Finally, let us return to my original proposal, that Hip-Hop is a viable genre for the Christian Artist. I have so far only alluded to a criteria by which we can judge the merits of various musical genres, but not directly spoken of it as such. It is my contention that by looking at complexity, unity between form and theme, relevance, artistic potential, and spiritual potential we can best evaluated genres.
In regard to complexity, I have already shown that lyrically Hip-Hop can be done in such a way as to incorporate a tremendous sense of intricacy. While the repetitive nature of the instrumental elements of Hip-Hop might seem to make the genre simplistic or rudimentary-and therefore not capable of being relevant-this simplicity is actually a purposeful choice on the part of the artist to shift the emphasis from the instruments to the vocal elements. And it is here, in the lyrics, that the complexity can be found. But there is, and has been, a great danger in this complexity: a Postmodernist emphasis on complexity which allows for some focus on the individuals, but does so in a manner that is so complex that communication ends and the individuals and everything else in the universe loses all value, or the Marxist approach which abandons complexity for communication and in the process completely removes the individual or particular aspects of life. These pitfalls should be observed and avoided by the Christian Artist. Instead, the artist must explore, discussing a variety of topics and dealing with several issues ranging from the suffering of particular people to political problems to love and God. But here I am speaking of thematic complexity. Lyrically there must be a complexity which mimics the complexity of Christ's creation: a complexity in layers which can be peeled off and enjoyed on multiply levels. Here an example will help. When I, a scientifically inept man, looks at a flower, I see beauty and peace, love and often times I am filled with a feeling of thankfulness knowing that God created such a profoundly beautiful plant knowing that I would one day see and enjoy it. However deeply I feel about this flower, if a Christian botanist sees that same flower, knowing all its intricate workings, how can he not be overcome with more thankfulness and understanding than myself? And if a painter sees that same flower, and knowing the art of colors and shadows and shape and form, how can she not appreciate it more than me? In the same way, the Christian Artist-and this goes for all the arts although my purpose here is specific-should seek to create art which can be understood by the common man and yet is still filled with complexity for those that are able to understand. But, in the end, the complexity is there, if we choose to aspire to it.
Unity between theme and form has been a major challenge for many Hip-Hop artists. This is in part due to the fact that most rappers do not produce their own music, and whenever a work of art is divided among other artists, vision and theme will suffer-there are a few exceptions of this, particularly in film where you have literally hundreds of “artists” interpreting a script and working together to form the finished product. Generally, this is what makes films such an incredibly difficult field of art to work in. But some directors, a hand full at most, are able to micromanage their works to such an extent that their own vision comes through: Kubrick, Wes Anderson, Kurosawa. But this challenge can be easily overcome if the artist will merely make a conscious choice to be sensitive to the theme of the lyrics and what the music itself seems to be suggesting. In this area of Hip-Hop I feel that there needs to be a lot of maturing on the part of producers. We must decide to make unified art. Again, there is a clear potential for unity, and as Christians it is our obligation to make art which glorifies God. I am referring to skill and craftsmanship now. There is no technical problem with combining the themes of a Hip-Hop song with its form, but it is difficult.
Relevance is perhaps one of the most important criteria used to judge Hip-Hop. As we have already seen, Hip-Hop is clearly a genre which is relevant to the issues of today. It speaks to the complexity of modern life, the feeling of alienation that has arisen from the absurd dissemination of data in the few decades, the sufferings of people, the joy of life etc... In addition, the way in which this genre is able to speak to all of these issues so successfully is through the great emphasis upon lyrical content. This is especially true in regards to the typical amount of words per song in the Hip-Hop genre. Because there is so much more room to speak, issues can be dealt with in a powerful way. The fragmented nature of Hip-Hop music is an acknowledgment of the fragmentation of modern life, but this does not necessarily lead to despair. For the Christian Artist the fragmentation-particularly seen in the use of sampling, looping and cutting up records-can be a place of real empathy and honesty about our world. And there is no need for the theme to end here. From this point of honest empathy the Christian should evoke the beautiful and the infinite and the hopeful though this music. Just as we live in an ugly world filled with debase and grotesque things, a world of overwhelming data and virtual chaos, the Hope of our salvation and the Word of God and His work in our lives weaves together a pattern of beauty out of the brutal world: illuminating and evoking His creation and its profound and infinite loveliness, and in the process, giving value and real meaning to life, individuals, art, politics, love, science, community, etc... The important thing here is that with Hip-Hop, the Christian artist can speak to, and about, the world around him in a way that is not detached and unfeeling, but rather empathetic and honest; while at the same time the genre provides a platform for discussing issues at such an extensive length that a intricate dialog is produced. In short, it neither shuns the natural world, the people of that world, God, nor the artist.
