Heart2Heart: The Ambassador Pens Powerful Open Letter Response to XXL Magazine Article
A Preface for my Christ Family
Recently, I had the chance to read an article in XXL Magazine, which had the potential to excite me because it focused on Christian rap, but in the end somewhat disappointed and even grieved me. Internally, I was restless until finally deeming it necessary to respond for the sake of the glory of Christ, the benefit of His people, and the benefit of the mission to reach hip hop with the gospel. This is in no way meant to be adversarial or contentious, even though it may be kind of controversial. In light of my own flaws and inadequacies, and the tender nature of the subject matter, I have been hesitant to publicize my thoughts, but at the end of the day I concluded that this is what I do. Using hip hop artistry as a ministry, I proclaim the gospel, explain the gospel, and contend for the gospel even at my own peril. I confess, like pastor John Piper, “Some controversy is crucial for the sake of life giving truth. Running from it is a sign of cowardice. But enjoying it is usually a sign of pride.” He goes on to say, “Humility loves Christ exultation more than Christ-defending confrontation…” (Piper, Contending for Our All). I say, “yes and amen!” So I am not trying to “win” an argument, but rather seize a teachable moment. Leveraging this moment at this time makes good sense, especially since the issue at hand has a lot of buzz among “fans” of hip hop and Christian hip hop.
I intentionally wanted this dialogue to play out publicly because I see and sense a shift happening among those who are long time participants and supporters of what is known as Christian rap. I see the impact of some questionable thinking and acting that is affecting so many people that similar to Paul in Galatians 2, I find it beneficial to publicly draw attention to some of these matters.
My Objective/My Hope
My hope is that this stimulates thought, maybe sparks dialogue, and by grace provides a mature voice among a people group so young and impressionable. You may or may not know that I (The Ambassador, formerly of The Cross Movement) have given a considerable amount of my adult life to what I have seen as a missionary opportunity among the hip hop generation. As an ambassador of the Lord Jesus Christ and a participant of the Christian rap community, I take a special interest in matters that relate to both Christ and hip hop. I rejoice when the hip hop community does well, and hurt when we don’t. I in no way want to cause drama, but the silence, if not the absence of leadership, is making me feel compelled to say something. I am not privy to any major voice of influence speaking to us today, though I know I am not the only one. The world’s recent intrigue with Christian rap must be met by godly, biblically literate servants who will rightly inform them of the mind of Christ and His ways. These times call for people who both know the Scriptures and the culture enough to address issues that pertain to it. I am no one in particular, but I have joined with many others who have long been laboring and praying that the “world” would become familiar with God’s “urban house of representatives.” If hip hop needed a witness of Christ, we determined that by grace we would avail ourselves. Now, there seems to be an unprecedented level of awareness of Christians who use hip hop in one way or another, so it seems as though God is answering the prayers. Every time I look up, some mention of either a Christian who does hip hop, the genre of Christian hip hop itself, or a pastor who engages hip hop-related issues is in the “headlines” of the secular community. Sadly, when I listen to their commentary of us, I find a few things that just don’t sit well with me. I’ll highlight a few statements from the XXL article and respond to them.
(XXL) “Christian rap just can’t win.”
This is how the article starts and what an opening line! It hit me in the gut like a body shot from Mayweather, because XXL expresses the sentiments of almost all secular hip hop analysts and loyalists, and far too many Christians as well. Straight-up, no chaser; they get down to brass tacks—Christian hip hop is not a “winner.” Whatever you or I may have thought about it, at least from XXL’s perspective, (and I’m sure they represent the perspective of many others) Christian hip hop has been weighed in the balance, been found wanting, and has been de-legitimized. Throughout the article several critiques are provided to substantiate this premise, but, they happily report, there is a small group of people who are wising up to this fact and doing what it takes to start “winning.” These are producers and rap artists who are distancing themselves from the whole “Christian hip hop thing,” and becoming the new face of a “new God flow.”
It becomes very apparent from the article that “winning” is simply determined by whether or not the mainstream hip hop world embraces you. The logic is straight forward:
- There is a way to be accepted by the secular mainstream world of hip hop producers, websites, and rap fans, and if you achieve that, you “win.”
