This small accessible book is a very sane and very good introduction to a much controverted subject.
I write this review as an observer of rap, and admittedly not as a devotee. In fact, I recently told a friend that if I write about it too much, I will undoubtedly commit a howler or two, like calling it hop hip. So what is my perspective on it? Besides being the perspective of a non-expert, I think it would be most accurate to call me an appreciative and supportive non-fan. You can read some of the reasons for that here in a post called Dear XYZ.
This book, Does God Listen to Rap?, by Curtis Allen, can be divided into two basic sections. The first describes the origins of this form of music, giving us the history of it. Where did it come from, and why did it catch on?
“So let’s be honest. Rap isn’t exactly rooted in the rich soil of holiness” (p. 37). Having established in that first section that the origins of rap were pretty tawdry, Allen goes on to show in the second part of the book why — scripturally — that shouldn’t really matter to us, at least not as a stand-alone argument. He gives thoughtful arguments from Scripture on why the genetic fallacy is in fact a fallacy when it comes to music. I have read a lot of cultural analysis, and Allen comes to the subject in fresh ways. For one example, he develops one argument from the fact that all music came from the line of Cain (Gen. 4: 17-21), beginning with a gent named Jubal. We don’t know what his stage name was — perhaps JubalZ.
Allen is sympathetic with those who are put off by rap’s origins, but is well-versed on those rappers — may their tribe increase — who love the Lord and who are not participants in the grime.
But there is still a lot for some Christians to overcome. What happens when someone well-versed in the traditional music of the church, let’s say, is persuaded by the arguments, at least to the point where he is willing to give it a listen? A lot rides on what you expect from it when you come to it. My brother-in-law once came in from some hard labor outside, in need of a cold drink. He opened the fridge and saw what he assumed to be a bottle of cold lemonade. He glugged it down, and it was mostly consumed before he realized it was chicken broth. What you have there is a collision of expectation and reality.
When someone comes to rap for the first time, and it is represented to him as a form of music, which it is, what they encounter (because of their musical expectations) can really throw them. But suppose they change their expectations?
“What makes rap music different from all other musical genres? Pretty much just one thing: Its primary ‘instrument’–rhythmic, rhyming human speech. Think about it . . . You can rap over any style of music and people will call it rap because what’s really central is not the underlying music — regardless of its style — but the words that run over the top. Rap is rap because it features rhythmic, rhyming human speech over some kind of rhythmic musical background” (p. 92).
So if you think of it as “a poem” with musical elements, you might have a better time of it than if you think of it as a song with a lot of missing musical elements.
“Rap is also unusual in the way it uses words. Where a typical CCM song might have 50-70 words, and a typical hymn has about 200, rap songs are often 300-500 words long. A well-written rap song can fit a lot of content into a short time. Many have said that listening to a good Christian rap song can be like hearing a mini-sermon” (p. 92).
A mini-sermon. Let’s call it a homily, shall we? So let’s call it a homily with a driving beat, which, let’s face it, a lot of homilies down through history could have used.
So if you come expecting a charged verbal expression, you will not be thrown by the beat. But if you come expecting a specific idea of a “song,” you could easily be bewildered by the absence of many of a song’s components.
Allen also has a brief section on a recent controversy in rap circles, a controversy that revolves around the question of “selling out.”
“Lecrae uses the Acts 17 philosophical approach in the hope of giving people stepping stones toward the truth of Christ. Although he has experienced some backlash from well-intentioned Christians, Lecrae has solid biblical precedent for his approach” (p. 95).
Also mentioned in this regard are Humble Beast’s Braille and Propaganda.
The one thing I would want to note here is that “selling out” ought to be defined in terms of the mission, and the character of the artist, and not in terms of whether the label is headquartered in Nashville. People can compromise wherever they are, and they can stand tall wherever they are. Someone can sell out by signing with a Christian label, and someone can refuse to sell out by signing with a secular label. Of course, life is complicated, and it can also go the other way, and frequently has.
This is a war, and war is risky. So when Christian artists “crossover,” they might be doing it for the sake of the gospel, and we had better pray for them hard. Or they might be doing it for the chicks and bling, which is more problematic.
One last thing. I thought this was a really valuable book, and I highly recommend it. I didn’t find myself colliding with any of its basic assumptions on cultural engagement that Allen set out for the reader. The one criticism is that I would have liked further development on one point. He didn’t quite argue that “all that matters is the words, and so the music is irrelevant,” but it is possible that he believes that. I don’t think that anything is neutral, including forms and styles of music — but I agreed with him that believers can take a form of music that came into existence out in the world, and adapt it for our use.
But suppose we have done so, and believers have been rapping for a couple centuries. I think we should be looking for drastic development and improvement of the musical form as a result. If that is not our task, then all we are doing is riding an evanescent fad. There will be certain Elizabethan sonnets that will continue to be studied centuries after the rage of writing sonnets has passed. This is unlikely for the be-bop-a-loo-bop-she’s-my-baby forms of poetic diction. So gifted Christian poets and lyricists should never be content with throwing their words down into the sinkhole of momentary culture. They should be aiming for something higher, and books like this help.