Theology Music The Arts

Hype, Hope, and Hip Hop

Taelor Gray

“Chance the Rapper’s ‘Coloring Book’ Is a Gospel Rap Masterpiece” reads the headline for a recent article from Rolling Stone Magazine. Whether knowingly or unknowingly, Rolling Stone is sprinkling complexities atop a decades-old discussion in the Christian community. The war over genre definition amongst Christians who rap has spawned treasures and trolls alike. Everything from business ethics to biblical integrity is interwoven into debates surrounding the term “gospel rapper.”

Some solve these problems with acronyms and proudly wear the CHH (Christian Hip Hop) label as a means of branding the exclusivity of their art. Others prefer to swim in more ambiguous waters, seeking to broaden their audiences and avoid excluding curious onlookers. The rest are either indifferent to labels or ignoring the discussion altogether.

Defining “Gospel”
I’ll leave those debates for other forums. Let’s deal with “..a Gospel Rap Masterpiece.” My first reaction to such a headline is to ask: What exactly does that mean? Are we talking sonically—referring to production, mixing, and sequencing? Are we talking about lyrical content and rapping ability? Are we talking combining of all those elements with an “inspirational vibe?” Furthermore, it could be helpful to ask—what is your definition of “gospel?”

In mainstream music circles, “gospel” is typically used as an industry term. The given song or album most likely will carry an uplifting message, mention God or make an allusion to Him, and/or invite a religious experience. Much of the music is historically aligned with African American spiritual expression, by which other genres like soul and blues intermingle their styles. For genre purposes, there is no analysis of theological verity or barometer for biblical soundness. What “gospel” is to popular culture tends to rely on aesthetics and tradition.

I would contend that ever since Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks” became a mainstream success, open “Christian” expression in hip hop has steadily increased. Bible verses became more readily quoted, spiritual conviction often suggested, similes and metaphors reference Christ, and other usages have become more common. The Christian faith is bordering on trending topic while some of the most popular artists like Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West are actually labeled “Christian rappers” who make “gospel” albums.

Language and Popularity
What does this mean for the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ? For the purposes of this topic, I think it’s helpful to draw a distinction between a Christian simply listening to an artist for aesthetic enjoyment versus a Christian listening to an artist for spiritual edification. I believe it is possible to enjoy an artist’s lyrical execution, skillful storytelling, and musicality without affirming said artist as a Christian. Unfortunately, these distinctions are not so easily recognized.

Believers seem to cling to a sense of validation when we see pop culture celebrate someone or something as “Christian” or “gospel.” It’s possible we crave a positive association with the crowd-favorite celebrity, which can cause us to entertain the idea that an industry term identifies an actual family member in the household of faith. When the artist’s language is graphic or the content is questionable, we make excuses for the individual under the guise of grace. We may even momentarily redefine (or abandon) our biblical convictions of holiness and sanctification to provide a softer landing for those “still working out their salvation.” It’s important to note that these caveats often correlate with the artist’s popularity.

Most CHH artists avoid explicit language and graphic content in their music. Although many Christians use explicit language on a regular basis, there is actually a concerted effort to keep Christian music “clean.” However, while soccer-mom-friendly artists disseminate content akin to moral puff pieces, many secretly struggle with their own faith and application. This type of hypocrisy is discouraging.

This being said, being blatantly honest doesn’t always mean you need a parental advisory tag. The application is all over the place, with artists either making individual conscience decisions or simply doing what they want regardless of counterarguments. All this is happening while Kanye West openly tweets about his “gospel album.” Ironically, while popular Christian rappers try to avoid being categorized with the “gospel” genre, some of the biggest hip hop artists are now wearing it with a sense of pride.

I believe the Church’s engagement with the arts is at a crossroads: between being missional and being relevant. I fear the relevance we seek is causing us to slowly lose our beautiful distinction as the true, bloodstained Bride of Christ. Mainstream categories should never be mistaken as the authority on what the gospel truly is. The Holy Spirit’s transforming work doesn’t leave us empty of artistic contributions—they just may never receive the world’s validation. The fullest, most compelling testimonies of God’s goodness belong to the blood-bought saints of the living God. There is a day coming where we’ll stare into His fiery eyes, anticipating His affirmation as we are welcomed into the joy of the Lord. With this in mind, let us invite the world around us to hear a gospel turned loose from genre definitions, as we pray for those who still seem to be seeking.

