I vividly recall the first time my ears were exposed to hip hop. It was in Houston in the summer of 1982 and a cousin turned me on to the Fat Boys, Run DMC and Whodini. Prior to that, I had been a resident of Louisville, KY and my closest exposure to hip hop was disco music on contemporary radio. I was hooked on hip hop the first time I heard it, not to mention the image of the emcees and DJ’s. Kangol hats, Cazal glasses, big rope chains, Adidas sneakers, and leather pants or jeans caught my eye. These were young black men communicating the commonalities of the urban culture in simple rhyme schemes using language I understood. I was 7 then.
One of hip hop’s classic songs is “I Used to Love H.E.R.” by Common, then known as Common Sense. It was a song that personified hip hop as a beautiful, yet unfaithful, forever changing, man pleasing woman that he loved. Common vividly painted the picture of how this woman (hip hop) went through many phases and lovers just to get a reputation, yet he longed for the day when she was in her purest form. He was hoping “she” would return to her better days.
“Slim was fresh, yo, when “she” was underground / Original, pure, untampered and down “sister” / Boy, I tell you, I miss “her”!”
Language is a unique phenomenon. As a global medium of communication, it has many voices and creative faces of expression such as poetry and all of its devices, such as the one above. It can be used to communicate complex or simple ideas or thoughts. By the use of certain words and inflections, language can communicate emotion or feelings. Also, language can communicate praise, honor, glory or abhorrence. As an example of praise, consider the Psalmist in the 34th Psalm verses 1-3.
1I will bless the LORD at all times;
his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
2My soul makes its boast in the LORD;
let the humble hear and be glad.
3Oh, magnify the LORD with me,
and let us exalt his name together!
See the beauty of language?!?
Upon my conversion in 1998, one of the first things I was convicted of was the music I was listening to. I was convinced the lyrics of Tupac, Jay-Z, Notorious B.I.G., Snoop Dogg, Wu-Tang Clan, Nas, A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes, etc. were incongruent with the commands of Scripture and weren’t going to aid in any renewal of my mind. In fact, that music stimulated the “old man” that was already put to death, since “the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (Galatians 6:14) Simply put, the Lord took away my desire to flood my mind with those godless songs. Yet, I still craved a hip hop expression, but with a different focus. Providentially, I stumbled upon Crossmovement and was ecstatic about what I was listening to. You can read more about it here. What was so beautiful about this blend was the authentic expression of the urban culture submitting itself to the majesty of Jesus Christ. Timberlands and theology! The Lord is magnificent!
As Christian Hip Hop (CHH) gained wider acceptance in the church and being used as an evangelistic tool, there came an increase in production quality, business savvy, and marketability. Not to mention, there was a sense of competition in being relevant to its secular counterpart. Here’s where I think CHH began to decrease in its effectiveness. It seemed to be more consumed with secular acceptance than with honoring the Lord. Certain emcees started rapping like secular rappers (not in content, but in inflection), incorporating production effects that were trendy for a season in the secular environment, watering down of the gospel and what I’ve noticed recently is a lack of reverent communication about God. Like Common missed hip hop in her purest form, I miss CHH when it was primarily about the glory of Christ.
So what do I mean? Here’s what I mean – hip hop has a list of demands. More importantly, for the emcee there are “rules to the game”. To be considered a “dope emcee who kills it on the regular” one must be witty, clever, boastful, have multi-syllabic rhyme schemes, and communicate a point in a space of 3 verses or 48 bars.
But what should be the mark of a Christian emcee? Aside from the fact that the first obligation is a credible Christian witness, a Christian emcee can be as “dope” as any emcee. He/She can be creative, witty, clever, have multi-syllabic rhyme schemes and communicate a point in a limited space. Obviously, what’s missing is that the Christian emcee shouldn’t be boastful, since his/her boast is in the Lord and his/her rhymes are supposed to be Christ glorifying. But what should always be present is a sense of reverence, not only in the rhymes but in the delivery as well. This is what truly redeemed emceeing looks like.
Despite the great amount of truth in many songs, I’m afraid for the sake or pressure of having clever rhyme schemes or hooks, reverence appears to be on the decline for our God. When God is referred to as some slang term for the sake of the rhyme scheme, reverence for God is lost. When the emcee desires praise from men, reverence for God is lost.
Thankfully, all is not lost. Though not perfect, great examples still exist. Consider Timothy Brindle’s lyrics from “The Preciousness of Time” from his album Killing Sin.
On Wall Street a rich dude snorts lines/
His morning devotion is the New York Times/
And Time magazine at times it seems/
Time flies as if time had some wings/
But this is irony right/
While most spend the time of their life trying to have the time of their life/
Thinking lies are really true/
If you’re busy killing time the truth is time is killing you/
But you’re too cool- you love to take your time/
You fool- God can come and take your time/
Then He’ll search your mind and surely find your works are slime/
One sin’s an eternal prime it takes eternity to serve the time/
Reject Him and regret how your spurned this rhyme/
You offended the Divine/
In hell, like Michael Jackson, you’ll remember the time/
Once your time is up you blasphemer/
You can’t travel back with a flux capacitor/
It’s such a massacre when Christ is parting the sky/
You’ll want to go back in time like Marty McFly/
But you sharply despised Christ kindness my friend/
And He gave you a whole lifetime to repent/
So next time you’re asking what time is it/
Know Christ can come to give times final tick/
Hear the whole song here: The Preciousness of Time
Did you notice the reverence of Christ in these lines? Did you notice man’s place in these lines? This song is flooded with the supremacy of Christ as the governor of time and how man is ultimately bound to God’s “timeclock”.
Also, consider shai linne. Here’s his song “The Glory of God” from his upcoming album, The Attributes of God on Lampmode Records. This album was influenced by A.W. Tozer’s classic book, The Knowledge of the Holy. Nothing is more reverential than focusing on the multifaceted attributes of God. Truly, this is lyrical theology. It is my estimation that the more we are in awe of God, the less we’ll focus on ourselves and more on Him. In other words, our praise and reverence will be on display, not only in our words, but the very flow of our lives. May we be a people who display reverent redemption!
Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe,…
Soli Deo Gloria!