AN OPEN LETTER
In Response To: XXL’s “New God Flow:
Religious MCs Shed Title of ‘Christian Rappers’
to Attract Mainstream Fans”
From: The Ambassador
September 19, 2012
A Preface for my Christ Family
Recently, I had the chance to read an article in XXL Magazine, which had the potential to excite me because it focused on Christian rap, but in the end somewhat disappointed and even grieved me. Internally, I was restless until finally deeming it necessary to respond for the sake of the glory of Christ, the benefit of His people, and the benefit of the mission to reach hip hop with the gospel. This is in no way meant to be adversarial or contentious, even though it may be kind of controversial. In light of my own flaws and inadequacies, and the tender nature of the subject matter, I have been hesitant to publicize my thoughts, but at the end of the day I concluded that this is what I do. Using hip hop artistry as a ministry, I proclaim the gospel, explain the gospel, and contend for the gospel even at my own peril. I confess, like pastor John Piper, “Some controversy is crucial for the sake of life giving truth. Running from it is a sign of cowardice. But enjoying it is usually a sign of pride.” He goes on to say, “Humility loves Christ exultation more than Christ-defending confrontation…” (Piper, Contending for Our All). I say, “yes and amen!” So I am not trying to “win” an argument, but rather seize a teachable moment. Leveraging this moment at this time makes good sense, especially since the issue at hand has a lot of buzz among “fans” of hip hop and Christian hip hop.
I intentionally wanted this dialogue to play out publicly because I see and sense a shift happening among those who are long time participants and supporters of what is known as Christian rap. I see the impact of some questionable thinking and acting that is affecting so many people that similar to Paul in Galatians 2, I find it beneficial to publicly draw attention to some of these matters.
My Objective/My Hope
My hope is that this stimulates thought, maybe sparks dialogue, and by grace provides a mature voice among a people group so young and impressionable. You may or may not know that I (The Ambassador, formerly of The Cross Movement) have given a considerable amount of my adult life to what I have seen as a missionary opportunity among the hip hop generation. As an ambassador of the Lord Jesus Christ and a participant of the Christian rap community, I take a special interest in matters that relate to both Christ and hip hop. I rejoice when the hip hop community does well, and hurt when we don’t. I in no way want to cause drama, but the silence, if not the absence of leadership, is making me feel compelled to say something. I am not privy to any major voice of influence speaking to us today, though I know I am not the only one. The world’s recent intrigue with Christian rap must be met by godly, biblically literate servants who will rightly inform them of the mind of Christ and His ways. These times call for people who both know the Scriptures and the culture enough to address issues that pertain to it. I am no one in particular, but I have joined with many others who have long been laboring and praying that the “world” would become familiar with God’s “urban house of representatives.” If hip hop needed a witness of Christ, we determined that by grace we would avail ourselves. Now, there seems to be an unprecedented level of awareness of Christians who use hip hop in one way or another, so it seems as though God is answering the prayers. Every time I look up, some mention of either a Christian who does hip hop, the genre of Christian hip hop itself, or a pastor who engages hip hop-related issues is in the “headlines” of the secular community. Sadly, when I listen to their commentary of us, I find a few things that just don’t sit well with me. I’ll highlight a few statements from the XXL article and respond to them.
(XXL) “Christian rap just can’t win.”
This is how the article starts and what an opening line! It hit me in the gut like a body shot from Mayweather, because XXL expresses the sentiments of almost all secular hip hop analysts and loyalists, and far too many Christians as well. Straight-up, no chaser; they get down to brass tacks—Christian hip hop is not a “winner.” Whatever you or I may have thought about it, at least from XXL’s perspective, (and I’m sure they represent the perspective of many others) Christian hip hop has been weighed in the balance, been found wanting, and has been de-legitimized. Throughout the article several critiques are provided to substantiate this premise, but, they happily report, there is a small group of people who are wising up to this fact and doing what it takes to start “winning.” These are producers and rap artists who are distancing themselves from the whole “Christian hip hop thing,” and becoming the new face of a “new God flow.”
It becomes very apparent from the article that “winning” is simply determined by whether or not the mainstream hip hop world embraces you. The logic is straight forward:
- There is a way to be accepted by the secular mainstream world of hip hop producers, websites, and rap fans, and if you achieve that, you “win.”
- There is a way to get shunned and stay relatively unrecognized to the mainstream world and this would mean you haven’t “won.”
By XXL’s standard, Christian rap is stigmatized by its “preachiness, heavy handedness, and religious upfrontness,” and consequently has ensured its mainstream failure. However, XXL also seems to believe that with the right adjustments, rappers who abandon that sinking ship may find the “win” that they are truly looking for.
While I’m not certain how much history they have surveyed, what collection of artists they have considered, or what efforts they have evaluated to arrive at this judgment, I can see why they feel pretty confident in their conclusion. As the article reports, and a number of interviews and online discussions confirm, there has been an increase in the recent “shedding” of Christian labels by many artists. This probably gives XXL the comfort that they are not far off in their assessment. Artists who formerly held the banner of not only a personal Christian faith, but also explicit Christ-centered presentation are abandoning that “brand” like it’s the plague. After reading this article, I thought to myself, “Why wouldn’t the secular hip hop community assume that ‘Christian rap’ can’t win when so many in the Christian hip hop community seem to agree?” XXL goes on to praise a small contingent of what they call “religious MC’s” who they report have adopted a new approach (though it’s really very old), opting to create art that’s much milder and “just dope.” While mainstream hip hop seems to claim to have no problem with rappers believing in God, they do seem to perceive Christian rap as “over-doing-it!” Since the mainstream has rejected that fanaticism, they recommend that truly talented artists and producers who want to reach as far as they possibly can, wisely avoid, or get out from under the box of corny Christian rap if and when they can.
The views of XXL reflect the views of many, and as I read this article I wondered if they had been informed and affirmed by Christian hip hop “insiders” who share a similar view. This article is all about what XXL, and I believe what many Christians, see as the “wisdom” and benefits of “shedding” the Christian label, and “refusing to do Christian rap music.” To my knowledge there has been no public tweaking or rebuttal of this article by any of the artists, and that saddens me some, but I also know how the media can edit things in and out, and obscure the truth. However, I also have been a part of enough conversations and debates to know that this is rapidly becoming the popular view of Christians in hip hop. This debate about the Christian rap label and the pros and cons of Christ-centered content has taken place for well over a decade, and we have always been divided on it. The surprise to me is that in this XXL article, some of Christian hip hop’s most notable figures are being reported and even praised for dropping the very thing that they have actually been instrumental in putting on the map. Even though some are shifting away from it now, their very presence in this article, and some of their notable achievements, indicate that Christian rap does have some commendable qualities and admirable participants. Christian rap may not “win” in the sense of overall mainstream acceptance, but it certainly has made enough noise to catch the attention of the mainstream. Furthermore, it has not been Christians doing merely “positive” music, or merely “good” music that has gotten the attention of the music industry, but rather Christians who have gained a serious following because of their radically passionate commitment to Christ. Up until now, the “winning formula” has been a combination of artistic skill, talking about “real issues,” and a strong, explicit, passionate representation of Jesus and His gospel. XXL has announced that a change has come. I guess the question is, “is that change a good thing or not?”
(XXL) “Mainstream hip hop fans shun the genre for trying to hammer God through their ears.”
Ok…now the substance of the indictment begins to surface. Mainstream hip hop fans are said to shun the whole Christian hip hop genre because mainstream fans don’t like God being “hammered through their ears.” I’m not even sure who exactly they would say is guilty of this, but I find that this is often the claim when Jesus is boldly presented and offered to the public. Of course, I’m sure there are some cases of extremists out there, but Christian hip hop’s most high-profile and most sterling examples would not be guilty of “hammering God through people’s ears,” though that may be the perception. Interestingly, hip hop in general does hammer content through people’s ears all the time. The radio plays the same songs over and over again—hammering us with redundant themes. Instead of “God,” however, it just happens to be sex, money, ego, swag, objectification of women, and many other things. So the “hammering” is not the real problem, but I would say that it’s the content. Mainstream hip hop is turned off from Christian hip hop most fundamentally because the mainstream is turned off by the Christian God. Kanye West was right about this in Jesus Walks—“you say I can rap about anything except for Jesus.” It was true then, and it is true now. When Jesus is being glorified, and not just mentioned; boasted in, and not just discussed; emphasized, and not just alluded to, the mainstream is turned off. Couple this reality with the very real “baggage” of the Christian hip hop movement and it becomes easy to see why the mainstream is turned off.
While we can do things to make matters worse, even the best Christian with the most skill, nicest demeanor, most considerate tone, and most diplomatic approach will meet the same outcome that the perfect Christ himself met—rejection. This ought to not really be surprising because the Bible prepares people for this kind of reaction. Those who belong to Jesus Christ have been told that the world will not embrace you but rather shun you, simply because He chose you (Jn 15:18-19).
