Thursday, June 22, 2006

Holy Hip-Hop

In the last ten years or so music has been experiencing a major shift, one from the privileging of Rock music to Hip-Hop. Christian music has likewise felt this shift, albeit a bit slower, and we are starting to see the rise of several Hip-Hop artists who work in the Christian music market. While there have always been some good Hip-Hop artists who were Christian, most of them were relatively unknown as Rock has long been the dominant genre in the Christian market. Now, however, this has begun to change, in part due to the marketability of “Gospel Rap” and “Holy Hip-Hop”. And along with this shift have come the problems that have traditionally faced musicians who choose to sell themselves to the Christians market. In this article, I am going to look at some of the major problems that many, if not most, Holy Hip-Hoppers are dealing with; problems that need to be addressed not only for the sake of the art form, but so that we can worship God in Spirit and in Truth. In this discussion I do not mean to imply that all artists who use the title “Holy Hip-Hop” act in a certain way; instead, I only wish to address the concept that works as a foundation for this genre.

In the very name “Holy Hip-Hop” lays the first problem that I believe must be dealt with and it is also the foundation for the others. Perhaps since its earliest forms in the 20th century, Christian musicians have tended to make art that was more or less exclusively aimed at other Christians. While there is nothing in and of itself wrong with making music for other believers (particularly in the case of worship music), this often becomes problematic in the same way that a small gene pool tends to result in poor genes. Many Holy Hip-Hoppers (HHHers from now on), recognize that they need to make music that glorifies God, yet in a way that is accessible to the world, but unfortunately, I believe that many of them do not consider what this requires of them artistically. The difference that many find is one that is superficial (I do not mean this is in a derogatory way necessarily). Evidence for this can be seen in the very title “Holy Hip-Hop” which emphasizes the difference with a claim to holiness. The result is that they are establishing a genre based on a negative: “we are not secular, we are holy hip-hop.” This mindset goes beyond the title too. The focus of many HHHers music is upon stressing the difference rather than simply making art that reflects their worldview. Examples of this would be MCs that constantly talk about the evils of secular or mainstream Hip-Hop, those that mention Christ and God in the same way that secular groups shout out crew or gang names, and those that attempt to take on the prophet persona as they condemn the American Hip-Hop culture (this persona is misguided in that the O.T. prophets were almost exclusively charged with building up and warning the People of God). The name Holy Hip-Hop does not suggest artists who are Christian working within the genre of Hip-Hop, it suggests Christians who are segregating themselves (part of the definition of holy) from Hip-Hop while at the same time making music that sounds the same as those who they are segregating from. The emphasis seems to be upon difference; as if the very point of their art was that they are different from everyone else, which is hardly a reason to make music.

As a result of this isolationist variety of music, many Christian artists have fallen into poor workmanship. Despite being called to do their best at whatever they put their hands to (and many of them actually say in their rhymes that they have been “called” to do just that), they often only produce works which are derivative of secular artists, and in the worst cases this means a very poor imitation. There are many reasons for this. One of which is that the Christian market is simply easier to compete in. If an artists wishes to make it big in the Christian market he/she is competing with far fewer artists than the music industry as a whole. While competition should not drive art, as with everything, it does encourage us to excel. A side effect of this has been that the world perceives Christian artists as incapable of creating works that equal those of unbelievers. And this is truly a tragedy. Instead of being a witness to the world of the power of Christ’s transformative love to create minds capable of great works of art, all of which testify to His glory, often times Holy Hip-Hop is an example of an unimaginative, unredeemed quest for acceptance, fame, and wealth.

Another reason that HHH often is marked with poor workmanship is that they see themselves as an alternative to secular music. Again, instead of making art that reflects the world and life as Christ has created it, the preoccupation becomes making music that will substitute for worldly music. What this leads to is music that sounds almost identical to secular music except for a few key words changed from derogatory terms and profanity to references to Christ and the Spirit and God. HHH in this vein sells very well because it is a “clean” substitute for the world. Usually, however, the Christian artist does a very poor job of copying the music, which just makes a mockery out of the subject matter. But even worse is the blending of music which was created specifically, and explicitly, to carry a message that is anathema to the Gospel with the name of God. At times I struggle to see how this cannot be interpreted as taking the Lord’s name in vain. Now I do not mean that the entire genre of Hip-Hop is fundamentally opposed to the work of Christ (for more on this, read my post on the subject last year), that would be reactionary foolishness. What I do mean is that secular artists choose specific styles of Hip-Hop to express a specific messaging; in this sense the secular artist better understands what it means to make art compared to some Christians. By failing to acknowledge that the style (form) of the music impacts the message (content), HHHers have made works of “art” under the superficial label of holiness, which actually function to mock the name of Christ.

Finally, I must say that this is in no way intended to be an attack on those who have been striving to do the Lord's work. I only wish to open some new doors of discussion on this topic. Please prayerfully consider what I have said here.