Two years ago, Kanye West, a rapper with a career supposedly built on egoism, controversy and vulgarity began his sold out tour with a riff of the Prayer of St. Francis. "Deliver us serenity Deliver us peace Deliver us loving We know we need it.” Rap music as a whole has undergone changes every few years, but lately it’s experienced an entire spiritual awakening by some of its most notable artists. It’s a unique genre that can be a form of worship and storytelling that references parables, creates parables and helps us reflect on our lives.
Music is a form of expression has always been used in worship, especially from the Christian church. Throughout history, churches have used music in services to proclaim the gospel vocally and emotionally. During the middle ages, musical worship was performed in the form of chants more than songs, and grew over time into what we know today. Music adds another element to worship, making it especially powerful and impactful. In Psalm 104:33, God doesn’t just ask that we praise him, he asks us to “sing his praise as long as we live” implying that we should be passionate enough to express through song. This worship brings people together while giving thanks to God, and gives us more insight into the Christian faith. Religious music can teach us lessons, enlighten us and inspire our own worship of God.
Contemporary Christian music is a top of mind genre when referring to modern religious music. Commonly referred to as “Jesus music” in the late 1960s and early 1970s, these record are normally pop or rock inspired songs. While they began as discussing only matters strictly of Christian faith, they’ve since developed into a way for musicians to tell their own stories and hardships. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, more popular mainstream artists like U2 created their own contemporary Christian inspired songs or featured Christian artists on their own albums, skyrocketing the popularity of the genre as a whole. This is the music that most think of when hearing about “modern religious music.”
Just like the messages in stories of the bible, music is universal. Even with cultural differences and language barriers, feelings that are innate to humans can be brought to life through music. In my favorite scene in the autobiography Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, she runs home after a terribly traumatic scare with the Guardians of the Revelation. Marjane runs home and copes with Kim Wilde’s Kids in America. It doesn’t matter that she herself is not a kid in America, the intensity of the song helps her let out frustration and anger just the same as anyone else. At the same time, this reaction to the song "Kids in America" would most likely not take place in the United States by a child her own age, and highlights how different Marjane’s day to day problems are verses an actual kid in America.
While many consider contemporary Christian music to be the most popular form modern religious music, there is another genre that is stigmatized to the point where it is not appreciated as it should be. Rap is a unique form of music especially compared to other popular genres. Radio play pop music has limited options when it comes to song structure, with creative freedom lying mainly in where the artist decides to place the chorus of song. Some iconic songs put their chorus right in the beginning of the song, leaving less to the imagination as the song goes on, but gaining attention from listeners early on. Songs like Jolene by Dolly Parton and Dancing Queen by ABBA push their hook to the as close to the beginning as possible, trying to do exactly that, hook their listeners
Rap music doesn’t have to center around a chorus, and doesn’t have a set structure, giving it a lot of freedom to tell stories. Rap can be creative, emotional, and powerful. Inspired by genres, such as blues, rock, jazz, and R&B, the birth of Hip-Hop and Rap occurred in New York City during the early 1970’s. This culture was established by African American, Caribbean American and Puerto Rican youth, and is still a main component of what culture is today. “Without apologies or fears, Hip-Hop was a vehicle that initially allowed its predominately young and Black participants to artistically express the complexities of their lives”. It’s through a lot of this creative space that rappers have the opportunity to change culture, especially specially through language. Drake has been credited for making up words and expressions, or at least bringing them to the public eye. YOLO, or “You Only Live Once” was an expression featured in Drake’s song “The Motto” that became a cultural phenomenon in 2012, and before Drake called his hometown of Toronto “the 6” no one else had. Rap has been criticized for having vulgar language or messages in many songs, and as a result the entire genre has been perceived in a harsh light. The problem with this is that every single genre has artists and songs that feature themes and ideas that could be offensive to many, and the genre is not judged collectively.
