Religion News Service video by Brandon Smith
(RNS) Rapper Lecrae’s popularity has been brewing for a few years now, but the church-going artist became the hottest Christian in the mainstream this month. His newest album, Anomaly, topped iTunes and Amazon on the day it was released (Sept. 9) and shot up to Billboard’s No. 1 last week, a first for a Gospel album and the fifth for a Christian album. He spoke with RNS about his recent success in an interview in New York City.
My name is Sarah Pulliam Bailey, with Religion News Service. We’re here at the American Bible Society in New York City with Lecrae, who topped the Billboard charts last week. We’re here to chat about his music, his faith, and other topics. Lecrae, your previous albums have done quite well. What do you think it is about this album that has risen to the next level?
I think it’s a matter of connecting with people over the years, and people coming to trust in the music that I’ve done. Word of mouth has spread over the last two years, and so there’s a little more excitement about what’s to come. I think that definitely was a great tipping point. I’d love to believe it’s just better.
You often talk about being a rapper who is a Christian, but not a Christian rapper. You like to make that distinction often. Some people have worried that you might be more muted in your faith as you become more successful. How would you respond to that?
I definitely understand the concern. I really don’t think we’ve seen a lot of public figures who are Christian who have pure motives when they step outside of Christian circles. All we know are people who have said, “I want more fame, I want more glory,” and not people who have had a different perspective. For me, my faith dictates everything I do, so no matter what I’m saying in my art, my faith is the driver for that. That’s what I’d encourage people to understand as they listen to my music. It’s distinct. My worldview bleeds through my music.
Do you think that you are becoming less explicit about your faith in your music, in your art?
No. I think people equate explicitness to the subjects of salvation and sanctification. In those cases, I think those songs are more limited than they have been in the past. Talking about social issues, talking about love, talking about marriage, child rearing, those are all things that are explicit to who I am as a believer. It’s just not the topics, necessarily, of salvation or sanctification.
A lot of rap is about violence, sex, drugs, the message of getting off the streets. How do you think your rap is fundamentally different from Jay-Z, Kanye, other rap artists?
Everyone is articulating a worldview. Everyone is articulating a paradigm, what they believe about life, about love, about people. The difference is that I’m articulating a vastly different worldview. At the end of the day, we’re all people, we’re all flawed, none of us have all the answers, but I think I see things from a different set of lenses. We may walk into a room and see the same exact person going through the same exact issue; I just have a completely different outlook on that than a lot of rappers would have.
Maybe your friendly critics, who appreciate you, have also wondered whether you’re becoming too clean, too predictable. This is friendly criticism. What do you make of that good-faith criticism?
I welcome that. I think we all have room to grow. I kind of can appreciate that, because there’s always that fear of remaining where you will face the least challenge, the least amount of scrutiny. I think every Christian really does need to take up their cross in a lot of areas of life and say, “Man, listen, regardless of what kind of backlash I’m going to get, I need to stand for what I believe in.”
ESPN’s Grantland recently compared you to Tyler Perry. The author said Christianity sneaks up on you. Do you have that same intention, and how do you feel about that comparison?
There’s two different contexts that hear that statement, and it means something completely different. Obviously, to the conservative evangelical, or the Christian, they hear “sneak” and they think “why do we have to sneak?” but when we hear that from somebody outside of the Christian culture, in many ways they mean that as a compliment. What they’re trying to say is that they didn’t feel like they were berated, or beat over the head, or made to feel like they were being patronized, or condescending. I think that’s what they’re trying to articulate. By no means am I trying to hide my faith, or disguise myself as a Christian spy. But I’m not what all of presuppositions are, once they investigate my music or my life.
Is it more strategic to sneak up on an audience?
I think we’re people who are driven toward relationships. We’re people who are driven toward being known, and knowing others. When people feel like you know them, and you love them, and you genuinely care about them and their issues, they’re more prone to listen to what you have to say. In 2014, it’s culturally awkward on your first encounter with someone to talk about their eternity. It’s just like, whoa, what just happened? That’s not to say that it shouldn’t happen, just that it’s a little culturally awkward.
Along with that, people like Russell Moore have written about how Christians are becoming less of a majority and more of a minority, and then that piece in Grantland talked about how everybody can identify with being weird or unusual. Do you feel like Christians becoming a minority has nicely paved the way for your success?
I think that definitely has been a benefiting factor. The discrimination, the prejudices and presuppositions that people have to
ward Christians now, are likened to a lot of other people groups and movements that are going on in society, so I think a lot of people can say “man, I relate to that.”
Some people have also complained about a persecution complex. Like “come on, Christians are still pretty widespread in the U.S.” Do you sense that at all?
