What was the first Christian rap song, artist, or album that stuck with you? Do you remember how old you were? What you were going through or why you loved the beat?
Everyone comes to Christian hip hop for their own reason. We’ve all got a story of how we started to listen. Maybe you might even feel like it came to you.
I came for the honesty.
I grew up endeared to music and was raised in a home of faith. The beginning of my listening experience was mostly Christian music. There were times it felt like a fit as a child, but as I aged and tasted the bittersweet of life – I found less comfort in those comfortable lines. I heard music that always said, ‘everything is good’, and I realized everything wasn’t.
In stepped Christian rap.
One of the youth groups I went to as a teenager had CDs you could check out. I thought I hit the lottery now that I could ingest so much more music by borrowing CDs instead of having to buy them all myself. I checked out five to ten a week and felt the feelings of a holiday as I filtered through each new artist.
KJ-52 and Tedashii found their way into my discoveries. There was something different in the lyrics – something wasn’t there. It was that wall – the wall that I heard in other Christian music that kept out messy feelings, or sad stories, or questions and doubt – that wall was missing in this music, and I loved it. It felt human. As time passed, my interest ebbed and flowed, but I always had a place for CHH.
In 2017 KB released, Today We Rebel and that was it. This album was a voice of truth for me. I was and am grateful for it.
Since then I’ve become a daily listener and a bit of a nerd – writing down clique rosters, trying to learn the history of this community by watching hours of interviews and following the endless lines of connections. As you find with every genre/what have you, it’s not perfect. There’s conflict sometimes, but I’ve been consistently encouraged by this music and the people that create it.
Christian hip hop is a thinking genre.
It’s a place to be pensive, convicted, and moved into action. If you’re hungry for content, you’ve found it. Bring your hard things, and we’ll hash them out according to how Jesus asked us to. CHH isn’t immune to life. I love that. It’s a place to challenge lies we’ve started to accept, battle racism, seek change, and be a people who are the example of redemption. It’s not a place for fence riders and it’s a place where truth is first and only.
Jon Keith is continuing the trend of honesty with his latest album, Olympus.
The album grapples with feelings of not belonging, self-worth and being genuine about places that need change and healing. Throughout this album, I outlined what I believe to be realities that Keith shares with the listener through his lyrics.
Reality #1: Success and fame are idols like you wouldn’t believe.
“I wanna know You
Show me what You want from me and need to see
The world is getting louder, can you hear ’em sing?
Yeah, I was born for this
I seen it in the stars
I’m climbing, I ain’t stopping ’til I’m sitting at the Pantheon conversing with the gods, yeah
Lord, I need You”
The lyrics in the chorus of “Olympus” are super eerie because they are subtle. To me, this song highlights the self-belief that ‘I am the best, I’ll work to be the best, and that all I want is to be a god myself’. This is a hard song for artists. Often music that isn’t steeped in Christ or others will end up just being an ego trip and often it is that. Here Keith asks God for clarity and what to do as the world tells him to climb the mountain. Olympus has a place for all of us. We’ll even be welcomed like in this song, but what truly sits atop the hill?
“I can’t choose, me or a God who holy?”
I hope we trust the God who is holy for the unknown that sits above every mountain we chase. I’m grateful for the dialogue that Jon Keith lets us in on – the real one we all feel between making a god of ourself or making much of God. As Keith articulates, It’s a fight that demands God’s help.
Reality #2: Being on the fringes hurts.
Keith talks about feeling like an outsider in this song, “One of You.” Yet, it’s more than that. Saying:
“Tell me I belong with them, but look at me like I’m astray
Why You make me different? Can You help me get it?
I’m only standing out ’cause ain’t nobody standing with me
I’m a fraud and I know God sees through me”
This is heavy. Maybe it’s something you’ve felt before. There are so many gradients to this feeling, but the underlying truth here is that being left out and never feeling like you belong takes a toll. The world does a good job of picking favorites, sorting out to find the elite. This unforgiving race wounds all the people that get placed below, behind, or last.