Let Me Testify! (A Little Christian Hip Hop History)
For those who don’t know much about the history of Christian hip hop let me testify quickly. Many recognize the group Cross Movement as one of the pioneers of Christian hip hop even though there were many groups that preceded us (hats off to them). When initially forming the group, passages like John 15:18-21, and a host of others, plus personal experiences, caused us to brace for the strong potential that we would have to accept a place on the margins of mainstream hip hop culture until God would choose to change that reality. We also knew that God, in His sovereignty, may not change it, and possibly we could always exist on the periphery of the mainstream. In those days, Christianity was not viewed favorably in hip hop, and it became clear that the mainstream would never let hip hoppers make Jesus Christ and things related to Him the centerpiece of their content or the subject of their anthems. Contrary to the claims, most Christian rappers don’t say “Jesus” in every line, and do rap about generic issues and topics that the average person can relate to. But as soon as Christ comes into the picture as more than just a passing reference, they “get the boot” by the culture. I remember us trying to be considered “just rappers” without the “Christian” label, but when our rhymes were evaluated, people would classify us as something different than “just rappers.” We stopped fighting it. The life changing good news about who He is and what He’s done on the cross is foolishness to some, a stumbling block to others, and just plain irritating and irrelevant to most—hip hop included. So, we proceeded with the understanding that the mainstream would probably never fully accept us because even when we rapped about “regular stuff,” we would do it from Christ’s perspective. Well, eventually this commitment to stay the course strengthened an already existing, but small genre. There are now rappers, dancers, Internet sites, radio show hosts, and fashion designers, etc., who do it for Jesus Christ’s glory above all else. None of us want to be marginalized by the mainstream, but that’s what often happens. We accept the fact that this is what can happen to those who want to honor Christ in more than just a cliché way. Each one will have to decide how to deal with this reality. XXL suggests that the way to do it is to get on board with those who get rid of the labels and just rap.
(XXL)…But times are changing. Heavyweight producer Boi-1da [pronounced “Boy-Wonda”] (Drake, Eminem, Nas), former Clipse member Malice—reborn as No Malice—and a host of upstarts including Lecrae, Trip Lee, Bizzle and Thi’sl are among those helping to give Christian rap a new baptism by fire. That’s because they refuse to be labeled as “Christian rappers” doing “Christian rap.” Instead, they insist they’re Christians trying to make dope rap music, which may or may not include biblical messages.”
I’ve been saying this for years, and I continue to say this emphatically—if a person wants to be just a “regular rapper” THEY ARE PERFECTLY FREE TO DO THIS! THIS IS NOT A SIN! The label “Christian rapper” is the least of the issues—though I believe there is some importance to it. My concern is more about what XXL reports as “the host of upstarts” doing something new and better for Christian rap by “refusing to be labeled as Christian rappers doing Christian rap.” This seems like an attempt to now separate these artists from the community that gave birth to them without explanation or qualification. As I already mentioned, at least a few of the people they are referring to in this article have made their most noteworthy mark by becoming icons of the Christian rap era. If mainstream hip hop is ready to remove the label, and still allow Christians to be as Christ-centered as they once were, then by all means remove the label. However, judging from the rest of this article, I don’t think that is the case. The whole reason Christian rap exists is to provide a context where the most unashamed proclamation of Christ is welcomed and not quenched.
It’s not new for Christians to seek to be considered unlabeled people who provide unlabeled services, in hopes that the “world” would recognize the “dopeness” of their natural abilities. It’s also not new to witness artists go from Christ-centered, Christ-exalting “art,” to a more general and sometimes ambiguous form of presentation. Everyone knows that advocating Jesus and His recipes for life and godliness, will not “work” based on the way the world defines “work.” I wish the secular hip hop world would just acknowledge the truth, especially in regard to the quality of both “Christian rappers,” and “rappers that happen to be Christians.” There are good and bad versions of both. XXL seems to only have commendation for the person who believes in Christ, but not the one who also centers on Him. Christian “believing” is ok…just not Christian “doing.” God in the heart is ok…God spilling out of the heart is not as welcomed. Perhaps it goes outside the intention of the article, but XXL doesn’t communicate even the possibility that Christian rap has been, or can be done well. It has been done skillfully, tactfully, professionally, and relevantly, all while still remaining to be saturated with Christ. It’s true that it will probably never be a mainstream favorite, but it could receive more honorable mention. The only positive thing that XXL did have to say about Christian rap was that it now has a “fighter’s chance” because of the new trend of leaving it, or in their words “shedding” it. XXL goes on to further critique Christian hip hop…
(XXL) “In the past, Christian rappers were either too didactic, too distant from the culture or too corny… And in hip hop, a genre that rewards braggadocio, outlaw behavior and more, heavy handed topics weren’t welcome.”
This opinion of Christian hip hop should go un-criticized because XXL is entitled to their point of view, however isn’t it just ironic that hip hop rewards “bragging” and “outlaw behavior,” while shunning Christian rap for its “heavy handedness?” The truth is that mainstream hip hop has been the hub of a ton of vices that indeed have colored the entire genre and caused some people to think only negative thoughts about it. The broader “secular” society, not to mention the religious community, has often had to distance itself, and even shun secular hip hop. Hip hop’s defense regarding this has historically been, “Not all of us are the same,” or “What about the positive examples?” In the XXL article Christian rap is not given that same courtesy. Not all are “too didactic, distant, or corny.” Why can hip hop welcome profanity, immorality, violence, materialism, etc., and not welcome a “sub-genre” because it’s too didactic, or supposedly too distant from the culture? Sorry to “beat a dead horse” but again I think the truth is obvious—there is a double standard here. The mainstream can detect a Christian who is “in but not of” the culture. When the Christian in hip hop simply talks about acceptable topics, avoids anything perceived to be too offensive, walks in step with the styles and trends, steps up their swag, and displays artistic talent above everything else, he/she is acceptable to the mainstream. This kind of Christian is exactly like everyone else and therefore able to be embraced like everyone else. This confirms what Jesus said, “…if you were of the world, the world would love you as its own…” (Jn 15:19).
The Christian Rap Label—“To Be or Not to Be?”
While it is clear that the Christian rap label is a liability in the mainstream, Christians now have to decide what they will do with it. Do we keep it because it has become so embraced by so many, or do we shed it because it limits our mainstream acceptance? We should note that the Christian rap label is not inherently spiritual, and its absence is not inherently compromising. While according to this article, the label is a stumbling block to mainstream acceptance, I personally would caution against believing that “shedding the label” will ultimately be sufficient for the mainstream. The label of “Christian rap” can disappear, but if too much of the presence of Christ and His gospel remains, the mainstream will still shun you. So actually, more than the label has to go, but also the emphasis on Jesus, His glory, and His mindset has to go as well. We can be as relevant and creative as we want, but if our ideas and allegiance can be traced to Christ, we will ultimately be seen as a Christian who’s rapping “Christian stuff.” Even if they don’t label you as a “Christian rapper,” they will see you as something different. Everyone would like to believe that they will be the exception, and perhaps someone will. But overall, the mainstream will not embrace too much Jesus.
Those of us who accepted the label have traditionally said that the label has merely served to forewarn people that Jesus and things related to Him would be showing up in a way that is not “normal” or even welcomed by the mainstream. The label was more of a description at first that explained why Jesus was getting so much shine in our life and rhymes, and why appeals were being made on His behalf. The producer Boi-1da rightly noted that Jeezy’s rap is not called “drug dealer rap,” and Lupe’s rap is not called “smart rap.” However, most people do describe them that way. It’s not a genre, but it is a primary description of their raps because the description fits. The same is true with Christian rap even though it does also have an official genre. None of us want to be confined by it, but most of us know we can’t escape being defined by it because “it is what it is.” There really is a movement that is growing like wild fire. There is a community of rappers and rap enthusiasts that like to hear more than just lyrical capability, but want to hear the word concerning Christ through the medium of the music, fashion, and more. Whoever has an ear to hear, let them hear. The mainstream does not have to accept it, but we wish they would.
(XXL) “The Toronto hitmaker believes talent stands out above everything, and that the new class of Christian-tinged hip hoppers has mastered the balancing act between cool and compassionate.”
XXL goes on to describe what they call “the new class of Christian-tinged hip hoppers.” For the mainstream, this is the acceptable Christian—the “Christian-tinged” one. The word tinge means “imparting a trace or slight degree of some color.” In other words, the mainstream will only accept those who display a “hint of Christianity,” those “slightly colored” by their faith. They will not allow “fanatics” or people who are as passionate for Christ as Wiz Khalifa is for weed. They will not allow a person to be as redundant with biblical truths as Jay Z is about money. You cannot glorify spiritual wealth like Kanye does material wealth, and you can’t be as focused on God’s love as Young Money is on lust. Under normal circumstances, a truce has to be made with the mainstream— keep God and God-related things to a minimum and we will not shun you. We will even give you magazine space, website exposure, and paint you in a favorable light to our constituents. Supporting this idea is the following statement made by producer Boi-1da…
(XXL) “Now rappers are staying up with the times and not trying to force God down [fans] throats. And that’s for the better…”
I believe that’s the main issue right there. Jesus is too polarizing a figure, and He either draws you near or pushes you away. We’ve already commented on how by their own standard, secular rap shoves a ton of data “down everyone’s throats.” Admittedly, the “shoving” is done cleverly, stylishly, and many times with lyrical brilliance. People are free to either take it or leave it. Are Christian rappers really forcing God down anyone’s throat? Or, or are they simply making much of Christ and inviting “fans” to join them in experiencing the joy and delight of who He is and what He’s done. That’s what any rapper “worth their salt” does—try to bring the crowd in. People want the life of the rapper if the rapper paints a compelling picture of a life worth having. People wear the clothes of the rapper if the rapper wears the gear in a compelling fashion. Christian rappers are not doing anything different; they’re just focusing on different things, boasting in different things, and seeking to rally people around different things. To be reduced to merely talking about our lives, which every rapper does, talking about our neighborhoods, and giving a few moral tips on how to live a little better, is to shift from the noble work of ministry to the normal work of industry. That’s not “wrong,” it’s just a downgrade, in my opinion. I do recognize that this is what has to be done to please the masses and not get shunned. I’m reminded of what Paul said, “…am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or, am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (Gal 1:10) Even Paul knew you can’t do both even if you wanted to. (Ouch…this is too convicting for me and I’m writing it!)
