Editor’s Note: The author, Tony Wray, is a Christian hip-hop veteran, having been a member of the group Hazakim for 15 years. In 2009, Lamp Mode Recordings released Hazakim’s album “Theophanies,” which some consider one of the greatest lyrical theology albums in Christian hip-hop history. Hazakim released its latest album, “Son of Man,” last September.
Where Christian hip hop is dull, ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ shined
In general, controversy is feared and creativity does not sell in Christian hip hop.
Controversy and creativity — more than any other attributes — will forever define Kendrick Lamar’s latest album, To Pimp a Butterfly. This is why, if Kendrick was a Christian rapper, his album would have fallen short of making the same impact that it will in broader hip-hop culture.
Since the release of To Pimp a Butterfly, numerous people have asked me my opinion of the project. After giving the album a thorough listen, I walked away with mixed feelings.
Much of the content feels intellectually insulting to a born-again, grown man. The opening song, a funk-style record with beautiful synths, is virtually ruined by needless vulgarity from the opening chorus. While others within the Christian hip-hop community took to social media to commend Kendrick for a job well done, Hazakim couldn’t endorse this album.
Beyond this, there is no denying that the album is artistically ground-breaking. As someone who has followed Christian hip hop since early childhood, having witnessed the many trends and changes that come and go, I believe found in Kendrick’s third studio release are two characteristics that — not everyone in the subgenre but — the Christian hip hop movement as a whole lacks.
These recommendations are not aimed at those who identify as “artists who happen to be Christians,” but at those who self-identify as Christian artists, whose purpose is to use their art for the furtherance of the Gospel — as so many of antiquity’s finest artists have done.
1. Christian emcees need to blaze their own creative trail.
Amid an era that has been largely defined by Drake and Kanye — an era where nearly every radio rapper relies on the same beat formulas, whiny vocal swag, exaggerated southern drawls and catchy club-friendly hooks — an era in which radio rap’s target demographic is females between the ages of 18-25 — in this era, Kendrick Lamar had the guts to do something musically different. He released an organic, soulful, funky, multi-syllable rhyme-filled album that has been successful in challenging the industry.
For years, I’ve been very vocal about the lack of originality and creativity in Christian hip hop. Many, unwilling to consider the validity of my point, have simply labeled me a naysayer and a hater.
So much of Christian hip hop is simply a well-made generic. We keep our ear to the streets, listening for the latest trends in production, flow patterns, swag, delivery and hook structures from the industry’s most popular stars, and then we go out and find producers who can recreate our favorite secular beats — making them just different enough to avoid a lawsuit.
Drake and Kanye have probably been Christian hip hop’s biggest influences in recent years. We’re constantly waiting on the secular market to establish the sound, and then we lag behind them. But the artist isn’t the only one to blame for this artistic stagnation and predictability.
The Christian fans, “set apart and different,” create the demand. Due to the fact that our market often consists of youth groups (which want music that is comparable to the popular secular rap of their friends at school), success in Christian hip hop is often contingent upon how well you can copy.
Yes, I said it.
I recently met a barber from Miami who plays Christian hip hop in his shop. He told me that the biggest complaint he receives about the music he plays is that it is unoriginal.
“Ayo,” he hears, “why is this dude trying to sound like Kanye?” Or, “He’s trying to sound like 2 Chainz!”
The manager of a popular Christian hip-hop station in Central Florida recently told me why so many talented artists and labels do not get spins there. He explained how imperative it is to pattern our sound after the “hit-makers” on secular radio. He concluded by sharing how excited he was about a new female Christian rapper who sounded “just like Nicki Minaj.”
This is actually Christian music in 2015. I couldn’t make this stuff up.
Indeed, we have a Christian version of everyone’s favorite popular secular rapper. While all artists have influences, we should look to the Creator of music for our inspiration.
I would contend that if Kendrick Lamar was a Christian rapper, he would either be forced to do the standard song and dance or else he would have to work a day job. Either way, he’d never have the opportunity to change the game.
We need to ditch this fascination with the templates set forth by secular radio. They’re often overrated. We can do better!
2. Christian hip hop shouldn’t be afraid of controversy.
In discussing the issue of race on “The Blacker the Berry,” Kendrick provided some unpopular commentary that went beyond the standard “ongoing legacy of slavery” narrative. As a result of his honesty, he took some heat for the song.
Many Christian emcees, very much afraid of being perceived as a hater or politically incorrect, almost never say anything controversial. Even the Gospel is repackaged into a harmless side bar — a self-empowering belief system that enables us to do the impossible. What’s so offensive or threatening about self-help?
In 2015, as turmoil rages, our movement has been reduced to clever hashtags, selfies, album promos and slogans. We’re safe and planned out. We’re like actors. No reckless abandon. No controversy. The Gospel should be controversial, you know?
Trust me. Your brothers of Hazakim understand the pressure that we as lyrical proponents of the Gospel are under. I’ll never forget the secular music festival we performed at where our microphones went silent mid-set.
Although we had gathered a sizeable crowd around the stage, our message was “too controversial” and was “killing the vibe.” It’s kind of hard to get drunk and high while listening to the Gospel, so they say. Still, despite the cost, we must be true to our God, true to ourselves and true to our art.
Christian emcee, find your own voice. Let’s honor God as artists and not besmirch His character through biting any longer.
And let’s be unapologetic when speaking truth on issues without giving cliché answers. Most importantly, if we’re not an offense to the world, we’re not proclaiming the Gospel.
I strongly recommend a book for aspiring Christian artists of any genre: “No Compromise: The Life Story of Keith Green” by Melody Green and David Hazard.