15 thoughts on “Hype, Hope, and Hip Hop

  1. Jayne

    Thanks, it’s very informative

  2. Cortez

    This is really useful, thanks.

  3. Hai

    It works quite well for me

  4. Colby

    Thanks, it’s very informative

  5. Taelor Gray

    Thanks for the encouragement bro!

  6. Taelor Gray

    Thats love bro!

  7. Taelor Gray

    Praise God bro, thanks for reading!

  8. Taelor Gray

    Hello Andrew, thanks for reading.

    I think the types of conversations you’re looking to initiate start with a lot of pointed questions. Defining terms many times begins with understanding where everyone is on a given subject. If these youth identify with Kanye and Chance’s expression of faith, I would ask them what specifically they think Kanye and Chance are communicating about Christianity. I’d follow that up with some investigation of whether or not these conclusions have Biblical basis. I think there are ideas about what a Christian believes and practice that should be expressly weighed against what scripture says. Also, its good to discuss what they appreciate about the music itself regardless of whether there is an explicitly “Christian” reason for it.

    Hopefully these are at least helpful springboards into some discussions about how to appreciate music with a Biblical worldview. Thanks!

  9. Darren Swanson

    One of the most helpful reads I’ve read in a very long time about this trend! Super blessed by this read. Keep it up. God bless 😀

  10. Andrew Marsteller

    Taelor, great article and some helpful distinctions on using the term “gospel” in music. I have more of a question than a comment. As a youth pastor of an urban area I have a lot of students who identify with and prefer artists such as Kanye and Chance over artists identified as Christian. How would you recommend teaching younger generations to make the distinctions that you are recommending while still teaching them to appreciate art?

  11. Vincent Porter

    Great read!!!

  12. Karl Nova

    Yeah I totally agree. I think people need to know there’s a difference between gospel as a musical genre and THE gospel of Christ. I think when mainstream music publications are talking about gospel in the context of music they mean the genre (that distinctive uplifting gospel musicsound, choirs, organs, the Hammond, those chords etc etc)

  13. Taelor Gray

    Thanks for responding bro. Solid thoughts, I definitely think more can be said about gospel music influence.

    I can say that in my experience as an artist, my influences were mostly gospel music artists because thats all we listened to growing up. In the article, I was mainly trying to draw a distinction between what the gospel is genre-wise and what gospel-driven content sounds like. Many people have contributed to gospel music over decades, and I know I haven’t even cracked the surface of its history. More for later I hope haha

    To be clear, I don’t know if Chance is born again, but I definitely heard some familiar phrases I’ve heard in traditional gospel music. I agree, he and Kanye don’t have to be squeaky clean, but I was just making the point that it doesn’t make them more/less honest.

  14. Karl Nova

    The mainstream definition of gospel musically speaking is mainly a musical definition. Traditional gospel music has a distinctive sound and therefore a musical identity.

    Chance the rapper tapped into that sound and makes a lot of reference to faith in God on “Coloring book” in fact on “how great” and “finish line/drown” you can say the sound and faith come together explicitly

    This definition of gospel sound didn’t come from the mainstream it came as far back as Thomas Dorsey, through mahalia Jackson all the way to kirk Franklin who carried on that sonical tradition, chh rappers hardly ever tap into that sound (I heard bb jay aka the Christian biggie smalls do it on “word iz bond” though back in the day)

    Mainstream guys like Kanye and chance can do this and get away with it because they are not defined as Christian/gospel rappers, they weren’t introduced to the world as such and aren’t limited to a Christian/gospel market. They also don’t have expectations of them being squeaky clean and evangelical thrust on them

  15. David Jackson

    Great post Taelor! “I fear the relevance we seek is causing us to slowly lose our beautiful distinction as the true, bloodstained Bride of Christ.” May God give us wisdom and clarity in our conversations about this issue. Your article helps bring that much needed clarity!

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