Rap can do a lot of good for culture, like inner-city youth organizations, such as the Boys & Girls Club or the YMCA, which implement programs that promote an interest in hip-hop music. These organizations emphasize discipline, self-confidence, leadership, and other tools necessary for improving a troubled child’s life. Becky Blanchard of Stanford University said in regards to the social significance of rap, “despite the blame placed on rap for the prominence of violence in American society, hip-hop music is a symptom of cultural violence, not the cause. In order to understand hip-hop, it is necessary to look at it as the product of a set of historical, political, and economic circumstances and to study the role it has served as voice for those subjugated by systematic political and economic oppression. If the issue of violence in rap music is to be effectively addressed, the root of the problem--disparity in resources and opportunities for urban minorities--must be aggressively dealt with.” Rap music is a form of resistance that if we want to put an end to, we have to fix the problems they are addressing especially for the inner-city working class. Simply disliking messages in some rap music is not enough, we need to provide those in need with resources and opportunities.
Themes of mainstream rap have changed over the last few years, especially when referenced by it’s biggest names. Rap’s religious revival in the last few years can be credited especially through music from Kanye West, Chance the Rapper, Kendrick Lamar and Stormzy, just to name a few. Through work from these rappers public displays of theology have never been more popular. They’ve made it clear from their most recent albums especially. Kanye appropriately described his album “The Life of Pablo” “a gospel album with a lot of cursing.” On this record, Kanye delves into biblical themes and references surrounding inner conflict. He references Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, about the struggle of living with the temptations on earth, while trying to maintain integrity as a man of God. On the song “FML” featuring The Weeknd, he sings “Even though I always f--- my life up / Only I can mention me,” inspired by Paul in Romans 7:15, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” On “Father, Stretch My Hands Pt. 1”, he prays to God, saying he is his only power, before vulgarly rapping about models and sexual conquests. Kanye West has been referencing his inner conflict and his faith since he came bursting into the industry with “Jesus Walks.” (“They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus. / That means guns, sex, lies, videotape / But if I talk about God my record won't get played, huh?”) Before his first album “The College Dropout” he was known as a producer mainly, and after this song, he was nominated for a BET gospel award.
The surprising parabolic nature of Kanye West can be found in his lyrics through comparisons to other religious stories, his own struggles with sin, and his unique use of the human voice as a form of worship. A good amount of West’s music is especially surprising when compared to his perceived negative reputation. His public image has been a constant distraction to his non-stop redefine of an entire musical genre, a complicated and sometimes self-inflicted frustration of his. Currently, West is under fire for his tweets in support of President Trump, and statements about slavery. It’s important to remember that while some roll their eyes at what could be considered blasphemous, Kanye West is a human being. Through several albums now, he has dealt with very human experiences by spinning personal narratives that all people can understand. At the same time, he has thought provoking correlations to Christianity and bringing religious aspects to mainstream culture.
Like the church, Kanye West believes that the human voice is an incredible and powerful instrument to promote messages. Vox’s Estelle Caswell said "What makes Kanye such an innovative producer is how he's never really limited a vocal performance to just singing or rapping. He's filled every single nook and cranny of his music with the human voice, and it's always pushed hip-hop forward,"paired with his outward appreciation for faithfulness, he has redefined the genre once again. Chance the Rapper is another artist who has had incredible gospel influences in his music. His songs could even be mistaken for praise and worship music on occasion, with so many of his songs are clearly rooted in religion. Chance even performed on SNL’s Christmas episode and was singing “happy birthday Jesus” and “I like to say your name on network television.”
The definition of parable is "a simple story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson” and according to Kierkegaard, parables are intended to be remembered and should be retold. Rap is parabolic, so much so that songs themselves are parables. Kanye’s “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” is a song that I’ve known for forever, but never really listened to the lyrics of. It's a hyper self-aware parable about how hard it is to follow God, and to avoid sin. It can be boiled down to the line, “to whom much is given much is tested”, which is paraphrased from Luke 12:48. This parable of a song allows us to reflect on our own conscious choices to sin.
Not only can rap be a parable, but they can reference parables too. Chance the Rapper and Stormzy are both independent artists, meaning they don’t have a record label and therefore have more freedom in how they shape their music. These artists are free to explore their own faith and religious themes without having to worry about what others will think or censorship rules. Chance’s song “How Great” features the line “with the faith of a pumpkin-seed sized mustard seed.” This is a direct reference of the parable of the mustard seed. In that parable, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to the mustard seed, showing that it grew from small beginnings. He uses biblical sounding words like “glorify” and “exalt” and says the words “praise” and “blessed” in Hebrew. He also says the line “the book doesn’t end with Malachi,” meaning that the stories of the bible don’t just end with the Old Testament, and that the stories of Jesus in the New Testament are worth being told. Chance revealed in his Reddit AMA that Proverbs 8:1-11 means the most to him, and he references them through lyrics like “Hear, for I will speak noble things as entrusted me, only righteous, I might just shrug at the skullduggery.”