- There is a way to get shunned and stay relatively unrecognized to the mainstream world and this would mean you haven’t “won.”
By XXL’s standard, Christian rap is stigmatized by its “preachiness, heavy handedness, and religious upfrontness,” and consequently has ensured its mainstream failure. However, XXL also seems to believe that with the right adjustments, rappers who abandon that sinking ship may find the “win” that they are truly looking for.
While I’m not certain how much history they have surveyed, what collection of artists they have considered, or what efforts they have evaluated to arrive at this judgment, I can see why they feel pretty confident in their conclusion. As the article reports, and a number of interviews and online discussions confirm, there has been an increase in the recent “shedding” of Christian labels by many artists. This probably gives XXL the comfort that they are not far off in their assessment. Artists who formerly held the banner of not only a personal Christian faith, but also explicit Christ-centered presentation are abandoning that “brand” like it’s the plague. After reading this article, I thought to myself, “Why wouldn’t the secular hip hop community assume that ‘Christian rap’ can’t win when so many in the Christian hip hop community seem to agree?” XXL goes on to praise a small contingent of what they call “religious MC’s” who they report have adopted a new approach (though it’s really very old), opting to create art that’s much milder and “just dope.” While mainstream hip hop seems to claim to have no problem with rappers believing in God, they do seem to perceive Christian rap as “over-doing-it!” Since the mainstream has rejected that fanaticism, they recommend that truly talented artists and producers who want to reach as far as they possibly can, wisely avoid, or get out from under the box of corny Christian rap if and when they can.
The views of XXL reflect the views of many, and as I read this article I wondered if they had been informed and affirmed by Christian hip hop “insiders” who share a similar view. This article is all about what XXL, and I believe what many Christians, see as the “wisdom” and benefits of “shedding” the Christian label, and “refusing to do Christian rap music.” To my knowledge there has been no public tweaking or rebuttal of this article by any of the artists, and that saddens me some, but I also know how the media can edit things in and out, and obscure the truth. However, I also have been a part of enough conversations and debates to know that this is rapidly becoming the popular view of Christians in hip hop. This debate about the Christian rap label and the pros and cons of Christ-centered content has taken place for well over a decade, and we have always been divided on it. The surprise to me is that in this XXL article, some of Christian hip hop’s most notable figures are being reported and even praised for dropping the very thing that they have actually been instrumental in putting on the map. Even though some are shifting away from it now, their very presence in this article, and some of their notable achievements, indicate that Christian rap does have some commendable qualities and admirable participants. Christian rap may not “win” in the sense of overall mainstream acceptance, but it certainly has made enough noise to catch the attention of the mainstream. Furthermore, it has not been Christians doing merely “positive” music, or merely “good” music that has gotten the attention of the music industry, but rather Christians who have gained a serious following because of their radically passionate commitment to Christ. Up until now, the “winning formula” has been a combination of artistic skill, talking about “real issues,” and a strong, explicit, passionate representation of Jesus and His gospel. XXL has announced that a change has come. I guess the question is, “is that change a good thing or not?”
(XXL) “Mainstream hip hop fans shun the genre for trying to hammer God through their ears.”
Ok…now the substance of the indictment begins to surface. Mainstream hip hop fans are said to shun the whole Christian hip hop genre because mainstream fans don’t like God being “hammered through their ears.” I’m not even sure who exactly they would say is guilty of this, but I find that this is often the claim when Jesus is boldly presented and offered to the public. Of course, I’m sure there are some cases of extremists out there, but Christian hip hop’s most high-profile and most sterling examples would not be guilty of “hammering God through people’s ears,” though that may be the perception. Interestingly, hip hop in general does hammer content through people’s ears all the time. The radio plays the same songs over and over again—hammering us with redundant themes. Instead of “God,” however, it just happens to be sex, money, ego, swag, objectification of women, and many other things. So the “hammering” is not the real problem, but I would say that it’s the content. Mainstream hip hop is turned off from Christian hip hop most fundamentally because the mainstream is turned off by the Christian God. Kanye West was right about this in Jesus Walks—“you say I can rap about anything except for Jesus.” It was true then, and it is true now. When Jesus is being glorified, and not just mentioned; boasted in, and not just discussed; emphasized, and not just alluded to, the mainstream is turned off. Couple this reality with the very real “baggage” of the Christian hip hop movement and it becomes easy to see why the mainstream is turned off.
