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Discussion about Christian rap with Shai Linne: What Defines Rap?

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 third question to Shai.

Scott-thumb-300x300Shai, would you consider either of the following examples rap? If so, how would you distinguish rap from poetry recitation? If you would not consider them rap, what would need to change with these examples in order for them to be rap? In other words, what are the essential elements of rap that distinguish it from other art forms?

Shai_Bio-300x300Thanks for the question, Scott. I wouldn’t consider either of your examples to be rap. The reason why is the structure of the lyrics. Rap, simply put, is rhythmic poetry. One essential element of rap is that it is written in such a way that it coincides rhythmically with a consistent drum pattern. Those patterns may vary, but the consistency should be there. Even in rap that’s done a cappella, the trained ear can hear what it would sound like if the beat was actually there. With the example you gave, lines 1 and 2 could fit a particular pattern, but lines 3 and following don’t fit that same rhythmic pattern. By way of analogy, it would like writing a hymn where the first stanza was written in Common Meter (8,6,8,6) and the second stanza in 11,11,11,11.

Now, there is some avante-garde Hip-hop out there where artists deviate from conventional structures, but even then, it’s done with intentionality and precision. I didn’t get the sense that the writer of that poem had a rhythmic backdrop in mind when it was written. The examples you provided would fall more into the category of Spoken Word in my opinion. Spoken Word artists have more freedom than rap artists in that they aren’t restricted to Hip-hop drum patterns. Spoken Word tends to be more loosely structured.

You might then want to know what the difference is between the examples you listed and the rap I did that you linked to in an earlier post. In that video, I did a portion of a song that was originally written & performed over a beat. Taking the beat away doesn’t make it cease to be rap. It’s just an a cappella rap. That’s because there’s a particular rhythmic structure in the way I wrote it that makes it Hip-hop and would differentiate it from either Spoken Word or other forms of poetry.

I would also add that within Hip-hop, there’s great diversity in terms of how songs are performed vocally (We call it “delivery”). There are some rappers who use aggressive deliveries, others who use laid-back, monotone deliveries, and a whole range in between. But it’s all rap. It’s a common error to assume that all rap is aggressive and “angry” rather than understanding that aggressive rap, while common, is just one of a plethora of styles within rap. Most people outside of Hip-hop culture (including those sympathetic to it) don’t have categories for other kinds of rap. For a few examples, here’s a children’s story I didHere’s a (fantastic) song of repentance and lament for sin by Timothy Brindle, and here’s a song encouraging stay at home mothers by Benjamin the Esquire.

All of these are examples of rap. What makes them rap is the rhythmic structure of the lyrics, not the vocal tone, per se.

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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.