Update! WBC is officially in  the game.

I recently found “Jesus Lean” via The High Definite. It joins “Baby Got Book” and “Christian Side-Hug” as gruesome jaw-dropping examples of rap music in the service of proselytizing the Christian gospel.

I have many Christian friends — even some evangelicals — and others who are militant agnostics. (One bumper sticker I saw said: “I don’t know and neither do you.”) So I’m going to tread lightly here. I don’t want to offend anyone, but I do have some things to say. (What a shock, I know.)

Where I’m From

First of all, I’ll say that I am not a Christian myself, but not because I disagree with the core of Jesus’ teaching. I’m right on board with turning the other cheek as a way to show love to one’s enemies and help enlighten them so we can escape the cycles of despair and self/mutual destruction. I also agree with finding the divine by serving the poor and working to eradicate needless suffering, starvation, etc etc.

But I can’t be a Christian, because that particular God demands that I worship Him and only Him. You can live a really good life — save orphans, treat everyone with love, fight suffering, heal the sick — but if you dare to praise any other deity, you’re going to burn forever in the lake of fire. This strikes me as ridiculous, and I can’t go along with it. (TPCQ: “Well, Ak, it’s because God is all-powerful. But also insecure. Like Barbra Streisand, before James Brolin. Oh, he’s been a rock.”)

So I dig Jesus’ teachings, but I can’t go along with all of them. Same with Islam — I like the emphasis on justice and unity among the believers, but I can’t swear off other cool gods, like Ganesha and Altin (don’t ask). I consider myself something of a polytheist, trying to find the true divine among all the many beautiful traditions of human worship (although I haven’t found much beautiful in Satanism) while speaking critical truth to the damage done by misguided people in the name of each faith.

I could spend all day writing about my religious perspectives, but that’s not what I came here to do. Topic for another time.

So What’cha Saying?

While the aesthete in me wants to gouge my ears out when I hear one of the Unholy Trinity linked above, I’m trying to approach them rationally, and explain why they horrify me. It’s not the Jesus factor — religion has always been a core element of hip-hop, from Paris’ and Cube’s early lyrics about NOI to MC Hammer’s noble (but unlistenable) song “Pray”. Run is a preacher’s son, and of course he returned to the church when Run-DMC finally broke up. (RIP JMJ!)

Hip-hop is a music that grew primarily from the black community, and given the centrality of religious faith to black folks — especially given the vicious conditions of the slave-trade holocaust — it’s no wonder that Christian, Muslim, and other religious themes show up all over today’s hip-hop. Jesus walks with Kanye, and Mos fears not of man. (And let’s not forget PRT!)

So what’s the problem? I have three:

  1. The songs are badly made. There’s an important difference between content and aesthetics. Just because I disagree with the message in a song doesn’t mean I can’t like the way it sounds. (If that were the case, I could never enjoy Redman!) And the reverse is also true — regardless of how one feels about the message, the musical elements are weak.Some might say that “Baby Got Back” is musically the same as the song it’s parodying, but that’s a poor response. (Although I didn’t like the original either. I’m a “Posse on Broadway” fan myself.) Just because you use someone else’s music doesn’t mean you’re not responsible for what you add, remove, and change.The same goes for the videos — they’re made quickly, with too much flash and reliance on silly props. They remind me of the dumb videos I made when I was in middle school with my buddies in the backyard. (Man, I’m glad YouTube wasn’t around then, or I’d still be humiliated daily by that garbage!)
  2. Too much dogma. For decades I’ve been a fan of the industrial/hip-hop inspired group Consolidated (now defunct — thankfully, since the last two albums were really weak). They always went way overboard with the in-your-face message on tracks like “Tool and Die”. (See if you can figure out what their message is there!) I love the clarity of their message (which I almost always agree with), but I also understood why many people rolled their eyes as soon as I started playing them.Now that I’m no longer a rabid “the people need to know!!” type of person (well, less of one), I appreciate the need to balance the message and the sound. (I’ve always loved Consolidated’s sound, however.) Songs like “Jesus Lean”, alas, push the point wayyyy out in front of the sound, and drown out everything else. Moreover, each song brings with it a dense (and, I feel, creepy) set of assumptions that have more to do with fundamentalist devotion to a set of rituals and practices than living a good life and loving one’s neighbor as oneself.
  3. Borrowing the background. Somehow I get the feeling that the young people in these videos never really listened carefully to the lyrics of Public Enemy or Boogie Down Productions. And yet the look and sound of “Christian Side Hug” comes almost directly from the S1Ws: sirens, gunshots, abrasive noises. PE used these sounds not (only) because they were exciting and gritty, but because they were (and are) a sonic representation of oppressive systems that deserve vigilant resistance.Using these aesthetic elements (and the same goes for the “dirty south” sound of “Jesus Lean”) without any connection to the social, political, or cultural traditions that nurtured them feels really dishonest. They seem like modern-day versions of Paul Whiteman, taking all the soul and guts away and re-creating only the most surface-level elements of the music.

One thing I can’t really criticize is the racial dynamics of these “artists”. It’s pretty striking that “Jesus Lean” features first a bunch of white kids, and then a bunch of black kids, and then a trio of black females, and then a middle-aged white lady shopping at Wal-Mart, and then a white police officer (who appears to appear non-ironically). And many religious communities preaching evangelical Christianity are lily-white.

But there is a lot we can say for the power of Christian faith to bring people of different races and backgrounds together. I daresay there are many religious communities that are more diverse than the unholier-than-thou secular humanist enclaves I’ve been a part of. (The power of faith to transcend artificial racial categories was, after all, the reason Malcolm X reconsidered his rigid disdain for white people.)

I just hope that none of the young white fans of these songs — and the same goes for young white fans of all hip-hop — don’t think that they have some deep insight into racial healing or “street life” just because they appreciate the sound of these rap tracks. Sorry, Eminem: You do exist, and you’re white. Deal with it. (I recommend starting with Tim Wise.)

I have no idea where that picture up top comes from. It appears on lots of websites — I couldn’t find an original source.


And now for a really good hip-hop song: “New World Water” by Mos Def.

Today I’m listening to: Rob Viktum!

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