Ladies and gentlemen, the hip-hop oracles have spoken, and the overall decree rings out with thunderous swiftness:
“The defendant is guilty of not knowing what fraud is.”
With overwhelming barbarity and lecherous bloodthirst, many in the hip-hop community have been hot-ta-dis newcomer B.B. Jay for his new release, Universal Concussion which was released on September 12. He’s been panned in many hip-hop magazines, including The Source.
Fearing that the misconception of inherent inferiority of Christian rap would continue to be spread in mainstream hip-hop circles, many Christians in the hip-hop scene have gone all Big Brother on Jay, questioning his motives and scrutinizing his every move with dubious abandon. Some imply he’s a huckster. Many just say he’s wack and leave it at that.
Others, in Jay’s defense, claim that his detractors are just haters, jealous of his success and the status that comes with a recording contract. They believe the backlash to be evidence of Satan’s attack on God’s anointed. “Don’t Be Mad,” they say, quoting not only the title of one of his songs, but a phrase that seems to be Jay’s standard response to those who attack.
The truth is, however, B.B. Jay was getting dissed even before he signed with Jive/Verity and received all the accompanying marketing hype. When his introductory single “Pentecostal Poppa” arose back in late ’98, many in the Christian hip-hop scene were quick to notice a stylistic resemblance to the late Christopher Wallace, the Notorious B.I.G. In short order, they denounced B.B. Jay as a biter, a fake, and a wannabe. Purists shrugged him off as harmless, and the more adventurous in-groupers spawned many satirical copycat names like Methodist Man & The Ol’ Dirty Pastor.
The rumblings became more serious, however, when rumors surfaced of this same dude actually getting a major record deal. A large contingent of Internet users, many of whom were aspiring rap artists and producers, became very incensed when those rumors turned out to be true. And they’ve been mighty vocal about it ever since.
That would have been the end of the story, had it not been for a strategic appearance on the single “I Sing” by gospel-singing-sisters sensation Mary Mary. Because of his cameo on their critically acclaimed debut, Thankful, B.B. Jay enjoyed direct exposure to an audience that had previously been inaccessible, demographically speaking. Being featured on such a quality release, B.B. Jay was indirectly presented to national gospel audiences as an up-and-coming talent in the legion of MCs who were puttin’ it down for the Lord.
For a group of gospel music listeners who are primarily middle-aged, middle-class people, this made perfect sense. They saw a guy who seems to really love the Lord, and who can rap pretty well. They probably thought, “hey… this sounds just as good as the stuff on BET, the stuff I never let little Jojo watch. I bet he/she will love this.” That’s why they support him — and that’s a perfectly legitimate line of reasoning. They believe that this is a guy who sincerely wants to reach America’s youth with the message of Christ.
The people at Jive and Verity are banking on that very concept. They believe gospel listeners who are ignorant about hip-hop will buy this album for their kids, nieces, nephews, and grandchildren. They believed it so much that they were willing to invest money into B.B. Jay’s act – hence, they signed him.
Because of this investment, B.B. Jay will have the opportunity to take the airwaves by storm. His videos will probably be, at least for a short period of time, all over BET, MTV, and The BOX. I believe that B.B. Jay’s music will make an impression on the hearts and minds of many young people across the nation. And I believe that the Lord will use that.
However, many more will not be so impressed. Many will see him and scoff in derision, because of the obvious similarity to Biggie and his persona. Not only will they reject the artist B.B. Jay, but they will also reject the God that he represents. They will interpret his act as another fraudulent attempt by the church to lure them in with something hip and trendy. For those civic-minded citizens of the hip-hop nation who value artistic integrity over glitzy popularity, B.B. Jay will be no more of a success than the Denver Nuggets in the NBA Playoffs. And that, friends, is a shame.
It’s even more shameful than the umpteen times that DC Talk (before they were dc Talk) won all the Doves in the hip-hop categories. Because, even though the Doves were passing over more talented, more authentic rap artists for their watered-down pop counterparts (Church of Rhythm, Carman, etc.), they were doing it to reach their target demographic: an audience that was primarily White, and primarily upper-middle class. Those people had no real concept of what hip-hop was, so when they were introduced to it through DC Talk, they were honestly impressed.
But B.B. Jay’s supposed target audience is young Black youth. These folks have already heard Biggie. They KNOW Biggie. And if they want to listen to that style of rap, they’ll go buy one of Biggie’s platinum-selling albums. B.B. Jay will not impress most of these people, because they’ll see him as nothing more than a Biggie wannabe.
The really sad thing is that, rather than taking the time to learn more about hip-hop culture, many gospel music fans have adopted him as the Next Big Thing, supporting B.B. Jay without taking the time to investigate these claims. What’s worse, some of them have gone so far as to heap judgement and condemnation on those who take issue with his stylistic approach. This really grates on me, because many of them have done this under the auspices of supporting hip-hop and innovation in gospel music. Where were these people for the last ten years while artists like PID, D-Boy, SFC, Dynamic Twins, ETW, Freedom of Soul, IDOL King, Gospel Gangstas, and Brainwash Projects were trying to get off the ground?
The saddest thing of all, though, is that B.B. Jay is the one who stands to lose out the most in this whole affair. Because Jay was most likely signed on the basis of his sounding like Biggie, he’ll ride that sound for as long as he can. The label won’t let him tinker too much with the style, because the style is what got him there in the first place. But as soon as record sales dip below a certain margin and his 15 minutes of fame are up, he’ll be done. And when I mean done, I mean DONE. No other label is going to want to pick him up, because the Biggie style, by that point, will be old news. And he won’t have the artistic fortitude to reinvent his style, since he never really invented his style in the first place.
