Last week, Rev. Michael Waters wrote a post entitled "An Odd Future for Faith In Hip-Hip." In the piece Rev. Waters asserts that "I am increasingly troubled by certain contemporary moves in hip-hop culture that embrace the occult and make a mockery of faith." I would agree with Rev. Waters that the lyrics in some hip-hop songs are vulgar, misogynistic and violent. But like Michael, I love hip-hop. Particularly, I love gangster rap. Not because I believe in the message of violence, but because as someone who grew up on the streets I can relate to the pain, anger, frustration and disappointment expressed in the lyrics.
Just like Rev. Waters, I am concerned about the approach some rappers take toward God and faith. But I'm also concerned that too often in the faith community we hold only the rapper accountable for the lyrics and not ourselves for the things we do to make the larger community feel like God or the church does not care. Like most people, rappers wrestle with understanding God, Christianity and their own personal faith.
Rap music, and even gangster rap, can tell us something about how rappers view the church, the power of faith in daily life and how the artist wrestles with the hope that God will step in and help them overcome challenges versus the desire to take life in their own hands due to the uncertainty of God showing up. It can also give us a window into how people who live in forgotten, crime-ridden neighborhoods and face numerous challenges in life relate to God and the church. Lyrics tell us something about how rappers, and the viewpoint they represent, view the church, Christians, God and society. But they also should cause us to look at ourselves and ask if there is something more we can do to reach out to the hopeless and frustrated.
In Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind" he says, "Jesus can't save you life starts when the church ends."
This line suggests that what happens in church is either not real life or is disconnected from life in the broader society. This is not only raised by artists like Jay-Z but by others outside the rap community, who question the church's relevance when it comes to dealing with "real life" or day-to-day struggles facing those in poverty.
The other underlying message here is that a person of faith may be rendered powerless against societal pressures and norms once they leave the confines of the church. The question for the church to ponder is, "How does it make spirituality relevant in a way that connects and provides answers to practical life experiences?"
In his song "Pray to the Lord," Lil Wayne says,
Yeah and every time I see the sunshine
I drop down and give thanks at least one time
Feel like I'm living on the front line
I'm feeling like every second is crunch time
I've had breakfast, will I make it to lunchtime?
And I ain't joking, so don't be looking for punch lines
Will I be the next victim of a gun crime?
I don't know the answer, that's why I brung mine.
Lil Wayne asserts a belief in God indicated by his desire to pray. His prayer is then followed by the tension of believing and waiting for God to answer his prayer while he prepares to go out into the world where he will have to find a way to overcome the dangers on the streets. This is no contradiction but a concern as to whether God will protect him or will he have to protect himself.
It's a question of what do we do while we are waiting for God to show up. For the church, rather than shun young people like Lil Wayne for their actions, we must ask ourselves what will we do to offer a counter reality to violence as an alternative, practical solutions to conflict and relevant life alternatives for young people, be they members of our churches or not.
In his song "Jesus Walks," Kanye West says,
They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus
That means guns, sex, lies, video tapes
But if I talk about God my record won't get played Huh?
Well let this take away from my spins
Which will probably take away from my ends
Then I hope this take away from my sins
And bring the day that I'm dreaming about
Next time I'm in the club everybody screaming out.
Kanye West tells another side of the story, one where he sees himself as a rapper trying to make a living working for the corporate money driven record industry forced to choose between what will sell and what he would like to create as an artist. Not unlike the choice made my many of us in our work lives choosing to make a living rather than the risk of embracing our passion and what we really want to do.
He expresses the hope that writing a song that mentions Jesus may not be commercially popular and might not get played on the radio but will somehow alleviate the burden of the wrong that he does: "Well let this take away from my spins/Which will probably take away from my ends/Then I hope this take away from my sins."
Rap music and rappers are responsible for the language they use and the actions they provoke other young people to take because of them. But the same can be said for the depictions of violence, greed and misogyny depicted on television and in general how we treat one another every day.
If the church chooses to hold rappers accountable for their words and actions, then the church must also listen to the stories conveyed by rap artists and understand there is a need for them to play a constructive role in the lives of people who live in poverty and in strife. A better approach to addressing the issues we are concerned about in rap lyrics is listening to what they are trying to tell us about life, learning about what young people are dealing with and then creating positive, practical alternative life choices for them without being judgmental, thus enabling these young men and women to live up to their true potential.