Christian hip-hop typically has two different types of rappers. There’s the youth pastor who uses hip-hop to spread the gospel to youth, and there’s the reformed hustler who zealously uses the gospel to share his love of hip-hop.
But Chance the Rapper, who isn’t a pedantic minister or a hardened rapper condemning the ills of the world, exposes ruptures in the Christian hip-hop genre. His affinity for celebratory Christian themes and collaborations with gospel artists is in stark contrast to much Christian hip-hop, which tends to align itself with the rock-leaning sounds of contemporary Christian music. While Chance looks to the black church pews, Christian hip-hop often looks to white megachurches. As the Grammys' Best New Artist winner blossoms into rap’s golden child, while remaining oblivious to Christian hip-hop norms, artists associated with the genre are forced to ask difficult questions.
“What Chance did,” says Propaganda, a veteran emcee and spoken-word artist from West Covina, “is causing us to answer a greater question, which is: What is Christian music? And what makes an artist Christian? At the end of the day, we have yet to actually answer that.”
Christian music, Propaganda explains, is unique in that “it’s the only musical genre that is defined by its content. Every other genre is defined by its sound. So, if it’s defined by its content, how can you not say that Chance or Kendrick [Lamar] put out a Christian album?”
The definition of Christian music can be a slippery slope, because having the right content can be less about biblical topics and more about acceptable language. Sho Baraka’s overtly pro-black album The Narrative, despite its strong Christian themes, was pulled from Lifeway Christian stores in January because his lyrics contained the word “penis.”
“If Christian music is just an infrastructure, then you can talk about anything,” Propaganda says. “We have to say, what is the 'consumer' actually asking for? And what they’re asking for is not Christian music; they’re asking for safe music.”
This unfruitful quest to please the gatekeepers of Christian hip-hop may be why some CHH artists feel disgruntled by Chance the Rapper’s success. “Some of it is jealousy,” DJ Wade-O, a longtime DJ and Christian hip-hop tastemaker, admits via email. “You have a guy who didn't really come up in CHH per se, reaching the highest level of success in the music industry and saying he is a Christian rapper, yet he curses in his music and has a lot of content that is not really Christian. A lot of us have been grinding for years, and so I totally understand how someone being successful but not really being totally ‘sold out’ to the Lord would ruffle feathers.”
Canon, a rapid-fire lyricist in the Christian hip-hop scene, is dismissive of some of his peers' criticisms of his fellow Chicagoan, Chance. “There’s always going to be an artist [that says] I’ve been putting out content, I’ve been rapping about Jesus, I’ve been rapping [from] a faith-based perspective my entire career [but] I don’t get any kind of awards,” he says. “First and foremost, you have to look into why we do what we do. We don’t … rap about what we rap about for awards or for a pat on a back.”
Sketch the Journalist, a writer who documents Christian hip-hop, thinks many Christian rappers feel more conflicted than jealous regarding Chance's success. “Some people see Chance as a ‘baby Christian’ just trying to find his way and are thus open to showing him grace as he works things out on a public stage,” he writes via email. “Others view him as a more lukewarm Christian and potentially dangerous from a 'follow-his-lead' perspective.”
Chance’s authenticity — his willingness to mix the sacred and profane, to explore doubt as much as faith — has, in some ways, exposed what’s inauthentic about Christian music. “Just because you’re making music that you deem acceptable doesn’t mean you’re living a Christian life,” Propaganda says. “I know for a fact that a number of Christian artists, the people who are writing these songs, are not believers. They’re just writing songs because they know [their audience will] like them.”
Lyrical content aside, Chance’s music has the potential to change Christian hip-hop in other ways. His use of gospel choirs might free up African-American Christian rappers to dig deeper into their cultural roots. Christian hip-hop is often funded out of the pockets of white evangelicals to appeal to predominantly white Christian youth groups, which can put black emcees in an uncomfortable place.
“A lot of these dudes stepped out to minister to their block … and then it turned out who’s coming to their concerts is not the block.” -Propaganda
Although Propaganda’s music as a solo artist and with the battle rap supercrew The Tunnel Rats is often too confrontational for youth-camp crowds, he understands this conflict all too well. “You start realizing how much of your whole thinking has been colonized,” he says. “You look outside on the stage and fools are just like, ‘Hey can I touch your hair?’ Then you’re like, ugh, this isn’t what I thought it was. A lot of these dudes stepped out to minister to their block … and then it turned out who’s coming to [their] concerts is not the block. Then you’re in, like, this crisis.”
The rise of social media has led to the convergence of unlikely worlds. It’s easier to find an audience that understands your music, but it’s also easier to find an audience that only understands the pieces of your music that match their worldview. But social media opens up new opportunities, with Chance the Rapper’s model of operating outside the conventional music industry — self-releasing his Grammy-winning album, Coloring Book, only through streaming services — offering a new way forward.
“I think it’s the wild, wild west right now. Everything is upside down,” says Derek Minor, a Christian hip-hop–affiliated artist who was once on Lecrae’s Reach Records label. Minor calls himself a “red-headed stepchild” when describing his time on Reach Records, but also mentions that his labelmates embraced his outspoken approach.
Today, Minor navigates both Christian and mainstream worlds, collaborating with secular artists such as BJ the Chicago Kid while also opening the Christian contemporary Rock & Worship Roadshow Tour, which comes to Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario on Friday, March 10. “What I would hope is that [Chance’s success] would create opportunities for artists that may not fit the typical CCM, Christian rap mode,” he says. “I hope it would create opportunities for artists who have darker stories and darker themes to talk about.
“I talk about God but at the same time, both my dad and my stepdad had addiction issues with drugs,” Minor explains. “I’m going to talk about drugs and dope and everything because that all shaped where I’m at now. That made me who I am. And that’s the environment that I knew. Otherwise, I would be fake.”
Christian hip-hop is stereotypically known for taking the sound of popular rappers and creating Christian lyrics. But there is a new movement of more artful emcees who can’t be defined by the latest mainstream trend. Popular Christian hip-hop website Rapzilla recently named TheKnuBlack (formerly known as Out of the Blue) to its Freshman Class of 2017. Group members Kay Sade and KnuOrigen interject visual creativity in the genre with experimental video effects and animated storytelling.
“A shift is taking place in who the audience is for Christian hip-hop,” KnuOrigen says. “It seems to be a huge pendulum swing where the music is not about or for Christians per se, but music that Christians can get behind and support so the artist can reach over into the outside world.”
KnuOrigen cites how his Los Angeles roots, where individuality is paramount, inspire his search for the next new sound. “Have we defined a trend or a sound ourselves?” his partner Kay Sade asks rhetorically, expressing the duo's ultimate goal. “Hearing Chance’s music, he’s his own entity; he’s his own sound.”
The Rock & Worship Roadshow, featuring Derek Minor along with headliners Steven Curtis Chapman, Francesca Battistelli, and Rend Collective, hits Citizens Business Bank Arena on Friday, March 10. Tickets and more info.