The history, struggles, and controversy of Christians in battle rap
In the early days of Christian hip hop, it was hard for any church to fully accept the biblical validity of such new and “pagan” sounding music. In many cases, it was just too much for traditionalists to swallow.
However, over the years, modern Christian culture has come to accept the subgenre, often becoming one of the main attractions of youth ministries across the world. But to this day, there is still one type of rap that Christians just can’t come to an agreement on — battle rap.
This should come as no to surprise to anybody who has ever witnessed a battle. The hardcore-style and violent content usually present in battles makes last year’s Drake and Meek Mill feud look like an over-publicized game of hopscotch.
To those who aren’t aware, rap battles are one-on-one matchups of two emcees whose main goal is to use improvised and pre-written material to tear down, humiliate and lyrically destroy their opponent, and absolutely nothing is off limits. Through the use of symbolism, allusions and wordplay, battlers fight it out for victory.
To most, this sort of atmosphere is no place for a Christian to be in, yet in the past couple years, the Christian hip-hop subgenre has seen more battlers rise to the challenge than ever before, and, as one might expect, people are not happy about it.
“When you look at battle rap under the lense that Christian hip hop was dictated, if you look from a ‘Cross Movement’ perspective, then yeah, I see how you get that [negative] perspective,” said DFW battler Ki’Shon Furlow. “But if you think wider, and you think of Christian hip hop, or even battle rap particularly, like a sport, then things become different.”
Many of today’s Christian battlers compare their craft to that of football or boxing where aggression is encouraged and necessary. Outspoken Christian athletes are often praised by believers around the world, something that battlers have yet to experience.
Of course, going into a battle as a Christian is much different than most secular emcees approach the sport. In the opinion of Rapzilla.com co-owner Chad Horton, any audience should consider the artist’s intentions over everything else.
“Where my mind is at ease is that the Christians that are battling aren’t tearing down their opponents, while their opponents attempt to tear them down,” said Horton. “The Christian battlers are shedding light on the gangster vernacular in battles that is also so prevalent in hip hop, that often isn’t even coming from a truthful place. It is a facade that they are selling. Shedding light on and debunking this is a good work to me.”
Despite the large amount of negative attention that today’s battlers receive, the controversy surrounding battle rap goes back farther than most fans are aware of.
In 1993, the Christian hip-hop collective Tunnel Rats was founded. Unlike many of the groups within the subgenre at the time, the collective displayed a much more aggressive and militant style in their music, commonly involving themselves in the highly active underground battle rap scene at the time.
“It was kind of a defensive thing. We didn’t go looking for battles, but if they happened then we didn’t back down from them. It was just a part of the culture,” said Sojourn, one of the original members of the collective. “The idea behind it was if you weren’t dope, or you couldn’t take somebody out… then nobody would really care what you had to say afterwards. There wouldn’t be a chance for any type of presentation of the gospel if you weren’t tight.”
The Tunnel Rats continued to follow this path of displaying skill and aggressiveness in battles in order to be able to share Christ in those circles. However, many outside Christian audiences took issue with this strategy.
“The overall objection was just, ‘Why is it about skill?’ There was a misconception of ‘Why do you think it is about you? You’re glorifying yourself,’” Sojourn said. “They would be like, ‘Where is God in [battling]?’ Well, God is in the fact that I’m actually able to talk to these cats after the battles.”
For this and many other reasons, the collective became one of the most controversial and outcasted groups within Christian hip hop. It was because of the group’s involvement with battling that battle rap was first questioned and attacked, but despite this, the craft continued to grow within the subgenre.
Soon, names like Isaac Knox and Mr. Biscuit (now going under the alias of Bridge B) began to make noise in various leagues, proving once again that Christian battle rap is more than just a punch line of a bad joke.
“I got to the point where they were flying me out to [battles],” said Bridge. “When I showed up to the battle, when I showed up to the building where the battle was happening, I got handshakes from people who I’ve never seen before, who were just like, ‘Yo, you’re the truth!’ or ‘You’re a beast!’ It’s crazy! I remember a guy told me he started battle rapping because of me.”
