"We don’t challenge any heresy in the church!" John Perkins declared at a recent meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. "We don’t challenge the ugliness and dehumanization of rap in our community because it makes money for rappers."
In the evangelical world, the 84-year-old minister and civil-rights activist is treated as a prophetic figure. Younger pastors refer to him as their hero, and the Christian rock band Switchfoot even wrote a song in his honor. Church leaders had gathered to discuss the "the gospel and racial reconciliation"—a longtime struggle for the Southern Baptists, a denomination that split off from other American Baptists in 1845 so that its ordained members could still own slaves. Of the many challenges to contemporary race relations in the church, Perkins said, one of the most pernicious is rap music.
"Somebody’s gonna say to me, you’ve got Christian rap, like they think that I’m a fool. I understand that," he said. "You’ve got to challenge immorality—that’s the whole idea, especially if it’s pathological."
Pathological immorality: That's a heavy charge to make against an art form, particularly one that resonates deeply with minority groups that have often been marginalized in the Southern Baptist church. But for young Christian rappers, Perkins's viewpoint represents a fundamental tension in their art: How do you make music that feels authentically Christian and authentically hip hop at the same time, when so many of the messages commonly heard in hip hop are at odds with a Christian worldview that opposes violence, substance abuse, and promiscuity?
Some artists have chosen to make music without worrying whether it will be church-approved. Missy Elliot, a Baptist, got her freak on throughout the aughts. Kanye West won a Grammy for his confessional song "Jesus Walks," but he's also been nominated for songs like "Mercy," in which he and his co-artists memorably dedicate four lines to vulgar metaphors crafted from the word "ass."
But for those who express their faith more explicitly in their art, it can be awkward to avoid sounding preachy. "I always feel kind of like a step child," said Trip Lee, a Christian rapper, in an interview. "You’re not going to hear me or other rappers on the radio. It’s too Christian. They don’t know what to do with it."
The 26-year-old is something of an anomaly. He's made two albums that have hit the top 20 on the Billboard 200, and his albums have also hit the top 20 in Billboard's rap and gospel charts. He's also a committed evangelical; he recently left D.C. to plant a new church in Atlanta. His lyrics are pretty Jesus-y: The final song on his most recent album, Rise, ends with a woman singing, "A crown of thorns declares you're King ... They nailed your hands, you nailed our death, from the cross you reigned ... Oh Jesus, you won it all." Yet, his music doesn't sound like anything that usually shows up in contemporary Christian music.
"On Christian, gospel radio, we’re too hip hop," Lee said. "We’re afraid of you, [they say,] because when we think hip hop, we think bad things." Some of this is driven by the demographics of the industry, he said. "Christian radio is geared toward a particular listener that my music isn’t for—typically white, Christian soccer moms."
But no church can just rely on white women from the suburbs to fill its pews. As America becomes more and more diverse, Southern Baptists are facing stagnating growth—the group hasn't experienced the precipitous drops in attendance felt in mainline denominations, but its membership is slowly shrinking. This is one of the softer ways that racial tension shows up in the church: If most of the art that explores Christian themes, including music, is geared toward a white audience, it's a subtle signal that people from other cultural backgrounds aren't welcome. This exacerbates the more explicit racial tensions that already exist. "Some people have had difficult racial experiences in the church. I know people who didn’t experience much racism and then they joined the church and that was their first place they saw lots of stuff," said Lee, who identifies as a Reformed Christian but has preached at a Southern Baptist church.
Granted, a lot of people really like contemporary Christian music. But for many young people, upbeat tunes about Jesus can seem "corny," Lee said. "I think some of it is Christians not thinking that well about arts," he added. "We’ll just try to make a Christian version of something that’s popular. Or we’ll assume that if the message is good, the music itself doesn’t have to be that good. And I want to, at all costs, destroy that. I just don’t think it honors God to create mediocre art."
Lee said he and other artists who work with him at Reach Records, a Christian-rap label, view themselves as part of hip-hop culture more than gospel culture.
But while contemporary Christian music might not resonate with them culturally and artistically, Lee believes the lyrics in a lot of hip-hop music are totally incompatible with their worldview.
"There’s this very popular song 'CoCo,'" Lee said. "That’s going to be all over the radio, and it’s going to paint a picture of cocaine, drug dealing, drug life, that is an awful message. [Cocaine] destroys communities, and it kills people. So I do want to make music that pushes against that false worldview."
It's tricky to blame structural problems like substance abuse and crime and misogyny on art, even art that glorifies those ways of life—hip hop is a remix of culture, a form of entertainment and expression that both draws on real life and imagines alternate worlds. For those who don't share Lee's faith, moralizing about mainstream art might be alienating, and almost pointless—rappers and artists are out there trying to make a living, just like the rest of us.
Then again, if there's interesting music about Jesus out in the marketplace, people who aren't Christians might be drawn to listen to that in the same way that people who aren't drug dealers sometimes listen to the Notorious B.I.G. If people like John Perkins are right, this would be good for communities of color and young people in general. But it might also be good for the church.
"I think some of what makes some Christian music difficult for some people to relate to is that it doesn’t feel like life," Lee said. Or, to be more specific: For young people, and particularly young people of color, a lot of contemporary Christian art might not feel like their lives. That will have to change if Christianity is going to stay culturally relevant—and even influence culture, as Lee, Perkins, and other evangelicals hope it will.