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. Rap legend KRS ONE infuses philosophy into many of his songs, and even has a web page dedicated to explaining this underlying philosophy.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,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,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. 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
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.
 See: Jeff Chang, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: a History of the Hip-Hop Generation, Picador, 2005, chapter 5.