Legalism In Christian Hip Hop
“You are a legalist.” GASP! That’s a dreaded title no one in all of Christendom wants to be branded with. Its the modern evangelical equivalent to the Pharisees and if you’re familiar with biblical references then you’ll know that they aren’t spoken of very highly in scripture. They were actually the people Jesus had His most heated interactions with. Given the dogmas we see in many discussions held in our scene, a person has to ask “Is legalism alive and well in Christian Hip-Hop?” So I talked to a few people involved in shaping and influencing our scene and asked them their thoughts on the topic of legalism in Christian Hip-Hop. Off the top, in order to address legalism we have to define it. According to Dictionary.com, legalism is defined as:
1. Excessive adherence to law or formula.
2. Dependence on moral law rather than on personal religious faith.
Not many people would disagree with these definitions. Pastor Tullian Tchividjian describes legalism in this way: “Legalism happens when what we need to do, not what Jesus has already done, becomes the end game.” In fact, CHH legend The Ambassador takes it a step further and defines legalism as “having man made rules to appear right before God or His people.” With that definition in mind its clear that many people in or influenced by Christian art ESPECIALLY in the urban music scene are practicing legalism. He goes on to say “People say ‘its more pleasing to God to do it this way.’ Many have elevated their philosophy to a standard of righteousness.” It seems like our scene embodies this definition from time to time with phrases like “Hip-Hop the way God intended” and “do it the way the Lord says.” And when someone feels like an artist isn’t making it sound the way the Lord would make it sound, then they are branded as “worldly” and they “aren’t pleasing the Lord.” We see it play out even more when people rally others to discredit and, in extreme instances, try to outcast artists and make them appear to not be (to steal from The Ambassador’s definition) “right before…His people.” 116 Clique member and High Societies front man Sho Baraka* adds “We’ve created a new ‘law’. Its like we have a Talmud we have to live by as Christians making art because the gospel isn’t enough by itself so we have to explain to you EXACTLY how to do it or its not right.” Now, before you think this is something aimed exclusively at the more explicit, exclusive Christian artists, this definition and practice is very active among the less explicitly religious artists as well. The Ambassador recalls the times of the Cross Movement’s prime and vividly remembers when artists would discredit CM and artists like them for their explicit biblical references. “They would say ‘yo that’s wack, you shouldn’t do it that way, people don’t want to hear that’ blah blah” are the things rappers used to say ON STAGE at their concerts in attempts to make artists like that appear as if they weren’t “right before…His people.”
On both sides of the legalism equation, the thing that may be at play is a not an intentionally divisive attitude. What may be at play is a matter of purity. Sho touches on this idea by plainly stating, “People built the methodology to keep ‘it’ pure.” For some “it” is a matter of the purity of the art form. For others they are hoping to preserve the purity of the people that either hear or create the music. Which in theory isn’t a bad thing is it? I mean, how can we say its a bad thing that people care about us and don’t want us to sin? It works fine in theory but in practice, it creates a major problem. In order to KNOW that someone is doing something with pure intentions, we have to be able to judge their HEARTS. “We start to judge the heart and intentions,” Sho Baraka adds. “So let’s put this extra stuff in place to prevent their heart of going there because if we can’t see what you’re thinking then we need to control what you’re doing.”
In the eyes of many, legalism has been a hindrance not only to the idea of broadening content within our scene but also a hindrance to the ability to be creative in our scene. Cincinnati emcee D-MAUB remembers talking to artists recently about experimenting with various forms of creativity and he recalls, with a certain sense of frustration in his voice, “they said they wouldn’t do it because their fans would reject them if they tried to do something like that.” The beliefs these fans have in what in means to practice their craft and be in right standing with God has CREATIVELY hindered what they do. Its the same notion that others outside of the culture hold to that, leads them to the conclusion that Hip-Hop doesn’t even belong among God’s people. Yet others within the culture say it belongs but if it sounds like this or that CREATIVELY then it has no place. I even recently heard a young “prophet” (and I only use that word that because that’s the word he used to describe himself) call men and women of the faith out as “worldly” and “disobeying God” because of their SOUND. Not their doctrine or their belief in Christ or public sin they’ve committed or even if they spoke with other tongues. He said they weren’t right with God and they don’t stand righteously before His people because of the STYLE of their music. Smells like legalism to me. Even more emphatically, Sho states that legalism in CHH has had an even deeper impact. “CHH has been so afraid of offending people, we’ve created weaker brothers because we’re afraid of challenging the cultural norms.”