Conclusion… Encouragement to the Believers
Here is where I get “preachy!” This is in no way intended to dis XXL. They are merely reporting on what they have seen and heard from some of their observations and sources. This is written more toward the generation of hip hoppers and hip hop consumers who may have an interest in Christ and/or Christian rap. I would hate to see you shrink back from the one who called you, or adopt the views of people who do not have the mind of Christ. I pray you will not cherish the world’s embrace and exaltation to the point where theology ceases to inform the strategies you either personally use, or applaud. Christians have always tried to “reach more people,” and that is a good thing. But the Scriptures have given us the parameters for that mission. The Lord has a people; let us be His witnesses, who seize every available platform to present this world the good news that they may not readily see as such unless the Spirit of God opens their eyes. In the Bible, Israel praised height, strength, and wealth, and the Gentiles praised status, wisdom, and skill. Hip hop praises these, and similar things, but God has always chosen to bring those things to nothing so that people would not rest their confidence in anything other than Christ. The story of Christian rap is amazing in and of itself. God has been good to us. Truly, God can take the “foolish and weak things” and do extraordinary things. As Christian rap has carried that good news into the world, countless numbers of people have been transferred from darkness to the kingdom of the beloved Son (told you I was getting preachy). Even some of the top, more honored rappers (who used to be known as Christian rappers), are in large part, who they are today because of God’s grace and great work among Christian rap. Stand firm people, and let’s take back the narrative. Let’s give XXL something new to write about. To God be the Glory.
“And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)
Your comments are welcome below!
(Part 1) God Doesn’t Want Them: Remember Jonah?
How Does Jonah Apply to Hip-Hop?
The Worst Part
“Set an example for the believers in speech, conduct, faith, love, and purity” (1 Tim. 4:12).
I quickly want to address 2 things because they are rapidly becoming FAQ’s:
- Why Are Christians Defending Hip hop?
- Christian “Rap” vs. Christian “hip hop”
- To persuade those of you who aren’t hardened in your bias to believe that there are many Christians who are apart of the hip hop people group but are more interested in the advancement of the gospel of Jesus Christ than hip hop itself.
- To encourage the Church not to shrink back from embracing Christian ambassadors of Jesus Christ who properly submit their hip hop-ness to the lordship of Jesus.
- To To explain why “Christian hip hop” is something that is being made too big a deal of.
- To encourage greater thought and research among those Christians who have good intentions, but have never biblically worked through the complex issue of the Christian and hip hop.
Q: “WHY ARE CHRISTIANS DEFENDING HIP HOP?”
It’s so villainous, it’s so sinful; it’s got to be demonic! Why are you Christians defending hip hop? Lately I keep hearing this question and I look in all directions as if to say, “who me?” I’m not defending hip hop! Don’t get it twisted, I know that a lot of people are defending hip hop, but I’m not apart of the camp that feels that need. However, for almost 14 years I have been on a mission to reach the hip hop people group with the gospel as an indigenous missionary to the culture. Every so often I am forced to provide a biblical defense for my claim to be called to reach hip hop culture, and more specifically to reach it indigenously (as a native to it). This current defense would not even be necessary if there had not been a recent revival of anti-Christian hip hop sentiment. This sentiment is from of old, and it is an attempt to make the church detest the hip hop culture to the point where the church ceases to be a missionary to it, and ceases to be a haven for those Christians who consider themselves to be apart of the Christian hip hop community. Let’s dive in.
LET’S GO BACK…
Recently it seems as though hip hop has become the new hot topic in the church. Pastors are buying DVD’s and having their whole congregations (not just the youth group) look at it. They are having discussions and forums about hip hop and often the conclusion is “away with hip hop—away with Christian hip hop!” Long before Craig Lewis’ rise to church-fame many Christians like myself were boldly and radically living out the glorious Christian faith with many of the non-sinful aspects of hip hop still visible. There were talks of us looking like the world, but as our Christ-like character shined it became difficult for our critics to deny the fact that our primary allegiance was to Christ. Several of our critics became our allies as they became convinced that we were not advocates of the sins within hip hop, only advocates of Christ being lord of the non-sinful elements of hip hop. Daily we lived out the commands of Christ in the sight of a world that was growing in regards to its hip hop orientation. During that time, the church hailed us as beautiful models of what it meant to be in but not of the culture. It was as though we had become a display of Christ-likeness with a hip hop twist.
One thing had become apparent, we shared a common faith with Christians who had no hip hop connection, and we shared certain aspects of a common culture with those who had a deep hip hop connection. This delicate balance is learned over time and through much biblical searching. When the Christian faith is properly integrated with any culture, a beautiful and biblical combination is there present. The fact that our anchoring faith could be lived out through our indigenous culture was news that we had hoped and prayed for. We had no desire to go off to the side and “do our little hip hop thing,” we wanted to be accepted as apart of the nucleus of the church by our elders and leaders in the faith. We expected to run into some immature people in Christ who would not be able to get beyond our exterior because we see so much of this in the bible. Biblically speaking, one of the marks of spiritual immaturity is a faulty value system. The Corinthians measured value and status the same way their surrounding culture did, so like the culture and unlike God, they despised small and weak things. In our present day, I believe something similar is happening. God sees the Christian in hip hop one way, and the church sees us the opposite way. The church can sometimes tend to esteem the appearance of godliness more than godliness itself. When this happens some people judge our Christianity by our appearance, while others will evaluate us on the bases of our faith, conduct, speech and character.
Until recently the Christian hip hopper was enjoying a time of harmony within the church. A glorious example of Ephesians 2:13-16 was in full blaze—one new man made up formerly opposing people groups. Sure, things have not been perfect, but we experienced a time of relative peace between the older generation of believers and this younger generation of believers. Our connection to the non-sinful aspects of hip hop culture was no barrier to our fellowship; in fact this was the key to a strategic partnership. A ministry like Cross Movement was able not only to rise under these conditions, but also flourish. God used us to spread Christ-centeredness through the means of hip hop music and many believers were strengthened in their resolve to be unashamed Christian witnesses. Hip hop provided us, and groups like ours, the platform to communicate our biblical affections to the hip hop generation and beyond. We were proud to bear the name Christian, and we welcomed being the smell of death to some and the smell of life to others (2 Cor 2:15-16). After many years of faithful service, CM and others were developing “family credibility.” The church was embracing us and we embraced the church. The church encouraged us to glorify God in our uniqueness while maintaining a commitment to Christian unity. We aspired to do just that. We sought to maintain an oneness with Christians through the centuries while still fulfilling a God given obligation to the surrounding mission field of hip hop culture.
Our mission field has been, and will continue to be the very context that God called us in—the hip hop context. We have been informing this contingent that the church at large is taking an interest in their souls. However, true religion as the apostle James reminds us, is not primarily mystical. True Christianity acknowledges a person’s spiritual and social needs. The world is not accustomed to seeing a hip hop that has been sifted through God’s word. They only know godless rap and godless hip hop culture. For many of them the thought that God will accept them is far-fetched. To the hip hop generation we announce that they can become apart of God’s family without being totally stripped of their social identity. This great news is now being frustrated by the recent attack on the whole concept of “Christ and hip hop” or “Christian hip hop.” As Christians and church leaders develop distaste for Christian hip hop, the church moves further away from the idea of using the Christian hip hopper as a missionary to the hip hop generation, or making a place for Christian hip hop converts.
SO WE ARE NOT DEFENDING HIP HOP
While we are not defending hip hop, we are reminding people of the biblical principle of unity and diversity, the reconciliation of all things, and the rights of all people to enjoy God within the context of their natural elements (as long as those elements are not sinful). We do not deny the sinfulness that exists in the hip hop culture. We do not minimize the crimes committed by the culture, and we have no intention of defending hip hop in the least bit. We simply want to stress that hip hop needs the gospel, and that means hip hop needs indigenous Christian missionaries. Those of us that are Christians of the hip hop generation, desire to display a version of the culture that is absent of the sins that the secular culture has become known for. We want to surrender our culture to the lordship of Christ so that He can use it for his redemptive purposes. We need the whole church to do this.
We are asking the church to stay tuned for the implications of properly viewing the relationship of Christians to hip hop. There are too many implications to even begin addressing at this point. However, don’t let your fear or lack of understanding make you a hard hearted skeptic. Let the Scriptures be brought to bear on the subject. Allow me and many of my associates to lay the issue out for you socially, theologically and missionally, and we will all see God glorified among a people that were not his people.
CHRISTIAN “RAP” VS. CHRISTIAN “HIP HOP”
WHY DO WE HAVE TO USE THE TERM CHRISTIAN HIP HOP, WHY CAN’T WE JUST CALL IT CHRISTIAN RAP?
