Targeted Focus: How a difference in missional views could affect Christian Hip Hop

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I’m not going to lie. Since Gravity came out I’ve listened to it non-stop. So much so, it has affected my desire to write about other projects I wanted to review. In the midst of the fun I saw an “Open Letter to XXL” blog post by The Ambassador that sparked my attention. I would encourage you to read it all and take it in.

With that being said, I don’t agree with everything Ambassador says there but this will not be a rebuttal piece to his blog post. The real issue on the table is not the age-old “Christian Rapper vs. A rapper who is Christian” debate. It is now about how you reach your target for Christ?

I’ve said in some of my older articles. I wouldn’t give a Cross Movement, FLAME, pre-Overdose Lecrae album to an unsaved or newly converted person to listen to. Not because I have theological disagreements with the content of the albums, but it comes down to the basic fact that those projects didn’t have a laser focus on non-church or “recently saved” people.

Pure and simple, the music was for churchgoers and people who are at least familiar with the lingo. When terms like “regenerated,” “salvation,” and “foreknew” are thrown around, it has never been in any street conversation I’ve had. Those are SAT words – the specific context which would fall under church jargon. Ask someone on the street what they think of the word “redemption” they will most likely associate it with a coupon.

The intellectual Christian content in those albums surpassed the intellect of the average, low-income-haven’t-gone-to-college-let-alone-grad-school-mindset of the secular rap target audience. A Christian hip hop (CHH) artist is trying to entertain, enlighten, teach biblical concepts, and bring them to a decision about Jesus in one album. It has not worked on a large scale for long time for reaching the lost. That formula has worked for church settings to a greater degree.

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The problem, as it stands now, is that CHH is going two distinct ways. One camp is not focusing on the church platform and the youth group support, and is going straight for the secular audience. The second camp is focusing on a more biblical hermeneutic approach. The third camp, that was present but now is shrinking, are the ones that want to have fun and talk about God in a casual format.

There are reasons the culture is making these adjustments. The first is the economy. CHH has more artists than it can support. Most artists I talk to make moderate money on their album sales. Some artists have major economic losses for their investment. Sound business planning is not ungodly, but some people think that money is not an issue because God is involved. As such, they may craft their music and message toward the crowd that puts food on their tables.

The second issue is that in the last few years, the fan base has appeared to discourage (rather than encourage) diversity in various missionary formats. I can recall several instances when an artist talked about going out and focusing on the non-saved only to receive many angry comments here on DaSouth.com. But I’ve seen blind back-patting when an artist comes out and tries to do a mini-Bible study to music on their album despite the quality of the work. Through positive or negative reinforcement, we, the community, have pushed the artists into these two distinct paths.

The current trend is needed for the actual intellectual and spiritual growth of CHH. Five to ten years ago you would hardly ever hear a CHH artist talk about a sensitive issue like rape in his music, let alone put it in 16 bars. Could a song like Propaganda’s “ I Ain’t Got An Answer” be put out 10 years ago?

The answer is a capital “N” and capital “O.” When it has come to social issues and really talking about them in a serious manner, Christian Hip Hop has not done a good job. I can say that honestly, having listened to the genre since the early 90’s. CHH talks about poverty, the trap, drugs, prostitution, premarital sex, and gang violence with ease, but it is just parroting the same topics that are glorified in Secular Hip Hop.

Is the Bible mute on immigration, or human trafficking, terrorism, and corrupt government? No. Scripture addresses all of those things! But the small-minded view of some artists and the fan base, makes their theological outlook on the Bible seem as narrow as a piece of straw. Again, we find CHH mirroring the topics of mainline denominational-ism. Why is that? Because they are the group that pays the bills. So to get ahead, get exposure, and to just survive as a CHH artist, people have played to that audience’s preference for music about explicit spiritual matters.

If we are going to grow spiritually as a genre we have to push church norms and not blindly pander to the Christian political machine. We will fail to engage this generation and the next generation if we keep falling into the same mud holes of the past. It has been past time to try something new.

Paul and Peter give us a good basic model to work from within CHH. Paul traveled. Paul received lots of help from Antioch and other places to help him spread the gospel. Peter stayed at home. Peter organized and created institutional structures that still are used today in many churches.

Both were called by God unto his glory. Both had different things that they had to do. But they both are in and working for the body of Christ.

Two different methods with the same goal. The gravity (pun intended) of the situation in Christian Hip Hop is that we now have to accept that not all the music is going to be targeted to us – the Christian majority. I think that is for the best.

We talk about meat and milk all day but we overlook that we want someone to feed us instead of eating on our own power. We want our artists to do all the heavy lifting and that is far from healthy.

T-Bone and Gospel Gangstas showed us that spiritual warfare is violent. Ambassador showed us that the genre can go deep theologically. KJ-52 gave us a fun sound and much needed ethnic diversity. Bizzle has given us a format for direct rebuttal against secular arguments. Mark J brings us a proper way to present a social platform.

I said all of that to say this: If Lecrae, Derek Minor, Trip Lee, High Society or any other artist can show us, as a community, how to engage the secular scene in a godly way, why are we afraid of that happening? Why are we afraid of that working? Why isn’t prayer for success our first response?

I’ll wrap it up with this. When I went into seminary I had two professors who challenged me in different ways. One professor challenged me in my interpretation of the Bible. The second professor challenged me on the quality of my analysis and my research. One showed me that my theology was more Hellenistic then classically Christian. The other showed me that my depth of scholarship was mildly shallow at best. Both pushed me to be a better theologian.

The lesson they taught me is clear. When it comes to Christian thinking and progress, it is impossible to do quality work that is respected without refinement and pressure. That is what we are going through right now and we are feeling its weight.

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Sketch the Journalist is a freelance hip-hop writer living in the thriving country metropolis of Cut-N-Shoot, Texas. Down with gospel rap since Stephen Wiley’s “Bible Break” in 1986, he has chewed, reviewed, and interviewed most of Christian hip-hop’s major players. Sketch holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism from Sam Houston State University and was once an intern at the New York Times Houston Bureau.