Social Justice and CHH Part III: Portraits of Christ by Propaganda, Lecrae, and KB
In the second article of “Social Justice and CHH,” I consider themes of pain, prejudice, and poverty presented in the music of WHATUPRG, Trip Lee, and Reconcile. After detailing their personal experiences, I question the ongoing claim that artists merely use social justice as a scheme to boost their popularity. I encourage the reader to consider the lyrics of these artists and how their encounters with injustice motivate their advocacy for others.
My concern in this article is less focused on artist experience and more directed toward artist interpretation, particularly artist interpretations of Christ. For CHH, social justice and the message of the gospel are inextricably bound, and these themes intersect in the very person of Christ. Understanding the nature of Christ is central to Christians for defining and enacting proper belief and practice, and artists have engaged this discussion in their own music.
Artists use their lyrics in recent CHH songs to convey a Christology, or way of interpreting Christ, that situates Jesus as standing among the oppressed rather than the privileged. In what follows, I examine this Christological development in the music of Propaganda, Lecrae, and KB.
Within my first article on “Social Justice and CHH” I analyzed Lecrae’s 2016 song “Gangland,” but I saved a crucial element of that song for my discussion here. At the end of the song, Propaganda delivers a powerful and moving spoken word. The themes in this spoken word touch on foundational theological elements, and he arrives at an important description of the nature of Christ. In the words of Propaganda:
Tell us that the son of man walked on Egyptian
And eastern soil and wasn’t just a western construct
Or master used to control us
But what the Master used to free us
(“Gangland,” in Church Clothes 3, Lecrae featuring Propaganda, 2016).
In this song, Propaganda questions the westernized picture of Christ. He geographically contextualized the person of Christ, placing the historical Christ on eastern rather than western soil. By denying the westernized Christ, Propaganda refutes the notion that Christianity and the person of Christ were merely promulgated as tools for subjugating the enslaved.
A year after Propaganda’s Christological presentation in “Gangland,” Christian rap artists widely expanded the discussion of Christ’s nature in their music. In his album, All Things Work Together, Lecrae continued this dismantling of a westernized Christ. In his song titled “Facts,” Lecrae states:
I love Jesus, the one out of Nazareth
Not the European with the ultra-perm and them soft eyes and them thin lips
(“Facts,” in All Things Work Together, Lecrae, 2017).
Lecrae’s lyrics here somewhat mirror those of Propaganda. Like Propaganda, Lecrae makes a non-western argument for Christ’s historical contextualization. Similar to Propaganda’s mention that Christ walked on eastern soil, Lecrae proclaims his love for the Jesus from Nazareth. But Lecrae goes a step further. Not only does he affirm Christ’s Eastern nature, but he also directly rejects a white, European depiction of Jesus. In this way, Lecrae presents two competing Christological images, and he affirms his love for one and denies his allegiance to the other.
This discussion of Christ in CHH music developed further with KB’s album Today We Rebel. In previous Christian rap music, artists interspersed the subject of Christ’s nature, but KB dedicated an entire song to the topic. In his track “New Portrait,” KB guides the listener along through his presentation of two opposing Christological figures.
The song begins with the depiction of a white, European Christ who, according to KB, “committed genocide with a cross and a holster.” KB further asserts that there is the “Christ of America” and the “Christ of the system,” but, as he states, “that is not my savior. That’s a politician.” Juxtaposed to this white Christ used as a mere tool for exploitation and subjugation, KB presents another view of Christ. He details his description in the second verse:
Yes, He did arrive
Yes, He was alive
Brown, Middle Eastern, definitely wasn’t white
No, He never married; He never had any wives
But committed His life to an interracial bride
Yes, He did rise days after He died
God of the oppressed, even in it He still thrives
Died as a criminal from the hood part of town
What can I say? Yes, he is God
(“New Portrait,” in Today We Rebel, KB, 2017).
In this verse, KB pronounces his view of Christ’s nature. In step with Propaganda and Lecrae, KB affirms Christ’s historical context in the East. But in addition, he identifies Christ as brown. KB’s application of color to the person of Christ extends beyond the themes mentioned by Propaganda and Lecrae in 2016 and 2017.
KB further comments on Christ’s commitment and station in the present. He perceives the person of Christ as a “God of the oppressed,” and he makes a Christological application of solidarity when stating that Christ “died as a criminal from the hood part of town.” According to KB, Jesus sees the oppressed, loves the oppressed, and is among the oppressed.
In a recently released song with Casting Crowns, KB extends this discussion surrounding Christ’s character, and his lyrics display another unique development. In the opening of the song, and speaking on behalf of Christ, KB asks:
Who do you say that I am?
Where do you say that I stand?
Am I force for the strong man?
Or a voice for the silenced?
(“Start Right Here,” Casting Crowns & KB (HGA Version), 2021).
Similar to previous themes, the listener witnesses the opposing views of Christ. Does Christ stand with the strong or the weak, the loud or the silenced? Following his commitments in the song “New Portrait,” KB interprets Christ as standing with the broken, the hurting, the oppressed. According to KB, Christ is “near to the projects” and “in the field with the migrants.”
But KB is not satisfied with proclaiming Christological commitments. He extends an ontological question of being: “who do you say that you are?” Placing these questions in such close proximity, KB demonstrates his belief that Christ’s nature affects our nature, that Christ’s commitments instruct our commitments, and that Christ’s heart molds and shapes our hearts. How we understand Christ bares on our interaction with the created world. This includes humans made in the image of God. For KB, Christ’s stance with the oppressed should influence the Christian’s commitment to the underprivileged.
Christian rap artists like Lecrae, Propaganda, and KB are committed to social justice because they are committed to Christ. The individual or community that scoffs at or ignores CHH artists for their concern for social justice needs to reevaluate and take seriously this ongoing discussion because it is a subject that includes the very heart of the gospel—Jesus.
Of course, this issue extends beyond the world of music. Understanding the person and nature of Christ is, in my opinion, a point of departure and separation for many churches. But Christian musicians and Christian hip-hop artists are bringing this matter front and center. If anything, KB and Casting Crowns’ collaboration might be a sign of hope for bidirectional communication between two radically different church traditions.
Regardless of these developments, I leave the reader with a question posed by KB: “which Christ do you believe?” Your answer determines everything else.
Thanks for reading part III in the series of “Social Justice and CHH.” Check in again next week for an article dedicated to an artist who has stood the test of time in pursuing a mission of re-building souls along with the reconstruction of the streets.
*Cough Sho Baraka*