THE PLATINUM QUESTION…
People often ask the question,
“Why can’t we call it Christian rap instead of using the word “hip hop”.
People are being persuaded that God is cool with Christian rap, but not with Christian hip hop. The argument goes, “Rap is just music, and hip hop is sinful culture, so God will accept Christianized music, but he will not have anything to do with a sinful culture.” This is more than an issue of semantics; this is an issue of Christian perspective. Whether we are dealing with music or a culture, God can transform it and get glory from it.
The transformation of music is as simple as redirecting the music to reflect and promote God’s mindset through the lyrics and goal of the song. The transformation of culture requires the transformation of people because people are at the heart of culture. This process is much more complicated which is probably why many people would rather not even deal with this part. When it’s music—“just change the words.” When dealing with culture you’ve got to change the heart, and this something that only God can do. However he does it through people and that is where you and I come in. The church has to decide whether or not to throw the culture out with the sins, or address the sins in order to see a change in the culture.
Christian Rap vs. Christian Hip Hop
Within the church, the term hip hop is becoming taboo. Even using the term “Christian hip hop” is taboo for some. When people express a desire to substitute the term rap for hip hop I always find this interesting since both terms, rap and hip hop, were coined by the secular world. So if both things and both terms have a secular origin, why are we struggling between which one a Christian can and cannot “Christianize.” Something fishy is going on, and it seems to me that the same people that clearly hate or dislike hip hop, apparently like rap. They can kick hip hop to the curb but they want to hold on to their rap. Since they don’t want to ruin their chances of enjoying Christian rap they convince people that God is not opposed to Christian rap. While they say this, they insist that he is opposed to Christian hip hop. Now we know that secular rap and secular hip hop are both godless. We also know that some Christian rap and rappers are godless as well. So how is it that we keep hearing some Christians say that we can keep rap if it is submitted to Christ, but hip hop can’t even be submitted to Christ?
THE TRUTH ABOUT RAP AND HIP HOP
You say, “Rap is just music, but hip hop is a sinful culture (way of life).” You are right about both things, but many of you refuse to believe that sin is not inherent to the original agenda of hip hop (that can be fully defended another time). Hip hop originally was just a combination of four platforms of expression, capable of serving whoever got the crowd’s attention. Like money—money is not evil, but it simply magnifies the abilities of the one in control of it. In the hands of terrorist money can be used to fund diabolical acts, in the hands of the church it can be used to carry out the Great Commission. Likewise, hip hop (a more comprehensive way of expressing yourself) as well as rap (a single format for expressing yourself) can be used to carry out the agenda of Satan or Jesus.
Another thing that many of you refuse to believe (no matter how many times you hear it), is that hip hop can be distinguished from the sinful acts committed by or in the name of hip hop. Listen to this statement by Africa Bambatta, one of the original organizers of hip hop affairs:
Due to their lack of knowledge about the whole of Hip Hop culture, many of our world’s youth are mistaken in thinking that activities such as: smoking blunts, drinking 40’s, wearing a designer label plastered across their chest, carrying a gun, or going to strip clubs are “Hip Hop.” Hip Hop is being portrayed negatively by many artists who work in the element of Rap (emceeing), and this negativity is usually instigated and promoted by the record industry and various other corporations who exploit the culture at the expense of the youth’s state of mind and morality.1
Did you read that? Even one of the pivotal and earliest influencers of hip hop (who’s not a Christian) declares that there is a difference between what we see being perpetrated in hip hop, and what hip hop really is. Hip hop is a servant of whoever is setting its agenda, and right now the world is setting its agenda. But in Christian hip hop, some of us diligently strive to insure that Christ sets the agenda. Hip hop is no more than the tint through which the light of God’s glory can shine. We know that God’s truth alone changes lives, but preaching has been describes as “truth poured through personality.” The “personality” is not the truth, but it is simply the means of providing variety in God’s diverse world.
People are at the root of culture, and neither people nor their culture can just be thrown away. Aspects of their culture can be discarded when those aspects offend God, but you cannot force total cultural assimilation on any group. You see it’s easy to throw away something you don’t care about, but it’s hard to let go of something you feel an attachment to. It is even in Craig Lewis’ interest to make people believe that Christian rap is ok, because he produces Christian rap and he supports his own Christian rappers (how convenient?). I don’t expect him to relent from his position, but many of you are just being dragged through the mud of his unbiblical positions without really allowing someone who knows both the Bible and the issue of hip hop culture to help you work through a biblical understanding of this issue.
JUST A WORD OF CAUTION…
Please recognize that it may sound spiritual to boycott every secular contribution to humanity, but THIS IS NOT SPIRITUAL BECAUSE THIS IS NOT BIBLICAL! Don’t mistake me for advocating godless secularism, but I do know that many Christians know that everything secular is not inherently sinful or off-limits to the Christian. The term secular can be used simply to describe “that which is not specifically related to religion or to a religious body.” That includes words like “basketball,” “book,” “music,” and other terms that are not necessarily religious in their use. Rap and hip hop are secular, but both can be sanctified by God and made profitable for the Christian.
So simply switching the words rap and hip hop does not help the Christian; they are both secular until Christ gets a hold of them. Christians can use both of these terms and participate in both of these cultural forms without feeling like they are copying the world. God forbids that Christians copy the world’s values, agendas, doctrines, etc., but there is much that we are meant to share with the surrounding world. To distinguish ourselves in this world we modify terms, abandon certain practices, and redirect agendas. This is a part of the reason why some of us even chose to put Christian in front of hip hop, so that we could serve notice that our hip hop has undergone a change in management. Even this decision to put “Christian” in front of hip hop makes other Christian groups mad. They insist that, there’s no such thing as Christian plumbing, or Christian horse racing, or Christian dry cleaning. (“Lord help me I’m in a catch 22!”)
CHRISTIANS DON’T ALWAYS REMAKE, SOMETIMES WE JUST MODIFY…
When people cynically ask, “What is Christian music,” what are “Christian plays,” what are “Christian bookstores?” I believe they are asking the wrong question. The question is, what we mean when we say “Christian bookstore,” “Christian plays,” or “Christian music”? Everyone ought to know that in these cases “Christian” is being used as an adjective or a modifier, which is then placed in front of everyday things, to add to, or alter what you would normally think of when you hear those generic things. For example, music today is normally a carrier of godless ideas, “Christian music” claims to carry godly ideas. Regular colleges are usually full of orgies, cheating, and anti/unbiblical education, but Christian college at least seeks to be, and facilitate the opposite of these things. My point is that the negative aspects of these things don’t automatically force Christians to invent some other word for these things, that is impractical and it is nowhere prescribed in Scripture. However, Christians have often given terms new meaning or higher meaning than the culture around them. The term “church” was a secular term, and Jesus said that he was going to build His church. In the secular world the cross has a negative stigma for being either an offense or foolish, but God did not stay clear of it. Instead he made that which was shameful and foolish, glorious and wise. I AM IN NO WAY EQUATING THE CROSS AND HIP HOP, but I’m just illustrating the way in which believers can take something common, and modify its meaning. In our culture we use modifying words such as adjectives. There is hip hop, but we do Christian hip hop.
YOU ARE SPIRITUAL, BUT ARE YOU SOCIAL?
If Christian is a term to describe your faith and your true spiritual identity then you are in good standing before God, but what is your connection to your social surroundings? Christians are prone to want to love God, and disconnect from people. We usually do this because we think that they are so sinful that God has given us permission to treat them like they have the plague. Guess what, we were designed to have vertical (God-ward), and horizontal (social) connectedness. We were not left in a totally Christian world, but we were left in a secular world, with a charge to impart our faith into every culture (Matt. 28:19-20; Ac 1:8). That means there will be a social connectedness with mankind (Christian and non-Christian). People are quick to point out the sinfulness of hip hop culture, and I am quick to agree. Hip hop is sinful, but so is every culture. No earthly culture would be cool to identify with if sin was an automatic disqualifier. We could not say that we are African or American because both of these broader cultural contexts, as well as the subcultures within them, are riddled with sin. However, the Bible teaches that cultures are free to develop, but that the sinfulness must be addressed by the transforming power of God’s Spirit.
Hip hop does not need a defense, and Christian hip hop is the free choice of the believers who want to use this concept to capture both a spiritual and social identity. Please people, understand the issue. We are not defending hip hop or seeking to imitate the world. We are in Christ, I hope when you see us you can tell. We live in the world, and I hope that when you see us you can tell. It just so happens to be that for the Christian hip hopper, he/she is in Christ and in a hip hop oriented world—that should explain things.
1 “Rap and Hip-Hop Guide,” online: http:/rap.about.com, accessed 13 July 2004.
Your comments are invited below!
OFFICIAL STATEMENT FROM THE AMBASSADOR
Dear Friends and Supporters:
First I want to thank everyone for your understanding, mercy and grace while my family and I worked on rebuilding our marriage and reconciliation. From the very beginning, I have wanted to communicate with you. However following the advice of the church leadership, and others to whom I entrusted my restoration, I remained silent.
Back in late April 2009, the Lord exposed me and consequently delivered me from being entangled in a season of willful disobedience, deception and darkness. I was involved in a non-sexual but very inappropriate relationship with a woman other than my wife, thereby betraying my Lord, my wife, family, Epiphany Fellowship (the church I love and was instrumental in founding) my co-laborers and ministry supporters like you.
