Lecrae, Kanye, and Christian Rap’s Long Winding Road

Early this June, Lecrae Moore, Dan Cathy, and Louis Giglio sat down for what was billed as “An honest conversation about the Church and racism.” For anyone familiar with these three men, (rapper, CEO of Chick-fil-a, and a megachurch pastor, respectively) this may have seemed like an odd triad. Nonetheless, they spoke about racism, the church, and how they relate to American white supremacy. It went about as well as a conversation between these three particular individuals could go, until Giglio said something that he clearly had not thought about beforehand. He began talking about “white privilege,” and the way many white people refused to consider it because the term itself is a stumbling block. “I think a helpful thing to call it is a white blessing,” he said, because of how it has “built up the framework for white people to live in.” Although Lecrae attempted to steer the conversation away from that obviously tone-deaf remark, he didn’t openly confront the problematic terminology and that moment overshadowed the rest of the conversation. Needless to say, people were enraged.

Lecrae was bombarded on social media, called a “sellout” and a “traitor.” This anger against him is misguided for a few reasons, the first being that the problematic words in question were Giglio’s, not Lecrae’s. The second is that Lecrae has spent the past decade being one of few ambassadors of antiracism in a musical genre that has had real trouble separating itself from the white supremacy that appears to scourge evangelical Christian establishments. 

Almost since Rap music’s inception, its clean-cut cousin “Christian rap” has lurked in the shadows. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, rappers like Stephen Wiley and Preachas in Disguise began to release rap music that was explicitly about God and their Christian faith. The genre thrived within Christian communities, and as the century turned, Liberty University alum Toby Mckeehan (aka TobyMac) began to step into the light as the genre’s most successful musician. 

TobyMac displayed a clear affinity for the spirit of Hip-Hop on his debut album Momentum but combined it with the aggressive licks of guitarist Tim Rosenman and the soulful voice of Nirva Ready. TobyMac did a lot of good at his peak, advocating for diversity before it became a political buzzword, and spreading a message of love. His song “One World” from 2007 has the simple chorus “One world, I’ll look out for you / you look out for me.” That’s a powerful and vital message, but the problem was that the only people who heard it were evangelical Christians. By the mid-2000s, Christian Hip-Hop had become an insulated community with little to no crossover appeal, possessing a completely opposite fanbase that listened because they saw it as the polar opposite of mainstream Hip-Hop. While one became about authentic, gritty storytelling, the other became a platform built on vague descriptions of struggle and happy sounding platitudes.

Enter Lecrae Moore (stylized as just “Lecrae”). A former drug addict and drug dealer from Houston, Lecrae had no illusions about the community he came from, and this allowed him to speak on issues that many other Christian rappers avoided like racism, drugs, and sabotage of the Black community. Lecrae spared no controversy, always making it clear that these problems were things he had experienced firsthand and that he wanted to do something about. He also was outspoken about his love for Hip-Hop as a genre. He admitted that it was certainly problematic in some cases, but he also famously said that when he was growing up, “There were no Martin Luther Kings or Malcom Xs. They had all passed away, so all I had was Tupac.”

In 2015, as police brutality once again became an issue on the public conscience and the Black Lives Matter movement began to take shape, Lecrae began to speak out as well. Openly supporting BLM and condemning police brutality seemed pretty uncontroversial and in-line with his artistry to many fans. But to others, this allegiance was a source of rage. Social media posts from evangelical Christians at the time were angry, viewing Lecrae as a traitor and a hypocrite. Refusing to back down, Lecrae’s next album featured a track called “Facts” that addressed the debate, and made his stance on it pretty clear. 

Lecrae’s lyrics took a stand in spite of those who tried to silence him: “Now you’re acting like I’m suddenly political / you told me shut my mouth and get my checks from evangelicals.” He made it abundantly clear where his faith stood with regard to white supremacy (“I am not obliged to your colonized way of faith”) and finally condemned the image of “White Christ” (“I love Jesus, the one out of Nazareth, not that european with that ultra perm, and them soft eyes, and them thin lips”). 

