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Can Rap be Christian? Evaluating Hip Hop

Today we finally arrive at a discussion of the nature of rap itself. This post will be beneficial for you, however, only if you accept the following assertions on made on Monday:

  1. Man is completely depraved and thus cannot trust his own preferences implicitly.
  2. Music is a medium of human communication and thus must be carefully evaluated to determine whether its communication is sinful.
  3. Cultures are imbedded with values since they are external expressions of value systems.

curtisallenvoiceFor the past three days I have further explained and defended these assertions. Tuesday I dealt with the objection that believers are not totally depraved. Wednesday I considered the nature of neutral objects and their uses. Thursday I dealt with the nature of culture.

If you do not agree with these arguments, then evaluating hip hop will make no sense to you. This was essentially the mode of defense taken by Shai Linne in his interview with Mark Dever.

However, as I observed on Monday, Dever, Linne, and Allen implicitly admit that rap does indeed communicate because they discuss the different “flavors” of different kinds of rap, and they argue that rap is actually a fitting medium for the expression of biblical truth.

It is this assertion that I’d like to evaluate today.

Once again, let me ask you to separate personalities from this discussion. We are not evaluating persons or their motives; we are evaluating a culture and a medium of communication.

The Roots of Rap

Rap music is a subset of the culture of Hip Hop, which began in New York in the early 1970s.1 It was developed in the impoverished, gang-saturated communities of the Bronx at block parties, which incorporated DJs who would play the hit music of the day. DJ Kool Herc, one of the most popular DJs of the early 70s and a Jamaican immigrant, began to recognize that people danced better to the percussive interludes of songs, and so he began to creatively mix together these smaller rhythmic sections in order to motivate the people to dance longer and harder. He combined this practice with the traditional Jamaican custom of “toasting,” or calling out above the music in rhythmic, rhyming chants. Thus rap music was born.

Rap music soon became the voice for expressions of anger and discontent with society. Its heavy rhythmic content and forceful, declamatory presentation provided a perfect vehicle for expressing this angst. Some, such as Afrika Bambaataa, an ex-street gang member, attempted to use hip hop culture as a means for re-channeling the rage of young people away from gang fighting into the music, dance, and art (graffiti) of the culture.

Rap music has developed in some ways since its inception, mostly in terms of complexity. However, its essential elements remain the same:

  • aggressive, self-assertive, rhyming declamation
  • discontent socio-political commentary
  • heavy rhythmic foundation

The Culture of Rap

Today, rap music (and hip hop culture in general) is most often associated with violence, profanity, rebellion, hatred, and sexuality. This is not a Christian analysis by any means, but a common, conventional association that clearly exists today. For example, consider this list of songs from a “Top Essential Hip-Hop Albums” list:

  • Murder was the Case (Snoop Dogg)
  • Me Against the World (2Pac)
  • In Cold Blood (Scarface)
  • Stranded on Death Row (Dr. Dre)
  • Dead Presidents (Jay-Z)
  • Protect Ya Neck (Wu-Tang)
  • Ready to Die (B.I.G.)
  • Night of the Living Baseheads (Public Enemy)

Or listen to this rap enthusiast:

When you think of artists like Snoop, Dre, Spice 1 or McEight, the first thing to come to mind is violence or gang- banging. It may be true to a certain extent but to me it’s still an art form.

One sympathetic author, writing for The Journal of Negro Education, argues that this association with violence results from the fact that a violent culture birthed the music:

America for all her protests against violent rap lyrics has failed to acknowledge her role in the creation of this relatively new art form. Evidence of America’s preoccupation with violent activity is pervasive and can be found, for example, in virtually all of the entertainment industry. As a result, of the prevalence of violence in music, movies, television and video games, America has nurtured an environment that some have come to call a culture of violence. If there is in fact a culture of violence, the true parent of rap lyrics is America herself, who financially rewards the glamorization of behaviors deemed socially unacceptable. Rap music, in this context, is merely another creative expression that is an outgrowth of prevailing entertainment practices.

Any casual survey of rap lyrics, album titles, or news reports about rap artists or their concerts reveals immediate connection to this kind of sinful activity.

In the interview we’re discussing, both Dever and Linne acknowledge this common connection as well:

Dever: One objection that I’ve heard before about this is that even if you’re persuaded that such music is not in and of itself wrong, what about the fact that for a lot of people they do associate rap as being a form of music that has been so characterized by violence … and profanity and materialism, and especially the degradation of women? What makes you then say, I want to use that form to spread the gospel and build the church?
Shai: I’m sensitive to that objection. I would join my brothers and sisters who would take serious issue with the things that are common and most secular forms of this music.
Dever: In secular forms of the music, if nothing else, anger seems palpable.

Dever: One objection that I’ve heard before about this is that even if you’re persuaded that such music is not in and of itself wrong, what about the fact that for a lot of people they do associate rap as being a form of music that has been so characterized by violence . . . and profanity and materialism, and especially the degradation of women? What makes you then say, I want to use that form to spread the gospel and build the church?

Shai: I’m sensitive to that objection. I would join my brothers and sisters who would take serious issue with the things that are common and most secular forms of this music.

Now these kinds of associations don’t necessarily prove that the music inherently communicates these things (apart from the lyrics), but they should give any Christian careful pause for several reasons.

First, when a medium of communication is birthed out of a certain value system, there is great reason to assume that the medium will naturally express those values. If rap music (a medium of communication) was birthed out of an ethos of violence, drugs, hatred, and sexuality, it would be a far stretch to argue that it does not naturally express those values.