It has often been suggested that no genuine Christian can willfully sin habitually for a prolonged period (1 John 3:6). And that those who do sin cannot do so without some sense of great conviction and internal disturbance. My life is a personal witness to this statement, as I for several months battled great depression, gradual and graphic spiritual deterioration. However, it indeed was God’s mercy that exposed me, breaking sin’s enslaving grip on me. It was also His mercy which used that to lead me to experience what David did when Nathan revealed that the “gig was up” and said, “You are the man!” (2 Samuel 12:7).
Like David, I instantly knew that, “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Samuel 12:13). I was crushed by an enormous weight of guilt, shame, fear and sorrow, and I knew that the journey back to “ground zero” would be insanely difficult. Even to this day, I wrestle with that shame from time to time, but I also know there is one place I can turn—the gospel! I have to continually contradict my feelings and believe the rest of 2 Samuel 12:13, “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die.”
After nearly a year of retreat, rehabilitation and intense family focus, God’s grace has me reset on a trajectory toward spiritual wholeness. Like Paul the great apostle I admit, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect…” “But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12-14). God’s grace is teaching me that I am not supposed to attempt to “work” my way back to some supposed level of super-spirituality and then come out feeling “qualified.” But I am to recognize that I am never “sufficient in myself,” but “our sufficiency is from God” (2 Corinthians 3:5). As someone once said “He doesn’t call the qualified, but rather qualifies the called.” I am deeply comforted by this gospel truth and equally dependant on its reality. Without this comforting and affirming word, I might never have come back to the service of our Lord.
So I say now, what I believed then—I sinned greatly against the Lord Jesus, my wife and family, the other woman and her family, my church, and all my ministry co-laborers and supporters. I ask you to forgive me for being a prime example of the spiritual leaders I have often “put on blast” in the past, and further reinforcing the notion that the church is full of hypocrites. Forgive me for how my actions have caused many to be confused and insecure about the faith, and brought disruption to the peace of homes, churches, and ministries. May God give you the grace and the ability to forgive me, “as I have received the Lord’s forgiveness” (Colossians 3:13). By God’s grace, many that I have offended have forgiven me, most notably, my wife and kids. Pray that the Lord will continue to permit us to build on this foundation that will give the Lord Jesus Christ the greatest glory.
This has been an extremely painful time and now I accept the fact that although God’s grace is based on the merit of Christ and not my own performance, favor with man (Luke 2:52) must be gained through consistency over time. All I ask is for the opportunity to get started!
I have spent the past ten months in concentrated prayer, counseling, reading, studying, and fellowshipping with saints, and I am committed to diligently continuing on this course. Unfortunately, the sin has taken a toll and has created some unpleasant consequences. Among many, the one that particularly grieves me is the separation from my church. With regard to the Epiphany Fellowship, I will not be permitted by the leadership to continue in covenant fellowship. This decision brings me much grief. However I trust the Lord Jesus Christ to heal my heart and that of my family and the covenant community.
After all this I have so much more tenderness toward the “fallen,” and an appreciation for the glory of a gospel that is so easily preached but not as easily applied. Lord permitting, I plan to proclaim the gospel with even greater passion than ever before and herald its liberating truth wherever the Lord will allow. The plan is also to musically represent the Lord Jesus so that the “fall of Ambassador” will not end with a period, but rather, with a comma. As you may or may not know Cross Movement the group had retired but as a soloist I was planning to continue as long as the Lord Jesus would provide grace. The release of my third solo album The Chop Chop actually fulfilled my contractual obligation with Cross Movement Records, so now as The Ambassador I’m trusting the Lord for new direction and for what lies ahead.
My experiences during this time of seclusion and obscurity have indeed been very challenging. And, I’m still not clear on all the things that the Lord has been doing. But I plan to leverage every lesson learned and every insight gleaned for the glory of God and the benefit of others.
Since the very beginning, I have been under the care of a restoration team led by Pastors Byron Craig of Macedonia Baptist Church (Norristown, PA) and Zach Ritvalski of Sweet Union Baptist Church (Philadelphia, PA). They have given me the “green light” to move forward in serving the Lord Jesus Christ publically. My wife has also given her blessings and support to this decision. Therefore The UpLift! Group and I are actively seeking God’s direction for new opportunities to honor the name of Jesus Christ.
The nature of my call to be an aroma of Christ (2 Corinthians 2:15), a minister of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18), and his ambassador (2 Corinthians 5:20), compels me to reengage my generation and “proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you (me) out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). This experience has taught me many things but one that will always stand out and I hope to become the embodiment of is God’s grace and mercy is more than sufficient.
William “The Ambassador” Branch
Whether we claim to be a “Christian rapper,” a “Christian hip hopper,” or just a “plain Christian,” the question should be asked of us, “just how Christian are we?” The best Christian rappers are not just good rappers but, good Christians. The best Christian hip hoppers are not just cool hip hoppers but, good Christians. The best “plain Christians” are not those who have perfect church attendance, but those who live all of their life submitted and obedient to Jesus Christ. This is my burden and focus in 2007—the amping up of real Christians who are potent in their Christianity! Will the real Christians please stand up and stand out? Christian crowds are now easier than ever to amass. We’ve got our own celebrities, our own festivals, our own award shows, etc. Through the right marketing and promotions we can “do it big” these days, but in the midst of all of this I’m still plagued with the question, “just how Christian are we?”
This almost sounds like a trick question because it seems impossible to judge something like this. How do you judge how Christian someone is, or how Christian you are? I’m not sure that a “right answer” will be agreed on, but certainly we should be able to answer how much of the essentials of Christ’s character and concerns are easily detected in us? Out of the darkness of secular culture God has clearly snatched for himself individuals and placed them into a union with His Son Jesus Christ. After this transfer, a lifestyle change is supposed to visibly and tangibly demonstrate the difference being in Christ makes. Christ is supposed to take over a person and live his life out through them. Therefore, I look to my generation and ask “just how Christian are you?”
I labor missionally in the hip hop-saturated urban sphere on behalf of Jesus Christ. In the last decade I have personally been apart of, and a witness to the continued improvement of artistic skill among this group. The improvement of skill is just as difficult to “judge” but most people who have followed the journey of Christian hip hop would probably agree with me. But while I have to admit that there has been an improvement of skill on the mic and the drum machine, I have not seen an equally impressive improvement of Christian character and kingdom concern. We are excelling in ministry giftedness, but not necessarily as much in spiritual weightiness. Due to the stereotypical image of hip hoppers (saved and unsaved), it has been my personal aspiration to display weighty Christianity, and not simply hip hop skill. The necessity of this was never more illustrated than during the rise of Craig Lewis and similar critics. Since his attacks against Christian hip hop and the Christian hip hop community, it becomes even more apparent that Christians must display robust Christian-ness whether they are hip hop or not. Let’s look at some things that should be true of us as Christians living in an age of religious compromise.
Our Christian-ness Should Be a Public Affair
Christians are “cities on a hill which can’t be hid” not under-cover agents (Matt 5:14). According to Jesus Christ in Matt 5:13-14 Christians are considered “light” and “salt” partly because both their presence and the absence are readily detectible and significantly impacting. If it is not obvious that you are a Christian, then you are probably not, or you have a Christianity that is weak in its Christ-aroma. Many Christians, especially in the pop-world have learned how to keep their Christian-ness so undercover that nobody either knows that they are a Christian or no one cares. One of the most harmful and deceptive beliefs that exists among believers, especially those who want worldly acceptance, is the idea that Jesus can be buried deep in our heart and only peek His head out if someone expresses interest in our personal religious beliefs. This is the sentiments of many Christian artists who have very little public boast in Christ, very little mention of Christ, very little public dealings with Christ, but declare that backstage or “on-the-side” they are slipping Christ into the picture. Jesus Christ did not redeem a people so that they could sneak Him into the party. He is not meant to be slid through the cracks, but rather to be broadcasted loud and clearly by those of us that he has redeemed (delivered). Our faith is not a private matter, but a public affair. The Lord Jesus is to be our boast and our life, and we are to be his proud and public representatives—on and off the stage. In 07 let us not have a Christianity that is so private and personal that it never affects the public or the corporate surrounding. As Christian artists, as well as those of you who may be Christian celebrities, let us not just be known only for “backstage exploits”, but let us have “onstage exploits.”
Spiritual Affections Should Dominate our Passions
The struggle to live as though dead is a universal struggle for all of God’s people. Regularly we see our natural affections being nurtured and displayed more than spiritual ones. Our natural appetites are fed more than our spiritual ones. Zeal for earthly passions eclipse zeal for heavenly realities, and knowledge of earthly topics far exceed knowledge of theological topics. Too often Christians are diesel in their craft, but frail in their faith. They are the geniuses and “Einstein’s” of their vocations, but remedial in their grasp of the biblical realm. Church youth groups run the risk of falling into this category because today’s youth programs are entertainment heavy, but doctrinally skimpy.
I pray that 2007 we will depend on the Spirit to boost our godly affections and decrease our longings for “worldly” delicacies. Let us spend more time in the Scriptures than TV, and spend more time in cyphas around God’s word than cyphas around other things. As diligently as we study for a degree, let us diligently show ourselves to be approved workers who do not have to be ashamed. As the world marvels at our skills and abilities, may heaven rejoice to see our faith and devotion to Him who sits on the throne.
