A Few Thoughts on My Favorite Rapper

https://i1.wp.com/www.xxlmag.com/files/2017/08/Lecrae-All-Things-Work-Together-cover.jpegI grew up listening to Christian hip-hop knowing, even then, much of it was cheesy. Though there was more quality than most give it credit, much of the Contemporary Christian Music scene was consumer-based and record labels believed that recreating mainstream music with Jesus-lite theology would sell. Out of that mess came some quality hip-hop.

The legacy of those early pioneers is now seen in a collection of influential rappers who are reaching into both the Christian and mainstream markets. The leader in this realm is without a doubt Lecrae who is one of my favorites artists across all genres.

No doubt there has been an evolution to his music, especially lyrically. Most suggest this evolution began with his album “Gravity” (my favorite album to date) which became less theologically explicit and more culturally aware. In his memoir Unashamed, Lecrae admits as much. However, to say that “Gravity” is not explicitly Christian is disingenuous as singles like “Tell the World” make clear.

I believe the evolution manifest in “Gravity,” and later in “Church Clothes, Volume 1,” were good for Lecrae and for Christian hip-hop. Much of Christian hip-hop for decades seemed separated from the real world and was never given the credence it deserved. I have always enjoyed the theological creeds they gave us (usually richer than the contemporary scene), but they often lacked realism. Lecrae changed all of that.

More recently, however, Lecrae’s music has continued to evolve in a direction that does concern me. In raising this alarm, I am not suggesting that Lecrae has abandoned his faith in pursuit of fame. I am writing as a fan who still buys his music, follows his career, and supports his work.  I am rather writing as a friendly critic raising some concerns.

While promoting his new album, Lecrae shared a vulnerable and honest moment about his own faith struggle.

source

I appreciate his honesty and it pains me to hear that his faith struggle is found in the attitudes and words of other believers. Yet what we have is a real change, not just in Lecrae’s confidence in Christianity, but in his expression of it. Consider one of my favorite songs from “Church Clothes, Volume 2” released in 2013 which opens with his testimony:

I came home after a trip to Atlanta, a different planet
Is where they thought I came from after my ship had landed
Truth is I had this meeting with God and confessed my sin
And he gave me this new beginning all I could do then was pen it
I came home after a trip to Atlanta, a different planet
Is where they thought I came from after my ship had landed
Truth is I had this meeting with God and confessed my sin
And he gave me this new beginning all I could do then was pen it
All down in my notebook, just a lot of verses
Me learning how not to curse was like learning to write in cursive
She still flirting with me even though we up in church
And I’m fighting to memorize all these verses up in the word
You would have never seen it coming
A couple months ago I’m getting high with my cousin
And fast forward now around campus I am buzzing
Not really but it felt like that, it felt like rap was just another passion
Never thought I’d be at the Grammy’s talking about my fashion
You don’t believe in God? Well how do you explain what happened?
I promise we ain’t plan it, now Christians unashamed from Zambia to Manhattan
Still looking for the pattern? Come On

Four years later we meet a different Lecrae struggling with his faith. Struggling with one’s faith is not unusual and evangelicals should encourage other believers who are having this struggle. This same sentiment toward fellow believers is evident throughout his new album, “All Things Work Together.” One song, “Facts” expresses some of this.

And you prolly won’t wanna hear my music no mo’
But it’s all good, man, I love y’all
Hope you know that I’m black black
Traded my Smart Car for a Cadillac, can you handle that?
And I love God
I love Jesus, the one out of Nazareth
Not the European with the ultra perm and them soft eyes and them thin lips
And I’m still hood
Been in the ‘burbs for quite some time
But I still might hit the gas station for the Lemonheads and the pork rinds
And I’m on one
Yeah, 116 been real
Binghamton, Tennessee, from Third Ward to Ceiling Hill
And I live a multiple world, call me a hybrid ’cause I’m so black
Young theologian who educated, but still be at that Chicken Shack, yeah

The song as a whole is written from the perspective of a black American seeking to explain himself to “white evangelicals” about some “facts.” It is here that Lecrae can be prophetic and a voice of unity and influence. He is both evangelical in his theology and African-American. These two voices need to come together and much of what Lecrae says in his music in this regard I agree with. Lecrae is not alone in this as other Christian hip-hop artists are speaking to racial reconciliation from the perspective of the African-American identity and experience. Artists like Trip Lee, Propaganda, and others. Some are more helpful than others, but nevertheless address race from the perspective of faith.