The false portrayal of Jesus as a white man has received lots of criticism from the Christian academic community, but not much from the Christian music community. Despite the fact that it is historically impossible that Jesus was white, the false image persists, veiling the deeper evils that exist behind the curtains of established religion. Lecrae’s use of his voice against that figure flavors the rest of All Things Work Together, in which Lecrae espouses a faith that is more revolutionary than that of most Christian rappers. 

There have been several notable crossovers from Christian rap to the mainstream. One notable example is NF, whose staccato flow and emotional tone has gained the attention of many people interested in mental health, which he frequently raps about. In 2017, he went on the road with Logic and Kyle after the release of his Perception LP. 

Andy Mineo is yet another artist that has managed to step onto a bigger stage with his infectious happiness and loyalty to his New York roots. The mini-smash hit “You Can’t Stop Me” and its several subsequent remixes were immensely popular. The song was certified gold in 2018.

This conversation would not be complete without mention of Kanye West, who, after flirting with spirituality his whole career, announced last year that he was officially a Christian artist. The results were mixed but certainly interesting. Heavily gospel-inspired Jesus is King recruited an immensely talented choir for tracks like the powerful “Selah” and breathtaking “Use this Gospel.” With that said, West’s actions surrounding the album’s rollout left a lot to be desired. 

I personally love Kanye and his music, and I don’t mean to be down on him in the midst of a mental episode. I earnestly hope that he is able to get some help and recover from the troubling mental health issues he is currently experiencing. Despite a passionate display of his newfound faith, Ye’s treatment of the gospel often felt disingenuous, especially in lines like the opening verse of “On God”: “How you get so much favor on your side / accept him as your lord and savior, I replied.”

The concept of divine favoritism is nothing new, being used for millennia to justify the success of few at the expense of many with the reasoning that “God chose them” for prosperity. In a modern context, it is often suggested that by simply being faithful, a person’s material wealth can grow. Author Donald B. Kraybill calls out this mindset in his book The Upside Down Kingdom saying “Those who argue God will double our wealth if we forsake everything for the kingdom are usually the ones who have not … they are, rather, trying to find an isolated verse to justify greed.” 

This prosperity gospel is not theologically grounded, and it tends to be offered by those rich and powerful who seek to take advantage of others — people such as Joel Osteen, who Kanye has incidentally been very involved with since the album came out. While Lecrae has infiltrated a traditionally white-occupied space with Black Christian culture and fresh spiritual ideas, Kanye has in many ways taken the Black church tradition and molded it to reinforce conservative evangelical ideals. 

It did seem a positive move that Ye’s last single “Wash Us In the Blood” (featuring Travis Scott) seemed to speak prophetically to this cultural and political moment. The eerie Ronny J-produced beat brings with it nostalgic hints of Kanye’s industrial Yeezus era sound. Decrying the evils of racism, slavery, and mass incarceration, it shouts out “Holy Spirit come down / we need you right now.” 

Lecrae, meanwhile, has been very active with a smattering of singles leading up to his forthcoming release Restoration. The first “Set Me Free” featured a solid verse from YK Osiris and played with the imagery of shackles, and their subsequent release. “Deep End” described a struggle for sanity, and “Drown,” the most recent, finds Lecrae and John Legend fighting to keep their heads above water.

Both Kanye and Lecrae have announced plans to release LPs in the near future, and a few crucial things could turn these releases into something that would usher in a new wave of faith in music. If Kanye is able to return to the message of “Jesus Walks,” of a savior who walks for “hustlers, murderers, drug dealers, even strippers,” not some “chosen few” that God seems to favor, he can open up the gospel message to a lot more people. 

As for Lecrae, I’ll be listening with a lot of other people who hope his music will do more than just declare its proud Blackness, or even its lack of faith in a false, white Christ. He has potential to address in concrete terms the evils of oppression that our country currently faces. Lecrae has taken a definite stand in his public life — protesting police brutality, hosting conversations (many of which were far more productive than the one mentioned at the beginning of this article), and lovingly proclaiming that it is an extremely Christ-like thing to stand up to injustice. We can only hope his new music follows suit. 

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