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Photo by Jonathon D. Colman

As well all know, hip hop is no stranger to war. A quick walk downtown and you face hundreds of fliers promoting hip hop “battles” of some sort or graffiti burners one-upping each other spread over the most visible areas. The top hip hop artists all have well known beefs with each other. Their songs are dedicated to it, their albums are dedicated to it, and seemingly most of the media attention in hip hop is over their beef or lyric wars. So, it’s not surprising that Holy Hip Hop is engaged in its own war. What is surprising, though, is what the war is over. It’s not a war against spiritual powers and principalities, injustice, false teachings, or any other Biblical enemies; it’s a war between the Christian artists themselves; a civil war.

There are two states under the union of Holy Hip Hop. One, the conservative state, argues the main purpose of Holy Hip Hop should be to glorify God, to preach, or to proselytize non-believers. Anything short of blatantly Christian lyrics is unacceptable to them as a misappropriation of the genre’s music. The other, the more artistic state, argues the main purpose of their music (and all music) is to express one’s self artistically and creatively regardless of the subject matter, and because they are Christians, the music subsequently falls into the category of Holy Hip Hop. Anything short of original, intensely riddled lyricism is a weaker form of music and therefore inappropriate for the intensely creative nature of hip hop. Both states have taken up arms and both have fired.

As an observer and a participant, I’ve noticed most of the lyrical attacks originate with the side of Holy Hip Hop focused centrally on spiritual lyrics; the “more Christian” side. This is a paradox because attacks on fellow Christians isn’t something normally considered spiritual, but nevertheless the general sentiment seems to be that lyrics not idiomatically Christian are out of place in Holy Hip Hop. And yes, I can see how this can be true in many cases. I won’t waste time mentioning any number of clearly non-Christians artists who use God as a popularity card in their music. We know about them already. Or, many times you hear artists who walk in the realms of Holy Hip Hop, but nobody would ever be able to tell if they were Christians, in lyric or life. I would agree some of these artists may be out of place; as we all know; growing up in a Christian family or going to Church does not make you a Christian. Just as going to church and rapping does not make you a Christian emcee. But, is it really worth all the disunity in our genre to battle over the way we express ourselves?

Sup the Chemist featured on “Hear Me Now” by Peace 586 draws his weapon in defense. “I hear fools speakin/ Yo Sup ain't reaching lost souls/ Well y'all ain't either cause ain't nothing but Christians at your shows/ So we all equal”. The line explains the common focus of the civil war. One side states that Holy Hip Hop is here to minister to the church and Christians. The other side aims at ministry to one’s self, artistry, and life in general. The first argue that the latter do not reach the world with their music, the latter argue the prior don’t reach the world either because their lyrics are too “Christian” for anyone in the world to want to hear them.

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Cross Movement
One of the most vocal groups on this subject would have to be Cross Movement, who has many songs and in some cases, almost entire albums on the subject themselves. “I don’t mean no harm, but I’ll bet the farm/ some put the weight of the mission on skill and charm/ And they get iller than all, their killing evolves/ But with no alarm, CM will remain calm/ Lord how long the wait, cause this is a long debate/ Neither side wants to prolong the hate/ They say we reach the church and they reach the streets/ But can’t find an in or out of season to preach/ And there’s only two, but you kept the charge the same/ The harvest is ready, but the workers lame/ I say we reach the church and we reach the streets/ And some don’t believe and I’ll catch the heat/ But we’ll take the lash, word bond/ But they’d be surprised if they knew who was ringing the horn/ But ain’t no beef, cause we all still fam/ I’m gonna shut my teeth and not give the enemy a chance/ But just know this, this is our only main stance/ Trust the wisdom of God and not the stratz of man” –Cross Movement on the song “If Not Of.”

The ironic nature of lyrics like these is that the focus of the song is correcting Christian emcees by trying to tell them to speak more about Christ in their music, but by writing a verse on that topic, the artist is not actually writing about Christ in their music either. The song then becomes a theological argument on how to evangelize or a commentary on what Christians should write about in their own songs. I find it slightly hypocritical to tell someone to “reach the church and… reach the streets” when in saying so you are doing neither.

The Christian hip hop market seems to have a voracious appetite for songs filled to the brim with Christian doctrine and preachy-church style lyrics. For many Christians, these songs are well met and encouraging. But, trouble brews when instead of good songs and artists, a lot of terrible, musically weak songs and artists get high praises (and even awards) because of their religious content and not because of talent and innovation. Over time this has cast a huge shadow over Holy Hip Hop and diluted the genre in the eyes of musicians and listeners alike. Now that artist after artist has passed through the gates of popularity based on religious content and not talent, our sect has taken on the aura of not passionate but weak, not talented but cheesy, not truthful but derived, and not creative but monotonous.

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P.O.D.
On of the most ironic conversations I had on this subject was with a very enthusiastic minister friend of mine in regard to the band P.O.D. My minister friend had a staunch dislike, almost hatred, of the band and agued unceasingly that they are an ungodly group bent on self-glorification and image worship. His opinion was so intense, any time I ever mentioned the band or the band ever even happened to pass through his mental vision, he would begin the argument over. I always held that the band was not only God glorifying, but one of the greatest encouragements to my faith when I was a young Christian. The last time we ever debated the subject my minister friend took me to his computer to look up the group’s lyrics. The first lyric he found was from a song called “Lie Down.” I remember him reading the first few lyrics, “’I lay down, I sleep, when I wake, sustain me.’ What IS this? This clearly does NOT glorify God!” he said shaking his head with a look of disgust. His clear assumption was that because the line did not contain the name Jesus or the word “God,” or because it did not contain some sort of evangelistic purpose, it was non-Christian. That’s when I broke it to him that the particular portion of the song he read was a direct quote from the Bible (Psalm 3:5) “I laid me down and slept; I awaked; for the LORD sustained me.” KJV. I’ll never forget the look on his face when I asked him if he had a problem with the Bible. The subject was never brought up again.