Yet it is also here where I lay my criticism. Increasingly, Lecrae is standing as an evangelical “Outsider” criticizing the church – writing it off as predominately (and almost exclusively) white and unable to understand him and other minorities. Again, there may be some truth to this criticism. Certainly there is room for growth in this area for evangelicalism and I am seeing much growth in this area as evidence in John Piper’s hopeful response to Lecrae’s divorce with what he calls “white evangelicalism.”

While standing as a critic of evangelicalism – or white evangelicalism as he calls it – quick to pounce at a moment’s notice, Lecrae is less willing to do the same with the African-American community he openly identifies with. Earlier in the song quoted above, for example, he mentions favorably the Black Panthers:

You grew up thinkin’ that the Panthers was some terrorists
I grew up hearin’ how they fed my momma eggs and grits
“‘Crae, they say you should follow in the steps of King”
I say, “You’ve forgotten how they shot him in the streets”
I ain’t really changed, it’s the same old rebel

The reason the Black Panthers are viewed as a domestic terrorist-like group is because they were a violent organization. Lecrae’s unwillingness to accept and confront that is concerning . No amount of dialoguing will change the history of violence on both sides of the racial strife. It ought to be the role of the Christian, not to be defined by our race but by our middle eastern, Jewish Jesus who commands we pursue peace. The Panthers do not represent peace, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. does. King is a genuine American hero and his martyrdom is a genuine American tragedy that should cement his call for peaceful protest against racism, not an abandonment of it in favor of violent groups like the Black Panthers.

It concerns me greatly that Lecrae is increasingly sympathetic to such extremes in minority communities which increasingly defend violence. To say that does not mean I deny there is genuine injustice and racism in the country. I do believe that some of the issues raised by Lecrae and others are legitimate, but Christians are to promote peace without ever supporting organizations or groups that condone violence in order to get their message across. This is why I believe Dr. King was a genuine American hero. In such songs, Lecrae is not contributing to reconciliation, but division. He has become a critic of the church, rather than calling her to contribute to peace.

Lyrics like this are increasing in Lecrae’s more recent works. In the first tack of “All Things Work Together” entitled Always Knew he raps:

Still killing over colors, now it’s black and blue
We dyin’ every day, B, we just don’t make the news
When you speak up for your race just watch
They gon’ twist and say you hate these cops, I’ma take these shots
How can he love Jesus, Kanye, and K Dot?
Martin, Malcolm, and Schaeffer, Mitsubishi, and Maybach?
Contradictory, nah, it’s complimentary
Understanding me ain’t for the simple and elementary
Oh, I know this might go over some heads
But I come from being government fed, could be running from feds
But now I give the government bread
‘Cause you playing back the words that I said, that’s crazy

Again, the racial divide in America is unacceptable and Christians should do more to promote peace and reconciliation. Yet the language here is concerning to me. Absent is the promotion of peace. In its place is a a defense of some of the extreme responses to genuine tragedies.

Other examples could be given from his lyrics, tweets, and interviews. Lecrae has become an open critic of evangelicals without ever being able to criticize unacceptable behavior of others. Evangelicals do need to hear some of what he has to say and it is best to listen to someone who, I believe, is one of us. But Lecrae increasingly seems unwilling to be critical of mainstream music and mainstream culture that is embracing him.

In other words, whatever happened to the Lecrae of Outsider who boldly proclaimed:
I won’t stay here another night
If I gotta sacrifice
Who I am on the inside
I’d rather be an outsider
And you can stay if you like
I’ll see you on the other side
I wanna live the free life
I’d rather be an outsider

Lecrae is looking more like an evangelical outsider  – an evangelical critic – rather than a cultural prophet. He has a voice that most do not. It is my prayer he begins to use it again.

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