Dear XYZ

An open letter to black Reformed rappers, in light of the recent dust-up.

Dear XYZ,

I hope you don’t mind receiving a letter like this, coming, as it does, out of the left field bleachers. To begin with a confession of the perfectly obvious, I am not naturally part of that demographic that buys, listens to, or is otherwise conversant in, the work you do. You might say it is not my cup of T. At the same time, I do follow cultural trends widely, and sometimes deeply, and have been aware of your active presence in the Reformed world for some years now. I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck.

So I want to ask you to think of this letter as the work of an appreciative and affectionate and somewhat distant Dutch uncle . . . although I am not Dutch. I believe you have been called to a very important task, and I want to urge you to honor God in that work. The reason for this letter is that I believe that the importance of your labor is such that it is going to generate a great deal of trouble for you, and I believe that I do know something about handling that, whether we are talking about causes or consequences.

As I observe the work you do, I wanted you to know that there are three things that I am very thankful for, and which I would urge you to guard and protect. There are also four things to be wary of, four traps, four snares.

Let me begin with the positive.

First, your mere existence is more than a little surprising. What are you even doing here? The Reformed presence among black rappers does not appear to be comparable to the Reformed presence among black Christians generally. Black Reformed rappers are a splinter of a splinter of a splinter. At the same time, your influence is strikingly disproportionate to your actual numbers. What is that about? The reason this is notable is that it is a hallmark of how God loves to work. He loves the unexpected twist, especially when it messes up the hair of the pious. From Nazareth? Really?

After the Puritan high water mark in 17th century England, the zeal began to ebb. Some of it was because the most devout were emigrating, and some was because of the natural forces of ossification that always tends to set in with every movement. By the middle of the 18th century, the non-conformists, descendents of the Puritans, were fully orthodox and dozing peacefully. And so God sent an Anglican priest named George Whitefield, an Anglican for pity’s sake, in order to preach England and New England back to life again, and over the course of a few decades he preached himself to death in the doing of it.

To reapply the words of the prophet, we must not despise the day of odd beginnings. To my mind, this oddity is very much alive in your surprising presence. That does not determine what this necessarily has to be, but it is enough to make me want to watch closely. I have written before about black swan revival, and believe it would be marvelous if black men were a significant part of the coming black swan.

Second, your art is unabashedly logocentric, and comes at a time when a lot of our fifty pound heads are stroking their postmodern chins and wondering what the big deal is with words anyhow, and are now thinking to make their scholarly pursuits a lot more like the work of my grandsons, which is to say, legocentric. But Christians are people who worship the Word, which means that we must, of necessity, have a high view of words. And here you come, with dense, hand-packed, cream-laden theology, and all presented in words that high school students want to memorize. Because Jesus is Lord, words have power. Poetry has power. Poetic words have authority. This is your only authority, and you must never let it go. Without the rhythm of the Word, you have nothing to offer us — but with it, everything.

Third, over the course of centuries we have let the masculinity of poetry slip away from us. We still have poetry, some of it great, but we don’t have popular poetry that appeals to men. You are calling men to take responsibility as husbands and fathers, you are calling them back to true masculinity. You are doing this in a time when our nation is undergoing a father famine, and this crisis is particularly acute in the black community. Many of you have been yourselves shaped by the weight of fatherlessness, and have spoken eloquently about it. Continue to do so — when God breaks into the downward spiral of generations, someone has to be the first real fathers. You be that, and speak about it. Call men to it. Call men to find one woman, and call them to faithfulness to her, and to covenant faithfulness to all the children she gives them.

At the same time, there can be no opportunity like this — a glorious opportunity — without a thousand and one possible ways to screw it all up.

So first, beware of lame defenses for your art. We live in a time of aesthetic relativism, and so this means that when someone sniffs contemptuously at what you are doing, you must resist the temptation to hide behind a “who’s to say what good art is?” It is cheap and easy, and our relativistic age will applaud if you do. But it is the defense of a poser. Develop a true aesthetic, grounded in Scripture, and in the way God made the world. You shouldn’t want any defense of your art that would work equally well with the lamest attempt at art known to man. If you adopt the relativistic apologetic for what you are doing, thinking Christians will have every right to write you off. Do not hide behind “preferences,” to each man his own. In the recent imbroglio resulting from that panel discussion, I saw more than a few of your defenders offering the rousing defense of “beetles fancy other beetles.” Aesthetic relativism is a true death rattle in our culture’s throat, and if you accept this cheap and chintzy defense, Morecraft’s point will be proven right.

