I Used to Love H.E.R. Reflections on (Christian) Hip Hop

Common’s joint, I Used to Love H.E.R. is a hip hop masterpiece in which he personifies his frustrations with the then current state of rap in the form of a woman.  She (hip-hop) has changed, and Common is not bemoaning her metamorphosis, how could he?  Art must change.  People change (I’m reminded of the old line, “My wife’s been married to five different men, and all of them have been me”).  Instead, Common is grieving the downward trajectory of “her” evolution.  The purity has been tainted, the message lost.  His “woman” has been ravaged by materialism, capitalism, and every other sort of sinful “ism”.  Rap just ain’t what it used to be, Common concludes.

I’m beginning to share Common’s sentiments about (Christian) rap.  It feels as if the game has changed in ways that are beyond necessary, bordering along the lines of compromise. 

Before I get into all of that you need to know that I love (Christian) hip hop.  I’m a child of the eighties where Run DMC, LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys were my favorites.  We used to laugh when the well meaning older people at our church tried to get us to listen to DC Talk, or PID.  No offense to these groups but while their message was phenomenal their art was, well, arum…

I went to college with Duce, aka, The Ambassador.  In the days of high top fades and boom boxes I remember late night conversations in our dorm room there on the outskirts of Philadelphia in which he vowed to be the first follower of Jesus to make great hip hop that was theologically robust in its message.  I met Tonic when he was Exodus.  And I remember the euphoria I felt when I popped in my first Cross Movement CD.  I called Duce and congratulated him on making good on his vow.  Nothing makes me happier than to have my 12, 11 and 9 year old sons demand that I put in Lecrae on the drive to school.  In just one generation we’ve gone from great content/bad art to great content/great art.  But now I’m starting to get the sense that our passion for art is bypassing rich theological content.  We’re on the brink of great art/so what exactly are you saying?

Now I know I’ve just opened up Pandora’s box, right?  The age old question that Reinhold Niebuhr wrestled with in his classic, Christ and Culture, is exactly how does a follower of Jesus engage  culture?  Theories abound on this, and for this reason I have put the word “Christian” in parenthesis before hip hop, not to be pejorative, but to allow rap artists who follow Jesus to determine how they use their art to engage culture.  To be clear this post is NOT about your method of engagement.

If it were up to me I’d love to free the “Christian” from her parenthesis, so that it would be CHRISTIAN rap.  You know the kind of rap that screams Jesus on every song.  While these maybe my proclivities, my biblical moorings will not allow me to make this prescriptive.  For example, in the book of Esther, not once is the name of God mentioned.  Esther, being a biblical story, is art, and yet God chose to not allow his name to be mentioned at all (You may want to read that last sentence again).  However, His fingerprints are left all over the narrative.  Esther, a Jew, has been given great beauty, and therefore a relationship with the king.  At the same time her people are on the brink of extinction, a fact that her uncle Mordecai will not let her forget.  She must use her position with this secular king to save her people.  But there’s a cost involved, she may lose her life. The reader is left wondering what fundamentally drives Esther?  Is it the position and prestige of being in the palace, or is it God and his covenant people?  Will  Esther choose her personal ambitions for acceptance, or will she sacrifice all for God?

These are great questions to ask (Christian) hip hop artists.  What’s driving you?  Is it to have the kings of the music industry  respect your art?  Is it sales, or interviews with well known main stream media personalities?  I ask these questions because I’m beginning to sense that it’s cool to not have art associated with being Christian.  I’m with you on one hand.  I hate the secular/sacred divide.  But if earning respect among the likes of Jay-Z- that rapper who blasphemes The NAME by ascribing the personal name of God to himself- and his contemporaries is what you’re ultimately after, you must be careful because you run the danger of prostituting God’s gift he’s given you to steward.  The same God who made Esther stunningly beautiful, so much so that she won the favor of the king, gave you beautiful art.  Esther’s beauty was not given to her by God to bask in her acceptance by the king, and your art was not bequeathed to you by a sovereign God for you to revel in being embraced by the world.  I say to you what Mordecai said to Esther, perhaps God has given you these gifts and placed you where you are, “for such a time as this”. 

When thinking about your stewardship of art, regardless of your worldview of cultural engagement, the following principles must mark your ministry:

1. Opposition.  The system of the world will always be opposed to God and his kingdom.  Therefore to be loved in mass by the world should cause one to wonder if they are being faithful to God.

2. Holiness.  God’s call to every follower of Jesus is to be holy.  Holiness is not just moral purity, it’s also the idea of being markedly different, distinct.  As a follower of Jesus Christ who raps, your songs must be noticeably different no matter what label you’re signed to.

3. Foolishness.  The message of the cross, Paul tells the Corinthians, is foolishness to those who are perishing.  To be foolish is the antithesis of the drive to be embraced.

One final word.  I’ve always admired hip-hops aggressive nature.  She’s never been known to be docile or passive.  She’s screamed to the top of her lungs that she’ll kill you, she’s been loud about her love for marijuana , how she’ll “rob the preacher for the offering,” drive the nicest cars, barked like a dog (DMX) and sleep with the most women.  This girl has never been bashful, even if you don’t agree with her.  So why are (Christian) rap artist’s breaking with hip-hop’s tradition of in your face, loud, this is what I believe tradition?  Why are Christian’s suddenly shy about their message?