Does God Listen to Rap? — Christians and the World’s Most Controversial Music, by Curtis “Voice” Allen
Some people hate rap and are sure God does, too. Others love it. Many of these who are Christians can’t imagine why God would have any issues with rap—at least, not with songs by believers that encourage and edify them in the faith. Who’s right? And why should we care?
Pastor, author, and Christian hip-hop artist Curtis Allen (Voice) starts this book with a sociological history of the emergence and development of rap. If you enjoy rap and hip-hop culture, you’ll love this section. Then the meat of the book unpacks several fascinating passages of Scripture to explore a vital set of larger questions involving God, faith, and the arts. In the end, you’ll have tools for thinking biblically about all forms of human artistic endeavor.
Does God listen to rap? Come find out.
Lots of other people love and accept rap as their preferred form of musical expression. Many of these who are Christians can’t imagine why God would have any issues with rap—at least, not with songs by believers that encourage and edify them in the faith.
Who’s right? And maybe more importantly, who cares? You should. And here’s why.
In the past 30 years, rap music has become a vital artistic and cultural force globally, and it’s showing no signs of slowing down. Like it or not, you are probably exposed to rap in one form or another on a fairly regular basis. If you’re interested in this book you may be a believer in Jesus who likes rap a lot, and as Christians, when we love something that is (if you hadn’t noticed) closely associated with sin and rebellion, our justification for being involved with it really does need to go beyond, “Dude, this is good stuff.”
But maybe you’re in a different category. Maybe you’re a Christian parent, concerned that rap music may have a negative impact on your child. Maybe you’re a youth pastor worried about having a rap concert at his church because of the potential pushback. Or maybe you’re just a rap fan who is curious to see if there’s even any biblical evidence for or against rap.
To put it simply, if you’ve made it this far, this book is probably for you. Does God Listen to Rap? covers two areas. First, it presents a sociological history of the emergence and development of rap. If you enjoy rap and hip hop culture, you’ll love this part of the book. Then the book explores the Scriptures to bring some biblical (not just personal or anecdotal) resolution to the question of God and rap. Ultimately, this involves a set of larger questions involving God and the arts. So while the immediate focus of the book is rap music, you’ll find here a set of tools for thinking biblically about all forms of human artistic endeavor.
So, does God listen to rap? Come find out.
Curtis Allen is lead pastor at Solid Rock Church in Riverdale, Maryland, and moonlights as a Christian rap artist called Voice. He also raps under the name Curt Kennedy. He and his wife, Betsy, have three sons. Curt’s first book was Education or Imitation? Bible Interpretation for Dummies Like You and Me. He can be found at CurtisAllen.net.
A Notable Review
“A really valuable book, and I highly recommend it.”
This book…can be divided into two basic sections. The first describes the origins of this form of music, giving us the history of it. Where did it come from, and why did it catch on?
“So let’s be honest. Rap isn’t exactly rooted in the rich soil of holiness” (p. 37).
Having established in that first section that the origins of rap were pretty tawdry, Allen goes on to show in the second part of the book why — scripturally — that shouldn’t really matter to us, at least not as a stand-alone argument. He gives thoughtful arguments from Scripture on why the genetic fallacy is in fact a fallacy when it comes to music. I have read a lot of cultural analysis, and Allen comes to the subject in fresh ways. For one example, he develops one argument from the fact that all music came from the line of Cain (Gen. 4: 17-21), beginning with a gent named Jubal. We don’t know what his stage name was — perhaps JubalZ.
Allen is sympathetic with those who are put off by rap’s origins, but is well-versed on those rappers — may their tribe increase — who love the Lord and who are not participants in the grime.
But there is still a lot for some Christians to overcome. What happens when someone well-versed in the traditional music of the church, let’s say, is persuaded by the arguments, at least to the point where he is willing to give it a listen? A lot rides on what you expect from it when you come to it. My brother-in-law once came in from some hard labor outside, in need of a cold drink. He opened the fridge and saw what he assumed to be a bottle of cold lemonade. He glugged it down, and it was mostly consumed before he realized it was chicken broth. What you have there is a collision of expectation and reality.
When someone comes to rap for the first time, and it is represented to him as a form of music, which it is, what they encounter (because of their musical expectations) can really throw them. But suppose they change their expectations?
“What makes rap music different from all other musical genres? Pretty much just one thing: Its primary ‘instrument’–rhythmic, rhyming human speech. Think about it . . . You can rap over any style of music and people will call it rap because what’s really central is not the underlying music — regardless of its style — but the words that run over the top. Rap is rap because it features rhythmic, rhyming human speech over some kind of rhythmic musical background” (p. 92).
So if you think of it as “a poem” with musical elements, you might have a better time of it than if you think of it as a song with a lot of missing musical elements.
“Rap is also unusual in the way it uses words. Where a typical CCM song might have 50-70 words, and a typical hymn has about 200, rap songs are often 300-500 words long. A well-written rap song can fit a lot of content into a short time. Many have said that listening to a good Christian rap song can be like hearing a mini-sermon” (p. 92).
A mini-sermon. Let’s call it a homily, shall we? So let’s call it a homily with a driving beat, which, let’s face it, a lot of homilies down through history could have used.
So if you come expecting a charged verbal expression, you will not be thrown by the beat. But if you come expecting a specific idea of a “song,” you could easily be bewildered by the absence of many of a song’s components.
Allen also has a brief section on a recent controversy in rap circles, a controversy that revolves around the question of “selling out.”
“Lecrae uses the Acts 17 philosophical approach in the hope of giving people stepping stones toward the truth of Christ. Although he has experienced some backlash from well-intentioned Christians, Lecrae has solid biblical precedent for his approach” (p. 95).
Also mentioned in this regard are Humble Beast’s Braille and Propaganda.
The one thing I would want to note here is that “selling out” ought to be defined in terms of the mission, and the character of the artist, and not in terms of whether the label is headquartered in Nashville. People can compromise wherever they are, and they can stand tall wherever they are. Someone can sell out by signing with a Christian label, and someone can refuse to sell out by signing with a secular label. Of course, life is complicated, and it can also go the other way, and frequently has.
This is a war, and war is risky. So when Christian artists “crossover,” they might be doing it for the sake of the gospel, and we had better pray for them hard. Or they might be doing it for the chicks and bling, which is more problematic.
One last thing. I thought this was a really valuable book, and I highly recommend it. I didn’t find myself colliding with any of its basic assumptions on cultural engagement that Allen set out for the reader. The one criticism is that I would have liked further development on one point. He didn’t quite argue that “all that matters is the words, and so the music is irrelevant,” but it is possible that he believes that. I don’t think that anything is neutral, including forms and styles of music — but I agreed with him that believers can take a form of music that came into existence out in the world, and adapt it for our use.
But suppose we have done so, and believers have been rapping for a couple centuries. I think we should be looking for drastic development and improvement of the musical form as a result. If that is not our task, then all we are doing is riding an evanescent fad. There will be certain Elizabethan sonnets that will continue to be studied centuries after the rage of writing sonnets has passed. This is unlikely for the be-bop-a-loo-bop-she’s-my-baby forms of poetic diction. So gifted Christian poets and lyricists should never be content with throwing their words down into the sinkhole of momentary culture. They should be aiming for something higher, and books like this help.