Christ’s Followers Don’t Fade, They Keep Following.
Are we marching to a different beat today? In regard to this world, I hope so, in regard to the faith, I hope and pray not. Christianity is a relay race—a faith that is passed down and passed on. We will never outgrow the need and the command to join the saints through the ages whose lives were built on personal and corporate prayer, worship, assembling with the saints, evangelizing and discipling, grappling with the Scriptures, and engaging in acts of kindness (Acts 2:42-47). We’d better not start replacing these Christian basics with beats, rhymes, hobbies, and business-moves that are supposedly for Christ’s benefit. It is real easy to hide out in the ministry today, because ministry can be big business today. For some, they never had it so good until they started “doing ministry.” The sad thing is that I meet so many people that see themselves in ministry that neglect the fundamentals like corporate prayer, studying the Scriptures in community, and faithfully assembling with the saints. I did not learn Christ this way.
Lately I have been more keenly aware of the new generations of believers who are learning what it means to be a Christian from those of us that have been screaming about Jesus Christ over the microphone. Just when we were ready to kick our feet up and enjoy the work of other committed Christians, the call for us to join the work came from on high. That is why I pray that our lives will demonstrate what our lips say. If we tell people that they should pray may they be able to see us in intense prayer. If we tell them that they should be a solid participant in a particular community of God’s people, I hope that we are such participants. If we tell them to rally with other believers and form solid community with them, we should be doing the same. In regards to the Christian basics, there is no need to march to a different beat. We are the leaders of today and tomorrow, so we must begin leading today. For those who have been sucked up into the grind of Christian hip hop, or just “civilian affairs” we must not allow the daily grind to hinder our spiritual grind. Selah—pause and think about that.
Christ’s Followers Refuse to Be Sons of Pharaoh
Since They are Sons/Daughters of God?
Christians reject worldly exaltation in order to heighten their chance of remaining faithful to God, and keep a connection with the people of God. (Heb 11:24-25). Their motivation is like Moses’ in Hebrews 11:26, “He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt….” In this age of “Christian celebrity-ism” it is hard to imagine this being many people’s desire. From celebrity pastors to singers and actors—so few Christian celebrities deflect human exaltation that if someone does it, they are looked at as “over-doing it,” or being needlessly offensive. This idea of tempering one’s personal exaltation is not radical however, but it is actually rather Christ-like or Christian. Moses rejected pharaoh’s throne so that he could please God and lead His people. John the Baptizer rejected an opportunity to ride the wave of his own popularity which he was gaining as Messiah’s forerunner (Jn 1:19-21). Jesus would not let the crowd make him their kind of king, but chose to remain faithful to the mission of the cross (Jn 6:15). Warning! The world has plenty of money, power, and respect to offer us, but it comes with a hidden cost. We must not be afraid to let their exaltation go, so that we will receive God’s exaltation in due season (1 Pt 5:6). When God grants us legitimate exaltation among the people of this world we must use it for godly purposes. I know—this is easier said than done.
As believer in Jesus Christ we will often be offered opportunities to improve our earthly situations by gaining favor with the world. It’s no secret that when the world likes you, they will support and even exalt you (Jn 15:19). However, Jesus said that the world didn’t like him but, rather hated him (Jn 15:18). So the only way for the world to hate Jesus, but like those of us who belong to Jesus, is by us making some sort of compromise. By luring us away from Jesus and his despised people (true believers), the world begins to tolerate us because the smell of Christ that was once on us begins to fade. Once the world makes a once despised Christian a “star”, it becomes more difficult for that Christian to live out basic Christianity. The pressures of staying liked, and doing well will take its toll.
The world is known for digging into God’s pot of believers and luring them out from the community of faith into the “den of snakes”. The world recruits from God’s stash and then employs them for the devil’s work. Before long, the Christian celebrity is forced to primarily exist among the other worldly celebrities that are apart of the same godless “world.” Over time the Christian develops tighter relationships, and greater solidarity with the godless “stars” of show biz, than they have with the “regular” Christians of the world. I see this frequently, and may never get too many “amens,” but this is a trustworthy statement. “For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are…” (1 Cor 2:26-28). Let us be careful to stay grounded in the community of faith, and monitor how much human exaltation we accept. Too much is spiritual toxic.
Christ’s Followers Make God’s Priorities Their Priorities.
Christians prioritize God’s passions over their own, and therefore alter their personal pursuits in light of His revealed plans. God has passions and we have passions. God has plans and we have plans. The question on the floor is, “when our plans and passions clash, who’s gonna win?” I know we would quickly respond by saying “God of course,” but this is no usually the real. I find that it is rare for those of us with “American appetites” to yield our passions in order for God’s to prevail. God has provided examples of people whose personal priorities were not separate, but one with His priorities.</P>
- What made Nehemiah take a leave of absence from his lofty job in the king’s palace and journey to the ruins of Jerusalem to rebuild the city wall?
- What made the postexilic community of Israel leave the prosperity of the Persian Empire and return to the rubbles of Jerusalem?
- Why did God send the prophet Haggai to rebuke His people about their failure to rebuild His temple?
These people’s passions had become one with God’s. God had revealed a dominant passion for both the city of Jerusalem, and the temple in Jerusalem. While God loves cities in general, He has revealed a special love for Jerusalem. While God empowers all mankind to do many great things, He provided special empowering grace for the building of the temple. He has always given a greater measure of grace for the accomplishing of His priorities, however, sometimes God’s people ceased to make God’s passion their passion.
Today God has a special passion for His glory, His church, Hs mission, and His gospel. Of course many other things are good in God’s sight, but not many things rival these passions of God’s. These priorities should become the individual and corporate priorities of every believer. There is so much to say about these, I’ll stop and save it for another time.
May this year be a year of dedication to God’s passions and not just our dreams. This is what Christians do—they do the will of the Father. How Christian are you? Answer this question this year by the choices you make, and the passions you pursue. Can we get back to the fundamentals of our faith? Being cool is cool, but being Christian is essential. In 2007 let’s go to war together, contending for the faith once for all entrusted to the saints (Jude 3).
Casualties of War
Calm After the Storm
Back At It
We Need Jesus More than Ever
We Need Life More than Lyrics
LOOK AT GOD!
God is something else! I would have never guessed that two years ago as I was desperately seeking God and surveying the culture for a topic to write my master’s thesis that I would have struck gold with the topic “The Theological Implications of Hip hop Culture.” One of my professors, Dr. Lawson, rightfully pointed out to me that I couldn’t force people to seriously consider hip hop, but if it could be determined that hip hop has theological implications, then every Christian would be confronted with having to choose a response to those implications. In light of the debates that have been raging in churches and on websites, God’s providence is obvious. We are not just debating about hip hop, WE ARE DEBATING THEOLOGY and its practical applications and lifestyle implications. The question that we are asking is, “who and what does God accept or reject?” Who are God’s people and what do they all look like, act like, talk like, dress like and listen to? This is the crux of the issue, yet it is obvious that the church’s problem with hip hop is deeper than its disdain for a people group and their culture.
WHY I STAY INVOLVED IN THIS DISCUSSION
Many people in the church suffer from either a misinformed and/or underdeveloped theology or no theology at all. As I listen to Craig Lewis and company—along with the people who urge that we stop all this targeting and educating about hip hop—it becomes evident that many people think that it is spiritual to ignore or disrespect a people group strictly because of its sinfulness. To treat the hip hop culture like it is somehow outside the scope of God’s grace and message of salvation is basically saying “to hell with you hip hoppers!” If that is too strong, perhaps it seems more palatable to say, “…to hell with all of the things about you hip hoppers except the things that are exactly like me.” Either way, this is exactly what is being forwarded due to the ignorance that prevails among us. Hip hop or not—I want to distance myself from this unbiblical sentiment, and that is the only reason why periodically I add a log on to the already raging fire of debate.
I can still hear my seminary counselor saying, “Duce, write something that will be helpful for you in ministry after you have left this school and gone into the mission field that God has prepared you for.” I had always approached hip hop as strictly an evangelist/emcee. Little did I know that as I approached hip hop from a social, theological, and scholarly level, I would actually unearth biblical credence for using Christian hip hop missionally, and biblical support for embracing the Christian who maintains non-sinful hip hop traits (don’t miss any of that—read every word carefully). After much prayer and thought what became obvious was that I could do a thesis that sought to expose the theological implications of a 30-year-old global movement that has the world under its sway. In complex urban settings (i.e. NYC, ATL, Philly, etc.) it is one of the most inescapable realities of the common people and the primary discipler of those born after 1968. I thought to myself, “Why not? The church could use the education, and Christians from the hip hop generation could use the biblical support for what they were already doing.” As an evangelist I had spent over a decade ministering as a Christian from the hip hop generation to more than just hip hoppers. I had developed a reputation for being faithful to the Christian faith as well as relevant to the “hip hop times.” After all of my recordings (The Thesis included), I didn’t even think I had to validate my total, complete and fervent commitment to the cross, the faith, and the people of God. I also thought that all talks about reaching hip hop would be evaluated in light of that prior faithfulness. But that proved to be idealistic thinking. Many, not all, of the naysayers do not know of my/our prior track record, so I must continue to set the record straight.
