Hype, Hope, and Hip Hop
“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.
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.