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Is Rap Really a Canvas?

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series

"Is Rap Really a Canvas?"

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The following abridged discussion took place here.

Credo Mag: In the past you have been criticized for redeeming such a “depraved genre” as hip-hop. What is your response to this criticism?

Shai Linne: Arguments against “depraved genres” are ultimately arguments against redemption itself, because depraved genres are the products of depraved human beings- who need redemption. (In fact, “depraved genre” is a misnomer because it’s ascribing moral value to a medium, which by definition is morally neutral until informed by content.) Once God has redeemed a person, it’s fitting for the Christian to take the “genres” or vehicles  (such as books, cameras, canvasses, the internet, language, musical forms, etc.) that he or she once used for evil and now use them to promote the glory of God. Those who make the objection (especially as they use the internet to do so) are often unaware that they themselves use “depraved genres” all the time.

Shai Linne’s response to the question can be boiled down to four propositions:
1) Rap is a medium.
2) Media are morally neutral until informed by content.
3) Christ’s act of redemption means that even media formerly used for evil can now be used for God’s glory.
4) This is what Shai Linne is doing with rap.

I’d like to consider these propositions, and then weigh the validity of the argument. Let’s begin with the first: rap is a medium.

What is a medium? What does Shai Linne mean by medium? A dictionary definition of medium would say something like a medium is a means of conveying something. Fairly vague, and unhelpfully broad. Air can be a medium for airplanes, water a medium for fish, and wires a medium for electricity.

In the context of the discussion, Shai Linne is talking about media for messages. That is, he is focusing on those media that can communicate ideas – be they musical ideas, images, or messages written in language and recorded on a screen or a book. He later gives the following as examples of such media: “books, cameras, canvasses, the internet, language, musical forms, etc.” Leaving aside that those are very unlike things to be grouped together, it seems clear that he is limiting his discussion to media that can carry messages.

Linne regards the musical genre of rap as a medium. That is, rap, and we would assume, other genres of music, are simply media for messages to be added to them– on the order of cameras and canvasses. To be fair, perhaps he has defended this assertion elsewhere. However, here the validity of the idea is simply assumed to be true.

I would say, for Linne’s assertion to be true, rap must be like other media of messages in the same way. In Linne’s categorization, these media carry no messages of their own. That is, cameras have no messages of their own until a message is added – until an image is captured. The device only communicates the story of its pictures once those pictures are added. Canvases have no messages of their own until a message is added – until a picture is painted. The canvas only communicates the ideas of the painting once they have been added.

Does rap qualify as a medium in this sense? That is, can we extract rap as a set of rhythms and verbal intonations, that remain meaningless until lyrics are added? Is rap like canvas, film or memory space in a computer?

To answer that, let’s propose an experiment. Imagine hearing a rap song in a language foreign to you. The message of the lyrics is for all practical intents and purposes meaningless to you. All you can make out is the music and the intonation of the rapper. This is as close as we can get to Linne’s idea of rap as ‘medium without message’. As you listen, does it carry the neutral significance of a blank screen? Is it film awaiting an image, creating in you no responses whatsoever? Is it a blank sheet of paper, or 100 megabytes of space waiting to be used? Do you really feel nothing, and make no associations, and experience no like or dislike for the music?

I doubt it. I think we hear it the way we hear the neighbors arguing. We can’t always make out the words, but we understand the mood, and therefore we understand the significance. An angry tone of voice may be a medium to communicate an idea, but it is more than a medium. It is a form – a shape into which the words will be poured. It has a particular shape by its volume and tempo and pitch. And before we add the words to it, it is a shape which already has a meaning of its own.

If the reply comes that such interpretations of rap come through association or by how rap is used, my answer is, how does that help the idea that rap is like a camera or a canvas? In fact, it tends to weaken such a notion. It shows that rap, for whatever reason, carries meaning in ways that devices and technologies do not. If rap is a medium, then it is a medium in a very different  way to media like devices and canvases. It is more of a mold that will shape the words placed into it– and ought not to be compared to radios, MP3 players or computer screens.

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About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.