A few months ago we posted a video from Rhymefest called “Prosperity” and asked you to let us know your thoughts about its content and message.
The general market MC has covered Christian themes and topics in his raps before, having co-authored Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks” (which won a Grammy in 2005), so we thought we’d track him down and pursue a longer conversation about his faith, his motivation behind writing “Prosperity,” and his experience with Christian hip hop. Sketch: How would you define your faith? Obviously I know that you’ve written “Jesus Walks” and have this “Prosperity” song. I had some of my own ideas but I’d love to hear it in your words.
Rhymefest: Well, prior to that, what were your ideas?
S: I probably would have assumed that you were Christian based off of “Jesus Walks” and then hearing the “Prosperity” song and seeing you pick up a Bible and talk about “wanting to know who Christ is.”
But, after that I kind of did some investigation and saw on a blog where you had written that you had kind of embraced your Muslim faith like Lupe Fiasco and just didn’t know if that’s kind of still where you stood or how you would describe it from your own point of view.
R: Yeah, in fact, I would describe myself as a Muslim. A Muslim in definition means one who submits himself to the will of God. However, I think where people get mixed up, especially when we discuss Islam and Christianity, is that Muslims do believe in the teachings of Christ. This is what made it easy for me to write a song like “Jesus Walks.”
I think that Muslims don’t mention Christ as much as we should as far as an example of how to live. But, the teachings of Christ and the Gospels according to Islam are very similar to the teachings of Christ and the Gospels according to the Bible. I think the difference becomes do we accept Christ as our Lord and Savior. And that’s where the difference is. You know what I mean? We accept Christ as a messenger, a prophet of Almighty God, which holds a high esteem and regard, but we don’t accept Christ as our Lord and Savior.
So I think that that’s the difference. But I think that when we talk about the example that Christ set on earth, this is something that, if that example was to be followed, mankind wouldn’t be in the state that we’re in.
S: Growing up were you raised as a Muslim or as a Christian?
R: I was actually raised as a Christian. Which to me, in my Christianity, there were just, and in the community that I’m in, in the black community, I think there is just a lot of problems with the way… I wouldn’t even say problems… there are a lot of issues with the way that Christianity is taught in the black community.
There are issues because there needs to be… like how do you give the children who are at a disadvantage in a disadvantaged area, how do you give them self-awareness within Christ? You know what I mean? How do you teach that? That needs to be taught.
You know there’s a long lineage of the same people running the black church. How do you bring new blood into the black church? How do you pass the torch? The torch is held by the same people that have held it since the 60’s. And not saying that that’s a bad thing, but the black church has not, in my opinion, made enough room for new blood. And so you have a lot of the same old policies that don’t evolve.
Because I still attend church, like I don’t want you to get it twisted, because I say I practice Islam it doesn’t mean that I’m disconnected from the black church and the community of Christians and that I don’t listen and don’t have an open heart to what’s going on in my community.
But what I see is that there is a vacuum of conditions on the ground, especially where I live in Chicago, where there’s, you know, every weekend 30 people shot, 50 people shot. The church is not being active in ministering to the youth and to the community how it once did.
Yes, you have Vacation Bible School, you have Wednesday classes, you have Monday church services, you have Sunday church services, but what is the church doing in the way of the Christ to minister to the community?
Not just, say within the confines of our church and who attends our church. The church has a duty to the community and I feel as though it has lost touch. I mean in Chicago where youth violence is an issue you would have to ask what is the church’s position on youth violence and what is the church doing to quell youth violence in the communities that it exists? You would find in a large part – nothing.
So, me growing up, these were part of what my issues were with the church. But then when you talk to the minister, the whole thing with Christianity is “Don’t question. Don’t question it. Follow. Blind faith.” I’ve always had a problem with blind faith.
S: Obviously you see some error in the prosperity gospel, I guess that would be the term, in this particular song. I know in your music in the past you’ve addressed many social ills. Would you see that take on the gospel as kind of a social ill that needs to be addressed by people like yourself and other hip hop heads and people that are in the black church and black community?
R: Well, I think that prosperity preaching is one of the things that is fleecing the black community. It’s fleecing all communities.
In fact, what did Jesus say when he went to the church? He said “How dare you use my Father’s house as a market!” To me, that is a direct correlation with what Jesus’ thoughts would have been on prosperity preaching. You know what I mean?
To say “Buy this red blood of Jesus prayer cloth” and, you know, “rub it on your ailing knee and you’ll be healed” then… I mean, you have people in the church who are calling themselves prophets. “I am Prophet/Bishop This or That.” Who is ordaining this? Who is in control? Who is in charge of quality control?
It’s an issue. It’s fleecing the people. It’s idol worship. It’s anti-the-Christ in my opinion.
When you say “Buy this 3/8 Prophet’s Tea,” which I’ve heard about, I mean, if Jesus were to come back what church would he attend? What black, and I can only speak from the black church because I’m in a black community, where would he attend?
And this is what we have to ask ourselves. These are the types of things you have to ask yourself in order to know what the state of the church is.
S: It’s funny you say that. We had posted that video on Rapzilla and I write a blog for the Houston Chronicle as well. I think that most of the people in the Christian hip hop community actually agree with what you put in that video and several guys have addressed similar situations that they observe and see within their own church and their own faith that this could be a damaging thing.
