“Christian” Hip-Hop: What Does That Even Mean?Culture, Featured, Music, Religion — By J.F. Arnold on August 30, 2011 at 9:04 am
Last week, we talked a bit about the importance of Christian hip-hop/rap as a genre, and then provided numerous examples of theologically-influenced lyrics from within the genre. Hopefully you’ve taken a few minutes to check some of those artists out. What follows today is a discussion of a debate that has long existed within the genre, but has recently taken a front seat.
Earlier this year, Sho Baraka announced that he was leaving Reach Records. If you know anything about Reach Records, this may sound like sort of a crazy thing: the record label is huge, and already was back then. He had been with them for four years at the time, and was deeply involved in the company. I don’t want to spend a lot of time speculating here about Sho Baraka’s relationship with Reach Records: not only would this be useless speculation, but it would be based on practically nothing. I’ve met Sho Baraka a couple of times, and he has never said anything but good things about the artists (we talked about a release by Tedashii, which came out this year).
But when Sho Baraka left, he announced that we could follow his future by visiting a new website. Reading through the website, the content is solid, if a bit confusing. Is this a new record label? No, but it is some sort of collection of artists, musical or otherwise, to create good art.
What does all of this have to do with the discussion of “Christian” hip-hop?
In short, there has always been a ‘divide’ with what many would call Christian hip-hop; on the one hand, you’ve got those who emphatically say Jesus’ name and sometimes even end up doing exegesis in songs. On the other hand, however, you’ve got artists who are striving to make good music, with ‘positive’ lyrics, without necessarily seeking to speak of Christ in their songs. They want to provide an alternative to much of rap music today, which often glorifies violence and drugs while belittling women or morality. This divide has certainly been understood as such, with people on both sides putting down the other. Exegetical rap, after all, will never appeal to people who need to hear about Christ the most, while ‘positive’ rap that excludes the name of Christ misses the point entirely. The argument is a tired one, and had more-or-less settled among many listeners. That is, until the departure of Sho Baraka from Reach Records.
Suddenly, people were critiquing everything that Sho Baraka, J.R., and anyone else involved in this new HiSoc thing may produce. Reach Records, after all, manages to not only mention Christ is a large number of their songs, but also still sell many records and appeal to crowds that may not normally hear the Gospel message. But this shift, this focus on art, seemingly above the Gospel, was one that caused much controversy.
Rapzilla, a website that is devoted to Christian hip-hop and rap, posted an editorial arguing that ‘Secular’ music could be done to the glory of God, if ‘Secular’ meant “music that does not explicitly define the worldview but is clearly influenced by the worldview.” While the piece doesn’t argue anything that I think is particularly revolutionary, be sure to read a few of the comments. People sound off on both ends of the spectrum, which goes to show that the debate really has been sparked.
So what are we to do with this question? What does it mean to be a “Christian” hip-hop artist, and what does it mean to qualify for the dreaded (or praised, depending on your circle) “Secular” label?
I think the question shows a false dichotomy that has been created by the terms “secular” and “Christian” when it comes to music. We tend to think that anything that you can buy at your local Family Christian Stores or an artist who does a concert that involves a sermon is automatically included in the term “Christian,” while artists who are likewise devout and make beautiful music may be labelled as “secular.”
This debate exists outside of hip-hop, of course. Bands like P.O.D. and Skillet have always had similar debates surrounding them. So how do we solve the question, if the dichotomy is hardly fair?
It is difficult to categorize artists only by the lyrics or music they produce. Genres are relatively easy to pin down; we have established ‘canon’ to measure against, so to speak. If someone produces instrumental music, for instance, can they properly be labelled a “Christian” artist?
Likewise, can we only call a proclamation of the Gospel a Christian act? Are other acts, and other productions, which neglect to mention the Gospel rightfully called “Christian,” if performed or created by Christians? And if we answer that in the negative, is that a bad thing? Should a Christian proclaim the gospel explicitly in everything they do?
If the answer there is yes, is it a sin for me to write a blog post that does not mention the name of Christ? If so, Lord have mercy on me.
What matters in the area of Art, as with all creation, is that honor is given to our Creator. Sometimes the act of creating itself is an act of worship and honor, without explicitly mentioning Christ. I do not expect all Christians who are painters to only paint images of the Cross or other Biblical tales; they may create beautiful depictions of a great number of other subjects, be they concrete or abstract. Likewise, a follower of Jesus Christ who creates music needs to show artistic integrity, strive for excellence, and give glory to God, in whatever way that may be. Not all writers should write commentaries, and some Christians are best at writing fiction. Not all Christian rappers should produce exegesis in every track, as some are best at discussing other areas.
These two categories overlap, and are perhaps best understood as a continuum of sorts; it is a wonderful blessing that we have both at our disposal.