing him grace as he works things out on a public stage,” he writes via email. “Others view him as a more lukewarm Christian and potentially dangerous from a ‘follow-his-lead’ perspective.”
Chance’s authenticity — his willingness to mix the sacred and profane, to explore doubt as much as faith — has, in some ways, exposed what’s inauthentic about Christian music. “Just because you’re making music that you deem acceptable doesn’t mean you’re living a Christian life,” Propaganda says. “I know for a fact that a number of Christian artists, the people who are writing these songs, are not believers. They’re just writing songs because they know [their audience will] like them.”
Lyrical content aside, Chance’s music has the potential to change Christian hip-hop in other ways. His use of gospel choirs might free up African-American Christian rappers to dig deeper into their cultural roots. Christian hip-hop is often funded out of the pockets of white evangelicals to appeal to predominantly white Christian youth groups, which can put black emcees in an uncomfortable place.
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