IT’S NOT ABOUT HIP HOP
No matter how hard we try to delineate between engaging a culture and embracing the sins of the culture we still find ourselves being accused of defending, promoting, or pledging allegiance to something other than Christ. Do the research; Cross Movement and all of its affiliated entities and artists have been elevating Christ over hip hop for more than a decade. We have become known for insisting that Christ and his cross be central in the Christian rapper’s music. However, because of our passion to see God save and use converts from the hip hop community, we cannot idlely standby while someone wrongfuly distorts the truth about the issue of hip hop and the Christian hip hopper. Hip hop is not a creation of the devil and the Christian hip hopper is not trying to Christianize a demonic invention. The devil is not a creator of anything. God is the sole source of all creation. Under God mankind was given a similar responsibility, the authority to cultivate. Mankind takes what God has created and cultivates it. In the Scriptures Satan never creates anything. He merely corrupts, deceives, and taints everything that God intends for good. The devil didn’t even create sin. He sins and he convinces us to sin, but he cannot create sin for us. Please don’t misread me, this holy hip hop feud is not personal. I’m not in the least bit concerned with how Craig Lewis’ slanderous remarks and bogus messages affect me personally, but I do care about the church fulfilling her mission. I also care about the image of the people of God in the eyes of “outsiders” (Romans 2:24). The church is already known for being slack in engaging and evangelizing emerging cultures. This is in part why hip hop does not see the church as its friend or its helper. In fact, they perceive the Nation of Islam as a friend, partly because the Nation affirms them and doesn’t only chastise them. I do not want the church’s marred image to be extended any further as the church finds an unscriptural reason to alienate one of the most influential people groups of our times.
IT’S NOT ABOUT CHRISTIAN HIP HOP
Understand this–to use the term “Christian hip hop” does not make a person guilty of exalting or “fondling hip hop.” If a white Christian used the same logic against the “black church” that I have been hearing from some of you, we would have a riot on our hands. To accuse the person who refers to “the black church” of wrongfully exalting and promoting his ethnicity or culture would be to start a war that everyone would regret. We all know that there is only one true church of Jesus Christ and it is neither black nor white. Yet we may refer to the “black church experience” or a “Korean church.” These terms are used to describe some of the distinguishing ethnic and cultural characteristics one would find among the church members—the adjective simply modifies the noun. Christian hip hoppers know that we are Christians and that “Christian hip hop” is not our identity. The terms are joined together in order to help others to describe the observable solidarity that is exhibited by Christians who come from a hip hop culture context. (I wish people would stop making us state the obvious.)
DO WE REALLY LOVE THOSE “OTHER” PEOPLE?
I never imagined being ensnared in a theological and “missiological” debate about a culture (hip hop) that I have been countering for nearly 15 years. To listen to me in sermon or on CD, or my inner-circle of ministry partners, and suggest that we have an allegiance to godless hip hop or Christian hip hop culture is ABSURD! To listen to us and hear anything other than an appeal that the church embrace the saved and converted people of that culture is to hear what you want to hear. To hear anything other than a plea for the church to engage and evangelize the unconverted of the culture without dumping personal preferences on them is to hear what you want to hear. We are all under obligation to love God and man. Don’t tell me that you love me or you accept me, but yet you reject everything about me that distinguishes me from you and your preferred group. To accept a people means to allow them the freedom to be different (assuming those differences are not sinful.) Every one of us want to be accepted without having to become something or someone that we are not.
WE DO MISSIONS NOT LAUNCH CRUSADES
During the Crusades, conversions were forced by the sword of a man. Real mission work is conducted by the sword of the Spirit (the word of God). We are not supposed to be forcing people to become like us. We are supposed to be urging them to become like Christ—the robe and sandal-wearing, Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek speaking, carpenter/rabbi who followed Jewish customs perfectly. We do not want them to wear what he wore, speak like he spoke, and observe any custom that does not transcend all cultures for all times. We want them to embrace this one Lord by grace through faith.
So for the record—Jesus is God in the flesh, second person of the triune Godhead. He is 100% God and 100% man and as such, He provides us the perfect example of true humanity. After living a perfect life—dying a substitutionary death for sinners, RESURRECTING, and sending the Holy Spirit to indwell believers—He commanded His people to go into all the world and make disciples. As a motivating promise, He said that He would be with all who fulfilled this great commission. Since that time, believers have been seeing this commandment as both a privilege and a responsibility. It’s a privilege to think that a perfect God would enlist such imperfect people to carry out His plans. It is a responsibility because He gave us a great commandment and not a great suggestion.
Since the missionary journeys of Paul and the like, so much has changed and so much has remained the same. Though Paul was a Jew culturally and religiously, it is worth noting that he did not add to his gospel message the cultural baggage of Judaism.
IT’S ABOUT SO MUCH MORE
We plead with you out there if you have spiritual eyes to see—and a heart for He preached Christ. Yet, due to the opposition from Jews who did not want Gentile culture “polluting” the church, Paul did have to preach reconciliation of the Jew, Gentile, barbarian, slave, and free. He actually preached about the Gentile’s freedom to participate in the kingdom of God, and argued with his friend Peter about confusing this issue of free access to Christ for the non-Jew (Gal 2:11-14). So he preached the Gospel, but also he preached freedom from Jewish culture. lost people groups of the earth—stop distorting and confusing the issue. This is about more than just rappin’ or wearing fitted caps and Timberlands. This is about more than just going to church. This is about more than “just being Christian.” This is about the church’s responsibility to be the sending agent into every people group until Christ comes back. This is about indigenous missions—people doing missions among those that they are socially native to.
All these arguments prove is that there will always be a group who acts like their cultural expression and their norms are right, and therefore superior to someone else’s. The hip hoppers, along with other emerging groups within our pluralistic and postmodern society, are minorities within today’s church circles. There will always be some who think that they have a right to force these emerging groups to culturally assimilate. I believe that we ought to proceed with the mission to reach out and engage all peoples both cross-culturally and indigenously.
DON’T BE A MISSIONARY IF…
I pray that you prayerfully reconsider your participation in urban missions:
- If your understanding of the devil’s involvement in the origins of hip hop is more aligned with Craig Lewis than reality
- If you are not able to perceive and appreciate the damage being inflicted by the misunderstanding Craig Lewis and those like him have of the hip hop missionary movement
- If you think God perceives your culture as the highest and best culture in the world
- If you think that culture is unimportant and only spirituality is
- If you think that God rejects non-sinful aspects of every culture except yours
In this state you are a hazard to the missionary enterprise. You will burden people with your preferences and forge God’s signature on your personal tastes and styles. You will unload your logic and your made-up laws, while simultaneously claiming that “God told you to do it.” You will be proud of yourself when people from other contexts look and act like you in every way, and you will give them spiritual a “thumbs up” for what is really only an external change of wardrobe and musical style. You will trick them into thinking that they are internally righteous because externally they have burned a couple of CDs and stripped off their hip hop gear.
I’m not being sarcastic or insensitive—I mean this as a sobering caution. God is glorified when the diversity that He intended is promoted and even celebrated. Paul argued in favor of the freedom of the Gentiles. He even opposed Peter when Peter started acting like it was a Christian crime to act like a Gentile (Gal 2:14). This is a theological problem and Cross Movement and others have been wise in trying to reason with the larger Christian community about this collective mission. The mission is the transmission of our faith, not the downloading of our culture.
Recommending cultural modifications is ok, but degrading non-sinful—yet different—ways of existing in Christ is a crime. God does not support this and even a glance at Scripture reveals this.
Please people; understand the issue and the Scriptures. I will NOT write a response to the responses to this. I will seek public venues to discuss this for the sake of those who have an ear to hear. I have resolved to continue joining with all who desire to bring the gospel and floss the life in Christ within the cities of America. This means I will certainly be in contact with the hip hop community—serving it, preaching to it and making disciples out of those who place faith in Jesus Christ by grace.
I am currently in a season in my life where I long to see the power of the Christian hip hop community manifest itself in something other than a CD or mix tape. I wonder if the Holy Spirit is really at work in us or are we just lyrically and musically talented? I keep thinking to myself, if the power of the Spirit has given us victory on the mic, then shouldn’t we see that same power off the mic as well? We are not in the Old Testament times where God the Spirit came on people for a quick task and then jetted; these are New Testament times where the Spirit permanently indwells his people to be a continual recourse for empowered service. We are told to keep being filled with the Spirit (Eph 5:18) so we know that our spiritual energies can be depleted, but the idea is that we do not have to wait for God to zap us again, we just have to refuel.
I have always thought to myself that a true healer or miracle worker does not only heal in some big arena when it’s show time, but a true healer and miracle worker demonstrates this power from God off camera, and in the real world. He could go into a hospital and clear it out, and walk on the street and touch the vast number of sick people. Something is fishy when the only time their “powers” are at work is when they are putting on some well-televised, well-planned event. Well, as Christian rappers, we can become just as lopsided; just as staged. We can become showman, who minister with passion and fire at a show, but, have either no motivation or no energy to labor just as passionately off stage.
