Monday, December 2, 2013

Questions Regarding Reformed Rap

When Satan wants to pit God's people against each other, he sure knows how to do it.

And using music as provocation is one of his specialties.  Perhaps of all the world's art forms, music has an uncanny ability to elicit emotions, depict cultures, and frame worldviews that eludes most literature, sculpture, or paintings.

Simply witness the grinding controversy that erupted this past weekend in the wake of a video about Christian rap music.  The video was recently taped during a conservative religious conference entitled "Worship of God," hosted by a previously-obscure evangelical group, the National Center for Family-Integrated Churches (NCFIC).  During that conference, the assembled speakers were asked to discuss the appropriateness of rap music in the Christian life.

One of the panelists at that conference, a Presbyterian minister from Georgia, pronounced rap music as "the death rattle in the throat of a dying culture."  Another panelist claimed that rap is all about the rapper, instead of the lyrics, or the music.

Perhaps the most instantly-vilified claim by one* of the panelists, however, was that rappers and people who enjoy rap are, by their musical choices, being "disobedient cowards."

Now, for the record, I do not believe any of these assertions are true.  What I do believe, however, is that a lot of people don't understand how rap came about, what purpose it serves, and why it resonates with what appears to be such a diverse audience.

Being Wary of Racism in Issues of Race

After all, it's not just black people who enjoy rap - and Christian rap, too - but white people as well.  In fact, some of the most vociferous criticisms of this video and the people on it have come from older white men, who may not personally prefer rap music, but don't have a theological problem with it.

Oddly enough, it's considered okay for older white men to support Christian rap, but when white people bring up criticisms of Christian rap, suddenly they're disqualified from the discussion because they're white.  Which points to an unfortunate dualism when it comes to debates regarding things our society interprets as belonging to particular cultures.  If somebody of Chinese ancestry, or Brazilian, or Vietnamese, were to make the same claims questioning rap, would they get any more respect than a Caucasian American?

Granted, some Caucasian Americans who oppose Christian rap seem to be doing so through a veil of  bigotry.  Then, too, other people simply see racism behind every statement with which they don't agree.  Plus, although the question of Christian rap's appropriateness is not a racist question at its core, some people nevertheless desire to make it one.  It's become popular in our politically-correct society to burden these discussions with the extra emotional weight of America's atrocious history with civil rights, even though such a tactic can command a deference that, paradoxically, may help perpetuate the racism such claimants ostensibly want to refute.

After all, if the color of a person's skin unilaterally dictates whether their opinion on a subject will be accepted or rejected, don't we have more than one problem to be addressed?

It's at this point where many people who don't agree with what they've already read will be tempted to brand me as a white racist and call it a day.  They will determine that because I don't have a PhD in theology, philosophy, music, race relations, or anything else, that I'm not qualified to educate them on anything.  They will ignore the reality that educated "experts" from varied disciplines disagree amongst themselves regarding rap music.  They will forget that God expects us to make up our own minds about "whom we will serve," and that we need to base our lives not on what is expedient, popular, or enjoyable, but on what is true.

So let's go with that - except the white racist bit - and assume I don't know what I'm talking about.  Let's suppose I'm wildly naive and uneducated on the topic of Christian rap music.  After all, I don't have an alphabet soup's litany of capital letters after my name.  And, yup - my skin is pretty white, now that whatever tan I got during the summer has faded away, and I've only ever lived in a ghetto - in Brooklyn - for a year and a half in the 1990's, so how could I possibly have anything worthwhile to contribute to this conversation?

Besides, my life would be a lot easier if I was wrong about this whole thing.  Please - PLEASE! -  prove me wrong!  I'm not kidding - do you think I enjoy holding an unpopular viewpoint?  Do you think this is fun for me?

Because this is not fun.  I derive no pleasure or satisfaction from believing that "reformed rap" is an inappropriate musical form with which Christ's followers should not significantly engage.  I do think rap and hip-hop serve a purpose, but it seems to be very limited in scope, and not exactly worshipful.  So I certainly wouldn't mind being proven wrong here.

To prove it, I'm going to try and be respectful and gracious, and instead of lecturing you about why I think I'm right, I'm going to ask you what you believe, so you can show me the errors of my opinions.