I believe this argument applies particularly in the matter of Holy Hip Hop as well. The Bible is a book full of poetry and parables. King David did not sit down and write the same straight forward, utilitarian psalm over and over. The psalms rarely hold actual doctrine, but are actual songs and poems. The word “psalm” comes from the Greek “psalmoi” and originally meant “songs sung to a harp”. Psalms often are full of vivid detail and deep parallels not meant to be understood at face value. A basic read will reveal that many psalms are less focused on God as much as they are focused on the life of the writer. Ironically, some psalms reach into the subject realms of what many Christians artists would condemn as unchristian; such as the death of the writers enemies (Pslam 58) or the murder of their children (Psalm 137). Unfortunately, in this regard, secular hip hop artists are more paralleled Biblically than most Christian artists. In fact, the Bible is full of taboo subjects most Holy Hip Hop artists would never even dream about putting in their songs.

This approach to expression is not limited to the Old Testament. Jesus himself spoke in parables. Frequently, the disciples or other listeners had almost NO idea what Jesus was talking about. The subject matter was simply too deep or too hard to grasp. Some of Jesus’ expressions and parables were so difficult, many of his followers turned away after they heard them (John 6). Was this artistic expression? Well, I’m not haughty enough to say yes, but I can say Jesus was not always blasting out straight forward religious doctrine. This is one of the very things that makes Him so alluring when you read His words.

Some complain that many Christian artists have songs, or even whole CDs, that rarely or never even mention God. They argue that if there is “no good news on your album/ then you're in the wrong genre” (Cross Movement on the song “On the Move”). I have to disagree. The Bible books of Esther and Song of Solomon do not even mention God! Should they be removed from the Biblical cannon? They don’t mention the good news. The books of Ruth, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Ezra, and Nehemiah mention God but have no direct words from God. Should those be ripped out of the Bible and placed into a different section of the book store? Of course not, this is ridiculous. In the same way, saying that a Christian artist must mention the gospel in their album to be considered Holy Hip Hop is ridiculous and unbiblical itself.

One of Christian hip hop’s heavy hitting groups to face criticism in this way is Deep Space 5. These emcees and DJs are heavily lyrical and therefore deeply metaphorical and poetic. Some have criticized them as less spiritual or more secular. Sintax rebuts this in the song “Crumb”, “I speak in brief words / this Grief Observed / and make rap something more than just vanity slurs / I make calamity yours / because you just keep dissin' how we minister the gospel / and it's clear you ain't listenin' to Deepspace 5 / spittin' for all the people who don't want to be spoon-fed their meal / you call it keepin' it real / ya'll tellin' a plain story / while we're breaking our backs to bear the full Weight of Glory / you see The Problem of Pain is Chiefly on Prayer / and my Letters to Malcolm they all vanished in thin air / famished and bone bare we suffer for lack of knowledge / we mistake godly wisdom for going to state college / paying petty homage and speaking His Name clear / even Christ mailed his words in a mystery that you can hear / the puzzle may speak a subtle socratic method / answered every question with a question (no question)…” Not only is this song laced with the titles of many of modern Christendom’s apologetical works, it’s a comprehensive argument against straight forward, bare naked gospel preaching in Holy Hip Hop, diminishing it as “spoon fed”.

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Deepspace5


I don’t so much mind this response by Sintax, he was just defending himself, but the argument is so unfounded I wish he wouldn’t even have wasted his talent on a response. The truth is, the members of Deep Space 5 are Christians. A few of them I have met and even prayed with. I can at least speak for the ones I’ve met and say they are strong Christians. Their music is so encouraging and poetic in nature, I really wouldn’t mind if they paid no attention to the critics and just came forth with the realness that makes their crew as dope as they are. In the same way I wish heaving hitting crews like Cross Movement would drop the civil war rhetoric and focus more on their intensely Christian doctrine riddled music. Because, frankly, they are masters of bringing the basics of our faith without coming completely cheesy, which takes a lot of talent.

So who is right? Is it the artists who focus so much on the gospel that they can’t seem to get a lyric out of their mouth without the name “Jesus” in it or the artists who express all aspects of their life and art in a song and rarely directly hit you with a “get saved” or “praise God” message? The truth is… both. Both are right. The hardcore spiritual speaker is right because there is a need for spiritual encouragement and edification. There is a need for scriptures all over the lyrics and Jesus all over the tongue. Some people get the gospel this way and so it is evangelistic (although hopefully their Christian leaders have the sense to get them directly in the Bible). The artist is speaking what is on their heart so it is a good thing. Likewise, the Christian artist who branches all over the place in his creative songwriting is right too. Though he or she may not spit lyrics that sound like the book of Romans set to rhyme, there is a time and place for songs about life, relationships, injustice, good times, or just wordplay or whatever. Just like in the Bible there are places for speaking on subjects not directly related to doctrine and salvation. It is also good.

But, the war over who is right in Holy Hip Hop, in my opinion, is not so good. This is a waste of good bars. Let’s glorify God not only in lyric but in life by dropping the squabble and putting our hearts and minds into fellowship, unity, and our music. This would not only create a greater testimony but it would develop a more pure art form, full of talent, that rises above the world in action and creativity. Let’s stop the civil war.




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