God Loves Hip-Hop
Hip-hop’s lyrics often give the genre a bad rap. Critics would have no trouble citing its expletives and its fixation on sexual escapades and criminal behavior, and even fans might feel uncomfortable reciting (and explaining) The Chronic to their grandparents. While pop musicians can discuss these same topics in songs and videos and still be viewed as “wholesome,” hip-hop musicians face searing judgment for their blunter discussion. A white, female pop singer singing of an intimate sexual moment will likely employ subtlety to coat the song’s sexuality, and the song can be played on television and radios and sung by children who don’t understand the lyrics; meanwhile, a Black, male rapper could describe the same sort of sexual encounter in blunter, perhaps more expletive-ridden lyrics, and his song would never cross from the hip-hop charts to mainstream music due to its vulgarity. Despite this double standard (undoubtedly influenced by racism and sexism), hip-hop has something built into its genre and its artists that pop fans don’t access as easily: a deep and real love for and hope in Jesus, and a ready recognition that life is most difficult without Him.
O’Shea Jackson, Jr., played father N.W.A. member Ice Cube in Straight Outta Compton, the 2015 film about one of the most renowned rap groups in history. N.W.A., whose very name contains expletives, is also one of the most lyrically explicit groups. “Our art is a reflection of our reality,” Jackson, Jr., explains, in character. While art, like all cultural products, simultaneously reflects and creates culture, it is naïve to assume that none of N.W.A.’s lyrical themes— including vicious police brutality (“F*** The Police”), a life of crime (“Boyz-N-The- Hood”), drugs (“Dopeman”), and random sex (“Gangsta Gangsta”)—existed before the formation of the group. Compton, California, has long been a city devastated by Reagan’s war on drugs and subsequent hypercriminalization, incarcerating Black men at unprecedented rates, placing children unaffiliated with gangs into lifelong gang databases, and filling dilapidated schools with police activity. N.W.A.’s description of this culture is the city’s reality, and while hip-hop lyrics often delight in acts of rebellion against or satirizing this reality, these lyrics serve as a common sentiment within the community. This common context for hip-hop artists becomes a platform both of rebellion against a common darkness and a place of hope, and where there is both darkness and hope, there is God.
God promises to come into our communities and our cultural contexts, however dark they can be (Acts 2: 1-4; ESV). During the nineteen-nineties, when hip-hop began to enter the mainstream charts, God came on the radio in the people and communities that generated Hip-Hop. The same people who listened to 2Pac’s “Ambitionz as a Ridah,” a song about sex, drugs, and violence, or “Hit Em Up,” a menacing “beef ” song aimed at Notorious B.I.G., listened to 2Pac’s references to God. They hear him ask the same questions that many Christians, twenty years later, are still asking—the question of God’s care in times of pain (“Oh, my Lord, tell me what I’m living for! … Cuz even thugs cry, but do the Lord care? … There’s a ghetto up in heaven, and it’s ours,” in “Only God Can Judge Me”; “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my guns to keep. If I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take … Come take my body, God! Don’t let me suffer any longer!” in “When Thugz Cry”), the social justice issues discussed in “Keep Ya Head Up,” and the request of God to walk with us through “the valley of death” (in “So Many Tears”). In “Only God Can Judge Me,” 2Pac wrestles through jail sentences, death of community members, and the judgment by his peers, while ultimately deciding that he need not fear, for God is his only judge. He’s using the Bible in the way it was meant to be used: as a tool for making sense of and bettering one’s life. The Bible commands us (dozens of times, including Matthew 7: 1-5, Luke 6:37, John 8:7, and Romans 2:1-3) to never judge another person, and “Only God Can Judge Me,” along with many of 2Pac’s other songs, indicates a curiosity for and relationship with God. The 19th century philosopher and Christian theologian Soren Kierkegaard understood this indirect communication as a sort of “overhearing;” instead of mimicking evangelical or gospel singers, hip-hop artists can allow their listeners to “overhear” their relationships with God without blatantly encouraging listeners to find their own, and in doing so, might actually encourage listeners to seek out this same God.