After all, if we can't at least survive this little exercise, then the Devil will have already scored, right?

Hey Hey Q&A

So, without any further ado, let's start where rap started, at its own beginning.  According to Kurtis Blow, the world's first commercially-successful rapper, all we need to know about rap is that:
  • Rap is talking in rhyme to the rhythm of a beat.
  • Hip-hop is a culture, a way of life for a society of people who identify, love, and cherish rap, break dancing, DJing, and graffiti.
Which brings me to my first question:  I get what Blow is saying, and it all sounds fairly innocent, except for that antisocial graffiti stuff.  However, isn't rap more than just rhyme, rhythm, and break dancing?  As the genre has grown, wouldn't it be accurate to say it's become an expression of a culture that believes it has been disenfranchised by society's power structures?  Isn't it a voice of America's urban ghettos that speaks defiantly of cultivating a unique moral code in conformity with the perils of the streets, where violence, poverty, sexual abuse, dysfunctional families, drug abuse, illiteracy, and vandalism dictate authority?

When the genre was in its infancy, nobody was running around, documenting who was doing what in chronological order, which means that a definitive timeline for rap's early years doesn't exist.  However, most experts on rap agree that it started on the grim streets of New York's infamous South Bronx, as far back as the 1970's, when white flight had decimated much of the city, and whole apartment blocks were being torched by landlords unable to find market-rate tenants.

Amidst all of this chaos, blacks from a variety of international and ethnic backgrounds were trying to find a unique way to express the socioeconomic marginalization they collectively felt.  The remarkable amalgamation of oral histories among slave cultures represented in the South Bronx, including progeny of America's Deep South, the African continent, and the historic slave trading post of Jamaica, contributed an ancient tradition of storytelling through song that entrepreneurial blacks began tweaking with electronic musical equipment.

Based on this perspective, could it be argued that the original sounds and demeanor of rap found a certain legitimacy in their call for action against the stereotypes, bigotry, and violence that actually helps perpetuate those characteristics of racism and urban nihilism?  Could the more commercialized rants of rage and angst common among more modern rappers be considered a trend towards the glorification - instead of a refutation - of those socially-destructive characteristics?

And speaking of history and authenticity, how much legitimacy does the "secular" rap industry ascribe to Christian rap?  Can Christians worship to music designed to decry political and economic desperation?  Remember, America's revered negro spirituals, an even earlier form of storytelling through song, were based on Biblical concepts that were tied to metaphors related to emancipation, almost as a code language with which they could communicate right under their owner's nose.  Rap, meanwhile, is as blatant as the poverty in which most of its originators lived, or the materialism flaunted by so many of its present-day purveyors.  It's one thing to be defiant, but don't you have to be defiant about the right things?  And what about Christian hip hop, with lyrics about salvation, purity, and Godly love?  Might those themes so mock the genre's formative laments and current hedonism as to render it technically distinct from the form from which it came?  Might "reformed rap," with its lyrical emphasis on true hope, be too reformed to benefit from protected status as a radical, racial art form?

Or does the history of anything have no bearing on its legitimacy?  Does the purpose for why something exists today have no bearing on its legitimacy?

To what extent is materialism present in rap music and its hip hop culture?  To what extent does a musician's clothing, jewelry, shoes, and overall personal appearance play a role in the message being communicated?  What's the difference between criticisms white people levied against the flamboyant Liberace, for example, and the criticisms white people levy against many of today's rap stars for the same type of over-the-top indulgences?

In previous essays on this topic, I have agreed that, at least for "reformed rap," much of the lyrics are theologically-sound, and some are downright poetic.  So why can't rap artists simply recite their poetry without the acoustic accompaniment?  After all, hardly anybody is complaining about Christian rap's lyrics.  What is it about the heavy beat that is so essential?  Is it mesmerizing and hypnotic, or even sensually sexual?  Is Kurtis Blow correct in claiming that rap is nothing without its thick, primal beat?  Are the acoustics of rap not morose to its fans?  Am I completely off-base here, and is rap's sound not belligerent, or aggressive, or threatening?  Advocates of Christian rap claim that they're redeeming the genre for Christ, but even if lyrics can be re-worded, can rap's soundtrack be uncoupled from its distinctive anger and petulance?  Have defenders of rap developed a new standard for beauty?  And, if that's the case, what makes this new standard for beauty better than the old one?

