A Primer: Why Christian Hip-Hop is Here to Stay

If you haven’t been following the Christian music scene for awhile, I can’t really say that I blame you. Much of the music we label as “Christian” is, frankly, boring. If a particular band or album is beautifully done, it is usually either considered a step away from the “Christian music” scene (i.e., they did not mention Jesus’ name explicitly in that last album, and so are no longer being Christian in their music) or it is a fluke. There are, of course, exceptions to this. Some artists and bands have created beautiful music that Christians can embrace, but with the sheer number of artists out there, the contemporary Christian music scene is stale.

Last October, I began reviewing music for The Christian Manifesto. I had been listening primarily to Christian music for nearly all of my life, and decided to branch out by applying to write for them. The site reviews Christian and ‘secular’ music, so I was prepared for a bit of culture shock.

When it comes to most genres, I’ve found that secular music tends to be superior in production and creativity. There are a few exceptions, but nearly everything I’ve come across beats out the ‘Christian counterpart.’ Part of the reason behind this, I suspect, is that many Christian artists are influenced by secular musicians, to the point where they end up sounding like the kid brother: imitating rather than claiming a unique identity.

While one genre of Christian music has definitely fallen prey to that ‘kid brother’ mindset, it has, in the last few years, nonetheless managed to become a major force in the music world: Christian hip-hop and rap. At first I wrote the genre off as something I could not connect to when I first heard any artists in the genre, but eventually was convinced by a good friend of mine to give it a shot.

After a number of years within the genre, I can barely imagine giving it up.

What is interesting to me about Christian hip-hop and rap, among many other things, is the sheer commercial success of artists who explicitly proclaim the gospel and Jesus’ name. While some artists (in any genre) are accused of forsaking the name of Christ in order to gain attention from fans, it would likely be difficult to accuse many of the biggest artists in the Christian hip-hop scene of forsaking the name of Christ, at least in their lyrics.

Today is a good example of the success of these artists, but it is also just the current expression of a reality that has been around for a few years. Reach Records’ artist PRo has managed to hit the number 3 spot on the iTunes hip-hop/rap chart. When I looked at iTunes myself, he also is listed at number 6 overall. This is impressive, but even more so when you give the album a listen. From a production and creativity standpoint, the album is on par with or outshines many secular ‘counterparts,’ but doesn’t pull punches when it comes to content.

This isn’t the first time a Reach Records artist has had comparable success. Lecrae has managed to score even higher on iTunes charts. Other Reach artists have all managed to do well on iTunes charts in the last couple of years, and I do not think these are just because Christians are suddenly buying their albums. Of course, the appeal is there for believers, but these albums are selling elsewhere. One editorial piece from All Hip Hop suggested that legend Jay-Z should sign Lecrae, saying that “The music is there. The message is there.”

Of course, Reach Records isn’t the only label out there to garner success on iTunes charts. Clear Sight Music’s artist Flame charted well when he released Captured last December, and even an independent artist, Thi’sl, released Beautiful Monster and hit high on hip-hop/rap charts.

Add to all of this the fact that both Lecrae and Thi’sl have been interviewed by major website Hip Hop DX (Lecrae’s interview found here, and Thi’sl can be found here), and you’ve got a lot of evidence in support of the validity of Christian hip-hop and rap.

Measuring the success of a Christian artist by how well they chart on iTunes may not be as accurate as we’d like. After all, Christians can expect to be persecuted. While diminished sales may not compare to martyrs of old, expecting success in a commercial market is not something guaranteed. Christians should stand out, and Christ should be attractive, but it is clear that this will not always be the case among non-believers.

This has only been a primer, so be sure to check back in the coming days for some further discussion of Christian hip-hop, a look at the current spreading ‘division’ between “Christian rappers” and “Rappers who are Christians,” as well as taking a look at questions of what can or should qualify as “Christian” music.

image via flickr

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J.F. Arnold

James received his MA in Philosophy of Religion at Talbot School of Theology in 2013. He holds a BA in Biblical Studies from Biola University, and is a graduate and perpetual member of the Torrey Honors Institute. James blogs on a number of subjects, including technology, theology, and hip-hop. He has written for Biola’s Center for Christianity, Culture, & the Arts, The Gospel Coalition, and he is an editor for Mere Orthodoxy. You can also keep up with him on Twitter (@jamesfarnold).