Okay, so this piece may sound like I’m trying to criticize Lecrae, so before I go any further, let me offer a few disclaimers.
I like Lecrae.
I really, really like Lecrae.
As an artist, as a person — as far as I can tell — he seems to be the real deal.
I have defended him in my writing plenty of times, most recently for collaborating with — *** GASP *** — secular artists, mostly because the sacred vs. secular dichotomy is generally unhelpful and really no longer exists, anyway.
But generally, I like his music, and I think he’s taking a great approach to his music career in general, which, by all accounts is growing to incredible heights. It is not at all an exaggeration to say that Lecrae appears to be enjoying a level of critical acclaim and professional exposure that most Christian rappers can only dream about. He’s appearing in a feature film, his new album Anomaly just shot to the top of the Billboard charts, and just this very evening (it’s probably airing as I type this), Lecrae is making an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, performing his new single “All I Need Is You” with The Roots.
This is all a Really Big Deal.
However, there is a shadow side to all of this attention.
I’m worried that the singular blazing glory of Lecrae’s star, rather than being a torch that illuminates the burgeoning movement of hip-hop emcees professing faith in Christ and creating excellent art, is eclipsing the movement, and rendering it invisible by comparison. Maybe it’s alarmist of me to say this, but the more I read positive press about him, I keep seeing over and over this idea that Lecrae is doing something really, really unique in the way that he raps about God.
What is this unique thing? Not being terrible at it.
Now, obviously, some of this is their doing. Lecrae and Andy Mineo specifically have generated controversy over the way they’ve handled recent interview questions, causing some people to wonder if they’re getting enough media training. And in a way, I get it… these guys are receiving a level of unprecedented exposure, and when people keep telling you that you’re the best thing ever, it’s hard to remember that there are others who may be just as talented but weren’t given the same opportunities.
But at times, I honestly wonder whether the title Anomaly was meant to distinguish Lecrae more from other rappers in general, or from other Christians in general.
Now, I’ve always found it annoying when mainstream hip-hop or entertainment reporters or personalities interview Lecrae and they are shocked that there are Christians who can rap with style, intelligence, charisma and passion. But on the other hand, I understood it. After all, Paul told the church in Corinth that the message of salvation is considered foolishness to those who are perishing. Why get mad at someone for not understanding something they have no ability to perceive?
What I’ve been seeing more recently, though, is actual Christians discovering Lecrae, and by extension, Christian hip-hop, making statements that suggest they think he created the genre. I just saw this recently from a blogger who basically implied that Lecrae is so good because he’s invented his own style of rapping about God, and she hoped that was the future of hip-hop.
In a comment on her blog, I had the privilege of informing her — this is actually the present of hip-hop. (At least part of it, anyway.) I listed, off the top of my head, six to eight other acts who all publicly profess faith in Christ and produce quality hip-hop music. She backtracked and apologized, and I felt a little guilty for getting argumentative on someone else’s blog.
I guess I’m just passionate about it because I grew up listening to Christian hip-hop. Quite literally, I have, depending on how you want to measure it, almost three decades worth of experience as a connoisseur of hip-hop created by and/or for Christians. And though I am generally averse to hipsterisms, with this one, I can’t help it — I was into it WAY before it was cool. When I was listening to Christian rap in high school, they thought it was a joke. And I don’t mean they thought it was terrible, I mean literally, when I told someone I was listening to a Christian rap group, they thought I was pulling their leg, as if the mere idea of Christians doing rap music was paradoxically hilarious.
When I was a college freshman back in 1996, I co-founded, along with an entrepreneurial web developer Ray Majoran, a website called HipHopZone.com, that was the first website devoted to covering hip-hop music recorded by and for Christ followers. Most of the people who’ve spent significant time in the scene on a professional level, people like Sketch the Journalist who blogs about Christian hip-hop over at the Houston Chronicle, people like Chad Horton at RapZilla, Tim Trudeau at Syntax Creative, Josh Niemyski at Sphere of HipHop, Mike Laxton at Jam the Hype, Jayne Marie Smith during her time at Clear Channel, June Wilson for the UrbanWebLink, and before that for her time doing creative web and media for The Cross Movement… these are all people whose connections with me date back to my time at HHZ.
And those are just the people I know who are connected to the industry. That doesn’t even begin to count the legion of friends and family who have all been down with Christian hip-hop since day one, who just listen to it because they love it.
These are the people I think of when I see someone acting like Christian rap started when Lecrae started making hits. “Do we not exist?” I muse aloud. Do our contributions somehow not count, just because none of us are in our twenties anymore?
I think what this phenomenon most resembles is “columbusing,” the term created in this hilarious Funny or Die sketch. The idea is that sometimes white people end up assuming that something is new just because it’s new to them.
What’s interesting is that the term “columbusing” is really just a comedic version of a well-established academic term: colonialism.
And as Brandon Rhodes discovered in his review of Uncovering Postcolonial Conversations for Christianity Today’s leadership blog, PARSE (and perhaps “discovered” isn’t the best word to use when discussing colonialism, but it’s all I have at the moment), engaging the Christian life without taking on the blind spots of the dominant culture requires series of slow practices, as opposed to quick fixes.
Among those slow practices is something described as humble curiosity— defined as the following:
Humble curiosity: a disciplined listening to those outside the halls of your own tradition, and hearing them as having an equal voice.
This is what I feel like is missing from most evangelical whites’ engagement with hip-hop. You must attempt to engage the culture and community from which a hip-hop artist emerges if you are to have any hope in meaningfully understanding or appreciating his or her work, because they are inseparable. You must be willing to grapple with the concept of intersectionality, the idea that a person may have a variety of roles and identities relative to the dominant culture, and that those identities and roles are like colored lenses that can shade a person’s view of the world, and their self in it. This means that when you listen to HeeSun Lee’s excellent new album Stereotypes, you must remember that she’s Korean-American, she’s a woman, she’s from NYC, and she is thoroughly hip-hop.
And if you do that well, then you might begin to adopt hip-hop musical and cultural idioms into your palette of tastes. You might be able to go beyond just using hip-hop for a cheap laugh on a YouTube parody, and cultivate a deeper appreciation for the artform as something that resides in the hearts of a community of people. You might even develop fluency in hip-hop as a worship heart language.
But if all that makes your head hurt, then — AHEM — first things first. Just remember that other Christians rap too, and if you want to appreciate Lecrae Moore… more… then find out who some of them are.