RELIGIOUS RHYMES

Down With the King: Christianity Isn’t Hiding in Rap’s Closet

Hip-hop isn’t only a place to talk about fantasies like being a millionaire and having dope kicks—it’s where you can talk about God.

12.28.14 10:45 AM ET

“As I mapped out a new path for my life, I wanted to do something positive.”

Reconcile is a rapper from Houston, a city with a rich hip-hop legacy. From the dark raps of the Geto Boys and Scarface to the street signifying of U.G.K. to the syrup-sipping 2000s hits of Slim Thug and Paul Wall, H-Town’s rap roots run deep. But Reconcile is from a slightly different arm of Houston hip-hop—more focused on spiritual triumph over the trap. So he decided that he wanted to rhyme about faith, joining what has become the fastest growing subgenre within hip-hop over the last three years.

“So much of my worldview was shaped by [hip-hop],” says Reconcile, born Ronnie Lillard, who went from breaking into homes to Rice University and now, faith-based hip-hop. “Guys in my neighborhood, we grew up making decisions based off of lyrics in rap albums, and I wanted to put something more positive into my world. And hip-hop was a way to do that.”

The epicenter of Houston’s faith-based hip-hop surge is Lecrae, a wordsmith who emerged ten years ago and began chipping away at mainstream hip-hop’s prejudices towards Christianity—while at the same time breaking down the Christian misgivings about hip-hop. His third album, Rebel, became the first Christian hip-hop album to reach No. 1 on the Billboard Gospel chart and he was the first Christian hip-hop artist to win the Grammy for Best Gospel Album. But also, since his 2012 mixtape Church Clothes (his mainstream breakthrough), Lecrae has earned respect and acclaim from secular peers like Kendrick Lamar; and in doing so, he’s at the forefront of a movement that is rapidly growing from a trickle to a flood.

“For a long time, because the music wasn’t up to par, it marginalized the message,” explains Andy Mineo, a rhymer from New York and star on Lecrae’s Reach Records label who is featured on the new single “Say I Won’t.” “Now, you put Lecrae out here—nominated for three Grammys; right next to Drake and Kendrick and Eminem and anybody else. So the music is banging and I think the message is weaved in there, too. They can’t deny the artistry at this point. That’s been helping that conversation. I have definitely seen not as much of an ‘us vs. them’ mentality anymore.”

The quality of the music is a major factor in this recent surge. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, most Christian hip-hop was viewed as lackluster and uninspired; mediocre music that seemed to care more about message than actual music. But today, these artists are as serious about making dope songs as they are about their faith.

“Coming from mainstream, it's always been about talent & charisma for me,” says Street Symphony, who’s been a hit-making producer for everyone from Rick Ross to Lecrae.  “I didn't know much about Christian hip-hop, but I knew Lecrae could rap and perform. You take his cult following along with my network, resources, and ear for dope quality records and now the industry has Lecrae.”

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Mineo is impressed with how much has changed in regards to how hip-hop views rappers who pronounce their Christianity openly and proudly. But it’s not like there aren’t still hurdles to jump.

“We definitely get marginalized still,” he says. “If someone announces me as a ‘Christian rapper,’ there’s still an ‘Eh, no thanks.’  But perceptions are starting to change.”

"I love working with them because I see the vision,” says veteran publicist Tasha Stoute, who helped break Lecrae. “They are talented and the music is saying something. Artists like them succeed because they have a strong team that is passionate about the work and the movement to advocate as well as leveraging their contacts to introduce them to the mainstream."

But what does that mean for the other side of the equation? These artists recognize how it can be hard to get Christians to accept rappers who talk about faith in a way that sometimes seems non-traditional. In previous decades, hip-hop was something typically preached against, much like rock & roll and heavy metal before it. And there are those who still have misgivings about exactly what “Christian rap” means.

“Sometimes the Christians are saying, ‘We need to hear explicitly Christian stuff,’” says Mineo. “So a lot of times, people who are peeping in from the outside and say that they’re Christian say ‘I want a clearly Christian expression. So I want you to talk about holy things or something that is explicitly about Jesus.’ And when we talk about how our relationship with Jesus informs other things like relationships, sex, money—everything an artist should have the freedom to talk about, they get upset because it’s not explicitly wrapped in a nice bow for Christian bookshelves. There’s an expectation that I be very overtly evangelical.”

Trip Lee, another Texas native, recognizes that the fight is on two fronts; but he believes that more Christians are open to what rappers bring to the table and how they get the message across. He’s a pastor in Washington, D.C., and he says that his congregation has been very supportive of his career.

“There are a lot of people who are in church who don’t know what to do with hip-hop because all they’ve seen is the worst,” he says. “They only know the worst hip-hop stereotypes they’ve been fed. But the cool thing about my church is everybody knows me. I’m not some superstar rap guy, everybody knows me really well. They are supportive of what I do. Before I go out on tour, I ask for prayer and to help my family. When my album came out, people came out and said they were happy to support it and they loved it.”

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“One of the reasons why it’s important for people to embrace rappers who talk about spiritual things—and not just one type of spiritual thing—is because it’s real life,” Lee says. “I would hate for hip-hop to only be a place where we can talk about fantasy; we can only talk about being a millionaire…or your kicks—but we can’t talk about real life and we can’t talk about God.

I was reading about Gucci Mane being in jail and he’s praying and fasting more—because this is a big part of people’s lives. God is an important part of everybody’s life. I try to do music in such a way that my love of God is in my music and I can talk about life from my perspective and I can talk about real things. I think we shouldn’t put boundaries around hip-hop that doesn’t allow people to talk about that.”

2Pac said that he was “falling to the floor, begging for the Lord to let me enter heaven’s door.” Run-DMC rapped that “Only G-O-D can be a king to me and if the G-O-D be in me, then a king I’ll be.” Hip-hop and faith have a long and sometimes conflicted history; but it was often presented in nuanced or subdued ways. With this new rush of artists, it appears that the rap game isn’t so ashamed to praise Jesus anymore. In a genre that prides itself on being “real,” fans should be happy that Christian faith no longer has to hide in hip-hop’s closet.