Conscious Rap or Christian Rap?

Editorial Note: In the wake of tragedy, we are often at a loss for words. However, silence in the wake of such tragedy can only embolden its impression. For the families of those slain and injured during the events of Saturday’s shooting in Orlando, I offer my deep condolences. Such a heinous and brutal act should never come to pass on any human being. It deeply saddens me to see such a gathering marred by such gruesome acts. Those who were slain were siblings, children, loved ones. Many gathered together to celebrate the music of their lived experience, heritage, and ancestry on that night. All came to experience the solidarity of a community full of love. To those members of the LGBTQ+ and/or Latinx community that read this article or peruse Spotifly regularly, please know that I stand in solidarity with your struggle, empathize with and hope to understand as much of your lived experience as I am invited into, and pray for the mourning and healing to come. La lucha sigue. 

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This article is the second in its series. To read the first article, click here

I still remember the first set of rap lyrics I’d ever memorized completely: Ludacris’ early 2000’s hit, Get Back. Throughout the song, Luda mounts an all out assault on the track’s candy-coated production. He verbally electrocutes the unnamed subject of his song, making it known to all within ear shot that he is not to be reckoned with. For a 9-year old boy, juggling a small insular immigrant household and a semi-basic grasp on the English language along with the regular growing pains of elementary school and regularly moving all over the metro-Atlanta area, this music exhilarated me. With  the early 2000’s marking the rise of signature Atlanta hip-hop hallmarks such as Lil Jon, Yung Joc, and Gucci Mane, Get Back was only the first in a long list of songs I memorized during my youth.

I, like many others, was initially drawn to rap music for its aesthetic. The bravado, the unapologetic blackness, the way a good MC could easily bend an entire language around themselves, or bring a language to its knees if they so desired. I spent much of my childhood floating from the likes of Kanye West and Jay-Z to Eminem and 50 cent. The social capital accrued from being able to recite the lyrics of a song like Real Slim Shady or Candy Shop meant that my younger self overlooked the misogyny and ugliness of some of the words I was reciting. Having grown up in a Christian household, with visits to our Ethiopian Orthodox church punctuating every week, I didn’t know how to reconcile what little I knew of Jesus at the time (that he loved all and came to destroy oppression) with the messages I was being inundated with. So, I did what too many Christians often-times do, I ignored my conscience and continued to go with the flow.

However, my casual listening relationship with hip-hop, which was not unlike the one most people around me shared with the genre, changed one September day in 2009 when I stumbled across Mos Def’s 1999 masterpiece, Black on Both Sides. The first time I heard Mathematics, my vision went blurry. With each enumerated bar, I was taken through the complicated history of structural oppression heaped upon the black body and through the lived experience of another poor urban black youth like myself. It resonated so deeply with my own lived experience that it was simply too much for me to process all at once. I played that album on repeat for an entire month.

It was then that I realized the power and potential rap music has over its listeners. Before then, I had been spoon-fed the radio’s commodified black sound, dulled into believing that I knew what hip-hop was. But, as Yasiin Bey most swiftly educated me, hip-hop was born to bring together black communities (i.e. DJ Kool Herc’s 1520 Sedgwick Ave), record the lives and plight of Black America, and build a resilient black voice. This last point is quite important, in that even when the Blues, Jazz, and Swing genres were all commodified and turned into stages for privileged white spectatorship, hip-hop has had a certain resilience. Not to say that hip-hop and rap have not had a large amount of market forces affect their growth and consumption, but rather that there still exists a fair amount of rap music which is made centered on the black experience and intended for black audiences (quite unlike the extensive history of popular blues, jazz, and swing).

In the present moment, much of this kind of hip-hop and rap has been clustered off into the subgenre Conscious rap. The works of such artists as Mos Def, Nas, Rapsody, Talib Kweli, Kendrick Lamar, Lauryn Hill, Vince Staples, Chance the Rapper, and Common are commonly pronounced members of this subgenre. Although there does not exist a formal definition of Conscious rap, it is widely held to include those artists and works which engage in social commentary, tackle the status quo, and/or record the experiences of marginalized populations; not quite unlike the works of a certain early century Palestinian Hasidic Jew.

Although there already exists a subgenre of mainstream Christian rap, I hold that the differences between the two genres are trivial and cosmetic. Christian rap has to meet certain benchmarks in order to remain nestled in the genre; it must be free of curse words, invoke complex theological truths, and also commonly allude to the moral depravity of the rest of the genre of rap in order to set itself apart. With this formula, Christian rap has become largely self-segregating, creating music that appeals only to its largely white church-going fan base.

I need anyone reading this article who identifies as Christian to understand one important fact: upholding these largely trivial and cosmetic differences is undermining the efficacy of our faith. If a track is in line with the tenets of our faith and reflects appropriately the story of Jesus, then why are we so quick to deny it when we see it is not classified as such? Whether such a track is released by the likes of Lecrae or Andy Mineo should have no bearing on its consumption. What I find more infuriating is when such albums as To Pimp a ButterflyBlack on Both SidesThe Miseducation of Lauryn HillThe Best of 2Pac (Pt 2: Life), and Coloring Book are denied their due credit, even when they directly invoke a fair representation of a Christian God and transplant the Bible’s narrative into modern-day settings. Whether or not such action is committed out of malice or blindness on the part of American Christians, it still marginalizes those inside and outside our community who hold such music close to their personal identity.

Having grown up in a largely white and nominally Christian area in Georgia, I heard quite regularly of the deranged depravity of rap music, and it is unfortunately true that such views of rap music persist. However, I would ask a person of such a school of thought to, cursing notwithstanding, produce for me a single line of Kendrick Lamar’s How Much a Dollar Cost that is not in line with the Gospel. I would also request that the same be done with Common’s Faithful and Glory, 2Pac’s Keep ya Head Up, Dead Prez’s Hip Hop, Isaiah Rashad’s Heavenly Father and Chance the Rapper’s Sunday Candy, Blessings, and How Great; the list is endless.

Rap music is and will always be very close to my heart and identity. This is partly a product of where I am from and how I’ve grown up, but it is also because of what rap music is at its core. My journey with the genre has ended with me holding its potential and good in tension with its failures and downfalls. Such a complex and mature love for hip hop music is what I can hope for in all, Christian or otherwise.

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