While we can do things to make matters worse, even the best Christian with the most skill, nicest demeanor, most considerate tone, and most diplomatic approach will meet the same outcome that the perfect Christ himself met—rejection. This ought to not really be surprising because the Bible prepares people for this kind of reaction. Those who belong to Jesus Christ have been told that the world will not embrace you but rather shun you, simply because He chose you (Jn 15:18-19).
Let Me Testify! (A Little Christian Hip Hop History)
For those who don’t know much about the history of Christian hip hop let me testify quickly. Many recognize the group Cross Movement as one of the pioneers of Christian hip hop even though there were many groups that preceded us (hats off to them). When initially forming the group, passages like John 15:18-21, and a host of others, plus personal experiences, caused us to brace for the strong potential that we would have to accept a place on the margins of mainstream hip hop culture until God would choose to change that reality. We also knew that God, in His sovereignty, may not change it, and possibly we could always exist on the periphery of the mainstream. In those days, Christianity was not viewed favorably in hip hop, and it became clear that the mainstream would never let hip hoppers make Jesus Christ and things related to Him the centerpiece of their content or the subject of their anthems. Contrary to the claims, most Christian rappers don’t say “Jesus” in every line, and do rap about generic issues and topics that the average person can relate to. But as soon as Christ comes into the picture as more than just a passing reference, they “get the boot” by the culture. I remember us trying to be considered “just rappers” without the “Christian” label, but when our rhymes were evaluated, people would classify us as something different than “just rappers.” We stopped fighting it. The life changing good news about who He is and what He’s done on the cross is foolishness to some, a stumbling block to others, and just plain irritating and irrelevant to most—hip hop included. So, we proceeded with the understanding that the mainstream would probably never fully accept us because even when we rapped about “regular stuff,” we would do it from Christ’s perspective. Well, eventually this commitment to stay the course strengthened an already existing, but small genre. There are now rappers, dancers, Internet sites, radio show hosts, and fashion designers, etc., who do it for Jesus Christ’s glory above all else. None of us want to be marginalized by the mainstream, but that’s what often happens. We accept the fact that this is what can happen to those who want to honor Christ in more than just a cliché way. Each one will have to decide how to deal with this reality. XXL suggests that the way to do it is to get on board with those who get rid of the labels and just rap.
(XXL)…But times are changing. Heavyweight producer Boi-1da [pronounced “Boy-Wonda”] (Drake, Eminem, Nas), former Clipse member Malice—reborn as No Malice—and a host of upstarts including Lecrae, Trip Lee, Bizzle and Thi’sl are among those helping to give Christian rap a new baptism by fire. That’s because they refuse to be labeled as “Christian rappers” doing “Christian rap.” Instead, they insist they’re Christians trying to make dope rap music, which may or may not include biblical messages.
I’ve been saying this for years, and I continue to say this emphatically—if a person wants to be just a “regular rapper” THEY ARE PERFECTLY FREE TO DO THIS! THIS IS NOT A SIN! The label “Christian rapper” is the least of the issues—though I believe there is some importance to it. My concern is more about what XXL reports as “the host of upstarts” doing something new and better for Christian rap by “refusing to be labeled as Christian rappers doing Christian rap.” This seems like an attempt to now separate these artists from the community that gave birth to them without explanation or qualification. As I already mentioned, at least a few of the people they are referring to in this article have made their most noteworthy mark by becoming icons of the Christian rap era. If mainstream hip hop is ready to remove the label, and still allow Christians to be as Christ-centered as they once were, then by all means remove the label. However, judging from the rest of this article, I don’t think that is the case. The whole reason Christian rap exists is to provided a context where the most unashamed proclamation of Christ is welcomed and not quenched.