Second, when the devil can’t get you to fail, he will switch directions and will get you to succeed. Unfortunately, that usually works very well. Beware of money. Beware of mammon. Beware of the world’s blandishments. Beware of everything that goes with it. Many men have suddenly come to the place where they realized that they could now, at last, buy the world. But when they were all done, and they read over the papers they had signed again, they found out that the world had actually bought them. If God prospers you, and you start to “make it,” you may rest assured that there will be a long series of choices that open up before you, and a good half of them or more will represent death. You should therefore strive for success in the full knowledge that when you get there, you will be in the gravest peril of your life.

Third, the Bible says nothing negative about putting powerful words in a rhythmic framework, and delivering that word to the people who will listen. Whatever you do, do it heartily, with all you have and are. But there is a danger on the flip side of the masculinity you are seeking to recover. Beware of cheap counterfeits of masculinity, for which we have a lot of words — swagger, bravado, machismo, swank, bluster, and male peacock bling. Those rappers who do not fear God have successfully made this kind of thing a virtual hallmark of rap. About this kind of attitude, the Scriptures say a great deal, and you must have nothing to do with it. The idea that true authenticity is found in a raw, untutored, and slovenly slouching is actually a white boy schtick, invented and refined by seventeenth century opium addicts. Your rejection of this kind of thing must be one of the most obvious things about you.

And last, when it comes to the racial component of this — and there is a racial component to this — do not be children. You live in a world where true accomplishment by a black man is extraordinarily difficult. Some of the difficulty arises because of internal cultural factors like missing fathers, lousy schools, and an entitlement mentality, but much of it also comes from the attitudes of the outer society you simultaneously live in and are excluded from. Liberals exclude you from that society by giving you freebies and calling it accomplishment, and want you to receive your participant ribbon like it was the Medal of Freedom or something.

And bigots exclude you by means of open hostility and contempt, patronizing tolerance, or some exasperating combination of those. Sometimes it is open, and sometimes coded, but it is frequently there. The situation is complicated by the race hucksters who play the race card every chance they get, and you don’t want to be associated with them. Racism can be coded, but these guys can find the deep codes of racism on the Arby’s reader board.

So I grant that when it comes to true accomplishment, you live in a time when you will have to work twice as hard to get the same results as someone else without your challenges. But given that, what will happen — in terms of true accomplishment — if you only work half as hard? If God blesses what you do, then no collection of men will be able to get in the way of it. You and God will outnumber them all.

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53 comments on “Dear XYZ

  1. Doug,
    For those of us who have no idea what you are referring to, can you give a short list of the black reformed rappers you are addressing, both the quality artists and the not so much? I’d like to give them a listen.
    Thanks.

  2. That is a great admonishment to our brothers in Christ. Perhaps you could also issue a rebuke to the men on the panel who started this whole dustup 1Timothy 5:20? These men were acting in ways that should actually disqualify them from office and unless they publically repent their respective denominations should take action. Their actions were slanderous and overbearing Titus 1:6 and has brought more shame on the Church.

  3. John: I agree they may have been wrong, but removal from office? Really?

  4. Mr. Dickison – Lecrae, Propaganda, Trip Lee, Derek Minor, Tedashii, and Shai Linne for starters.
    Here’s a good conversation on the topic from the Gospel Coalition: http://vimeo.com/24837609

  5. You nailed something I’ve been trying to put my finger on for the past few days. When I lived in Baltimore and belonged to an inner city PCA church in a predominately black neighborhood (Tupac Shakur’s family lived there for a while when he was in high school) I developed a longing for Reformed thinking to take hold of that community and that broader culture and transform them. I loved my church there for many things, but I found myself frustrated at the seeming reluctance to go full-throttle with Reformed teaching for fear of treading on cultural sensibilities. Now I see Propaganda and Shai Linne and Lecrae and their ilk [there's a short list for you, Greg] and just weep for joy at their mere existence. These men are a totally unexpected part of the answer to my prayers. I bless them and I bless God for them.
                                                                                                                                                       