Even the boast of The Game’s “Jesus Piece” (Jesus piece: a flashy cross necklace) reinforce an image of Christianity as “cool” and desirable, and the cross as something to be worn with pride. This type of union between Christ and what’s culturally “dope” is the sort of union that permitted hip-hop songs to be about God rather than referencing God. Perhaps the most cited rap song about Jesus is Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks,” which achieved gold status and a Grammy for best rap song and encouraged future discussion of Jesus in hip-hop. Kanye points directly to the problem of God in hip-hop and perhaps pop culture, in general: “they say you can rap about anything except for Jesus/That means guns, sex, lies, videotape/But if I talk about God my record won’t get played?” In saying—rightly or falsely—that rap music doesn’t want to hear about Jesus, he makes “Jesus rap” seem like something for which to fight, to desire, and perhaps even to investigate for oneself. The impact of the record is best condensed to a moment in Chapter 11 of Raising Kanye: Life Lessons from the Mother of a Hip-Hop Superstar by Donda West, Kanye West’s mother. Kanye missed his opening slot at R&B artist Usher’s concert, and Donda later learned that Kanye had instead performed “Jesus Walks” at a youth revival concert, after which three-hundred youth gave their lives to Jesus. Jesus in hip-hop music matters. Boasting about one’s faith in Jesus, be it through a diamond-encrusted necklace, through a top-charting single, or through a gospel choir at a Sunday service, is what we are called to do as Christians. 1 Corinthians 1:31 says to “let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” Rap is a platform for this boasting, and perhaps can, as Kanye hopes, “bring the day that [we’re] dreaming ‘bout.” When Paul encourages this boasting, he also explains the ways in which he must “become all things to all people so that by all possible means [he] might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). Just as it was not enough for Paul to approach non-believers as a believer, it is not enough for a non-hip-hop artist to approach the hip-hop community to present God to its members. We listen most readily to those who know us, who understand us, or who are like us. Such is the ability of hip-hop artists to reach out to hip-hop listeners with a message of Christ.
If hip-hop can be used to proudly proclaim God and His works, it can also be used to question problems in cultural-Christianity. Hip-hop artist Macklemore contrasts his own experience of God with the Church he witnesses in modern culture in his song “Same Love.” Macklemore was taught that “God loves all His children,” and that if a preacher “[preaches] hate at the service, those words aren’t anointed,” referencing the fact that some extremist Christian groups are outspoken against people in the LGBTQ+ community. Macklemore’s hip-hop song “Church” explains that organized religion has, unfortunately, shown him more of the hate in humankind than the love, and that he now experiences God through music and through other people, more than an institutionalized organization. While some Christians might interpret these words as blasphemous, it is important to remember that Christ Himself was from a Jewish background (and arguably, not a Christian), and Macklemore describes a rich relationship with God that he accesses through other humans, who contain “the universal laws of God” in “us, human beings…the spirit’s right here,” for humans are told that we “are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in [us]” (1 Corinthians 3:16) and that we “have no need for anyone to teach [us]; but as God’s anointing teaches [us] about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught [us], [we] abide in Him” (1 John 2:27). Macklemore makes a differentiation here that many Christians would be willing to make: the difference between nominal and/or deep, faith-based Christianity, and Christianity-influenced ways of living, or perhaps “christianity.” Whether or not we agree with Macklemore, his discussion of religious issues in hip-hop further reinforce the platform of hip-hop for God, not divide it.