Yeah, there’s areas. There’s sections and sectors in society where that is the case. But there’s many places, such as mainstream media, where Christians are stifled and muffled and muted, and it’s intentional. I think people have said to themselves “you’re all the same, and we know what you’re going to say, and we know what you’re going to do.” They’ve put us in these boxes and made us robots.
Have you felt like you’ve been marginalized at one point or another?
Absolutely. I mean, I’m marginalized every time I walk into a mainstream radio station for an interview. The questions rarely surround my art, my craft, the songs, the producers, but almost always are about “do you smoke? Do you drink? Do you curse?” It’s like, wow, I’ve just been stigmatized on this radio show, when no other artist who comes on the air is facing these questions.
In that way, though, haven’t you put yourself apart from other rap artists and made a name for yourself that way?
I definitely haven’t promoted or glorified any of those things, nor would I, but rarely do you hear any of those artists come into an interview and they’re asked “How often do you go to church?” or “Are you a praying person?” or “What do you think about monogamy?” You know, it usually surrounds their music, or who they’re working with, their label, something along those lines.
You have a diverse audience, but you also have a huge white Christian fan base. With Ferguson, the recent police shooting in Walmart, and other race-related issues, how do you see progress in racial reconciliation in churches?
I think racial reconciliation is really rooted in the reconciliation that we see in Scripture. Once you understand the reconciliation that Jesus talked about, whether it’s racial, whether it’s social class, whatever it is, that deals with it when you begin to see others as more important, when you begin to be a servant of others instead of seeing life through your own selfish desires. I think you begin to find yourself being reconciled to people all over the place, and just wanting to empathize with people from all walks of life, specifically as a Christian, to demonstrate the love of Jesus. I mean, he’s God, and yet he condescends into humanity to serve us. It makes no sense.
Do you have an aim for racial reconciliation in your music?
I definitely have an aim for education. I definitely want us to be educated about each other’s circumstances and to realize that, man, we don’t experience the same things every day. Even though we may wake up in the same city, in the same neighborhood, go to the same job and the same school, life is very different. I was just talking to my friend, he just moved into a new neighborhood, a predominately white neighborhood. He’s the only black guy there. He wrestles with this internal feeling of “I know they’re expecting something from me. Am I going to be hanging out all night? What kind of people do I have coming over? When I have friends coming over and they’re wearing wife beaters and their hats to the back, are they wondering if they’re gangsters? No, it’s just my cousin who got off work.” But that’s something that he has to think about, that somebody from another ethnic group would not have to.
Obviously gay marriage is one of the most recent hot topics, kind of a continual subject. How do you see the relationship between the rap community, the Christian community and the gay community forming in future years?
I think as people, specifically Christians, really begin to see themselves as something other than “I’m better than you, I have it all together,” we can relate to people from all walks of life, from all communities. We can begin to build relationships and have communication about our lives, our faith, and eternal matters. You don’t start touching on the lifestyles of people before you can touch on “what do you believe?” and “does Jesus have your heart? What does that look life?” I think it’s almost antithetical to the Gospel to preach behavior modification and not worldview transformation and heart change.
I don’t know how sensitive this is, but why did you sue Katy Perry earlier this year, and might it have made sense to let it go in order to “forgive”?
I did not pursue Katy Perry in a lawsuit. I am featured on a song, and the artist whose song that is pursuing her in a lawsuit. But because I was on the song I was kind of lumped into it. I’ve since distanced myself from it. I don’t understand all the motives on the side of the artist who’s taking legal action, but I know for me I would want to be able to say “hey, can we have a conversation about it?” before we take it all the way to the courthouse.
Do you have a dream collaborator? How do you discern when to collaborate with a secular artist who might be profane/misogynistic/violence-glorifying?
I think a lot of people look at the recording booth as a pulpit. I don’t see it as a pulpit necessarily. It’s not the same thing as preaching a sermon on Sunday. If a pastor gets up and says, “Hey, I’m going to have said misogynist rapper get up here and preach to y’all,” we have a problem. However, if he said, “I’m going to have a conversation with this guy, we’re going to sit in my living room and have a conversation and I’m going to record and release it,” it’s not a problem. They’re just having a conversation. A lot of times, the way I approach those type of songs are conversational. I’m not trying to give them a platform to preach a message, nor do I want them to pretend that they believe what I believe in order to get my audience to track with them. I want them to be themselves. Even the film that I’m a part of, “Believe Me,” it lets pain look like pain, and death look like death, sin look like sin. It doesn’t paint it in a glorious picture where it looks awesome. I think that’s what we should be, as artists. We should allow things to be as they are so people can see it from a real perspective.
So do you have a dream collaborator?
Yes, Lauren Hill would be amazing to me. I think she’s a phenomenal artist, loves to touch on spirituality and loves to push back on the status quo. I appreciate that.
With collaborating, that sort of thing, when is it “eating with tax collectors” and when is it endorsing a message?
