Shai Linne and I are having a conversation between Christian brothers about Christian rap. This post will not make sense unless you start at the beginning of this discussion and read through all the posts. You can find the other posts in this discussion on this page or on the right hand side of this post. This is my rebuttal to Shai’s third answer and his reply.
Thanks, Shai. I think this helps to move the conversation to the central issues and clarifies some things that I think are important to this discussion.
Your answer confirmed my own observation and study over the past several years, namely, that particular kinds of rhythmic accompaniment is a key element of what distinguishes rap from other poetic forms.
Now here’s why I wanted to move this direction: In your answer to my last question, you suggested that what made rap well-suited to Christian subjects was its high word count and aesthetic elements like internal rhyme and complex structure.
All of these characteristics are, of course, admirable, but you have now acknowledged the very point I made in my last rebuttal: these characteristics don’t define rap. They could just as easily describe a sonnet or my example poem. No one who objects to rap does so on the basis of its high word count and internal rhyme.
Rather, those who question the fittingness of rap to Christian sentiments do so, at least partially, on the basis of the element you identified as the essence of rap: specific kinds of rhythmic accompaniment, which they believe reflect behavior ill-fitted to God’s holy truth.
Your explanation and interaction with the examples given reveals the centrality of the beat for rap. The example I gave was deliberately read to deemphasize a regular rhythm in favor of natural syllabic stress. And you’re correct, that poem does not have a regular poetic meter or rhythm.
But neither does most of the rap lyrics I’ve studied. Take this passage for example:
At first we snubbed Him,
Now His vessels of mercy love Him.
Your highest thought is infinitely unworthy of Him.
Beyond vocabulary His actions vary,
His wrath is scary
All His adversaries are imaginary.
There is no regular pattern of meter of rhythm to this passage (it switches freely between iambs and anapaests), as is true of many rap lyrics (and my example). So in order to fit the lyrics to a steady drum beat, you have to adjust your cadence to align the strong and weak syllables. This is something that takes an impressive amount of skill and memorization, and also one of the reasons that rap isn’t a corporate form.
I say all this to emphasize the fact that what makes rap what it is has little to do with the lyrics themselves and more with particular performance characteristics that define rap. Even with a mashup that uses classical music, there’s always a hip hop beat added.
Now here’s the point: when you remove particular elements that are essential to the form—in this case the beat—the message changes.
Back to your performance of “Spread his Fame.” You may have written it as a rap, you may have a hip-hop beat in mind as you perform, and every one listening may assume an underlying hip-hop beat as well, but when you remove the accompaniment and change your vocal tone (because “it can distract us from the most important thing“), what you are expressing changes. In other words, there is a significant difference between what the following two videos communicate in how the performances shape the propositional content of the lyrics:
Same words, same performer, same intent, two very different performances with two different products.
When we’re talking about music, we’re not talking about words and notes on a page; we’re talking about moral human performance.
And that’s what I am primarily concerned about: how do particular styles of music and performance shape God’s truth? Are they presenting that truth in appropriate ways, or to they trivialize and demean the truth?
And so this brings us back to my previous question: what makes lyrics performed over a hip-hop beat particularly fitting for communicating God’s holy truth?
Thanks for your rebuttal, Scott. Let me address a few of your points. After quoting a few lines from my song “Spread His Fame”, you said:
“There is no regular pattern of meter of rhythm to this passage…This is something that takes an impressive amount of skill and memorization, and also one of the reasons that rap isn’t a corporate form.”
In Hip-hop generally speaking, the regular pattern isn’t in the words, at least not in the same way as in hymns. The beat is what’s constant, and the rapper has freedom for rhythmic variation in the writing. There is much more freedom in Hip-hop than in other poetic forms, which allows for the increased word count that I’ve argued is one of the things that makes some styles of Hip-hop particularly useful for communicating certain Biblical truths.
As far as it not being a corporate form, I disagree. I’ve been to many rap concerts where thousands of people knew every single word to the songs. The skill and memorization needed to repeat every lyric of the songs wasn’t a barrier at all- at least not for people who spoke the “language” of that cultural context.
You gave examples of my doing the same song in different ways. You followed that by saying: “Same words, same performer, same intent, two very different performances with two different products.”
Of course the performances were different. The song was re-contextualized for different settings. One of the settings was cross-cultural, with many in attendance who lacked familiarity with the genre of Hip-hop. There were people in that congregation who were 70-plus years old and had never heard Hip-hop music or interacted with anyone from Hip-hop culture. But they loved the Lord Jesus and could say “Amen” when I referred to Christ as the beautiful and blessed Son and bragged about His supremacy. I sought to serve them by removing any obstacle that would prevent them from engaging with the truth I was communicating and by making the lyrics as understandable as possible. If my cadence or the beat would prevent the crowd from understanding me, I’d make drastic adjustments if necessary. I have no problem doing that for the sake of the gospel. That’s simply an application of the principle communicated in 1 Cor. 14:16-17. By contrast, in the performance with the beat behind it, it was a Hip-hop crowd. They didn’t need me to “translate”, as it were. Because they were cultural insiders, I could easily communicate with them in our common understood “dialect”.
Scott, we’re in agreement that the manner in which music is communicated can both affect how it’s received as well as “shape the propositional content of the lyrics”, as you say. I have a background in theater. One of the great things about watching different productions of the same play is that you’re getting the same script with a completely different take on it. The same words coming out of the mouths of different actors (or even the same actors on a different night) can take on a completely different meaning, depending on how they perform them. This is also true with music. It’s one of the reasons why people write new tunes for traditional hymn texts. Consider the following four versions of the hymn “Come Ye Sinners”.
Same lyrics, same author, four very different performances with four different products. I see that as a good thing, because different musical expressions can help bring out nuances in the lyrics that others may not do as well. If I’m reading you correctly, where we differ is that you would ascribe inherent moral value to the music apart from the words and I would not. It seems like you’re saying that version 4 above may be holy and version 2 might be unholy, based on the musical elements that accompany the lyrics. I see no biblical warrant for that kind of thinking.
As to your question about why Hip-hop is appropriate, my answer remains the same. As far as music by Christians is concerned, the biblical stress is on content, not style. So the main question to ask of Christian music in any genre is whether or not the lyrics conform to the truth of God’s Word. All other considerations are secondary.