Bridge was more than able to prove his ability to succeed in the secular realm, but soon a new generation of battlers stepped up and took that one step further.
It wasn’t till the talented emcee Th3 Saga started battling that Christian battle rap was really put back on the map, and, in some cases, back on the agenda.
“When I first heard these negative responses, I didn’t really know how to take it. It was coming in such enormous amounts,” Saga said. “People just aren’t going to understand the mission if they don’t have a heart for that platform.”
Saga feels that his presence on large online communities such as Rapzilla opened up the floodgates for the large amount of negative and sometimes hateful feedback he received for doing his work. But if their was one thing he received more than objections, it was respect.
Saga’s talent was evident regardless of what people thought of his craft. His gift was quickly recognized by both secular and Christian audiences alike, and soon he was able to work his way into larger, mainstream battle rap platforms and leagues such as Ultimate Rap League, often garnering hundreds of thousands of views for each battle.
“It’s crazy to see how God elevates things if you give him your life and give a purpose towards what he wants you to do,” Saga said. “The impact that it has brought has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.”
Not long after his big break within the battling community, Saga was joined by other notable names within the Christian battle rap scene such as Street Hymns, Ki’Shon Furlow, Loso, and A. Ward. Despite this seeming abundance of Christians currently in the battle rap culture, the task has not become any easier. A simple glance at any battle’s comment section shows the mass objection that many Christians still have against battling.
However, instead of merely ignoring those points of view, many of today’s top Christian battlers continue to wrestle with those arguments constantly posed toward them, trying to identify the many snares battle rap can trap people in as well as finding a way to biblically justify their craft.
“I’m not so much appalled to [the comments] because I understand their concerns, and I understand their first glance at it,” said ETD league battle rapper Loso. “[Before I started battling] I was kind of just talking to a couple Christians who were already in [the battle rap] field, not because I was interested so much but because I wanted to see how they coincide Ephesians 4:28 or 4:29 with the sport.”
Many within the Christian battle rap culture followed this same path before involving themselves in the craft, often focusing on mentorship and intense spiritual preparation before even setting foot in their first battle.
“I’ve personally struggled for three or four years about jumping into the battle scene… [Me and many other battlers have] all been talking for years about, ‘How can I be effective with this?’ You know, what is the reason in doing this?” said Kansas City native battler A. Ward. “It took me a while to say, ‘Okay, I believe as a Christian I am accountable enough to my peers, I’m accountable enough to myself, I’m spiritually mature enough, and I’m grown in the faith, and adult enough to go in here and basically try to build a bridge of communication with people who might not ever step foot in to a church… I had to trust myself to not allow it to pridefully get to my head where I feel like I’m getting into the flesh.’”
Above all, A. Ward feel that participation in the battling community provides an unparalleled opportunity to evangelize to a commonly overlooked or ignored demographic.
“The outside only sees when the camera is on. You know, before the battles, after the battles, these people are real people,” said A. Ward. “You’re able to actually sit there and have dialogue with them as far as their faith goes.”
With that being said, many battlers have come to understand that battling is not meant for all Christian emcees. This can be seen in the life of Bridge B, who despite the large amount of success he found in the battling arena, decided to end that part of his career out of fear of the effect it was having on him.
“I don’t condemn Christian battle rappers at all. I only condemn myself as one,” said Bridge. “Some people can go into a bar and share the gospel and be a light in that situation, and other people couldn’t do that. Some people would go in and they would fall and they would struggle with that atmosphere. So for me, [I struggled with] that battle rap atmosphere… It’s something that definitely has the ability to pull you in if you are not grounded.”
Many battlers have come to realize that they will never be able to please everyone, but something that almost all believers can agree on is that, just like in any other form of hip hop, Christians are once again leading the way with their skill, ability, and transparency. And, that is something to be excited about.