I found myself losing focus at a Sunday service
Embarrassed so I start questioning God, “What is my purpose?”
He said to live the way he did, that’s all he want from me
Spread the word and witness, he rose on the first Sunday
I said alright, enthused that my Lord gave a listen
I opened my Bible in search to be a better Christian
And this from a person that never believed in religion
But s**t, my life is so f***ed up, man; I can’t help but give in
I’m giving testimonies to strangers I never met
Hopped on the pulpit and told them how I was truly blessed
Felt like I’m free from all my sins when the service was over
Walked out the church, then got a call that my homie was murdered
Then lost my faith again
- Kendrick Lamar, ‘God is Gangsta’
If you’re looking for revival, you may just find it in the verses of a hip-hop song.
Grammy Award-winning man of the hour Kendrick Lamar dropped some truth on the conservative Christian world this month with his observation that the modern church is guilty of preaching a watered-down gospel that sidesteps the acknowledgement of sin and the fear of God.
Harking back to his church upbringing, Lamar made the observation in a written statement to DJ Booth Magazine:
“As a community, we was taught to pray for our mishaps, and [God will] forgive you. Yes, this is true. But he will also reprimand us as well. As a child, I can't recall hearing this in service. Maybe leaders of the church knew it will run off churchgoers? No one wants to hear about karma from the decisions they make. It's a hard truth. We want to hear about hope, salvation, and redemption. Though his son died for our sins, our free will to make whatever choice we want, still allows him to judge us...I feel it's my calling to share the joy of God, but with exclamation, more so, the FEAR OF GOD. The balance. Knowing the power in what he can build, and also what he can destroy. At any given moment.”
Lamar’s comments don’t arrive out of context. Just before the release of his chart-topping album ‘DAMN’, the rapper indicated his music was going to delve deep into a spiritual dialogue. “We’re in a time where we exclude one major component out of this whole thing called life: God.” Kendrick told the New York Times in March, “Nobody speaks on it because it’s almost in conflict with what’s going on in the world when you talk about politics and government and the system.”
There’s a zeitgeist in the hip-hop scene right now. The last few years have seen a rise in hip-hop artists openly articulating a gospel narrative. It’s not that spirituality hasn’t been embraced by the genre before; traditional Gospel music was the grandfather of modern-day hip-hop; the political and spiritual undertones have always been there. More astounding is the emergence of a trinity of the scene’s most influential gatekeepers - Kanye West, Chance the Rapper and Kendrick Lamar - each turning to spirituality for their inspiration, each openly communicating their faith and dialogue with God and in doing so, each utterly confounding the conservative Christian market.
Last year, Kanye West touted his album ‘The Life of Pablo’ as “a gospel album with a whole lot of cursing on it.” A tribute to the radical conversion of St. Paul, opening track ‘Ultralight Beam’ played out like a church service; a resolute black choral piece presided over by Gospel luminaries Kirk Franklin and Kelly Price.
In 2009, Kanye remarked “I just think God has put me in a really good space. And I think he has a mission for me. There’s gonna be ups and downs. But it’s something that he wants me to deliver to the world.”
Earlier this year, Chance the Rapper stormed the stage of the Grammys, taking Best New Artist, best Rap Album and Best Rap Performance; he also took Hollywood to church, with an unforgettable performance that included a medley of songs from his latest album ‘Coloring Book’, a full gospel choir and a rendition of Chris Tomlin’s ‘How Great Is Our God’. Kirk Franklin was there too, playing buoyant hype-man and preacher.
“I don't make songs for free, I make 'em for freedom/Don't believe in kings, believe in the Kingdom” Chance sings elsewhere, in his song ‘Blessings’.
For those of us familiar with the vernacular, it can be easy to cherry-pick the inspirational one-liners from each of these albums and claim a victory for the gospel message, but anyone familiar with Kendrick, Kanye or Chance, know that these nods to spirituality are delivered amongst hard-hitting narratives that run the full gambit of street culture, drug use, sexist tropes, and particularly in Kanye’s case, an ongoing battle with ego.
In 2013, on the eve of the release of his album ‘Yeezus’, Kanye said “I’m a Christian and I just wanted to always let people know that’s what’s on my mind.” Later, he would proclaim on the album’s third track: “I am a God/Hurry up with my damn massage/ Hurry up with my damn ménage/Get the Porsche out the damn garage”
Writing for Noisey, Lawrence Burney writes of Chance the Rapper:
“Chance upholds his religious beliefs all while speaking about drug usage, reminiscing about teenage flings, and embracing artists who don't speak on their relationship with his personal God.”