    Second, I had wondered why this surprising crop of black Reformed artists had all chosen rap as their medium. I don’t much care for rap, but my iPod would sure welcome some more traditional black gospel music with a Reformed bent. Happily, my personal preferences were not God’s priority here, and the point about the masculinity of rap suddenly made it clear why He has chosen to use rap: because that’s the medium that can best communicate to the broken parts of the black community the high-octane message of His glorious, gracious, transformative power over individuals, families, neighborhoods, and cultures.

  6. Say, Doug, in addition to addressing this particular situation, maybe you’d deem it worthwhile to do an article, or series, or book, or edit a book, on what Christian music SHOULD be?   I think one of the criticized rappers expressed frustration with what the critics wanted:  Joe, what hymnal does the church you work for use?   Where have you and Christ Church come, where are you now, whaddya think of the wider scene, where are we, where should we be heading?   (I’d say:  include all 150 Psalms–it’s dreadfully arrogant to refuse a resource God supplies–and ideally a spectrum, ruling out no style or period tho majoring in what works for us; and congregational input–every man hath a psalm:  music minister=servant, not music dictator.)

  7. Excellent post Doug! My fellow Redeemer Seminary (Dallas) grad Mike Luna is one of the founders STRT TRBL. He strives to merge the gospel with hip hop. Listen to the results here https://soundcloud.com/strt_trbl

  8. I like your thinking on this situation, Pastor Wilson, including your prior post on the topic. Personally, I do like some of the Reformed hip-hop, and there are a few aspiring artists in my local congregation. I appreciate what they are doing in the urban music scene, and I’ve seen people come to know Christ as savior through their music. On a personal level, I have appreciated some of this style of music and how it helps me cultivate a hatred of sin and a love for Christ. 
    It would be interesting to see how the NCFIC would respond to all of these rejoinders, which mostly seem to support (at the very least) the positive impact Reformed hip-hop has had on people.

  9. I know absolutely nothing about Reformed hip hop and/or rap, and yet still found this post incredibly encouraging. Thanks!

  10. Shai Linne, Timothy Brindle, Evangel from Christ-centric, Stephen the Levite from Redeemed Thought, Cross Movement,

  11. For those of you unfamiliar with Reformed rappers, I’d like you to look up just one for starters: Shai Linne. He was named above by David. I want to put him at the front of the list for those who frequent this blog. He’s got a lot of good ones on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZ_jFO2VzRQhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_qhwfmMyYnI

  12. Dear Brother Wilson,
    My wife and I have followed your work for quite some time. Though you and I would likely agree that we have differences regarding history and culture, I believe this post to be one of your more thoughtful (and I pray effective) pieces of writing.
    Further, though we may even disagree on some of this particular post’s finer points, its overall tone and vision reflects a common ground between our cultural philosophies, as well as the Spirit of Christian brotherhood.
    My current prayer is that all of our efforts will lead to less guarded and more honest conversation, and to greater discoveries of commonalities between us and many others. Karen and I believe that we will need this kind of unity in the coming season of cultural hostility toward the Church, and it is far better to build it now rather than later. Feel free to contact me at any time.
    Regards,
    Dr. Carl F. Ellis, Jr.

  13. I am no fan of rap (I become of age to receive Denny’s senior discount this week). But I just listened to Shai Linne. Way cool, indeed! Sure beats the pants off the ‘positive and encouraging’ swill available on our local radio.

  14. Shai Linne is the best Reformed rapper I’ve come across so far. I also recommend IV Conerly.

  15. I agree with previous comments about Shai Linne, Stephen the Levite, Timothy Brindle, Trip Lee and Tedashii, and would like to add Hazakim. My favorite by them is “No, Not One.”  Here’s a link to the song on YouTube if you wanna give it a listen:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xkVJxJ_JbU4
     
    Here’s a link to get some FREE songs and FREE albums from Lamp Mode Recordings for FREE:
    http://www.lampmode.com/free-album-download/
    (Did I mention these downloads are FREE?)