I think a big part of the issue has nothing to do with B.B. Jay directly; rather, a lot of it has to do with the way we view music. Gospel listeners, especially contemporary gospel listeners, have been conditioned to think that there are only two acceptable uses for music: as praise & worship, and as a tool for evangelism. This is a very narrow view that, in my opinion, excludes some of the Bible’s teaching. Psalm 33:3 instructs us to play skillfully. In Psalm 45:1, the psalmist says that his tongue is the pen of a skillful writer as he recites verses for his king. This, to me, ought to be the anthem of all Christian MCs.
But in the gospel music industry, it seems that skill is not that important when it comes to gospel rap. The prevailing attitude is, “as long as he’s getting the message out, leave him alone.” Well I challenge that attitude, and I think we all should. Every Christian should do their work as unto the Lord (Col. 3:22-24), and part of that is bringing our best to Him. We wouldn’t dare steal someone else’s money and then expect the Lord to bless that as an offering, would we? Or, something a little closer to home… we wouldn’t copy some random paper off of the Internet for a class and then expect the Lord to bless us with a good grade, would we? So why do we defend a brother in Christ for trying to pawn off a style that is obviously not his?
Because it’s easy, that’s why. And most of us would rather just sit back and enjoy the nice beats because it’s coming from a Christian artist, instead of taking the time to think critically about the media that we ingest into our spirits. It takes integrity to do that, and doing the work of integrity is something that Christians often just don’t want to do. It’s easier to sit back and be spoon-fed by the officially sanctioned “Christian” mass media, rather than reading and studying the Word of God for yourself.
I think another issue that surrounds this is the issue of cultural literacy. Often Black folks are quick to point out when White people misunderstand our culture. We get all up in arms about it. We go at lengths to defend our dialects, our fashion, and our music. As a matter of fact, we get so defensive about it that if folks challenge us on something, we pull out our trusty catch-phrase that absolves us of all guilt: “It’s a Black thing — you wouldn’t understand.”
Well why would people who put a premium on cultural literacy try to judge someone or something without being aware of the cultural context? No one in their right mind would try to arbitrate an argument between a Palestinian and an Israeli on foreign policy without having a foreknowledge of Middle Eastern culture. But that’s exactly what I see people doing left and right. “Well, I don’t really listen to hip-hop, but I think you guys are wrong.”
Part of the problem could be generational. Yes, there are still some old folk who think rap music is the devil’s music, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I believe that there are scores of people, mostly between the ages of 27 and 40, who believe that rap music is, in general, an inferior and irrelevant artform compared to gospel music.
For them, Kirk Franklin is as ‘hip-hop’ as it gets. To them, anything further out there is something trivial that the kids can listen to. They have no idea that there even is a culture related to hip-hop, a culture tightly bound to the African-American and Hispanic cultural traditions in America. They are ignorant of the socio-political commentary that often goes on in the forum of hip-hop music, because all they know about is that “Whoomp! There It Is!” song that they remembered hearing about on an episode of “Family Matters.”
For this reason, people in mainstream gospel media have treated hip-hop as its illegitimate step-cousin. For years, this has gone on. Christian rap concerts wouldn’t be covered in gospel magazines. Christian rap songs wouldn’t get airplay on gospel stations. Large Black churches wouldn’t support the ministries of local Christian rap groups because they believed the style was too worldly — and then they’d turn around and listen to The Winans sing “It’s Time,” a collaboration with producer Teddy Riley of Guy (and later, Blackstreet).
So finally, after years of travail and struggle, things start to slowly change — and what happens? A major gospel label (Verity) co-releases a major rap release, and gospel listeners automatically accept it as something of quality because that’s what the label is known for. They might as well call it anointing-by-association.
Please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying here. I don’t think B.B. Jay is a wack MC. As a matter of fact, I think some of his flows are pretty good. Not everybody can get into that style, but there are some that do. That’s not a justification to bash B.B. Jay. I don’t believe in bashing artists. I believe in supporting our artists. I also believe, though, that part of our support needs to be in the form of confrontation when there’s something wrong. Right now, there doesn’t seem to be much of that going on.
I don’t question his motives in ministry; I question his technique. And I resent it when I hear people tell me and others who do the same that we are causing dissention, spreading hate, and being used by the devil just because we call his artistic integrity into question. Bashing is not the same thing as confrontation, and anyone who says that confrontation is not Biblical has not read all of the Pauline epistles as carefully as they should.
Those hip-hop fans who zealously call B.B. Jay a wack biter just to spite his fans are out of line, mainly because their motives are usually wrong. That doesn’t mean they don’t have a point. If Fred Hammond started out creating a whole album that mirrored the exact signature touches of Donny Hathaway, I’d be saying the same thing.
I sincerely hope that B.B. Jay continues to grow as an artist and that he can shed the image and likeness of Biggie. I hope that one day he can just be known as a good rapper and not as a Biggie clone. But it doesn’t look likely.
The truth is, if I didn’t know who Biggie was, I would enjoy “Universal Concussion.” But I do. And I cannot, in good conscience, endorse an artist whose claim to fame is an uncanny similarity to a world-famous slain secular rap superstar. Our God is an original God, and the glory of His incredible sacrifice to save humanity should inspire us to create, not merely imitate. Instead, we have let this wonderful joy be cheapened to the point that we’re rejoicing over the latest candy-coated God-laced flavor of the month.
I don’t. I blame us.
I’m Jelani Greenidge, and you are now In the Mix.