I don’t know that I’m perfect in that. That’s not to say that I haven’t processed it or thought through it heavily, but that’s an issue. It’s like on Twitter, am I responsible for the 900,000 people who follow me? How does that work? When I die and face the Lord, will he say, “All those 900,000 people, buddy, and you tweeted a picture of your cat. You could have done more.” I don’t know if it’s going to be a problem. As it pertains to working with people and endorsing people, that’s never my intention and I’m always trying to wrestle through that. I haven’t heard any backlash in terms of something bad happening from them. I’ve heard of people having the fear of something happening. Sometimes I wrestle with whether or not we’re talking about weaker brothers or we’re talking about brothers who want to pretend, or parade around as if they could be weak. “You could have led me down…” you know.
You make an appearance in “Believe Me.” So you’re doing a little bit of acting, and I hear you’re writing a book. You have a pretty full plate; you have three kids. What does success look like for you 5-10 years down the road?
That’s a great question. I think success, for anybody, is accomplishing what God wanted you to accomplish. We create these levels of things, but at the end of the day I have to be able to say “Lord, did I do what you wanted me to do?” Some of those things are revealed in Scripture, things like being an involved father who raises his children in the fear and the admonishment of the Lord, to being a husband who washes his wife in the Word. He’s told me to do that. He hasn’t told me to be #1 in the charts. I don’t know if he’d applaud that, but He would applaud me being an involved father and husband. I know that for a fact. So those are the things that I try to focus mostly on, and spend my time fighting for that more than anything else.
We talked about why so many Christian rappers are Reformed, and along with that, how much do you think about rebutting prosperity gospel or liberation theology, money, success, especially with all of that wrapped up in music?
I think a lot of the rappers, we probably are the products of a group called Cross Movement. They were kind of premier within Christian circles, and they all came from pretty Reformed backgrounds. They were kind of forefathers to a lot of us. We kind of followed in their footsteps and a lot of their teaching. So that might explain a lot of our theological leanings.
Can you tell me more about The Cross Movement?
Cross Movement was a group out of Philly. A lot of them went to Philadelphia Biblical University, Dallas Theological Seminary, and they were just a very popular group in the late ‘90s, early 2000s. In terms of using my music to push back on false doctrine, things along those lines. I’m not mad at anybody who wants to do that, I just don’t think that’s my place. I actually feel kind of awkward in that place, in that zone. I think I could do it, in the same way that I think my brother Shai Linne writing a song about a cultural matter. He could do it, but I don’t know if that’s his heartbeat necessarily, whereas that is my heartbeat, talking about cultural matters. I’m a sociologist at heart, I’m an anthropologist at heart, and I just want to flesh out my faith through that.
You mentioned off screen that Reformed theology kind of gives you a system to process. How does that influence your music in the end?
I think having a system, a theological grid, really helps me to not just be all over the place, and gives me checks and balances for what I’m communicating in my music. I did a song years ago called “Background.” My theology formed my perspective, and so, me saying I could play the background, I had to believe John 3:30. I had to believe that He was supreme. I had to believe in sovereignty, that God is sovereign and all things work together for our good, His glory, and that comes out in my music, versus a sermon on sovereignty in my song.
We talked a little bit about the theologians that you find particularly helpful. John Piper, can you name a few others?
Contemporary theologians, definitely John Piper, Tim Keller, Andy Crouch, Randy Alcorn. Historically, Francis Schaeffer, [Abraham] Kuyper, [Charles] Spurgeon. Even in terms of fleshing out faith in terms of social issues, Martin Luther King. I love looking back and being able to understand that nothing we are dealing with is necessarily new, just understanding how people wrestle with things historically and how I can apply that to the present.
We talked a little bit about success, and how theologically you think about success, and you compared yourself to some biblical characters. Right now it seems like you’re on top, or near the top. How do you think about success from a biblical standpoint, especially compared to mainstream perspective?
I think a lot of times we think that God is going to raise up this massive character who’s just going to tear down all the infrastructures going on. We imagine that, in this world we’re living in, all the evil will be destroyed in and through us alone, and I don’t see that in Scripture. I see Paul telling us to put on the full armor of God, and why? Because there are principalities, there are evil forces at play that we can’t stand up against without the armor of God. It’s not strong individuals who are defeating darkness; we’re pushing it back, and preaching the Kingdom, but Jesus is defeating the darkness. God has also raised up lowly, kind of insignificant individuals to do miraculous and incredible things. We’re the Gideons, we’re the Davids. Even Jesus himself made himself of no reputation. It’s when you can link it back to God doing it, I think that’s what he loves. He’s not a megalomaniac, he’s deserving of glory and honor, and to use individuals that demonstrate that it was him, and him alone, it accomplishes his mission and that’s success.