The artistic potential to Hip-Hop is something that I had intended to discuss at length-and perhaps I will at another time-but never got around to. Throughout my posts on Hip-Hop I have brought up minor points alluding to this, which I will now attempt to flesh out to some extent. Whenever an artist is deciding how to approach art it is important to look at the potential for the genres. For instance, the Opera or Classical music would not be the best choice for art which is attempting to be relevant and empathetic; for the most part these genres of music have been thoroughly explored. If we identify the beginning of Hip-Hop as the late 1970's (and this is an early figure because the genre did not truly come into fruition until the early 80's) than we see that it has been around for about thirty or less years. If we compare this to rock, which began in the early 50's and has lasted until today-50+ years-we see that Hip-Hop is still a relatively young genre. (This is a problematic comparison because it assumes that genres have a static lifespan rather than a dynamic one which fluctuates in relation to culture, the media, and technology. In a later post I will attempt to hash out these issues better.) The point being this: the genre is young and therefore has a lot of room to mature. I would suggest that the most productive area for maturity in Hip-Hop is in its treatment as an actual art form-which is a major reason for this study on the genre. If you are a Christian Hip-Hop artist, or indeed any Hip-Hop artist, and you desire to do something original, approach your art consciously: consider theme, form, content, complexity, unity, communication, and meaning. If you do this you will be original.
The last element of the criteria I will discuss is spiritual potential and it is the most important for the Christian Artist. It can be summed up as follows: Is there anything in the genre or form itself that will be a stumbling block for people, and, Does the genre or form allow for the glorification of God in an intelligent, honorable, and productive manner? I don't believe that I have to defend my argument much here, since this entire discussion has essentially been an attempt to prove that for Hip-Hop both of these questions should be answered in the affirmative. In regard to the first question, the music can be made which will not reasonably offend-emphasis on the words “can be made,” because, as I have already pointed out, many Christian artists do not seemed to be concerned about the form of this music and its relation to very similar music which glorifies violence, sexual abuse, selfishness, hatred, and a fundamental disrespect for humanity and God. There is nothing inherent to the genre that is dangerous for witnessing. To the second question, I would refer back to the rest of this post: the complexity, the unity, the relevance, and the potential all demonstrate how there is an incredible potential in Hip-Hop to glorify God and speak about issues and topics in such a manner as to challenge beliefs, apathy, doubt, and despair.
In conclusion, I hope that artists, musicians, rappers, producers, and DJs have all benefited from this discussion. But my real hope is that the Christian artists will begin to examine their art and the methods by which they make that art. We are called to excellence in everything that we do, and art should not be an exception. It will not be easy to do, but it is our obligation to approach our art, whatever that might be, consciously. There will be many mistakes, many failed attempts, and many embarrassing works, but we must be positive and supportive. In writing this I make no claim that I am capable of making a Hip-Hop project following the guidelines I have set out here. But I would hope that I, and many others, would work towards this goal with the glory of God as a driving force, not our own pride or glory-for that will surely lead to failure. If you are not an artist, make it a point to encourage and support those Christians around you who are, because it is a daunting task. If this is done, God will be glorified and humanity will be edified, blessed, taught, encouraged, empathized with, and grown.