But to see someone on your scale do it too kind of validated it or just that it was a point of definite agreement on a lot of things.
R: And I wanted to make sure that when I did “Prosperity” that I wasn’t mocking the church or mocking the Gospel. When we wrote “Jesus Walks” we were saying like… what I wanted to do was… I wanted to say “Okay, let’s talk about the mercy of Jesus Christ” within the verses and the teachings of the Christ. And Kanye said “No, no, no, no, no.”
He said the chorus already does that, he said “In our verses we have to talk about sinners. That’s what’s going to make it exciting. That’s what going to make secular people want to hear about it.
“To the hustlas, the murders, the drug dealers, even the strippers – Jesus walks with them! / To the people on welfare that’s living in hell here / Hell, yeah!”
It’s so interesting. If you had two preachers on the podium – one preaching about the wages of sin, hell, fire, and brimstone and the other preaching about the beauty of heaven, which preacher would the crowd want to go and look at?
R: They would want to go look at the guy talking about hell, fire, and brimstone! That’s the one that’s the most exciting. People want to be entertained! You gotta mix that entertainment with true teachings of the Lord. And it’s a shame, but…
So with “Jesus Walks” that was kind of the thing – to talk about the hardship of life and let the chorus be the mercy of the Christ.
With “Prosperity” it was about not mocking the church but coming from the perspective of the guy who is in the video. The whole thing is that I’m supposed to be a loser, unemployed, on the couch, nothing in my life that really is of value. And then this guy comes on TV and says “God wants to change your life for $25.99.” And I’m like “Wow! Really?”
In that song this guy is going through this whole confliction whether or not to buy into this thing or to continue to be cynical. And at the end he says “I just want to know where Christ is. I just want to know what Christ is.” Because he needs something in his life.
I mean there are so many things in “Prosperity” that are beautiful. Like when it says that “Man, if you give me mercy God I promise that I’ll take the Bible literally.”
And there’s so many questions like: Is it okay to take the Bible literally? Should you take the Bible figuratively? You know what I mean? Is it an allegory? A metaphor? A living word?
And then when you consider that it’s translated into English, so some words can’t be transcribed from Hebrew – what do we follow? Why do we follow it? How, to the letter, do we follow it? Especially in English?
I’m sorry bro, I’ll get deep and talk about 50 million things.
S: No, that’s exactly why we wanted to talk to you, because we knew that you were an insightful guy and especially that you had already talked about topics that were of real interest to our audience.
I was going to ask, too, if you had had any positive experiences with Christians and church. I know we’ve talked about some negative aspects, but have you seen some power and had some positive experiences with it?
R: The most powerful, positive experiences that I’ve had with church are when people have their own Christian groups within their home – when they practice outside of the institution of the business of church. When people are trying to figure out answers, when people have prayer sessions for the sick and they come visit the sick, and they pray over them and people are in their basements.
When I’ve gone to those type of things that’s when I’ve seen the most genuine, authentic Christians. The most passionate Christians are the ones who get together. I mean, what does it mean to be religious? It means you do something religiously – a group of people get together and combine on praising the same, worshipping the same way.
I think that when people do that, you know, that’s a good thing. It’s a very good thing and the best way that I’ve seen it is when people do it within a community or home.
I have problems with “mega church.” Mega churches, I just, I have problems with it. I have problems with churches that get involved in politics. I have problems with churches that take corporate sponsorship or government money. So the most positive Christians that I’ve seen, that I believe are more authentic, are the Christians who say “We’ll do this thing within our home and we’ll have a spiritual leader and we’ll learn together and we’ll grow together.” I think that’s better for the community – smaller church.
You know who I love? What’s that guy with the curly hair? What is his name? A white guy. He has a huge church. He’s on TV all the time. He talks about health and wellness…
S: Oh, Joel Osteen?
R: Yo! I LOVE that dude!
S: He’s right here in Houston where I’m at actually.
R: I watch him as much as I can. Man, I really like that guy. I like that guy better than like, a lot of the other guys that I’ve seen. He comes across as just a beautiful person and not only because he’s a handsome guy with a beautiful family, but because he’s so tender with his flock, you know? And he doesn’t preach, he teaches. And he inspires. So I like him.
S: Yeah. Would you not consider him to have a mega church or to be a prosperity preacher? Because a lot of people I know probably would is why I ask that.
R: I think he is, but, within this talking about prosperity preachers, let me also say this – some people are better off there.
Some people I understand have a need to belong to something. They have a need to belong. The problem you have is when these people start setting themselves up as God. When they start saying, you know, “Follow me.” Then it stops being a message from the Lord that teaches. You’ve got some people that just want to maintain power.
I like his message of wellness and health. But I’m conflicted about the T. D. Jakes and the Creflo Dollars because, although I know that what they’re doing is wrong in the eyes of the Lord, what they’re doing is dead wrong, they are helping some people. Some people need that.
But I think the mistake is that if those people are following those ministers and not ultimately following the Lord that’s just… in their heart, that’s for God to decide, not me.
We would love to read your comments, so post them below. We’ll post part 2 of this interview with the full audio, soon.
** (Update) Part 2, “RHYMEFEST On Authentic Christianity, Christian Hip Hop, and Symbolyc One (pt. 2 of 2) + Full Audio” can be found here.