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In hip hop,lyrics,Music

Hip-Hop, Ya Don’t Stop: How Rap Can Share the Gospel Better

by D.J. Wishwon

Some of my favorite memories of growing up were of putting a tape into a ghetto-blaster and playing basketball in my backyard. I would spend hours playing while listening to RUN DMC (and various other rap groups from the mid to late 80s). I soon discovered Christian hip-hop artists, such as Michael Peace, ETW, PID, and 12th Tribe. These artists would talk about the issues of the street but explain how hope is found with Jesus.

From hip-hop’s inception, there has always been a strong desire to use the music to express an idea, to share a dream, or to make an argument. This is best seen in the work one of hip-hop’s pioneers, Afrika Bambaataa, who used the new sounds of hip-hop to create a quasi-spiritual movement later known as the Universal Zulu Nation[1]. Rap legend KRS ONE infuses philosophy into many of his songs, and even has a web page dedicated to explaining this underlying philosophy.[2]Hip-hop music is well suited for this task. While most genres of music are focused on melodies and harmonies, hip-hop focuses on the word, the idea, the expression. 

Even though hip-hop has evolved over the years, the genre remains unique in its ability to express an idea or present an argument. There is no wasted time on long, drawn out vowels covering a wide range of tones and pitches. The rhythm relentlessly forces the MC to spew forth the message at an uncompromising pace. The sheer volume of words permitted within verses allows for a much more thorough treatment of the idea being presented. These are some of the factors which allow the hip-hop genre to be extraordinarily compatible with the expression of concepts touching on theology and apologetics. Not to say that other forms of music are not capable of expressing theology; the best ones do, but they rarely offer sustained treatments on such subjects in the way that hip-hop can.

Consider that the average hip-hop verse is sixteen bars (or sixteen lines of lyrics), and, by definition, an argument has at least two premises and one conclusion. If we gave each premise and conclusion one line each, an MC could make 5 separate arguments in one typical verse with room to spare. The average hip-hop song has 3 verses, and further arguments could be expressed in the chorus. This allows for many potential arguments packed into one song!

Of course, hip-hop songs don’t usually pack so many arguments together like this, because they take the time to unpack a fewer range of arguments and ideas. Here are some examples:

In his song Jesus is Alive,[3]Shai Linne has a verse that presents various apologetic arguments. The first argument presented is that it is very hard to imagine Christianity spreading as it did, in the historical context within which it found itself, unless the Resurrection actually happened. He then argues that it is very unlikely that the Disciples would make up a lie, spend their lives in being persecuted for this lie, and eventually be executed for something they knew was a lie. He further argues that there were over five hundred eyewitness to who they thought was the risen Jesus. He points out that this would be strong evidence in a modern court of law. All of this in a half a verse!

                And don’t be misled—I got a level head 
                No resurrection, Christianity would have never spread
                The disciples weren’t stupid guys who would ruin their lives
                And then choose to die for what they knew was a lie
                That would be beyond ridiculous—Nah, the issue is
                The risen Christ seen by 500 eye-witnesses
                Imagine 500 people in a court of law
                Each of them taking the stand reporting what they saw
                If their stories lined up and made sense
                The evidence would have to leave you convinced

Lamp Mode is a record label which focuses on MCs who have strong theological lyrics. In their compilation album The Church: Called and Collected,[4]various artists get together and make songs about various church issues. The first song by God’s Servant and Azriel (Take ‘em to Church) argues why Christians should attend church. The reasons given in the second verse are that Jesus is the head of the Church and the Church is His bride. If we don’t want anything to do with Jesus’ bride, if we are not part of the covenant community (at least in the deepest sense), how can we love Jesus or trust Him? Jesus shows His love towards mankind through His church; thus, we should be available to show His love by being involved with His church. It is further argued that even though disagreements and mistakes happen, this is to be expected because this is unfortunately what happens when fallen humans get together. It is no excuse. Lastly, it is argued that we should do it because we are simply commanded to by God.

                We ain’t the sole ones to run this
                Yo, the Church gets her worth if you know who His Son is
                The bride that He died not to punish
                But to summon, the saved to abide in a oneness
                There’s trials it comes with
                But how do we love Christ, if His bride is the one we can’t stomach?
                We’re saved from our nature that covets
                Shown through the way that His people display how He loves us
                Sacrificial, it’s mad official
                Commitment to a local congregation’s not for dismissal
                Of course we’ll have issues. people are sinful!
                Still we’re called to live as His priesthood and temple
                It’s quite simple, to see what He’s after
                His glory shown through the people he’s gathered
                We call Jesus our Master?
                Well the Church is the means He’s decreed so we have to…

Flame and Trip Lee teamed up to do a song called I’ve Been Redeemed[5]. This song is much more testimonial in style. It tells of a life that was bound for hell, and how it was Jesus who changed that. It’s also about how life is transformed by the redemptive work of Jesus on the cross, and how the emotional affect this has considering its implications of what he just expressed.

                I’m tripping off redemption from the Risen and His blood that did it
                I was sinning bro, I must admit it
                Evil I would come and get it
                It was all I knew until He drew me to the Son and switched it
                I’m accepted, protected; God is my refuge
                I ain’t in danger; the Savior came to my rescue
                He’s been erasing the habits that’s known to wreck dudes
                So my flesh I gotta check like a chess move
                He purchased me, gave birth to me
                He paid the price for worthless me
                Was hurt man would flirt with flames
                He flipped that like a circus man
                I’m so amazed, His holy ways, He bought me now, I know and praise
                The one who overflows with grace
                Jehovah bro, I’m blown away
                Yeah, what a relief it is
                His wrath is satisfied
                And through belief in this
                I’m bought by Adonai
                And when I think on this
                That since the master died
                I’m redeeming and His
                I just break down inside

Hip-hop is often cast in a bad light, and there is some good justification for this. Many songs teach an unabashed consumerism, gratuitous violence, and an offensive sexuality. However, the foundational aspects of hip-hop music are amoral, and lend themselves well to introducing listeners to complex ideas, concepts, and arguments. These foundational aspects can be harnessed to express theological and apologetic ideas. Many people will not take the time to read a systematic theology or a Christian philosophical book, but they will listen to a fresh beat and tight flow and ponder the lyrics of the MC.

It is my experience that these Christian artists are extremely committed to sharing the Gospel, and also have little fear in doing so. Hip-hop holds high regard for someone who showcases who they are, about keeping it real. As committed followers of Christ, these artists are unashamedly proclaiming Christ, explaining what this means, and sharing why they believe. Hip-hop provides a forum like none other to reach people who desperately need the Gospel.

[1] See: Jeff Chang, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: a History of the Hip-Hop Generation, Picador, 2005, chapter 5.
[2] http://www.krs-one.com/temple-of-hip-hop/ (accessed January 24, 2014).
  • Wow Justin. I have always hated rap. But seeing it from the perspective you so well illustrate in this blog, I have some re-evaluating to do.

  • The contemporary musicians doing the best job of explaining the truths of Christianity. Period.

  • Anonymous

    I am a pastor from Calgary. I saw the benefit of this kind of music. It easily attract kids-teens and youth-to love the Gospel, especially when there is a passionate youth pastor behind the scene. agree with this 100 %.

  • Anonymous

    Urgent : I live in Calgary. I need an experienced Christian hip-up trainer. plz call me at 5874341375. Thks.