At the recent “Worship of God” conference sponsored by the National Center for Family-Integrated Churches a panel of speakers–some of whom are well known to the Reformed and Evangelical community–was asked a question about Christian Rap music (or “Holy Hip-Hop”). The moderator queried, “Any thoughts on Reformed Rap artists? Their musical style would be considered offensive to some but the doctrine contained in the songs is sound.”
A video of the ensuing discussion was posted on the NCFIC site on November 25th and a bit of a social media firestorm has broken out in response. In particular, given some of the serious allegations that were made by panelists about the character and motives of Reformed Rappers, and their denigrating comments about the deficiencies of the particular musical form, my friends who are part of the Reformed Rap scene have been defamed. And a number of my Reformed friends, colleagues and students (both African American and not) have been horrified, angered and embarrassed.
And after viewing the video myself, I share their reactions. Ignorance, carelessness and a lack of Christian love (to say no more) were on full display. I can only imagine how infuriating and disheartening it must be to be hit with these kinds of statements.
So, I want to say a few words in response. There are many who are more qualified to speak to this issue than I am–Dr. Carl Ellis, for instance, has previously shared some of his own thoughts and my friend Curtis Allen (aka “Voice”) has written a book about it Does God Listen to Rap?: Christians and the World’s Most Controversial Music–but I want my brethren to be encouraged and I want to speak a word of edification to all of us as we talk this through.
Let me be clear. I am about as White as you can get. I’m seriously North-European, mostly of Scottish descent (with a little Sassenach thrown in from my mother’s side). I love the metrical psalms, and I treasure the hymnody of the Reformed and evangelical tradition that has been developed over that last five hundred (and especially the last three hundred) years in the English-speaking world. I also enjoy the Getty and Townend “New Irish Hymns” and so many of the settings found in the RUF songbook, including the most famous of them all, Bill Moore’s “Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken”. Bill is a dear friend, and one of my elders at First Presbyterian Church, Jackson, MS (PCA).
I am classically trained in piano and voice, I sang in one of the nation’s premier collegiate choruses, and I did my turn in the High School Jazz Band – on electric bass (though I was no Stanley Clark, and if you don’t know who that is, well . . .). I cut my teeth on Earth, Wind and Fire in my teens and twenties. Nobody beats the Elements. Nobody. And as a 17-year old DJ, I encountered the first rap song that went mainstream top 40: “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugar Hill Gang. No, Deborah Harry’s abortive attempt in Blondie’s “Rapture” does not count. I listened to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, though I was more of a George Clinton, Bootsy Collins and Parliament kind of guy. And, yes, I know all the parts to the epic battle between Starchild and Sir Nose D’VoidofFunk, again, if you don’t know, don’t even try.
I can do a little old school rap myself. Though I’m not very good. But I am capable of understanding how the musical form is supposed to work and what it can accomplish. I also know a little bit about where it comes from. All that to say, I think I could have an intelligent conversation about the music, which is more than can be said for the panel at NCFIC.
I did not encounter Reformed Rap until late. I couldn’t even tell you when. But when I met the rappers themselves and heard the lyrics, I was hugely encouraged. Interestingly, there are actually points of contact in the experience out of which the Hip Hop culture emerges, and the social and cultural oppression experienced by many Scots, especially Highlanders, especially during “the Clearances.” So even if you don’t buy Yale ethnomusicologist Professor (and African American) Willie Ruff’s theory about the connection between Gaelic line-sung psalmody and the Black Gospel tradition in America, there is more than enough to chew on here.
Let me say this to my fellow White, Reformed, Christians, especially those unfamiliar with this form or its background. Be quick to listen and slow to speak (James 1:19). A little story will perhaps illustrate the surprising ways this musical form is being used.
A few years ago, I met a new friend, Brian Crawford. Brian is now the pastor of the Joshua Generation Church in Tallulah, Louisiana. He is an engineer: young, intelligent, African American and Reformed. But he hasn’t always been Reformed.
When he was a student at Mississippi State University, Brian was vice-president in the “prosperity gospel campus ministry” (yes, those exist). But his beloved younger sister was diagnosed with MS. He and his family carted her around the country to healing crusades by all the usual suspects (you know them and see them on TV, hawking their false gospel and false hope), but to no avail. As she was suffering, he had a theological crisis. He didn’t lose his faith, but he lost his faith in the false prosperity gospel. And entered a hard period of searching and questioning.
During this season, Brian was also being increasingly exposed to the genre of Christian Rap and the diversity of flavors interspersed within the genre. The lyrics composed by these artists helped him make sense of his sister’s illness (and ultimate death in 2004), suffering in general, God and the Gospel. The more Brian listened, the more he realized the prosperity teaching he knew so well was a theology foreign to the biblical and historical Faith.
He didn’t know it at the time but he had just encountered the faithful and bold theology and proclamation of Reformed Rap. I think he initially listened to Cross Movement maybe some others – I can’t remember now the exact ones he told me about (that conversation was years ago!). But he was blown away by the truth they were proclaiming. They were telling the Bible straight, in a way he’d never heard in prosperity gospel churches. They spoke clearly and prophetically about God’s sovereignty, in both salvation and suffering. They blew all his categories. He’d never heard this kind of Truth before. The liner notes on the CDs he was listening to pointed him to John MacArthur, John Piper, R.C. Sproul and eventually RTS on iTunesU! He devoured sound biblical, theological teaching and came out of his season of searching into the rich and comforting truth of the Bible, via those faithful reformed preachers and teachers.
Today, he pastors a church drawing on the rich repository of biblical truth bequeathed to him from the Reformed tradition. And, no doubt, his own background, experience and insight, enriches and adorns the theological heritage of which he is now a part. An African American PCA minister, Irwyn Ince, introduced me to Brian at The Gospel Coalition conference in Chicago a number of years ago, and we became friends. Brian’s friendship and his testimony bless my soul. Thank you, Lord, and thank you Reformed Rappers!
I’ll finish with this. If you are part of the Reformed hip hop culture, thank you. God bless you. Do not grow weary in doing good. Do not be discouraged. There are folks, a lot of folks, like me, who deeply appreciate you, have been (and are) blessed by you, who are learning from you and who are rooting for you as you boldly proclaim a big God full of grace, a God big enough to be sovereign over suffering and to turn it to our good.