How much of the respect being given to Christian rap music is based on a desire for cultural integrity?  Do you believe all cultures are equally valuable, and that they all make equally-valid contributions to our shared experience on this planet?  Do you believe that everything is relative, and that there are no moral absolutes?  Do you believe that some cultures should be given some slack because historically, they've been at some sort of disadvantage?  Do you believe in Affirmative Action, a policy that does not reward people based on objective merit, but on subjective backgrounds?  Does the very implication that rap music is an inferior form of expression offend you, and if so, why?

Do you have a problem with rock music?  I do, especially in the context of corporate worship.  So do you think I'm wrong for opposing rock music in church?  What is rock music, generally, if not an expression of rebellion, a loosening of inhibitions, and a defiance of propriety?  Am I even more of a prude to you, now that you know I don't even consider rock music appropriate for corporate worship?  At least I'm an equal-opportunity sour-puss, right?

How about this one:  Might the evangelical infatuation with rap and hip-hop be - at least in part - a subconscious attempt to gloss over the economic depravity that overtook urban ghettos as a result of white flight?  Many younger evangelicals today were born after white flight had already devastated neighborhoods across urban America, and they neither have nor want any connection with that part of our country's history.

Might evangelical cultural elites be unable to bring themselves to inspect the causes for the dark environment that helped give rise to rap?  Alternatively, could their own frustrations with their faith in light of our country's dismal post-Christian metamorphosis - not to mention our dismal post-Great-Recession economy - be seducing them into rap's nihilistic beat?

Topping Hip Hop?

Um, I've got a few more questions, but can we at least agree that rap music indeed taps at the root of angst, anger, frustration, and other physiological manifestations of naturally-occurring emotions on the negativity spectrum?  Can we agree that it's easy to assume that there's little danger in Christians mimicking the music of the ghetto, because the enlightened mind says it's all a matter of taste?

But is that really true?

Some try and compare rap music to meat sacrificed to idols, from Paul's exhortation about diet and weaker brothers in 1 Corinthians 8.  However, isn't there a big difference between what we mortals eat for ourselves, and what we offer up in worship to our Heavenly Father?

To what degree might we as a culture have lost our appreciation for the concept of "holiness?"  To what degree do we consider God more of our celestial buddy than our Creator?  To what degree do we consider Christ's purpose on Earth to have been for our good, instead of His glory?  Do we really understand that we were bought with a price, and that price was God's holy Son?  Do we really understand that we are not our own, because our debt was paid by Christ?  Do we really understand Biblical freedom?  Do we really understand that God looks at our hearts to gauge how committed we are to Him and His truth?

What is truth, anyway?

Here's some truth:

"Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness."  - Psalm 29:2 (variations at Psalm 96:9 and 1 Chronicles 16:29)

"Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our 'God is a consuming fire.'"  - Hebrews 12:28-29

For years, these two scriptures have served as the backbone for my arguments against the legitimacy of most contemporary Christian music (CCM), and especially its more rock-and-roll iterations.  And another reason I've refused to embrace CCM is because most of it is geared for a white, suburban, and middle-class audience.  In my feeble little brain, I imagine all of God's people worshipping Him not only in their native tongue, but in unison, like the hosts of angels.  So why we should intentionally segment corporate worship into fiefdoms based on race, geography, and economic status baffles me.

Why is this so important?  Because God still looks at our hearts, both yours and mine.  And a lot of people who seem to be after His are vehemently defending rap, which represents another huge disconnect for me.  You can tell by the questions I've asked that there's either a lot of stuff I've learned about my faith that either doesn't apply to this discussion, or there's a lot about my faith that I still need to learn. Or maybe there's a lot that other people of faith haven't learned about rap that should apply to this discussion.  Or there's a mixture of the three that needs to be sorted out.

Somewhere in all this, there's the answer that is rock-solid truth.  Truth apart from culture, or race, or political correctness.

Wouldn't it be nice if we didn't have to wait until we got to Heaven to find it?

* That panelist, Geoffrey Botkin, has issued a personal apology, which can be read here.

Update:  An online dialog on this subject between reformed rapper Shai Linne and seminary professor Scott Aniol can be found here.

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