Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Christian Hip-Hop: Is it Viable?

If the Christian artist should attempt to create art which speaks to the particular times in which he or she lives, what we must next discuss is what this art would look or sound like. I would like to suggest that hip-hop is a genre of music which has much to offer for the Christian musician. As I expect to spend several posts dissecting the genre and explaining why it is a viable format, I will begin here by qualifying some things in advance.

1. When I speak of hip-hop I am not so much referring to what the current genre sounds like but rather what it could sound like. In fact, this series of posts will, in general, be devoid of examples because there are very few that serve my thesis-and those that would are so obscure most would not know who I am referring too. So, please do not allow any connotations you might have of what hip-hop sounds like distract from my discussion.
2. While I believe that this genre holds tremendous opportunities, I would be the last to argue that it is the sole genre that the Christian musician should be working in.
3. The guiding factor in any approach that a Christian artist might take in art should be love. If a particular genre will be offensive and distracting then is it loving for a Christian to make that music? Now this can be taken to an extreme and I hope that in this post I can clarify how I belief this ought to really work. But, as a general preface I would simply like to say that making art with no regard for whether or not it is a stumbling block for others is not an acceptable practice for a believer. (One only needs to imagine the feeling of pulling up next to someone at a stoplight who is playing hip-hop music loud enough for everyone within a quarter mile to hear. Is there any doubt that the feeling of pride and intimidation that comes out of this kind of display is not appropriate for Christians?).

With these things aside, I would like to begin by establishing the acceptability of hip-hop in relation to love. To do so, it seems to fit to look at what Paul teaches concerning the balance between freedom and love:

Rom 14:14 (I know and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself.
Still, to someone who considers a thing to be unclean, to that one it is unclean.)
Rom 14:15 For if your brother is hurt by what you eat, you are no longer walking according
to love. By what you eat, do not destroy that one for whom Christ died.
Rom 14:16 Therefore, do not let your good be slandered,
Rom 14:17 for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.
Rom 14:18 Whoever serves the Messiah in this way is acceptable to God and approved by men.
Rom 14:19 So then, we must pursue what promotes peace and what builds up one another.
Rom 14:20 Do not tear down God's work because of food. Everything is clean, but it is wrong for a man to cause stumbling by what he eats.

This is where, I believe, many have struggled over hip-hop as a Christian genre; and they have not struggled without cause. One merely has to look what is currently called hip-hop in order to see that it is generally filled with self-absorbed, violent, base, and even dehumanizing themes. But as I stressed in my first point, I do not wish to argue that this particular branch of hip-hop is worthy, I am arguing for a new style. Some might argue that no matter how “new” of a style a Christian artist might create, if it is in the hip-hop genre then it holds the same vile connotations of the mainstream style. But this is not a logical response and it is not Paul’s view. If we applied this rule to everything, then in Paul’s example of abstaining from “unclean foods” because others considered it to be a sin we would have to also abstain from eating all foods! Why stop at unclean food? Why not abstain from eating at all so that if someone who is offended at unclean food sees us they might get not even a hint of evil? Well, without going down to much of a theological rabbit trail, there is a point where abstaining from something so that you might not offend or hurt others, causes more harm than good because it results in destroying what our freedoms truly are. And we can see this in Paul’s example: it was productive and good to abstain from eating “unclean” food if it would help someone who felt it was a sin to eat such things, but Paul does not suggest that we not eat any food, even though physiologically someone would have a connotation between “all food” and “unclean food”, because it would hinder that person’s growth and understanding of the universe we live in, and would give a distorted view of our Christian freedoms granted by Christ. Therefore, abstaining from things out of love for others must be done reasonably and in respect to degrees: there is not nice line that we can draw and keep from crossing. Every situation demands that we consider whether or not we are being offensive or not and whether the offense is reasonable or not. What is Paul’s suggestion? “Everything is clean, but it is wrong for a man to cause stumbling by what he eats.” Rom 14:20. In addition, the governing ideal is love. Therefore, Hip-Hop cannot be reject simply because some of it (currently the majority of it) has vile themes (although that particular type of hip-hop which really is vile must be rejected) in the same way that Paul urges the early Christians to abstain from eating unclean foods but not all foods. While connotations are still strong in some people concerning this music that does not mean that we cannot help change those connotations for the better through humility and love. So can a Christian artist create hip-hop music in such a way as to not cause anyone to stumble? I believe so, but in order to do so the pride, arrogance, and selfishness of modern hip-hop must be totally abandoned.

This abandonment must be through and through. Right now, if you were to search for “Christian hip-hop” on the Internet, or even tune to some Christian radio stations you will find that the music already exists. But, in these cases what often happens is that lyrically the themes will be about evangelizing or committing a life to God; however, the actual style of the flows (a hip-hop term for the particular way in which a rapper’s lyrics are placed on the beat. It might include tone, speed, aggression, passion, intonation, and volume.) and the music suggest the same themes as the mainstream music. I have heard so called “Christian” MCs rapping about how they take the Word of God to tha streets with the same style and music that I have heard secular rappers talk about taking drugs, violence, and sex to tha streets. Can this be anything less than sacrilegious? (This is really the fault of the Christian community which for so long rejected all art as “evil”. Now that art has been liberated, many Christian are ignorant to the fact that it is not enough to say “Jesus” in a song in order to make it good “art”.) And it is this that still offends some people. If the rapper is stating that he is a humble servant of God while flowing aggressively over music which is also aggressive, how can he be making art out of love? What is required is a musical sound and a lyrical style that is unique to the Christian worldview. If we can make hip-hop in such a way that all the elements of that music point to and suggest themes and a worldview that is fundamentally different, then I believe we can avoid the dangers of causing a stumbling block. But we could not stop there. The musician himself would have to be humble. Part of what makes hip-hop such a prideful genre is that the artists act as such outside of their art. A Christian rapper cannot announce how much better he is than everyone else, how wealthier, how skilled, etc…Humility and love should be his/her mark.

To conclude, hip-hop need not be a stumbling block for anyone. If the Christian artist is making art which treats themes and music holistically, and if he/she does so with a loving and humble attitude in mind, I believe no one will reasonably be offended. (And Paul is concerned with reasonability: Rom 12:18 “If possible, on your part, live at peace with everyone.”) I must caution here that others have tried to create a uniquely Christian genre of art before and failed horribly-I am thinking here mostly of the rock or alternative genres of several years ago. But their failure was not because they tried to make art which accurately portrayed their beliefs, emotions, life, and the world around them; rather, they failed because their focus was on simply sounding different. An analogy for this failure might be found in baseball. If a batter was told to try and make a homerun he might start by learning what constituted a homerun and then he would proceed to practice and train. Eventually the batter would succeed. If, however, the batter did not understand what a homerun was, he might assume that any ball hit out of the playing field was a homerun. This batter would undoubtedly fail to hit real homeruns and would instead resort to hitting fouls, which are much easier to hit. Likewise, the Christian artist must not confuse a new style of Hip-Hop with any different sounding style. This will be hard, but with God’s help, and a proper focus I believe it to be completely possible. In my next post I will discuss why I believe this to be a good genre for the Christian artist.

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