It’s not new for Christians to seek to be considered unlabeled people who provide unlabeled services, in hopes that the “world” would recognize the “dopeness” of their natural abilities. It’s also not new to witness artists go from Christ-centered, Christ-exalting “art,” to a more general and sometimes ambiguous form of presentation. Everyone knows that advocating Jesus and His recipes for life and godliness, will not “work” based on the way the world defines “work.” I wish the secular hip hop world would just acknowledge the truth, especially in regard to the quality of both “Christian rappers,” and “rappers that happen to be Christians.” There are good and bad versions of both. XXL seems to only have commendation for the person who believes in Christ, but not the one who also centers on Him. Christian “believing” is ok…just not Christian “doing.” God in the heart is ok…God spilling out of the heart is not as welcomed. Perhaps it goes outside the intention of the article, but XXL doesn’t communicate even the possibility that Christian rap has been, or can be done well. It has been done skillfully, tactfully, professionally, and relevantly, all while still remaining to be saturated with Christ. It’s true that it will probably never be a mainstream favorite, but it could receive more honorable mention. The only positive thing that XXL did have to say about Christian rap was that it now has a “fighter’s chance” because of the new trend of leaving it, or in their words “shedding” it. XXL goes on to further critique Christian hip hop…
“In the past, Christian rappers were either too didactic, too distant from the culture or too corny… And in hip hop, a genre that rewards braggadocio, outlaw behavior and more, heavy handed topics weren’t welcome.
This opinion of Christian hip hop should go un-criticized because XXL is entitled to their point of view, however isn’t it just ironic that hip hop rewards “bragging” and “outlaw behavior,” while shunning Christian rap for its “heavy handedness?” The truth is that mainstream hip hop has been the hub of a ton of vices that indeed have colored the entire genre and caused some people to think only negative thoughts about it. The broader “secular” society, not to mention the religious community, has often had to distance itself, and even shun secular hip hop. Hip hop’s defense regarding this has historically been, “Not all of us are the same,” or “What about the positive examples?” In the XXL article Christian rap is not given that same courtesy. Not all are “too didactic, distant, or corny.” Why can hip hop welcome profanity, immorality, violence, materialism, etc., and not welcome a “sub genre” because it’s too didactic, or supposedly too distant from the culture? Sorry to “beat a dead horse” but again I think the truth is obvious—there is a double standard here. The mainstream can detect a Christian who is “in but not of” the culture. When the Christian in hip hop simply talks about acceptable topics, avoids anything perceived to be too offensive, walks in step with the styles and trends, steps up their swag, and displays artistic talent above everything else, he/she is acceptable to the mainstream. This kind of Christian is exactly like everyone else and therefore able to be embraced like everyone else. This confirms what Jesus said, “…if you were of the world, the world would love you as its own…” (Jn 15:19).
The Christian Rap Label—“To Be or Not to Be?”
While it is clear that the Christian rap label is a liability in the mainstream, Christians now have to decide what they will do with it. Do we keep it because it has become so embraced by so many, or do we shed it because it limits our mainstream acceptance? We should note that the Christian rap label is not inherently spiritual, and its absence is not inherently compromising. While according to this article, the label is a stumbling block to mainstream acceptance, I personally would caution against believing that “shedding the label” will ultimately be sufficient for the mainstream. The label of “Christian rap” can disappear, but if too much of the presence of Christ and His gospel remains, the mainstream will still shun you. So actually, more than the label has to go, but also theemphasis on Jesus, His glory, and His mindset has to go as well. We can be as relevant and creative as we want, but if our ideas and allegiance can be traced to Christ, we will ultimately be seen as a Christian who’s rapping “Christian stuff.” Even if they don’t label you as a “Christian rapper,” they will see you as something different. Everyone would like to believe that they will be the exception, and perhaps someone will. But overall, the mainstream will not embrace too much Jesus.
Those of us who accepted the label have traditionally said that the label has merely served to forewarn people that Jesus and things related to Him would be showing up in a way that is not “normal” or even welcomed by the mainstream. The label was more of a description at first that explained why Jesus was getting so much shine in our life and rhymes, and why appeals were being made on His behalf. The producer Boi-1da rightly noted that Jeezy’s rap is not called “drug dealer rap,” and Lupe’s rap is not called “smart rap.” However, most people do describe them that way. It’s not a genre, but it is a primary description of their raps because the description fits. The same is true with Christian rap even though it does also have an official genre. None of us want to be confined by it, but most of us know we can’t escape being defined by it because “it is what it is.” There really is a movement that is growing like wild fire. There is a community of rappers and rap enthusiasts that like to hear more than just lyrical capability, but want to hear the word concerning Christ through the medium of the music, fashion, and more. Whoever has an ear to hear, let them hear. The mainstream does not have to accept it, but we wish they would.
