A high school in Beaver, Pennsylvania, recently went into security lockdown over a rap lyric. Actually, rap here is a stretch. It was the theme song of a 20-year-old sitcom starring Will Smith.
A school official called a student's voicemail and heard the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air song on the student's phone. She mistook "shooting some b-ball outside of the school" as "shooting some people outside of the school," and dialed 9-1-1.
In light of shootings linked to popular media, from The Matrix to The Dark Knight Rises, her fear is understandable. But there's a parable here too. Even in its most commercialized, bubblegum form, hip-hop scares middle-class America. The thumping rhythm and defiant lyrics can conjure up pictures of gang violence, even in songs solely about basketball or love or heartbreak. Smith was right: Parents just don't understand.
The violent edge of rap—"It's just so angry"—is most often what I hear behind American Christians' ambivalence about the new wave of Christian hip-hop. But not all of this ambivalence is reactionary, revealing white-bread taste. It's a real question: Can one authentically rap the Sermon on the Mount, with its Beatitudes, warnings against anger, and meekness? No doubt one can set Matthew 5–7 to rhyme and meter, but would it still be hip-hop? If not, does that rule hip-hop out as legitimate Christian art?
That was the question Ken Myers posed as we talked recently about Christian hip-hop artists Lecrae, Shai Linne, Trip Lee, and others (especially popular among the "young, restless, Reformed" wing of the church). Myers, host of Mars Hill Audio and one of the most respected Christian thinkers on pop culture, has long warned about the church's tendency to separate the message from the medium. He sees this as an almost gnostic attempt to disembody everything but truth propositions from art.
Music sounds "like feelings feel," said Myers. That's why no one could credibly suggest that Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" conjures "feelings of melancholy, humility, tentativeness, or ennui." And no one could claim that Gregorian chants are "brimful of arrogance, assertiveness, anger, or brashness."
By contrast, Myers said, "Hip-hop is quite successful in [expressing] raw energy barely contained; it is a form that dares its hearers to contradict its address with a threat of escalation or retaliation." In other words, rap is anything but about "reticence, patience, self-giving, or submissiveness."
"Hip-hop with a bowed head (or a bowed heart) is hard to imagine; it would be unfaithful to the spirit of hip-hop, and to the spirit of reverence," Myers said as we continued talking over e-mail. One cannot, he said, rap the Sermon on the Mount without altering the fundamental meaning of either the text or the form, any more than one could easily perform "Girlfriend in a Coma" set to Fleet Foxes' "White Winter Hymnal." To use "pious and humble" hip-hop lyrics would be to ignore or denigrate "the musical vocabulary of hip-hop," since it is a style "more at home with a confident swagger than with receptive poverty of spirit."
Myers' critique of Christian hip-hop wasn't a fundamentalist scold, wary of the Devil's music. Instead, he was concerned for the integrity of hip-hop as an art form—as well as for the integrity of the Bible and the Christian tradition. For him, Christian hip-hop seems to be the latest incarnation in the evangelical project to "engage culture" by separating form from message, and to bridge the divide between pop culture and the old, old story.