“Chance is walking the tightrope between secular and religious”, adds NPR.
In March, Kendrick Lamar released the video for ‘DAMN’’s lead single ‘Humble’; a rich, filmic piece that included Lamar dressed in priestly robes, a depiction of the last supper descending into a boozy foodfight and references to “my main nigga J.C., the original O.G.” American values groups cried foul, accusing Lamar of blasphemy and heresy, with many organisations threatening boycotts and pickets of his concerts and record stores who stocked him. In a statement, the Values Coalition said “This video is nothing but blatant, brazen blasphemy, a direct attack on Christian values that, due to its cavalier depiction of Our Lord Jesus Christ and his disciples, borders on outright heresy. To hear the words “nigga,” “bitches,” and “booty” uttered in the same sentence as Jesus is physically painful.”
This, from a guy who opened his 2013 album ‘Good Kid, m.A.A.d City’ with the following prayer:
"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."
That’s some tightrope. Perhaps Buzzfeed’s Reggie Ugwu puts it best when he observes of Lamar; “His ease at moving in the secular world, affinity for profanity, and evolving attitude toward faith are what originally defined Lamar as a mainstream hip-hop star, and not a Christian one. And within the Christian community, his overtures toward Jesus have so far been regarded with some skepticism.”
There’s an important question that arises when the gospel gets this messy. How does the Christian community react when its delivered in such an unfiltered, unresolved fashion? How do we receive dialogue about God when it sits alongside acutely disturbing, visceral descriptions of drug culture and the vernacular of the urban streets? What do we do when talk of Jesus resides amongst the politics of Compton and the Black Lives Matter movement? How do we receive the Christ described to us by broken spokespeople whose public lives are a far cry from our expectations of a Christian lifestyle?
The Church expects a lot from their spokespeople. And in a way, they should. The platform of the international stage is a massive responsibility, and in a world where the sacred and the secular are mingling ever closer, the actions and singularity of an influencer’s message are more important than ever. But does that mean these people are expected to be infallible? That their public faith journeys are only welcome when every other aspect of their life and art falls into line with gospel values? This is a lot to ask.
There’s a certain irony in the kind of fire that people like CCM stalwart Kirk Franklin has come under for aligning himself with the likes of Chance the Rapper and Kanye West. He’s been accused of selling out, and in more extreme examples, helping to summon the antichrist – but to Franklin, the most important thing is to be alongside these artists as they undertake their own unique, very public journey.
“Kanye is not me. I am not him.” Franklin wrote last year in response to criticism from the Christian community. “He is my brother I am proud to do life with. No sprints, but Marathons; like most of us are on. Before one song was released, I was crucified because my brother asked me to take a picture. Again "no Kanye, you're not good enough"? No. That is a dangerous message I believe we send to the world when our posture is they have to meet certain requirements before they are worthy to kiss the ring. It says people are not redeemable, forgivable or candidates for grace. That my friend is religious. I will not turn my back on my brother. I will love him, prayerfully grow with him. However long he'll have me, and however long the race takes. To a lot of my Christian family, I'm sorry he's not good enough, Christian enough, or running at your pace...and as I read some of your comments, neither am I. That won't stop me from running. Pray we win.”
Conservative Christianity has spent the better part of a decade convinced that the God should exist in the safety of a subculture; perhaps the days of the walled city of the Christian arts has crumbled; after all, there’s a certain poetry to the metaphor of preaching to the choir in this instance. That being said, as the Huffington Post asks, “What does authentic Christianity look like? Will mere professed belief suffice?”
Perhaps not. But surely a raft of hip-hop’s most influential, fallible voices inviting God into their journey is a start.
Further reading: some really great articles about the faith journeys of Chance, Kendrick, etc:
- The Radical Christianity of Kendrick Lamar | Buzzfeed
- Praise & Questions: How Kendrick & Chance Talk to God in Different Ways | DJ Booth
- The Gospel According to ‘Ye: Kanye West, The Life of Pablo, and Authentic Christianity | Huffington Post
- Why Kanye West's 'The Life of Pablo' is More Gospel Than You Think | Genius.com
- Chance the Rapper's Coloring Book is a Gospel Rap Masterpiece | Rolling Stone
- It's Tough to be a Chance The Rapper Fan When You're Not a Christian | Noisey
- Is Kanye West's 'The Life of Pablo' Really a Gospel Album? | Christianity Today