  16. The previous link for freebies is dead. Here’s the active one:
    http://www.lampmode.com/freebies/

  17. Appreciate this much more than the Rap Tide post. Same heart, less condescension. Someone may have engaged in a crash course. If so, kudos. I hope this conversation continues. That being said, DW’s several cautions are valid. They are also valid for each of us, regardless of endeavor. Always a thousand and one possible ways to screw it up. And, just like the rest of us, some of them will.

  18. I was very moved by the warmth and wisdom displayed in this post.  This was really good; it’s probably the best thing I’ve read today.

  19. Check out this fun theological conversation with Shai Linne on youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9whbJ-3aXR4

  20. Yes! And on and on and on and on. Say the second line as if you were a reformed rap star :)  Having grown up in the South and listened to and enjoyed a lot of hip hop and rap pre-salvation I am absolutely encouraged listening to sound doctrine pouring powerfully out of my mini- van speakers!
     

  21.    Lecrae’s ‘Tell the World’ would be a lovely way to introduce yourself to this genre.   My children who love Dr. Erb’s Psalms also love to break out some Lecrae.   Hey.  I think of it as lyrical preaching- powerful form of music when the words preach the truth.  

  22. Listen to these guys:
    Lecrae
    Derek Minor
    Tedashi
    Dee-One
    Flame
    KB
    Trip Lee
    Just to name a few…

  23. Here is another angle to consider. Native American youth love rap. I used to work with Native youth ten years ago. I heard rap more than anything else.

  24. Never listened to rap of any type till today. Already love Shai Linne. Thanks for the post.

  25. Valerie, if you’re looking for Reformed gospel, you should check out a friend of mine and also of Shai Linne and LampMode records, Jason Coleman. He just released a collection of gospel/jazz/soul Christ-centered music called Your Mercies (https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/your-mercies/id742830147).
    I also released an album earlier this year called Lyrical Catechism which is a hip hop introduction to the Shorter Catechism and encouragement for families to disciple their children. Here’s a lyric video of the first song on the album: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pRLH3Nmt6QQ.

  26. Tonight, when one of our girls was asking us about how to sort through the “everyone believes something different about how to get to God” maze, we concluded our time by playing Shai Linne’s “Jesus is Alive.” She got it – fast, well and (most importantly) triumphally happy. 
    Brother Doug, you’ve written a lot in the last year that has, well, not blessed me. But *this* – THIS I will read and reread and read again. There is so many levels of wisdom and helpfulness and grace here. When I find myself so fully agreeing with both you and Rachel Held Evans in the same week, I’m compelled to rethink my eschatology. 

  27. Thanks for the lead, Ben!

  28. They don’t be no honkies that do rap? Or is the idea, then different rules apply?

  29. I know some folks have referenced Propaganda already, but several of the other guys at the Humble Beast label are worth a listen. Odd Thomas has done several outstanding spoken word pieces on video on the website, and Beautiful Eulogy is excellent as well.

  30. For the curious, you can download some free (oh, give ‘em a tip if you can) music by Propaganda and other on NoiseTrade: http://noisetrade.com/propaganda/ /// And here’s Beautiful Eulogy: http://noisetrade.com/beautifuleulogy

  31. So if one wanted to purchase an album as a gift for a 20-something white male who enjoys rap and could use something worth listening to. . .any recommendations?

  32. For those making their initial foray into this genre, it may be helpful to keep this in mind. Rap, be it generic Christian, reformed, or even secular, covers a fairly wide spectrum of styles and talents. It’s not a one size fits all kind of thing. Being a country music fan does not mean one likes all country music. Ditto for rock, classical, blues, etc. Experiment. Get used to cadences and inflection. Most of all, pray for and exercise discernment.

