What on earth is going on in hip hop in 2017? There will be some to whom that question may seem a bit niche (and who may well answer ‘who cares?’), but to others, the names in the title of this post will be very familiar to you, and you will have already clocked where I’m going with this one.
Whatever your opinion of hip-hop, if you follow Jesus and think it may be important what people think of him, I’d encourage a pricking up of the ears to some very interesting developments in what Spotify reckons is the most listened to musical genre in the world today.
In 2017, two of hip-hop’s most respected and commercially successful artists are Chance the Rapper and Kendrick Lamar. ‘Damn’ by Kendrick has, to this point, sold over half a million units, and its songs have been streamed about a squillion times. Chance’s 2016 album (mixtape, if you’re being picky) ‘Coloring Book’ is harder to pin down regarding commercial performance as it was available as a free download, but it was the first streaming only album to win a grammy and was on pretty much everyone’s album of the year list last year. The two releases are also notable for the fact that they both have Christianity and the Bible all over them. Hip hop and R&B albums are well known for their token Jesus songs, but these guys aren’t just giving an occasional nod to God, in the manner of Puff Daddy’s ‘Best Friend’ or even Kanye West’s ‘Jesus Walks‘. They are putting their perceived relationships with God and theological viewpoints at the centre of their work. And secular hiphop fandom is loving it.
If you’d like a fuller explanation of what I mean, this recent article on major rap blog DJBooth will fill you in . If you’re not yet gripped enough to invest a click though, the very fact that a blog that calls itself ‘The Authority On Hiphop’ (with good reason) would put up a feature piece dissecting the nuances of these guys’ Christian spirituality is notable.
But here’s where things get really weird, fun, exciting, magnificent or even troubling (depending on who you’re talking to). Kendrick himself sent DJBooth a message expressing his appreciation for the article and outlining in more detail how his Christian faith and art intersect. The full story is here, but I wanted to print the whole message on this post, just in case you hip-hop skeptics are STILL scrolling on auto pilot. This is what he wrote (unabridged, except for my added emphases):
Long time no talk. Congrats on the work. Honored to say I still enjoy the write ups. Y’all accuracy lets me know this site has a deep respect for the culture. Much appreciated.
Your latest read is really interesting to me. I didn’t expect anyone to catch it. How I express God. I went to a local church some time ago, and it appalled me that the same program was in practice. A program that I seen as a kid the few times I was in service. Praise, dance. Worship. (Which is beautiful.) Pastor spewing the idea of someone’s season is approaching. The idea of hope. So on and so forth.
As a child, I always felt this Sermon had an emptiness about it. Kinda one sided, in what I felt in my heart. Fast forward. After being heavily in my studies these past few years, I’ve finally figured out why I left those services feeling spiritually unsatisfied as a child. I discovered more truth. But simple truth. Our God is a loving God. Yes. He’s a merciful God. Yes. But he’s even more so a God of DISCIPLE. OBEDIENCE. A JEALOUS God. And for every conscious choice of sin, will be corrected through his discipline. Whether physical or mental. Direct or indirect. Through your sufferings, or someone that’s close to [sic] ken. It will be corrected.
Hence the concept “The wages of sin is Death.” It shall be corrected. As a community, we was taught to pray for our mishaps, and he’ll forgive you. Yes, this is true. But he will also reprimand us as well. As a child, I can’t recall hearing this in service. Maybe leaders of the church knew it will run off churchgoers? No one wants to hear about karma from the decisions they make. It’s a hard truth. We want to hear about hope, salvation, and redemption. Though his son died for our sins, our free will to make whatever choice we want, still allows him to judge us.
So in conclusion, I feel it’s my calling to share the joy of God, but with exclamation, more so, the FEAR OF GOD. The balance. Knowing the power in what he can build, and also what he can destroy. At any given moment.
I love when artists sing about what makes Him happy. My balance is to tell you what will make Him extinguish you. Personally, once that idea of real fear registered in my mind, it made me try harder at choosing my battles wisely. Which will forever be tough, because I’m still of flesh. I wanna spread this truth to my listeners. It’s a journey, but it will be my key to the Kingdom. And theirs as well. I briefly touched on it in this album, but when he tells me to react, I will take deeper action.
So thank you for your great work. It inspired me to reply with this long ass message. Hopefully, you’ll take the time to read mines like I do yours.
So, why is the biggest rapper in the world right now making music? ‘To share the joy of God, but with exclamation, more so, the FEAR OF GOD’. I’m not sure Biggie or Tupac would have put it quite like that 20 years ago!
Now, hopefully, you can all see why I think this may be news even to those of you whose hip-hop knowledge doesn’t stretch past the first line of the Fresh Prince theme tune. That is quite some claim.
Would I then recommend all and sundry to go and check out Kendrick’s ‘Damn’? Umm… kind of… not really… er… not sure. On route to a wedding the other day, a friend of mine decided to play a car full of friends a certain track off the album, prefaced with the rather mischievious half truth that this is one of my favourite songs. As a church leader of all those in the car, I had to do a short round of ‘pastoral check ups’ while queuing for the hog roast after the service to clarify my position on said track, which starts with Kendrick’s voice sampled, repeating ‘I don’t give a f-‘ and features a chorus that I hope is talking about beating up an adversary who is somewhat challenged in his expression of traditional standards of masculinity (believe me, the possible alternative is far worse).
I am personally pretty puzzled as to what to make of all of this, and in a sense am still withholding judgement. With that said though, for two of the major players in rap to be inciting this sort of theological dialogue is remarkable and surely, at the very least, fascinating. At a time when ‘Christian Hip Hop’ is making itself busy bickering about exactly the correct way to go about (or not to go about) evangelism (Here. Sigh!), I wonder whether Jesus is, not for the first time, making his home with those ‘outside the camp’.
Personally, like Kendrick, I’m waiting for (and praying for) the moment when God tells him ‘to react’. The mind boggles as to what ‘deeper action’ he will then take!
Jonny Mellor is a rapper, a writer, and the director of Sputnik.