Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Before You Throw Away the (W)rapper

There is a funny joke that goes:

"I listen to music the way I eat candy; I throw away the wrapper."

I've shared this line plenty of times when asked about my music tastes, but to be fair, it's not entirely true. When it comes to rap, an acrostic for Rhythm And Poetry, I do not have much of a taste for it. However, that is not because I have strong moral objections to it like a lot of my conservative Christian peers. I do not believe that "all rap music is evil".

I believe we have to be careful here to not paint with a broad brush, like so many Christians do, and condemn a whole genre. Sure, most of the rap out there is terrible, but so is secular music produced by more conventional means these days. Does that mean we should stop using drums and the bass guitar in our music, because so many secular artists have polluted the music styles that use those instruments? Isn't that the same reasoning that Christians use to discredit all rap and Christians' attempts to use it?

I find a much more helpful way to look at the issue of Christian rap is the opinion of Kevin Swanson in his book The Tattooed Jesus. According to Swanson, we need to judge music artists according to their trajectory. It is so unfair of us to expect a man who has grown up in the rap culture to sudden switch to singing 17th century hymns. We should support them in their attempts to conform their culture to Jesus Christ, even as they grow away from it.

A good example is Derek Johnson Jr., who goes by the stage name of Derek Minor. I recently saw him in concert at the Rock and Worship roadshow, and despite his heavy rapping, I actually came to appreciate him. I could tell, unlike Family Force 5, that he had a sincere heart for God and for people. He gave smiles and high fives to the crowd even while he performed, and several of his songs had a strong testimony to Christ.

According to his Wikipedia page, Derek had a rough childhood. His biological father was distant, and his step father was a drug user. It was the faith of his mother that gave him his only context of Christianity, as she often would play gospel songs at their house and sang in a choir. Derek started rapping when he was 12, and it was rap music that gave him some connection to his biological father again. His Wikipedia page is full of ups and downs, rebellion and loss, redemption and gain, but at the center of it is his relationship with Christ. For instance, here are a couple of snippets of his life story:

"Removed from his strict home environment, Johnson rebelled. He pursued music, women and money until 'the season of death' shook up his life. Within a short time span, Johnson lost his grandfather, grandmother and godmother. This loss sparked a realization of the fleeting nature of life, and Johnson decided to dedicate his life and talents to God."

And, specifically on his music trajectory:

"Johnson co-founded Reflection Music Group, then-called Christ Like Entertainment, with his friend Doc Watson, who he met while working on a second mixtape, Transformers. Johnson released his debut album The Blackout in 2008. According to DaSouth.com, the "braggidocious, swagtastic approach" that Johnson took on the album met with controversy in the Christian hip hop community.  Johnson took a break from rapping, and was challenged and influenced by a new friend, BJ, that he met at his new church in Memphis, Tennessee, and was further challenged by Christian hip-hop artist Lecrae. Johnson reflected that his first album was mostly about haters and how good an emcee he was, and was convinced that it should have been more focused on God. In January 2010, Johnson released the mixtape PSA, which he considers his first full-length installment of 'mature' Christian music."

I believe our approach to Christian rappers should be much along the same lines as the approach Derek's friend took. We should seek to challenge him to continue to conform his culture to Christ; we shouldn't immediately discredit his attempts at producing music because it is, after all, rap.

Finally, where does that leave us who have had a much better baseline to start our trajectory from? Should we embrace rap music and become avid fans? No, I am definitely not condoning that. For us to do so would be to take a step backwards in our trajectory, and it would not be helpful to our own sanctification process. There's no debate that the modern day hymns of Keith and Kristin Getty, for instance, more profoundly draw us to worship God than rap music. If we have grown up listening to hymns and songs by Chris Tomlin and Steven Curtis Chapman, it would be most unprofitable for us to become avid rap fans.

Again, it all boils down to our trajectory. We can appreciate the efforts of Derek Minor and Lecrae to conform the culture they have grown up in to Jesus Christ, even while we don't personally engage a ton in their music. They are reaching an audience that Chris Tomlin or Kristin Getty will never have a chance to, and we should be immensely grateful to them for it. Let's be careful to embrace these Christian rappers as our brothers and sisters in Christ, and to do all that we can to help them to continue to be transformed! Let's not immediately discredit their work. Let's not immediately toss the (w)rapper.