How many of your songs are based on real experiences? For example, in your song “Good, Bad, Ugly” you rap about hooking up with a woman and having her get an abortion and being abused when you were eight; was this based off of people you knew, or your own experience? How personal are these to you?
Video courtesy of Lecrae via YouTube
Anomaly is my most personal album to date. That song was not inspired by anything other than my own life. Those were real events. That’s really what I wanted to accomplish with the album. As I said, I think people relate to transparency and vulnerability, and I think we can move in that, and I’ve seen the fruit of that in people’s lives. I think a lot of people think that the music is where I’m… I’m putting all my chips on the music, betting it all on that, but really the music is an overflow of my real life. People are like “man, you didn’t share the Gospel!” That’s because I do it in real life. “You didn’t walk us through Timothy!” Because I’m leading a Bible study doing that, or your pastor should be doing that, not this CD.
Those criticisms, do they hurt?
I’m at a place now, I have three kids, I’m like a real grownup now. I’m in dad mode a little bit, so I see these comments and I’m like “Aww, this 13-year old kid, or this 21-year old seminary student, bless his soul, but buddy, I’ve seen some things and you’re going to see some things too.” I’m way more gracious than I would have been historically.
Going back to your personal experiences, you have said before about how a cop pulled you over, saw drugs in your car, let you go when he saw that you had a Bible in your car, and told you to read it. Another turning point in your life was when your truck flipped over and you emerged from an accident without a scratch. Were those conversion experiences for you, and how have they shaped where you are now?
It was more like grace being demonstrated to me, such loving grace that it almost felt like chastisement. It was like “stop loving me, God, it hurts! I’m sorry!” Like when you know you deserve the worst, and so much mercy is displayed to you that it just crushes you. That’s really what began to work on my heart, like “I know I’m undeserving, and for whatever reason you just keep on making a way for me. I give in. I’m done.”
Was there a conversion experience?
My conversion experience was really prior to a lot of that, but I spent probably two years after becoming a Christian just on a roller coaster ride of sin, and “oh my gosh I’m so sorry,” and I’m back in it, and “oh my gosh I’m so sorry,” and it was really just God continuing to just care for me. Prior to the car accident and all the crazy stuff that’s happened since I became a Christian, I could have cared less. I would have just taken advantage of the blessing it was to come out unscathed, like “oh! I’m fine! Back to my shenanigans.” But because I had a new heart, I recognized that it was his mercy and his grace, and it broke me.
You’ve talked about growing up in an abusive home, and obviously there’s been talk in the NFL about abuse. What do you think about these stories when they come out, and how does your theology speak to that?
Yeah, well obviously I don’t condone abuse, and I don’t think there’s an excuse, I don’t excuse it. However, I do think there are some systemic issues at play that people don’t recognize or realize. I think there’s systemic oppression—again, as I said, caveat: I don’t excuse it, I don’t think it’s ok—but if you go back, historically, and look at 400 years of slavery and people being beaten down and taken advantage of, and you say “OK, you’re free,” well this is the state of mind that they’re in now, and this is the reality that they’re living in, they’re people who have said “well, when I mess up, this is the consequence, and here’s my self-worth because I’ve been treated this way.” And you’re asking them to snap out of that and change what they’re doing, and it’s not what happens. It’s a cycle that keeps on going, and they do it to their kids and they do it to their kids and they do it to their kids, and so it takes an educational process, it takes a transformation to really break that cycle. Glory be to God that I’m a part of that. Even in my household, as I’m raising up my children, the replay in my mind of how to handle a situation comes from what I’ve seen, so I’ve got to literally have a renewed mind. It’s like “wait… how would Paul Tripp handle this?” [laughter]
Anything else you want to add about your music, your theology, your faith?
I’m very, very grateful for my fans who have stuck with me, who know me to write whole songs on ecclesiology, to now hearing songs about how much I love my wife. That’s a jump, and I appreciate you for that.
Is it awkward to have so many white Christian fans? Are they cool because they listen to you? There’s an image that comes along with whatever music you listen to.
There’s probably, definitely a generation of individuals who like their music colorless, and I think hip-hop provides that. Hip-hop in a lot of ways is like sports; when you go to a sports game, you see people from all ages, all ethnicities, all social classes, they’re all there enjoying the game. Hip-hop has been one of the only forms of music that has provided that kind of atmosphere.
Is that good, though, to have colorless entertainment?
I think we should appreciate ethnicity and diversity, and appreciate the uniqueness of them all, but I don’t think we should be ethnocentric. These things are not ultimate. I hear my wife, brothers, and sisters when they say “why does it have to be a black thing? We should all just be colorless.” I understand the sense of it, but I still have to wake up and deal with the realities of my race and my ethnicity, whereas you would not have to deal with some of those things. But I get the sentiment, and I think we have a lot to learn from one another.