Stormzy has been expressive of his religion on his two-part album called "Blinded By Your Grace.” He expresses his sin with his frustration about his father through songs like Lay Me Bare ("You ain't seen my face for time, and the first thing you're asking me for is money?/F*** you") He shows gratitude for his mother who raised him alones son the song 100 Bags, but that he needs to do more for her. ("I ain't too proud that you're living on the road where your son got stabbed"). These raw emotions are tied together through his undying faith expressed throughout the album, and especially on Blinded By Your Grace pt. 2, but also in covers of songs with millions of views on youtube. Stormzy covered Kanye’s Ultralight Beam in a BBC1 Studio Live Lounge session, making religious rap feel very full circle. Stormzy even created a short film for his first studio album Gang Signs & Prayer. In his opening monologue he asks himself “It's like a battle with two demons inside of you. Am I gonna make the right decision? Am I gonna make the wrong decision?" Across the album, themes of religion and masculinity were told through personal stories about growing up in the hood, focusing on working class black male adolescence, and that life changing decisions can often lead to unacknowledged trauma.
Chance the Rapper is an artist who lives by his faith and parables he references just as he preaches them. He created SocialWorks, an organization that aims to “empower youth through the arts, education, and civic engagement while fostering leadership, accessibility, and positivity within the youth throughout Chicago.” He has raised over $1 million dollars for Chicago communities for his 25th birthday, and is starting an awards show for teachers and parents who deserve to be honored. "I have to give credit to my good friend Donald Glover, who helped me with the idea," said Chance, referring to fellow rapper and actor Childish Gambino. "He's a great dude."
Kendrick Lamar is an artist from Compton known for his distinctive, emotional and thoughtful lyrics and rhythm. His song “Alright” has been an anthem of those protesting social injustice across the country, but emphasizing that justice will come through God. (“But if God got us, then we gon’ be alright”). Kendrick Lamar’s album “Good Kid, M.A.A.D City,” has been compared to Augustine’s “Confessions” for relating personal biography with theologic elements. Lamar is a great example of a rapper who references parables within his own parables. In the song “How Much a Dollar Cost” Kendrick tells a story about being approached by a homeless man at a gas station asking for money, who he assumes would use it to buy drugs. Initially Kendrick says no, and tries to leave the gas station, though force he felt was making him stay. The man continues to ask him for a dollar, and then starts asking if he had read Exodus 14. Kendrick finally begins to feel guilty and realizes that this man might as well be Jesus for all he knows, and he should help all of God’s children when he can. He speaks about his former selfishness that helped him climb the ladder to success, and how it can also tear him down if abused. In the end, the homeless man reveals himself to be God. His unwillingness to give money answered his original question of how much one dollar costs, it cost him a place in Heaven.
Spinning his own parable about selfishness is made to come full circle after referencing the parable of “The Sheep and the Goat.” This parable features lines and messages like “All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.” and ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ and Kendrick's outro of the song is him asking God for forgiveness, and realizing that there are some things that money and fame can’t buy you. The hook of the song is from God’s perspective, saying water, sun, love and air is all you need for nourishment, compared to his past life of drugs alcohol and women. In December of 2015, President Obama named this song his favorite of the year.
“But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” Luke 12:48 applies to much more than just Kanye’s song “Can’t Tell Me Nothin”, it describes that artists are given platforms and how they choose to use it is up to them. While a lot of their music clearly reflects their religious beliefs, it’s also up to them to live them out. Some artists have done this better than others, especially in this political climate. We as “regular” people are given similar same choices day to day. We have to figure out what inspires us to be the best versions of ourselves, and how to live the best way with what we’re given. Listening to music more closely and carefully could help reaffirm what you know and love, and help live life more fully. Rap music is a misunderstood genre that can help do much more good than many give it credit for, and it could just be the relatable religious reawakening that many are searching for.