In recent years, hip-hop music has experienced an unprecedented blending of its music with the Gospel. The rapper Kendrick Lamar, described by Buzzfeed’s Reggie Ugwu as having “radical Christianity” and by rapzilla’s Justin Sarachik as “the biggest Christian rapper of all-time,” has consistently discussed Jesus in his songs, more so than any other major/mainstream rapper. While Lamar’s greatest hits have included themes of drugs and sex, Kendrick himself has forever sworn off alcohol and drugs (see: Complex magazine), and has been in a faithful relationship with his girlfriend since high school. His intro on Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City reads: “Lord God, I come to you a sinner, and I humbly repent for my sins. I believe that Jesus is Lord. I believe that you raised Him from the dead. I will ask that Jesus will come into my life and be my Lord and Savior. I receive Jesus to take control of my life that I may live for Him from this day forth. Thank you, Lord Jesus, for saving me with your precious blood. In Jesus’ name, Amen.” What an introduction. It seems that through this power, Kendrick will be able to discuss the difficult subjects contained within the album, including gang violence (“m.A.A.d City”), capitalism and promiscuous sex (“Money Trees”), and sobriety (“Swimming Pools”). All of these issues are perhaps most poignantly discussed on his unreleased song, “Jesus Saves,” about the many deaths in his friend-group, hypercriminalization in his community, and Kendrick’s many sins. In the short song, Kendrick finds a $100 bill and has the opportunity to give it to a young boy in his neighborhood who has been shot, and the inflection-heavy refrain of “I don’t know why He keep blessing me” turns to “now I know why He keep blessing me; so I can bless you.” In his mind, Kendrick is brought to success in the hip-hop rap community by God so that he can spread His blessings with the world. Rap-legend status is one of Kendrick’s blessings, so Kendrick uses the opportunity to spread the word of God.
Kendrick’s position as both a Christian rapper and rapper-who-happens-to-be-a Christian is a dual-identity belonging to Chance the Rapper and Lecrae. Chance was raised in a deeply Christian neighborhood in Chicago, and from the beginning of his rap career, he has tied himself firmly to proclaiming the Christian message. His latest album, Coloring Book, has achieved incredible popularity, with almost every song containing an explicit gospel message. The album’s opening song contains lyrics such as, “This for the kids of the king of all kings,” “I get my word from the sermon,” and “I might give Satan a swirlie.” In “How Great,” Chance and Jay Electronica detail their views on God’s roles in their struggles and triumphs, preceded by Chance’s cousin singing of Chris Tomlin’s Christian hit “How Great is Our God.” Likewise, “Blessings” is reminiscent of Kendrick Lamar’s “Jesus Saves”—almost an anthem of spreading the blessings of Christ with others. The album concludes with Chance’s potent refrain: “I speak to God in public, I speak to God in public.”
Hip-hop artist Lecrae, often considered more “Christian rapper” than “rapper-who-happens-to-be-a-Christian,” also has a song about God’s blessings called “Blessings.” His album Anomaly debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts, propelling its songs such as “Give In,” a song which speaks to the overwhelming mercy and abounding love of God, into the mainstream music scene. But Lecrae also discusses his life before and without God in this album (“All I Need is You,” “Fear,” “Runners”); the listener becomes privy to his spiritual transformation. He becomes relatable to those who aren’t the stereotypical, televised, expected, “perfect Christians,” while still proclaiming that he is loved despite his sins, a message which harkens back to 2Pac, Ice Cube (“When I Get to Heaven”), Chamillionaire (“Void In My Life”), Nas (“The Cross,” “God Love Us”, “Dance”), or any other hip-hop artist who recognizes his, her, or their redemption despite profound brokenness.
As Reggie Ugwu reminds us in his article on Kendrick Lamar, Jesus himself never associated with those who claimed to be pure; “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). Perhaps hip-hop’s history with the brokenness discussed in its songs—violence and crime, the results of promiscuous sex, drugs and alcohol, mass incarceration, police brutality, failed educational systems, hopelessness, and others—is the same nebulous, dark void into which Jesus entered when he came to Earth: a place for goodness to transform, a wound for Jesus to heal. Hip-hop will never be a “perfect” platform for God’s message because humans will never be “perfect” vessels for God’s message, yet many of its musicians recognize their God-given blessings and brokenness and are excited to project them into the musical world. Thank God for that.
Abigail Gamble Rogers-Berner is a Junior from New York, New York majoring in English. She once got a spur-of-the-moment “Yeezy Taught Me” tattoo on her foot.Tags: 2Pac, African American, Chamillionaire, Chance the Rapper, Chris Tomlin, church, community, creativity, culture, healing, hip-hop, hope, Ice Cube, incarceration, Jay Electronica, Jr., Justin Sarachik, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Lecrae, music, N.W.A., Nas, Notorious B.I.G., O’Shea Jackson, race, racism, Reggie Ugwu, sexism, sexuality, Soren Kierkegaard, The Game