So does this mean that anyone who attempts to hold to a standard is a legalist? Not at all. Sho even tempers his statements with this sobering thought: “Some people rightfully call out legalism because its real. Others use it as a defense mechanism against the standard.” The Ambassador adds “legalism isn’t saying the bible has a standard. Its holding that standard and not offering grace.”
OK, so we see that legalism does exist in CHH, but how is it staying alive for so long among people who carry a message a GRACE? Who’s the culprit in keeping it alive? Is it the artists? Is it the fans? I asked Sho & The Ambassador what role do they feel they played in creating this ethos of legalism in CHH. For The Ambassador, I plainly asked him “do you know that in the eyes of many you were the face of legalism in Christian Hip-Hop?” After a very loud laughter from the pit of his belly, followed by a few “wow”s, he went on to explain that he and Cross Movement never even intended to create this movement of Christocentric rap. On the early years of the CM, he says “We weren’t aiming for this. We came out at time when every reference to Jesus in Hip-Hop was negative. At first we just wanted to be rappers who were Christians and that was that. But when everybody came out with negative things to say about Jesus, we wanted to swing the pendulum the other way. We didn’t set out to say ‘we want to start a movement of Christocentric rap’, we just wanted to say ‘Christ is central in everything, especially Hip-Hop.” Everything that came after that was just “us more so catering to the pool of people that developed because for them there was a need and a thirst for more Christ centered Hip-Hop. So with me being the most vocal person in the group at the time, I can see how I became the face of it but only because I was the most vocal about the standard we believed in.” On the charge of him personally being a legalist, he offered a challenge. “ I’ve always asked people to play back the tapes. Tell me what I said and compare it to what they accused me of. It was never the same. Take what they accuse me of and compare it to what I actually said. I never said most of that stuff. Other people took it and ran with it. I upheld what I believed was a standard and when cats came to me and asked for help to live that same standard I didn’t crush those dudes. I offered grace. I’ve experienced legalism and what I was doing, that wasn’t legalism.” Speaking on his outspoken views while playing a role in creating the 116 movement, Sho Baraka says “I would have worded things differently, but I’m glad about what we created. Some people took it and ran with it. But overall, I’m very happy with what we’ve built.”
So is there something else at play in creating the legalistic culture that exists in some parts of CHH? A bigger factor in the legalism equation may be something we haven’t explored yet: the fans. How do SOME** of the fans perpetuate a culture of legalism? According to D-MAUB, one way they play into it is “by expressing crazy outrage over stuff they disagree with. Twitter rants, YouTube videos, comments on websites. They just go overboard, man.” In many cases, the fans aren’t accurately reflecting the views of the people they think they got their ideology from. The faux outrage and outlandish comments come in defense of an artist and then the artist either A. has a change of heart or B. does something they’ve always believed and the fans still hold to an ideology that they’ve secretly uplifted to a standard of righteousness. Then the legalism shows its true colors when the artist, and everyone who likes them, is labeled as “sinner” because of the move they made.
Well, if legalism is obviously a bad thing, how do we get rid of it? Wit, one half of the duo Wit & Dre Murray of Hell’s Paradise fame and ⅓ of the Stellar award nominated crew The Frontlynaz, offers a sobering yet realistic view. He believes that this may not be something that ever goes away. “You will always have extremists. At the end of the day, people are still sheep.” History has shown that Wit may have a point. One of John Calvin’s most dedicated disciples accused Calvin of going soft in the later years of his life. Many referred to him as being “more Calvinist than Calvin.” Likewise, Martin Luther’s closest followers did heinous things that Luther never agreed with but yet they say they were fueled by Luther’s teachings. While Wit offers a more pessimistic view, Sho believes that it can change and the key way to get rid of legalism in CHH is “people have to preach the GOSPEL. The problem is most people aren’t sure of what it looks like to be a Christian outside of Christian circles. But people have to think more deeply about the GOSPEL and its impact on every part of life. But as long as sin is always the problem and Jesus is always the solution, then I believe there is freedom for that believer.” D-MAUB believes the problem can be solved with the same thing that should be at the core of the life of every Christian, “love. At the end of the day that’s what’s lacking.” And to those walking in legalism and not love D-MAUB offers a sincere yet gut wrenching prayer – “I pray Christ’s love overtakes your dogma.”
* Sho Baraka’s personal disclaimer for the sake of clairty: “I Sho Baraka am speaking from an artists perspective NOT as a pastor/vocational ministry.”
** Notice the deliberate usage of the word “some” here. This is not something all of the fans of CHH are guilty of. But there are SOME and I hope that this word is not overlooked as it was used intentionally.