Much has been written about mainstream rap's religious revival. Popular hip-hop artists — most notably Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper, and Kanye West — are weaving Christian themes into their music without apology. Surprisingly, the secular music marketplace is eating it up.
But as mainstream rap has become more Christian, Christian rap has become more mainstream. Artists like Lecrae are signing with secular music labels and refusing to be called "Christian rappers." Many other prominent Christian artists are releasing records that focus more on political commentary than preaching and are incorporating provocative lyrics that may easily offend conservative Christian fans.
Wanting to know more, I decided to speak with Propaganda. The Los Angeles-based artist is one of the most prominent Christian rappers today and someone at the heart of this trend. His newest album "Crooked" is rife with straight talk about racism and injustice that will make many white Christians squirm. "God" is only mentioned in one song. Here we discuss the trends and why they matter.
PROP: First, I honestly think it has much to do with Lecrae's success. He proved the market was ready for a new answer to culture. And people wanted to be a little more honest about where they are coming from and still sell records. Secondly, I think hip-hop has in some way had a religious tone, whether it was 5%er or Muslim. A Christian voice was just missing.
RNS: How is hip-hop uniquely positioned to raise spiritual questions and speak to matters of the soul?
PROP: Hip-hop sits in the stream of black music a la negro spiritual, jazz, blues, rock and roll, etcetera. Black music is not so much be right but must feel right. For music to feel right, it's gotta speak to deeper parts of the human experience, whether lyrics or sound. It's gotta hit you right in the feels. Hip-hop that stands the test of time does that.
RNS: As mainstream hip-hop gets more religious, Christian hip-hop artists seem to be growing more mainstream. Rather than just preaching through song, they are confronting issues like immigration, poverty, and racism. What do you make of this?
PROP: Well, my music has always sat in that justice space. It's pretty much my lane. But to your question, I think the election and sociopolitical climate has brought out that undercurrent of institutional racism and sexism that marginalized people groups inside and outside the church have been wrestling with for years. I feel like this season made these things impossible to not speak out about. It feels like the very soul of our faith is at stake.
RNS: Lifeway banned an album that Humble Beast put out for referencing the word "penis." What does this say about the state of conservative Christianity?
PROP: It's on its last breath if it don't evolve.
RNS: Do you think that underlying racism influenced their decision?
PROP: Absolutely. However, I think it also had to do with just some fear of loss of revenue. You gotta protect the core audience. I get that. We are not their core at all. Plus, it wasn't necessary a choice of the whole organization but one or two buyers. The racial untone is unavoidable though because the Patriot Bible is still on the self.
RNS: You've said on social media and elsewhere that white Christianity has a race problem. How bad is it?
PROP: It's an epidemic, bro, and what makes it worse is how long it's festered. Take Abraham Kuyper, for instance. He's a hero in the faith who stated that there is no part of the universe over which God doesn't cry "mine." But he also asserted that the African man's brain is hopelessly childish and underdeveloped and will always need the white man to save him from himself.
Having said that, I am not hopeless because it's white Christians that made the Underground Railroad possible. And it's that duality that is at the core of this record.
RNS: Your new single "Darkie" is a prime example of this. The shockingly raw lyrics expose culture's biases against physical features of blackness such as "nappy" hair. What do you hope to accomplish?
PROP: Well it's one part of a whole story arc of the record. But in particular, "Darkie" is in an articulation of what happens when whiteness is centered as the ideal and becomes internalized and then weaponized among our own people. In many Latino countries and in Asian culture also being dark means you work in the fields. Fair skin is a sign of wealth.
I personally wrestled through loving my darkness. My hope is to encourage folks to enjoy whatever the Lord gave you — light or dark.
RNS: The song doesn't really even reference God. Why? Will this be a problem for your Christian fans?
PROP: There is no reference to God on the entire album until the last song. This is def by design. Because that's what life has been for a lot of us. We go through ugly things, ups and downs, and really don't see God in there. Sometimes we don't see any redemptive themes until years and years later. At least that's what my life has been.
RNS: It seems to me that Christian rap is becoming less overtly Christian.
PROP: Well, Christian hip-hop as a whole has traditionally had two basic approaches — one is the very apologetic overt approach, and the other is more like the subversive approach. I think that that apologetic side has remained consistently overt. Granted, that fan base has shrunk, but it's still there. I think the success of Lecrae has made it seem like the move is toward subversiveness. But that's just because he is at top of the food chain.