“I dealt with most of my life ignoring the need for healing
But I realized I didn’t even know I was bleeding
I hope this honestly reach somebody that really need it”
Keith’s honesty has reached someone, and I pray it reaches and permeates the church. We are the place for people on the fringes.
Reality #3: In life, we die once, but by pretending – you’ll perish times over.
“Set it right, I’ve been fakin’ all my life.”
This track, “Nobody Else” hits me the most. I’m a people pleaser, and I bottle emotions. This has shackled me in many ways throughout my life. Most of all, it’s kept me from properly sharing what God’s done for me. I’ve kept the struggle on the low and faked like I was fine. I act certain in places of doubt. I’ve been pretending for a while – in hopes of keeping others from a mess, but instead I’ve kept myself from being known.
“I done spent my whole life chasin’ smoke and mirrors
Always lookin’ at the sky, but on my knees it’s so much clearer
Tuck in my illness, God don’t care what your deal is
You feel like you don’t belong?
Well, guess what? Men don’t have feelings
So you go put it away
Ain’t dealin’ with that today”
This verse is why I love Christian rap. Keith touches on some very important things here. The first two lines look at being distracted by dreams, perceived perfection, and being where we have it all together. Yet, the best place to be is low and asking God for help. Then we hear a lie that sometimes circulates in the church and the world. That lie is that God does not feel our heartaches and woes. God became a man, Jesus. Jesus was born lowly, placed under temptation, and died. The raw humanity, pain, and humility of his life echo empathy for human life. God cares about the illness – God cares about doubt. God cares about depression, and God cares about it all.
The second piece is the lie that feelings and/or negative emotions are not for the Christian to feel. This is common in the church and has been for a time. It’s part of the reason I grew up pretending myself.
Please do not believe you are to only show and feel joy. Pretending you have joy when you do not, may feel fine now, but one day you’ll wake up to find yourself shattered from within. Please don’t put it away. Take it messy, red, and raw to God in prayer. Wrestle if you must. God is not intimated by the emotions He created you to work with. By all means, be responsible with them and fair to others, but please allow yourself to feel. Men especially, as Keith highlights here, look at your feelings head-on. The strongest, most mighty of men: Jesus – wept. I hope you do too when you need to.
Reality #4: Grace doesn’t depend on you.
The last song, “Paradise II” provides a look at living with grace. Relient K defines it well in their song “Be My Escape” with the line – “The beauty of grace is that it makes life not fair.” I hear that in this song. Now, what Keith says:
“And I can’t mess with Ephesians, don’t You call me treasure
I watched God kill His Son for things I did with pleasure
Asked my sister how that make her feel, she told me, ‘Warm and happy’
She asked, “How ’bout you?” I told her like, ‘It should’ve never happened’”
Isn’t this what Satan puts in our head? He tells us we aren’t what God calls us. We can’t be a treasure. I feel that. Yet, isn’t true that we do what we want and choose actions that killed Jesus. That’s uncomfortable to sit with. The shame will crowd the edges of your mind until you hear nothing else being repeated accept, ‘unworthy’. Yet, God didn’t intend for us to stay in the darkness of sin, and He calls us worthy.
The last two lines are the sides we can fall on as Christians. Sometimes we feel complete joy for what He did on the cross. Like Keith, I’ve felt like Jesus making up for my wrong is wrong. Because ultimately, it is. It’s not fair. That’s the beauty of grace as we uncovered above. For all those that feel the weight of shame, the bitterness of past sin, or the ones we still cycle through – He saw you and left 99. It’s like Keith said. Grace doesn’t depend on you, you’re not in control. You can’t make it right. God did that.
These four realities are implied to me and are truths that have encouraged me from this album. Perhaps you share some of mine, or maybe you have all your own. CHH has a unique opportunity to offer people truth because the foundation of this music is the Truth of Christ. I am grateful for all the creative, unique ways the Lord allows us to amplify His effortless love and His beautiful nature.
I’ll leave you with a final lyric from “Opps.”
“I ain’t got nothing, God did it.”