A vision that I have always had for Cross Movement was that we would hit the road hard to awaken our nation’s Christian hip-hop reserves to the idea of boldly representing Jesus Christ as a full-time mission. By God’s grace, to some degree we have done that and we have loved all of the perks that have come with that aspect. The challenge for us has been, when we are not on the road—continuing to minister? We formed a nonprofit organization so that we could facilitate other ministry efforts that were not necessarily “mic-oriented.” However, the drive and ability to do the “other things” has been greatly challenged by a number of internal and personal things as well as some external things. Admittedly, we have not been the force off the stage that I had hoped we’d be. For many reasons our onstage performance has far outweighed our offstage service. Some of you are probably gloating right now, saying, “I knew it, they’re not on the streets like me and my friends.” Well, you probably are on the streets because you have no choice. You don’t have to balance the limelight or being on the road with offstage ministry, because you have little or no limelight and you have a very limited traveling schedule. However, I still think we have not done a good job balancing these two and so I was moved to encourage us to get back on point. Internally we have to see this as necessary, especially as leaders in the Christian hip-hop community, and we have to want to lead by example.
There are other things that frustrate the desire to get something crackin’ offstage, and that is the appetites of the church. First, we can’t seem to move beyond “the concert.” Speaking for the African American slice of the hip-hop generation, I find that it’s getting to the point where rappers and preachers are the only two ministry platforms that can draw a crowd. Prayer meetings can’t draw a crowd, evangelism can’t draw a crowd, and mentoring opportunities don’t draw a crowd. We either flock to the mic or flock to hear those who’ve got the mic. Not many Christians of the hip-hop persuasion make it beyond the concert. For those of us who make a token appearance every now-and-then, we don’t bring our A-game. The best of our energies show up when we are on the mic, in the studio, or in a concert-crowd, while our left-overs show up sporadically in a church service, at a prayer meeting, or at some obscure service project. Peep it and weep–at the concert—thousands; in the classroom—hundreds; on the corner—tens. This goes for the Christian hip hop leaders as well, because we get to the point where we just don’t have enough of ourselves left to hit the classroom or the corner.
If we are not careful, we will allow our popularity and our prominence to replace our responsibility to do the small/hidden necessities of every Christian. We will preach but not study. We will rap but not evangelize. We will move the crowd, but not rally with the community of faith. We will be served, but not serve. It’s real subtle—we will unknowingly and unwillingly become a shell of what we seem to be during that hour on stage. We will have the right spill, but not be an incarnate example of the things that we are passionately communicating. And we will not intentionally be a fraud, but in hindsight we will look back and have to admit that we are almost none of the stuff that we say that a disciple should be.
We would tell a disciple that they should be sharing their faith as a way of life—but we either can’t or don’t. We would tell a disciple that he/she should regularly gather with a mature community of believers—but we either can’t or don’t. We would tell a disciple that he/she should be involved in laboring along side of a group of God’s people—but we either can’t or don’t. We would tell a disciple that he/she should be individually and corporately faithful, prayerful, studious—but we either can’t or don’t. Sooner or later, we have to lead our generation by example, and I believe that our Christian hip-hop leaders must model the other aspects of Christianity for those who have become fans/disciples.
I keep thinking and wondering what it would look like to see the same power that is at work in us on stage, flexing in full effect off the stage. The only dilemma is, “who wants to get off the stage?” After all, that is where both our spiritual gifts and natural motivations converge. We can become so intoxicated with this one aspect of service that we do not want to venture into arenas that are more sobering, challenging, and less likely to produce immediate personal payoff. I KNOW THIS FROM EXPERIENCE.
Some people are doing all they can, and others are doing all they like to do. I believe that the Christian hip-hop community which includes more than Christian hip-hop artists can be a community that becomes known for broadcasting an array of expressions of Holy Ghost power. We need more that rap and rappers. We need more than simply the four elements of hip-hop. It pains me to see Christian hip-hop artists who seem to have a passion and commitment for rap that does not exist for basic Christian fundamentals. They record until the wee-hours of the morning, fly great distances, sign hundreds of autographs, make crowds say, “hooo!” but rarely if ever spend serious time in a theological learning context, attend a prayer meeting, go on a missions trip, join an evangelistic blitz, attend a bible study, or anything for the body of Christ besides take the stage or pulpit.
In ministry there seems to be at least two main types of ministers—those who primarily minister in the limelight, and those who minister in the recesses of virtual obscurity. There are those who minister to what becomes a fan base, and those who minister to the “market place.” One group ministers to people who idolize them, buy their products, and cheer them on; the others minister without many perks. They are forced to look forward to the payoff of souls and an eternal reward. If we stray from being the latter, we must beware. This is a wake up call to my people—those who do hip-hop art and those who consume it. We must move beyond CDs and concerts, to classes and corners.
The reason for this is the need. There was a time when the world was not ready to follow us into a class or to a corner. Neither the world, nor the church was paying us any mind. We were like David, in the back with the sheep while everybody else was around the dinner table. Society needed a ram’s horn strategy. In the past, to get the attention of a town or a community, a horn or trumpet was blown. Well, the horn has been blown. We have awakened a large contingent of people up to the fact that Christ is Lord of hip-hop and Lord of all. We have their attention, and many of them like us enough to come to our concerts, visit our websites, and buy our product. Don’t we have more to offer them? The current times call for us to become teachers and the students who hit the classroom where the mind can be renewed (Rm 12:2).
Who will teach? In addition to the pastors and teachers of the former generation who we desperately need, we need teachers from the Christian hip-hop population as well. Like the writer of Hebrews said of some of the Christians “by this time you ought to be teachers” (Heb 5:11). I know too many of us who have Bible degrees, or we’ve sat in churches for over a decade, our parents are pastors and ministers, we’ve been to conferences galore—yet we are not becoming the teachers. Spirit empowered rappers and non-rappers—we just need hip-hop missionaries who know Christ and the culture enough to educate the hip-hop oriented society we live in. As for those that do rap, some of us who teach in our rap need to also teach without our rap. One reason for this is simply that there is more in us than just rap. Secondly, the world needs to see the same cats they idolize, pouring deep truths into them. Because of the times we are in, we have to supplement the rap with basic teaching because rap can’t do it all. In fact, sometimes rap is a hindrance because it keeps people in a “concert” state of mind. We run the risk of stunting their growth so that they never advance from a fan to a follower.
After the classroom, where our zeal is aligned with accurate biblical knowledge, we can be entrusted and spirit empowered to bum-rush the corners. Drug-dealers shouldn’t be the only ones who make the corner their headquarters. Street theologians and evangelists should also make the corners their mission field. We were designed for this. Paul spent much time in both the synagogue and the market place (the corner of his day). Can you imagine the impact that the Christian hip-hop community of missionary minded people would make on this world as we demonstrate affection for God’s classroom and the world’s corners? Even the secular world would appreciate our example. By God’s grace we would be more effective teachers, better students, peacemakers, role models, anti-drug and anti-violence advocates—all while still maintaining the hip-hop elements that don’t clash with our identity in Christ.
Our society needs role models – those who model a commitment to learning, leading, and serving. Life is bigger than us and our personal fetishes. Our CDs and concerts are appetizers. May we roll up our sleeves and lead people to the main course. Let’s take them from the concert to the classroom, to the corner.
He brought a scrutiny and a critical eye to a sinfully secular hip hop culture, and a very loose and unaccountable Christian hip hop genre.
He fueled a pre-existing skepticism and antagonism towards hip hop and it’s infiltration in the church.
Those of us who desired to teach the church about the Truth about Hip Hop were indigenous to the culture, so we looked too much like the culprits for them to trust our ability to view and report on hip hop biblically.
Craig Lewis and Ex Ministries simplify the remedy to the hip hop dilemma by getting rid of it, rather than skillfully, prayerfully, biblically, and missionally going to work to evangelize hip hop.
Rather than trusting indigenous Christian hip hop missionaries to work among the hip hop community, the new fad is to buy Craig Lewis’ DVD and then declare hip hop culture to be off of God’s redemption list. Sad, but true.
Craig Lewis’ powerful stories about casting out demons and people surrendering weapons and burning CDs is far more appealing than the sometimes more hidden miracle of conversion.
Hip hop apart from Jesus Christ is so wicked that it is easy to believe that it is an invention of Satan, and Christian hip hop is so similar to the culture that it’s easy to dismiss it along with the secular version.
When Christian hip hop values and practices the same sins as the unredeemed culture, we then become a target for those who already despise our differences. My advice to my brothers and sisters in Christ who have detectable hip hop cultural distinctive is that we reduce the chance of people despising us by displaying beefy Christianity. Like Paul says, “…in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe” (1Tim 4:12).
Craig Lewis brought the churches focus to one of the most necessary subjects of our times—hip hop.
To the pre-hip hop generation (pastors, parents, Christian gatekeepers, etc.) and the current hip hop community:
Meet a Missionary
Meet My Mission Field
The Motivation for the Music
- I used the platform of a CD for multiple purposes and to reach a couple of audiences.
- I wanted to display a biblically sifted hip hop understanding so that the church would become open to my counsel and the culture would become open to my message.
- I wanted to explain the origins and essence of Hip Hop so that people would be able to distinguish between what Hip Hop is and what Hip Hop is used to promote. There is a vast difference between what it was and what it has come to represent.
- I wanted to admonish the people of the hip hop community since so much godlessness does exist in it. I wanted to champion Christ’s rule in Christian Hip Hop and proclaim this as both an antidote and an alternative to what is provided in most secular Hip Hop.
- I sought to elevate the personal worth of Jesus Christ in the eye of the hip hop community.