Second, it is instructive that when disturbed, debase people want to express rage, hatred, and violence, they are drawn to this form of music. Why is it that other cultures or musical forms do not have the same kind of magnetism for these values? Why is it that (with few exceptions, I’m sure) no one uses Appalachian folk tunes to express their social angst? Why is it that no one uses music from the Baroque period to express delight in explicit violence? Why is it that no one uses English folk music to express degradation of women?

Third, even if this were all merely conventional associations in our day (which I don’t believe), what is the Christian’s responsibility? Did Paul tell the Corinthians to “redeem” the meat that had negative associations that might cause weaker people to stumble into sin? No, he told them to avoid eating the meat for the sake of the gospel and the weaker brothers.

The Meaning of Rap

When evaluating the meaning of something, we judge its natural connections. What does it look like, what does it feel like, what does it sound like? If we are evaluating the body language or vocal inflections of someone else, we consider what those gestures and tones normally communicate when they are expressed by most humans.

When we evaluate what a form of communication communicates, we must ask what kinds of bodily movements and emotions look or “feel” like what the music sounds like. So, for instance, light bouncy music “feels” like being light and bouncy, i.e. “happy.” So what does rap music naturally “feel” like?

What does rap mean?

First, a basic style analysis by Timothy Shafer, a professor in the Division of Music at Penn State:

As a style, rap music is dominated by rhythm and specifically the backbeat; harmony and melody take a back seat. The sound of the backbeat inherently signifies the motion of the body during the act of sexual intercourse, as any rock musician will readily attest. The relative durations of the spoken rhythms are highly syncopated against the pulse, suggesting agitation and in louder instances, anger. Phrase structures (in terms of the groupings of spoken rhythms) are frequently irregular as well, again suggesting instability and a lack of respite. What harmony there is is extremely minimalistic and repetitive. Melody, for all intents and purposes, is non-existent. It may be claimed that the melody is single tone, but those tones are rarely sustained to the point of qualifying to be sung notes. It is rhymed, rhythmic speech, but not singing.

So basically, as a rhythmic art form, rap is dominated at all levels by syncopation, which is on the emotional spectrum between surprise, through agitation, toward anger/rebellion. The syncopation indicates varying levels (according to dynamic and other contexts) of aggression by virtue of its purpose of conflict against the principal pulse.

I agree with his analysis. The rhythms, sonorities, timbres, and movements of rap all “feel” like (to one degree or another dependent upon the specific song) rage, violence, aggression, sex, agitation, and rebellion. His analysis is based upon a comparison of the objective musical characteristics to natural human behavior. If you were to hear the music at a distance without being able to understand the lyrics, what would you naturally assume the music is expressing? Remember, we’re not talking about the motives of the performer here, we’re talking about what the medium actually says. Just like I could communicate something to my wife without intending it, the same can be true for a musician.

So the kinds of messages the culture of rap is naturally associated with in our society is not due merely to convention, it is due to the sounds and rhythms of the music itself.

Let’s consider the performance styles as well. Of course, there is a certain range among performers, and Christian artists certainly would not perform the more explicit bodily expressions of sexuality or rebellion. But what do the bodily movements and vocal tones of most rap performers naturally communicate? If you were to watch a video of a rap artist (Christian or not) with the volume turned down, what would you naturally assume they were communicating? Once again, rage, self-assertion, rebellion, and aggression.

Add to all this the dress, mannerisms, graffiti, slang, speech styles, and attitudes of hip hop culture, and we come to the unavoidable conclusions that this culture cannot and should not be combined with God’s holy truth.

Now most of the Christian rap I listened to (mostly by Shai Linne and Curtis Allen) was admittedly softer in tone than other secular rap. However, the essential elements of rap remain: aggressive rhymed declamation over a heavy beat.

Now at this point I think it would be helpful to discuss the importance of distinguishing between kinds of emotions. I would assume that when these Christians perform, they intend to express in-your-face, aggressive, assertive proclamation of truth. They actually believe that how rap naturally communicates is actually conducive for gospel proclamation. They say as much in the interview. They believe that the medium of rap is particularly fitting for proclaiming God’s truth (an implicit admission of its ability to communicate in certain ways) because of its capacity for expressing “a lot of information” and its very direct style of declamation.

But what they fail to recognize is that not all emotion is created equal, and some is absolutely incompatible with God’s truth. Remember, mere words are actually inadequate to describe different kinds of emotion. They might insist that what rap communicates is simply direct assertiveness, like preaching, when it actually communicates something more like self-assertive aggression. Fervency for the gospel is different than aggression. Righteous indignation is different than rage. It’s differences like these that we must recognize as we determine what is acceptable for God’s worship or the expression of his truth.

Can Rap be Christian?

Why am I making such a big deal about rap? Because I love the Gospel. And I know that men like Mark Dever, Shai Linne, Curtis Allen, and John Piper love the Gospel as well.

Music is not really the most important issue here, God’s truth is most important.

So I am very concerned with how God’s truth is presented, delivered, proclaimed, and disseminated. If the way that the Gospel is presented contradicts the very message, I am concerned about the integrity of the Gospel.

So where does this leave us? Based upon all of this analysis, the unavoidable conclusion is that rap music, because of what it inherently communicates, is incompatible with the Christian Gospel. It expresses sentiments that contradict the very message that we love.

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About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. Most of the information for this essay is taken from two sources: Can’t stop, won’t stop: a history of the hip-hop generation by Jeff Chang and what is considered the most scholarly collection of essays about Hip Hop, That’s the joint!: the hip-hop studies reader edited by Murray Forman and Mark Anthony Neal. []