Thursday, October 30, 2008

Calvinist Rap from Young Restless and Reformed

The RCUS requires examinations in the History of Philosophy before you can be licensed to preach. I think we maybe the only denomination that does this. It is not always taken as seriously as it ought, but we still do it. I wish more would because philosophy cannot be avoided. The area of music is one place where I think it comes out quite clearly. Take the next interesting point in the book Young Restless and Reformed is in the chapter discussing a few Calvinist Rappers. They have started their own Christian Music label for Reformed Theology and the Hip-Hop (new name for Rap) sat down and talked with the author of the book. One of the artist defended Christian Hip-Hop as a superior musical method because of the large word count compared to pop or country. Then the book went into a slight discussion of Hip-Hop in the culture at large. Hip-Hop is now mainstream and it is listened to in suburban areas as much as suburban areas. The artist explained why.

There’s something about hip-hop that is similar to the rock music of the 1960’s and 1970’s. It is able to capture the hearts of the listener as the artist communicates a similar experience. So when a Tupac [Shakur] is talking about what’s going on in his hood, millions of youth say, ‘Yes, that’s like me. I identify with that.’”

The book author went on to speak about the raw honest of hip-hop, but I think the quote above is loaded with things to think about and ponder. I really enjoy the analogy between hip-hop today and the 1960’s and 70’s rock. It gives us much to think about.

First the question should be put forward, why do youth today identify so much with hip-hop/rap songs when they do not live in Tupac’s hood? What is it about an artist who was shot 5 times in 1994, probably had something to do with a murder of a fellow rapper one year to the day later, was in prison for abuse, and then was killed in a drive by shooting after assaulting a gang member earlier that night? The person supposedly responsible for his shooting, a fellow rapper, was murdered later. What on earth is it that connects with kids who are not part of gangs and do not live this lifestyle? That question would seem to be very important. Is it really just being honest and “authentic”? The answer I believe, and so does the above quote, is related to the popularity of rock in 60’s and 70’s. The 60’s and 70’s were of course huge for the rock industry as bands like Led Zepplin, Beatles, Grateful Dead, the Doors, and people such as Jimmie Hendrix were amazingly popular. They clearly influenced their culture at events like Woodstock and with their songs. What was it about this music that people connected too?

I would argue that the connection in both instances is rebellion. Youth today may not want to go hang out with gangsters or be “Cop Killers” (the title of a popular rap song by Iced Tea), but they do like the idea of rebelling against society. The same was true in the 60’s and 70’s. As one movie puts it, the soul of rock-n-roll is “sticking it to the man”. The phrase “sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll” came about because of the rampant sex and drugs in rock-n-roll. It was not hidden. In fact, many of the rockers of the time died from drug related problems such as Jimmie Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Janis Joplin. Others like Freddy Mercury died from sexually transmitted diseases. During the 60’s and 70’s rock-n-roll was how you supported the cultural revolution. Since then it has become absorbed into the culture so that we hear it in the back ground of commercials selling us cars (which started in the 80’s by the way), and new forms of rebellious music had to be found such as punk rock and now hip-hop. Rock clearly rebelled against existing social norms and pushed an agenda of anti-war, pro-drug, pro-sex, and thus obviously anti-Christian messages. Hip-hop today pushes rebellious messages. Drugs and sex are no longer as rebellious as they were so we see pro-violence (especially against authority figures), pro-crime, pro-swearing, as well as pro-drug and pro-sex messages. One might could even argue the format of rap being a spoken rather than singing genre is a rebellion against what music really is. One of the early trademarks of rap was scratching records, a very unnatural sound and one that is not music strictly speaking.

Here is where the philosophy comes into play. Marshal McLuhan has put forth the idea that the medium is the message. Neil Postman follows that same line of thinking although softening it a bit. The point being that the medium that conveys the message at least affects the message whether you want it to or not. That the medium of music massages our senses in specific ways and carries with it inherent factors affecting the message. If I might go a step further in appropriating the McLuhan/Postman philosophy (appropriately I hope), I would argue the same is true of different genre’s of music. That rap has a connotation that is carried innately in the genre itself, as does rock, country, etc. If you don’t think so try thinking about it like this. If you take the words of the Star Spangled Banner and put them in a rap, do feel the same about it as if it were sung normally at a ballgame? If not why not? The words are the same. .R. Kelly turned the anthem into a pop song, but was booed for it. And if we are talking about the anthem I have to link to Jimi Hendrix and his guitar solo. Only the 30 second discussion at the end is related to what we are talking about.

So, I think it worth discussing whether or not the gospel can be presented in a rap song. If the genre screams rebellion to moral absolutes and norms, if that is part of the connotation delivered with the genre, is it then appropriate to use it to promote the gospel? I have to admit I don’t think I have thought it through enough. But, it is something that should be a discussion. If what people connect to in rap is rebellion, just like they may have to rock in the 60’s, is this an appropriate place for gospel presentation? Can one present the gospel if the medium itself undermines that message? Perhaps McLuhan and Postman’s ideas are wrong? Perhaps I have misused them here. I hope you all will weigh in on it. However, I think it is a discussion that ought to be had more and more. One cannot just assume, as the Calvinist Rapper in the book does, that as long as the words are right the deed is right.


Anonymous said...

Have you read Allan Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind"?

I think it may shed some more light on this.

Glad to hear by the way the RCUS does require an examination in the History of Philosophy.

Benjamin P. Glaser

Andre said...

If you're a fan of holy hip-hop, then you should definitely check out Tre the Third. He's got a sound all his own. His album doesn't drop until Spring 09, but you can hear some of his tracks on his MySpace -

This is a very intersting entry by the way. I might have to look into some of the sources you mentioned. Very intersting.

Take Care,

Andrew said...

I think the main problem is not so much that the message is being put forth through such a medium, although I, like you, have not thought that issue through. I think the crux of the problem is found in the fact that people today cannot grasp a message that is not set forth in an entertaining way. People are truly dumbed down. Not only do they not read theology and philosophy, they cannot understand any point of departure in these contexts. There is no frame of reference. I am encouraged, however, by the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5. Christ did not use popular tricks. As it says, He simply "opened his mouth" and taught them.

On the point of the medium, I think we have to admit that rock and rap are both based on rebellion and illicit sex. I have to admit that I like classic rock, but, I also have to admit that when I really think about the lyrics, they are almost always repulsive to my Christian moral sense. When I hear a Christian rocker, I normally just laugh and change the radio channel. It is often poor Christianity and poor rock and roll.

Peace to you,