  33. I liked that—”æsthetic relativism.” Kinda like moral absolutism, only less so. Love,

  34. Reformed rappers have 99 problems but a Wilson ain’t one. 

  35. Grateful to see Dr. Ellis’s comment above!

  36. Can someone post a link to the recent dust up Pastor Wilson is referencing? Thanks!

  37. Some more great Reformed Rappers for your consideration: Flame, Beautiful Eulogy, Gods Servant. I’ll post an excerpt from one of Beautiful Eulogy’s new songs: The Size of Sin:
    The size of sin is as small as a grain of sand, but separates between Wide Ocean and dry land
    It’s bigger than bad habits; it’s a matter of man seeking for God’s spot following in same pattern as Adam
    Its deep rooted we are the seed of a broken family tree branching out limbs of disease. Look at this mess we leave
    This weight of wickedness is heavy as lead trying to catch its descents like stopping a falling rock in a spider’s web
    It’s thin so thread begins to snap and all that’s left is the residue that sticks between the cracks
    It all ends with a slip into a bottomless pit, grips the heart in the man’s chest till swallowing death
    Sipping for the glass of God’s wrath and genuine justice a just judge must summons for infinite punishment
    The smallest white lie is enough for being indictable
    The size of sin so big it causes a cosmic fraction and Hell is the only relevant response to righteous reaction
    This is what our sinful actions actually earned us, but God took upon himself the weight of sin reserved for us; a weight so significant that only the blood of an innocent one is acceptable and worthy
    So rather than make light of it or minimize the size of it, we should marvel at the magnitude of mercy

  38. I’m only familiar with Propoganda and Beautiful Eulogy; but from random listenings, i do agree that Humble Beast Record’s artist’s a pretty awesome. They have a way of creativity merging words that are totally centered around the gospel.

  39. Ebony, http://dougwils.com/s7-engaging-the-culture/rap-tide.html (a few posts back on this blog), has, in its first line or two, a link to a 13-minute video of some Reformed men criticizing Reformed rap music; a video that has stirred quite a bit of response.

  40. For anyone not familiar with any Reformed artists check out Shai  Linne, Beautiful Eulogy, Timothy Brindle.

  41. C’mon, man–let’s get with it–we need to try and stay current here. The real question should be: “What about Christian disco?”

  42. Tim, I’m really eager to explore that genre, too. Can you recommend some artists or albums? No? Everyone who’s attempted it has immediately been struck dead by lightning? Huh…

  43. Gregory C Dickison, with all due respect, one of the lists above named some of the more popular, but not so much theological or reformed rap artists.  Here is a TRUE list:

    Shai Linne, Timothy Brindle, Evangel, Stephen the Levite….to name a few.

  44. Here are some Shai Linne Lyrics to consider:

    “It’s seen in the stars
    Seen in the galaxies, Seen in quasars
    Neptune, Uranus, and Pluto and Jupiter,
    Mercury, Saturn and Venus and mars
    Back to the earth, it shows in the trees
    Each of the leaves blows in the breeze
    Locusts and bees, oceans and seas
    All the result of Jehovah’s decrees
    Observe the way his word creates
    Preserves and shapes, determines fates
    Reverberates at urgent rates
    The earth it shakes with fervent quakes”
    In the Bible, God’s wrath- we see it openly explained
    So mindful of its gravity, this poetry is plain
    A frightful catastrophe, His foes will be in pain
    Stifled, their anatomy and souls will be sustained
    Recycled supernaturally and locally contained
    The spiteful would be glad to see God’s potency restrained
    Noticeably profane, they’re supposed to be ashamed
    They joke like it’s a game, they’re woefully deranged
    Maniacal, they’re actually opposed to Jesus’ reign
    His rightful mastery of the whole of His domain
    Not tribal, but massively and globally ordained
    He died to make us happily devoted to His fame
    His rivals with their strategies, the prideful with their apathy
    Their idols and their blasphemies will only see the flames
    Denial of His majesty is totally insane
    The title of His masterpiece is “Holy is His name”!
    Who can oppose these lyrics!?!?!?

  45. EXCELLENT piece, Mr. Wilson.  SPOT ON!  Thank you.  :)

  46. Beautiful Eulogy is amazing. Their lyrics are so poetic, yet theologically dense. Their albums are almost written like epistles as well, starting with an introduction, and ending with a doxology. I still haven’t gotten over their newest album. 
     
