by J.F. Arnold
If you haven’t listened to Christian rap, I have to commend it to you. I understand if the genre won’t make it onto your iPod, or if you won’t find yourself reaching for the latest Lecrae album. But if you discard the genre simply because it exists within a certain culture, or because the majority of rap music is misogynistic, glorifies violence and encourages drug use, then I have to wonder why you’re engaging with any number of other pop culture media. (If you need some proof that Christian rap can have encouraging and, at times, theologically rich content, look no further.)
But even as Christian rap grows, the community itself is trying to figure things out. We are facing the same questions others have faced before: what is the responsibility of an artist with national (or, in some cases, international) appeal? Is a Christian artist obligated to present a clear and concise gospel message in every song they produce, or do they have the freedom to speak to other issues?
While the question is emerging in rap, it’s far older. I remember watching the discussion among Christian rockers back in the mid-90s and early 2000s. Bands like Skillet and P.O.D. had gained mainstream success—they were being asked to perform at secular venues, often with other major rock bands. The lifestyle differences were often stark, but lyrically the bands rarely broke out of sort-of-religious-but-maybe-just-a-love-song territory. There were tracks that were exceptions, of course, but rarely (if ever) did we hear the name of Jesus, or even explicit “God” references (P.O.D. opted for “Jah” as slang for God, while Skillet stuck with the second person pronoun “You”, for the most part). But both bands professed Christ in interviews. Both bands sought to live as witnesses within the scene, rather than directly to the fans. It was a shift.
Somewhere in there, the guitarist for Korn became a Christian. Christian fans weren’t sure what to do beyond rejoice, but we all eagerly waited for the music he would create as a Christian. Many Christians felt too guilty to listen to Korn, but longed for music of their style (there was, oddly, a Korn shaped hole in popular Christian rock music; Project 86 came closest, perhaps). Brian ‘Head’ Welch’s solo album was subsequently among the most anticipated Christian rock albums that I can remember.
The response to the album’s first music video was telling. People felt the album was solid, if a bit mediocre (it was clear that Brian’s strength was in guitar work, not lyrics), but the first video was far too explicit for the tame Christian market. Christians just about vilified the artist for the content of the video, which portrayed women in skimpy clothing, licking an unidentified red powder off of one another. Christians were confused, and did not look beyond the surface at the video (the intention was to show Brian fighting against temptation; the women and powder represent his temptations towards sex and drugs). For Brian, the video wasn’t even explicit.
Enter No Malice, formerly known as Malice of the duo Clipse. In the rap world, Malice had made a name for himself. His first performance after his conversion to Christ (and under the name No Malice) was on Lecrae’s Church Clothes, a free mixtape hosted by secular DJ Don Cannon. Since then, No Malice has released his first Christian album, Hear Ye Him.
I won’t review the whole album here. I’d rather review the Christian reaction to it. The album itself is solid, but not as overwhelming as people hoped. The lyrics consistently remind the listener that No Malice is a bit of a newcomer to this sort of content; he sounds most at home when he is referring to his previous life.
But here’s the problem: much like Brian ‘Head’ Welch’s debut solo album, No Malice has a few bumps here and there that have turned heads. When the first single dropped, a number of comments pointed out that the guest feature used the term ‘n*gger.’ The term would be impossible to miss on an older album by Clipse, but in the Christian market, you’ll rarely find that sort of language (so rarely, in fact, that people react to it every time). Throughout the album he pushes these lines, and many fans suggest that what he is saying is unnecessary.
Here’s the principle we all ought to keep in mind: grace should govern our every move. We may disagree with certain decisions that No Malice, Brian ‘Head’ Welch, P.O.D., Lecrae, or whoever may make, and we should seek to encourage the Christian scene to carefully consider its actions, but we have an obligation to extend grace, especially to those who are seeking to glorify the Lord. Correct gently, remember that all truth is God’s truth, and pray that these brothers will only get better as years go on.
J.F. Arnold (’10) graduated from Biola’s Torrey Honors Institute and also holds an M.A. in Philosophy of Religion from Talbot School of Theology. He is the editor-in-chief for Evangelical Outpost and an editor for Mere Orthodoxy. He is interested in how Christianity intersects with music, especially hip-hop, and writes about technology, philosophy, and theology.