(XXL) “The Toronto hitmaker believes talent stands out above everything, and that the new class of Christian-tinged hip hoppers has mastered the balancing act between cool and compassionate.
XXL goes on to describe what they call “the new class of Christian-tinged hip hoppers.” For the mainstream, this is the acceptable Christian—the “Christian-tinged” one. The word tinge means “imparting a trace or slight degree of some color.” In other words, the mainstream will only accept those who display a “hint of Christianity,” those “slightly colored” by their faith. They will not allow “fanatics” or people who are as passionate for Christ as Wiz Khalifa is for weed. They will not allow a person to be as redundant with biblical truths as Jay Z is about money. You cannot glorify spiritual wealth like Kanye does material wealth, and you can’t be as focused on God’s love as Young Money is on lust. Under normal circumstances, a truce has to be made with the mainstream— keep God and God-related things to a minimum and we will not shun you. We will even give you magazine space, website exposure, and paint you in a favorable light to our constituents. Supporting this idea is the following statement made by producer Boi-1da…
(XXL) “Now rappers are staying up with the times and not trying to force God down [fans] throats. And that’s for the better…”
I believe that’s the main issue right there. Jesus is too polarizing a figure, and He either draws you near or pushes you away. We’ve already commented on how by their own standard, secular rap shoves a ton of data “down everyone’s throats.” Admittedly, the “shoving” is done cleverly, stylishly, and many times with lyrical brilliance. People are free to either take it or leave it. Are Christian rappers really forcing God down anyone’s throat? Or, or are they simply making much of Christ and inviting “fans” to join them in experiencing the joy and delight of who He is and what He’s done. That’s what any rapper “worth their salt” does—try to bring the crowd in. People want the life of the rapper if the rapper paints a compelling picture of a life worth having. People wear the clothes of the rapper if the rapper wears the gear in a compelling fashion. Christian rappers are not doing anything different; they’re just focusing on different things, boasting in different things, and seeking to rally people around different things. To be reduced to merely talking about our lives, which every rapper does, talking about our neighborhoods, and giving a few moral tips on how to live a little better, is to shift from the noble work of ministry to the normal work of industry. That’s not “wrong,” it’s just a downgrade, in my opinion. I do recognize that this is what has to be done to please the masses and not get shunned. I’m reminded of what Paul said, “…am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or, am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (Gal 1:10) Even Paul knew you can’t do both even if you wanted to. (Ouch…this is too convicting for me and I’m writing it!)
Conclusion…Encouragement to the Believers
Here is where I get “preachy!” This is in no way intended to dis XXL. They are merely reporting on what they have seen and heard from some of their observations and sources. This is written more toward the generation of hip hoppers and hip hop consumers who may have an interest in Christ and/or Christian rap. I would hate to see you shrink back from the one who called you, or adopt the views of people who do not have the mind of Christ. I pray you will not cherish the world’s embrace and exaltation to the point where theology ceases to inform the strategies you either personally use, or applaud. Christians have always tried to “reach more people,” and that is a good thing. But the Scriptures have given us the parameters for that mission. The Lord has a people; let us be His witnesses, who seize every available platform to present this world the good news that they may not readily see as such unless the Spirit of God opens their eyes. In the Bible, Israel praised height, strength, and wealth, and the Gentiles praised status, wisdom, and skill. Hip hop praises these, and similar things, but God has always chosen to bring those things to nothing so that people would not rest their confidence in anything other than Christ. The story of Christian rap is amazing in and of itself. God has been good to us. Truly, God can take the “foolish and weak things” and do extraordinary things. As Christian rap has carried that good news into the world, countless numbers of people have been transferred from darkness to the kingdom of the beloved Son (told you I was getting preachy). Even some of the top, more honored rappers (who used to be known as Christian rappers), are in large part, who they are today because of God’s grace and great work among Christian rap. Stand firm people, and let’s take back the narrative. Let’s give XXL something new to write about. To God be the Glory.
“And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” (1Corinthians 2:1-5)