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.


Ryan said...

I do think you bring out the irony of the term 'holy hip hop' as employed rather well: that is, the irony that something self-designated in contradistinction to secular music is in fact just a poor (and ignorant) replication of that music.

and i must say that 'holy hip hop' is about the worst sounding alliteration i've yet heard.

also, i doubt many christians--not to mention non christians--really have a good grasp on the concept of holiness. i suspect many align it with petty legalisms (so as to be other--usually with a crass evangelistic/utilitarian end ), rather than a 'set apart for' the greater purposes of God (which include, but transcend evangelism.) there is of course much more to be said on 'holiness' but i stop here and refer any interested to John Webster's book on the subject.

you said:
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...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"

i think you are quite right to point out the naivety in ignoring how form bears upon content (and how they are in fact inseperable).

but i want to press you on a few points

1) not to deny that messages are inevitable,and often germane to music, but why make them primary? It seems a bit reductive to me.

2) what do you mean by form here? how would you here distinguish between a style and a genre, etc?


Anonymous said...

what about Christian rock? isn't also a alternative to secular rock. let us remember Christian rap music targeted audience is not the same as Rock, these two tend to work quite diferently. lets us not water down the message of the Cross as many christian bands are doing these days. a famous christian band once told me they didnt want to shove the message of Jesus christ down any ones throat. doing so they ever hardly mention the name Jesus.

Joel said...

This is an important issue, no doubt. But I keep getting tripped up when you conflate the style of music (can you expand your definition a little – beat, instrumentation, flow?) with the lyrics or message of hip-hop. In order for me to understand this, I’d need to hear/see some concrete examples.

One can easily argue that the currently popular forms of rap (a term I prefer, since hip-hop generally refers to the culture that rap music is one part of, although that’s another issue we can get into later) are in fact far removed from what rap once was, both musically and lyrically, so this HHH might be a bad copy of a bad copy. But if I’m going to indict Artist X (again, examples would be helpful) for sounding too much like that crunk (as a genre I mean) “Booty, Booty Booty” song, it’s not because I think tinny snares and ugly, fat keyboard basslines are immoral or un-Christian, it’s because that song sucks and the artist is being unoriginal. Can you explain a bit more?

(I still owe you a couple of e-mails. I am really bad at that sort of thing.)

noneuclidean said...

Great comments here, lets see if I can address them all without writing for three pages. Both Ryan and Joel made the point that I did not define "form" in my rant of a post.

I'm not exactly sure how to define "form" in Hip-Hop, particularly in such a way as to differentiate between style and genre. But there are some things I can say. I would say the form of Hip-Hop (or Rap if you prefer) involves everything except the ideas/message/themes the artist is attempting to communicate. Therefore this would include flows (tone, speed, intonation, rhyme style...) and beats (samples, cuts, instruments...). I don't feel that it would be loving for me to provide an example from the real world of HHH music where the form is working against the content, but I can give a hypothetical one:

An MC's lyrics seem to be saying that he is on a mission from God to share the Gospel, but the tone of his voice is very powerful, aggressive, and even angry. The flows seem to suggest that he is going to shoot someone on the street but he claims that he is only going to preach to them. Here, there is a real conflict between the form (vehicle for the idea communicated) and the content. And many people, Christian or nonChristian, Hip-Hop head or novice, can tell that there is something strange when they hear music like this.

I would have to write, and perhaps I will, a whole new post purely on form in Hip-Hop in order to fully reply to both Ryan and Joel's pertinent comments, but for now I can speak to what I believe is the practical side of this issue for the artist. I am convinced, that if Christian artists would simply spend time considering how each element of their music should contribute to the message or point of their work, than they would not likely make music in which the form and the content seem to be making conflicting claims.

Ryan also pointed out that I seem to be making messages primary. I'm not sure how I am doing this, but if I am, part of the reason for this is that HHH itself is preoccupied with messages. Since they seem to believe that it is important to have very clear, simple, and blatant messages, I believe that it is pertinent to discuss those messages in context with the way they are communicated.

An anonymous writer brought up Christian Rock and the problems that exist there. I did not intend on denying that there are problems with Christian Rock, I am just trying to deal with Holy Hip-Hop here. But I would also say, to your comment that we must mention the name of Christ, that just as the "holy" in "Holy Hip-Hop" is often a superficial way of being "set apart", mentioning Christ and God in every song does not make a song a work of art that glorifies God. For more on this I would recommend the writings of Francis Schaeffer (particularly Art in the Bible), Has Rookmaaker, and Calvin Seerveld. You can also read a series of post I wrote last year that delt with this topic in part: Posts
If my responses have not adequately answered any questions, please let me know.

josh kemble said...

I'm in agreement with you. When I was younger and attending youth groups at my church (in like junior high) self proclaimed "Christian" music always sort of bothered me, since it usually seemed to be of poorer quality, the lyrical messages tended to be trite, and there seemed to be no honest relation of actual life experience within the music.

I also knew many hypocritical Christians who were huge fans of this music. The music never seemed to bother them, since it was busy damning non- christians, and not looking to point out issues with fellow believers. In other words, preaching to the already converted. I'm rambling, but my take on any sort of music or artwork that wishes to segregate itself from the pool of competition is that it is a simply ineffective way to reach a broad and diverse audience.

If your goal is to make music that is "Christian," I'd say put it out into the world, make it really good, and actually address (hopefully cause feeling to occur through this) the human condition in an honest and lovely way. Then, if it stands up next to the "secular" bands, and can tread water competitively, congratulations! You might possibly be able to have an influence on non-believers.

I can think of a few bands that are doing this (not many in HHH, but in rock). Pedro the Lion, Sunny Day Real Estate, and Starflyer 59. These bands have a huge level of respect in the mainstream secular world, but make it very apparent that they are believers, and are quite bold with their beliefs in their music. However, their music evokes something that tends to be lacking in "Christian" music and art, which is good storytelling, musicianship, as well as diverse subjects. By the way, that critique of humanism vs. postmodernism you linked was fabulous.