To Lecrae, Trip Lee, Dylan, Christian rappers, and the like: I have a lot of things I want to share with you, and with everyone else reading, and I hope you’ll read my words with sincerity and discernment.
I am sorry.
It all started nearly a decade ago when I heard “Jesus Muzik” for the first time…It’s one of those events that you remember where you were and what you were doing. I was in high school and remember it being our “pump-up” song right before we started Wednesday night worship. It was a fun song to get hyped to, but as the years went on, this perceived fad I called “Christian hip-hop” began to lose my attention. The “Jesus Muzik” movement was all a bit silly to me back then.
Was it because I didn’t like rap? Of course not. I love hip-hop and rap, and have for a long time. I have a wide palette of musical taste, and this was certainly one of my favorite genres. As I got into college I was blown away at the talent of some of the new artists that were starting to get popular (Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Childish Gambino, etc.) And of course, I was listening to the “emperors” such as Kanye, Eminem, and Jay-Z. I even wanted to listen to the artists who were obscure, or poetic, or simply talented, like Common or Immortal Technique or Wale. I could sit here (obviously) and talk about the rappers and producers I know all day…until that discussion shifts over to the realm of Christian hip-hop, where I know nothing.
But why was I so unfamiliar with what was going on in the CHH world if I a) was a Christian and b) liked hip-hop? There were a few reasons for it, but the main one was that I didn’t take it seriously, to the point that it was almost worth mocking. It was lame. It was behind the times. It was boring. It was nearly imitation to real rap, in my eyes. I spent a long time under these assumptions. For example, people would turn a Lecrae song on at a church event and they would talk about how much they loved this song, and I would just roll my eyes. “This is not real rap,” I would think to myself. I felt the entire genre was just not worth my time or approval. After all, I had “real” rap. But I have learned something since that time. Christian hip-hop didn’t need my approval to succeed. It didn’t matter how I felt; I can’t deny that over the past few years they’ve grown and gotten better without me.
My feelings about Christian hip-hop came to a head when I began working with one of my best friends Dylan (aka NoBigDyl). I was going to school for an Audio Production degree, and I loved the idea of becoming a hip-hop producer one day. Me and Dylan and a couple other guys wanted to do music together to make our dreams come alive. What I noticed as I worked with Dylan was that he was so much more concerned with his message than his ability to sell music. It’s a commendable quality, but that is a tough battle to fight, especially in this genre. Sometimes I wished he would just conform a little bit to a more mainstream sound and style. I wanted him to make it, and I thought that’s what it took.
But he wasn’t interested in that.
“He would rather be an outsider.”
Finally I was about to have the moment where my perceptions changed. I realized, after years of writing this stuff off as not worth my time, that I was the one in need of a critique.
I was listening to a podcast by Thabiti Anyabwile from a TGC conference a few years ago about his book, The Decline of African American Theology. In it he got to a point where he mentioned Christian hip-hop artists and he said (paraphrased), “I am so proud of these guys. They need our support. They are taking true, rich theology to a demographic that may not normally get access to it.”
When I heard Pastor Thabiti say that, I felt so ashamed of myself. It finally hit me. These guys have a gift, a very unique opportunity to evangelize and be a light in a dark world…and I can’t believe I thought that light was lame.I began to think about all the kids and teenagers growing up listening to rap music…how is it shaping their worldview? Then I began to think about my future kids. Would I want them memorizing Drake’s verses, or Andy Mineo’s? Do they need to hear the definition of “the good life” from Kanye West or Trip Lee?
What makes this even more moving was that prior to listening to that podcast, I had taken a break from all rap music for about two or three months. For a long time, I had always considered the subjects and words of rap songs to not faze me and my witness. I was convinced it didn’t affect how I thought and what I desired. But as I’ve gotten deeper into Scripture over the years and closer to Christ, I’m finding that these things have a much deeper effect on me than I thought. I had felt convicted about some of the words and ideas I was putting in my ears, and I felt it was only hindering me, not building me up. I did away with it altogether, which was a big deal for me. After hearing Thabiti’s words of encouragement, I decided it would be good for me to at least give these CHH guys a chance and hear them out.
I listened to Lecrae’s new album, Anomaly, and then found Trip Lee’s new album, Rise. I started to listen to the content of the music. It was so good. Then I began to reflect on the popular, staple rap songs I was used to, and I was disheartened at how much nonsense had turned into rap anthems for the masses. Vulgarity, sex, murder, greed. That’s really what I thought was the antonym of “lame?” I had things so backwards, and it took me listening to these CHH guys to figure that out. These were the messages the hip-hop world needs to hear:
“It’s brighter on the other side / Something’s bigger than You and I”
“Thank God my kingdom was overthrown by the Redeemer”
“Make investments with my time while I’m tryna hold out / And fame money, success be competing for my investments / But I can’t take ‘em with me when it’s time for me to exit”
“And I promise that I’mma stay by you and edify you no matter how it goes / And to the fans please promise me too / you listen to the words but leave ‘em and go and do / we do it for the Lord But still we do it for you / They ain’t never seen the gospel at work show ‘em it’s true”
“I’m just waiting for my Savior to reveal a clear vision of the only peace, be stiller / I’m filled up in Him, I’m still tucked in Him / Once was lust driven, now I must trust the Risen”
My former criticism towards CHH as a whole was completely unfounded. Not only are the messages of these rappers so theologically important and necessary, but even the music itself is great. I actually enjoy the albums not only for their words, but for their sound. They’ve worked so hard to reach so many people, and they’re making enjoyable noise unto the Lord. Bless the Lord for well-crafted music with a great message.
So, Lecrae, Trip Lee, Andy Mineo, Derek Minor, Dylan, and all you other guys in the Christian hip-hop industry, I want to apologize.
And I want to encourage you to continue working hard to get the word of Christ to the ears of lost people. You have gifts — great gifts of talent and lyricism and prose — and God has gifted you guys with these things, as you know, not to be rap moguls, and not to live a flashy lifestyle, but to be the communicators of His message. The kids out there need this theology. The secular rappers and producers you are around need this message, too. They need this alternative view of life’s purpose.
You all stand behind a mic. I am thankful you have chosen to use it to speak life into those who will hear. You are sharing the Gospel much better than most of us. You’ve poured so much energy, time, tears, and sweat into this movement. Thank you for your sacrifices.
Thank you for not giving up when people like me, people who were supposed to support you, turned to criticism instead. Thank you for not listening to me, and thank you for being in the world, but not of it.
Lecrae mentioned Tim Keller in a song, and John Piper tweeted out a link to a Trip Lee song. Seeing right theology bound with good music is a beautiful picture. Keep up the good work, endure, and finish strong. In the meantime, I’ll be ridin’ with my top down listenin’ to this Jesus music.