    I hope you all give them a listen. God’s truly gifted them as musicians, poets, theologians and evangelists. All glory to God!

  47. Good post,
    As to Christian rap there are certainly many ranges of diversity, ranges of talent and ranges of good content. There are also internal disagreements over methodology, compromising collaborations etc.
    With that said, lampmode (a record label) artists like shah linen and Timothy Brindle certainly stand out, Tim is a white boy from Philly (a presby at Westminster) who has one album based off of Owens ‘Sin and mortification’ , it’s called ‘Killing Sin’, his newest album resotoration, is jam packed full of Christ!.shai Linne has several deep albums, ‘attributes of God’ is great, ‘storiez’ is incredibly unique as it uses a lot of allegory, even has a song based biography of Spurgeon (look it up on YouTube). Ivey Connerly can be found at crownrights website, he has some great vids he’s done with James White!
    Beautiful Eulogy is art to the max with plenty of theological meat and easy listening rap. Phanatik is another get artist (from cross movement). Some lesser knowns which can be found on soundcloud etc would be taelor gray (brother of christon gray…who is also a good singer) …Dillon Chase is a very passionate artist who has some very good work out there.

  48. I know exactly what you are talking about.  May Shai Lin and the others continue to preach God’s word in powerful poetry.  If you haven’t already, check out the Storiez album and especially “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”  My head almost blew up.  It was like listening to Stephen fuss at the Pharisees. 

  49. Ben Bowman is funny.

  50. So good. Thank you. 

  51. Mr. Wilson,
     
    Your recent articles concerning rap music have been the only conversations to date that I can recall that have been objectively thoughtful – and inspiring to say the least. I’ll be following your blog and thoughts closely now.
     
    I, too, am a rapper from NYC – though not black and not reformed (in the strictest sense). I’m Puretorican, and paired up with a white partner. On the theological side of things, I’m a Molinist. But despite the differences I pose from the target of your open letter, I find your thoughts and perspective on Hip-Hop extremely beneficial. You’re assisting us in refining vision for what the Lord would do with the Hip-Hop culture and art form. Thanks for your input.
     
    ~Quest~

  52. Many of the rappers listed above are excellent examples, but I think the MCs that best exemplify what some are classifying as “reform rap” (that’s another topic in itself) are No Malice and Lee Majors.  
     
    No Malice was part of a multi-platinum duo known as the Clipse with his brother Pusha T.  Formerly known as Malice, he came to Christ and accepted him as Lord and Savior.  In a very simple, yet equally brilliant move, he added the No to his name to announce the change in his life.  He no longer glorifies the dope game he used to be involved in (altho to be fair, even before he was saved, he would express the dangers and emptiness of that lifestyle), he now glorifies God.   The world has reacted to his conversion in 2 ways- appreciation by those glad to see his new direction and disbelief by those who want to see the old music.  He recently released the fabulous Hear Ye Him which he concluded by leading listener’s in the sinner’s prayer.  He had come a long way since the success of “Grindin’” years ago.  
     
    The other MC is Lee Majors fka as Extra Prolific. He was a part of the Oakland-based crew known as Hieroglyphics who have a massive international following.  Hiero was always known for their elite lyrics and wordplay as well as top notch production.  Extra Prolific was viewed as the black sheep of the crew having more of an edge than his fellow crew members with content focused more on girls and mixing it up.  Now he’s a changed man in Christ and recently released an album called The World’s Pain is Too Real For a The Church to be Fake.
     
    The reason I bring up these 2 artists is that they had success in mainstream hip hop but now are using their extraordinary gifts to share the gospel. And not just any 2 mainstream artists, but 2 of the best that all of hip hop has to offer- Christian or secular.  
     
    Lastly, another exceptional group is the duo known as Mars iLL.  IMO, they are the best to ever do it when it comes to Christians in hip hop.  

  53. I was surprised to see Lecrae on so many lists…he struck me as a little too socially conscious to be accepted by the kind of Reformed adherents who comment here.

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