Sorry it’s been so long. I’ve been enjoying my time away from school work since my classes ended back in May and I’ve also taken time away from blogging. Frankly, I don’t have too much to say, but the things I have been wanting to talk about have taken awhile to form themselves into worthwhile posts inside my head. This post is a response to the article The Failures of Christian Hip Hop posted on April 29th of this year by Scott Schultz at the site Christ and Pop Culture.
The article has received an abundant amount of feedback from hip hop fans and non hip hop listeners alike, as it raises several questions about the effectiveness of Christians in hip hop and the success of the genre as a whole. Schultz admits in the article as being an outsider of Christian hip hop and is making his arguments based on what he has seen from the genre. Currently, another article is in the process of being written for the same site by Alan Noble, who is interviewing several artists and others involved in Christian hip hop to get a more rounded view of the issue.
Back in 1999, I came to know Christ as my personal Lord and Savior thanks in part to a good friend of mine who knew I was into hip hop sharing music with me from several Christian rap artists. We soon started our own group, recording a four song ep, playing shows around the area, and even got our own Christian hip hop radio show on a local station. In the past several years, I have had the pleasure of hosting other hip hop shows, writing for sphereofhiphop.com and Feed Magazine, and interviewing and spending time with many different Christian hip hop artists. I feel like I have a pretty good history and understanding of the genre, albeit not as much as others, but I do believe I can give a good defense of the genre and explain why it’s not a failure and why we may need to redefine our definition of success.
First, hip hop is community based
Have you ever wondered why you can name the hometown city of any rapper you’ve ever heard of? Why can’t we do this with other genres? (Sure, there are other bands and artists that we could easily state where they’re from, but the fact is that this is much more prevalent in hip hop). The reason is because of the strong sense of community that lies in the roots of hip hop music. Even the beginnings of hip hop involved a desire to embrace your community and represent the area you call home. This is why so much respect lies in one’s community and why “beefs” often erupt and cause divisions based on city, coast, area, etc.
Even rappers who don’t “make it big” as far as radio play and MTV rotations are concerned can still be some of the most respected and locally famous rappers around. If you want proof, begin going city to city and polling people on their favorite rappers. You’ll find that city to city, the name of the rapper will be different and it will always consist of rappers from the area. A perfect example of this is Playdough. Playdough is one half of the group ill Harmonics and is also part of Phonetic Composition and Deepspace 5. While ill Harmonics garnered some attention in the 90s as part of MTVs show “The Cut,” Playdough and the other acts he has been involved in have never had breakthrough success that resulted in million plus record sales. However, on your next trip to Dallas, Texas (Playdough’s home city) begin asking around about him. He’s a regular fan-favorite battler and freestyler in the area for years and just last year was on Dallas’ 97.9 The Beat’s weekly listener-voted freestyle battle, Playdough reached the maximum amount of consecutive wins before having to be retired so others could have a chance.
Even in a hip hop mecca like Los Angeles, local crews like Tunnel Rats and LA Symphony have the respect of their peers and local hip hop listeners. In college, I was part of a weekly hip hop talk show with three other people, one of which was Salimar Madera from L.A. Upon meeting her and asking her if she knew who LA Symphony was, she replied “Of course! Everyone knows who they are.” San Fransico hip hop listeners are focused on the rappers on their local label Quannum Projects. You MAY have heard one of the rappers from this label, Lyrics Born in a Diet Coke commercial a few years back. Otherwise, you’ll have to hit the local clubs and radio stations to get a taste of what San Fran hip hop fans listen to. For many rappers, gaining the respect of their city is the highest achievement you could ask for. Even those who manage to breakthrough to mainstream media still always pride in their hometown. For someone who doesn’t understand the importance of respect that lies deep in the heart of hip hop, a locally respected rapper with little to no mainstream success could easily be considered a failure, despite indications that point to the opposite.
Second, the Christian market failed to understand hip hop
The final remaining urban label in the Christian market, Gotee Records, recently cut ties with their major distribution companies and went back to being an independent label. In the process, they were forced to cut all hip hop acts besides John Reuben. In the late nineties and early 2000s, it looked like Tooth and Nail sub-label Uprok Records, along with Gotee, Grapetree, and several other independent hip hop labels signed onto major Christian distributors were destined for success that would have made this whole issue irrelevant. Instead, the big wigs in the Christian music industry dropped the ball on marketing the music to hip hop fans, and instead attempted infiltrating suburban youth groups and failed to see real results. What happened next was an arms-in-the-air “we give up” fire sale which resulted in hip hop acts in the clearance bin and a complete shutdown of record labels, leaving respected hip hop artists with no home and no money wondering how they were going to continue making music.
The only remaining hip hop acts signed to a Christian label are KJ-52, John Reuben, and Manafest, who now apparently define what Christian hip hop is. I don’t want to use this particular post to bash these guys, but I will say that the Christian music industry was and is clueless when it comes to marketing hip hop. But hey, KJ sells well to the youth group crowd, so why not keep it up?
You could easily point the finger at “lackluster” artists without knowing what good hip hop is and without hearing the stories of those involved in the situation who saw CEOs that didn’t care to listen to what people were saying about the genre and how it should work and watched their careers and their music get slapped in the face. Many of these artists are now signed to underground secular labels, independent labels, or are just releasing their music on their own via the internet or the ol’ “out of the trunk” style. Despite the failures of the Christian labels, good Christian hip hop music is still around and is still making an impact if you take the time to look for it.
Third, hip hop is still affecting lives for Christ
This next section has nothing to do with platinum records and MTV Video Music Awards. Call it corny if you like, but Christian hip hop artists (through the creation of good and relevant music) have been and are still having an affect on the lives of listeners in the name of Jesus Christ. I’m just one example of someone who came to know Christ partly through good Christian hip hop music.
Crossover Ministries in Tampa, Florida, is a Christian community developed over a decade ago that is influencing thousands of lives through urban ministry in the form of hip hop. Cross Movement Ministries, a project of the Cross Movement, is doing the same in the Philadelphia area and beyond. Likewise, other communities are seeing the affects of hip hop ministry in their areas. The fact of the matter is, as much as everyone would like to see some of these deserving Christian artists sell a million records, the absolute number one reason for making this music is to use it to share the love of Christ with listeners. That doesn’t mean that both can’t be done together, as I already anticipate the response of “Well, (insert mainstream rapper here) is sharing their message and is having a bigger impact on its listeners than any Christian rapper I know of.” Sure, and show me a media or artistic outlet where an Christian group or artist is having a bigger impact than its secular counterpart. It CAN be done, but we can’t measure our success based on whether it is or not. We’d all love to see talented Christians dominate the music charts, but at some point we have to realize that the message of Christ, however loud or subtle it is, is not welcome in the hearts of unbelievers unless the door is opened by Christ himself.
These are just three big reasons I’ve been pondering on lately as to why I find it foolish to call Christian hip hop a failure. There are more reasons, and there are certainly areas where we can point to and say “yes, Christian hip hop failed here.” However, I feel that despite the “failures” I’ve seen in the genre and in the careers of artists I know and love, I’ve seen much fruit and hearts that are dedicated to delivering good hip hop music to those who would hear it. I know some will still see me as naive and unable to see failure where it exists. That’s fine. I’ve seen the success of it in my own life with my own ears and the same in the lives of others I know.