Why MCs Avoid The Term “Christian Rap” Like It’s A Dirty Word (Video)

Less than three years ago, Lecrae reached the top of the pop charts with Anomaly. The Reach Records release, which subsequently went gold, marked a new pinnacle for what is commonly referred to as “Christian Rap.” In this week’s episode of TBD, Justin “The Company Man” Hunte examines the weird stigma that so-called Christian Rappers face from the secular industry, and the subsequent and perilous pushback some have received when they finally overcome that tall hurdle. Meanwhile, while that label can build an audience fast, it can also be a low-hanging ceiling for artists who want respect from their peers and their message to circulate.

Christian Rap, as it were, does not begin with some obscure artist. For the sake of this TBD discussion, the sub-genre or simple idea begins with one of Rap’s highest superstars of his day: MC Hammer. The Oakland, California MC’s biggest charting hit isn’t “U Can’t Touch This” or “Too Legit To Quit.” The song is “Pray.” The third single from Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em sent an uplifting message that had some of the biggest peers celebrating.

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Hunte says “The wildest part about ‘Pray’ to me is that it samples Prince’s ‘When Doves Cry,’ which is the definition of a 5-Tier song. Prince wasn’t letting nobody sample his music so. Seriously, my man wrote ‘SLAVE’ on his face and changed his name to a symbol for a reason. So Hammer getting his hands on a couple beats is a supreme outlier. [MC Hammer] talked about gaining the rights to that sample in an interview with The Daily Beast.

Last month, the early ’90s Capitol Records superstar recalled, “‘On Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em, my second biggest song on the album is called “Pray,” and it’s based on “When Doves Cry” by Prince. I’m the only artist that Prince ever allowed to sample his song. On that same album, one of the final two songs on the album is a song called ‘She’s Soft and Wet,’ and it’s from one of the first albums in Prince’s career, and he let me cover that. Also, the entire Too Legit To Quit album was made at Paisley Park [Studios] with Prince. Big-time. So I was there for two months with him.”

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Hunte takes over: “Prince was immensely spiritual, and ‘Pray’ is a spiritual song, so the collab makes more sense than it seems. Plus, when Hammer made his music publishing and copyrights to his catalog available for purchase in 2005, only 75% of ‘Pray’ was available — because the rest belonged to Prince. Another true story. Nevertheless, Pray was a huge success for Hammer. Classic sample. Supremely dance-able. Can be played in church. Much like Kanye West’s ‘Jesus Walks.’ That song separated Kanye from the rest of the Rap industry.”

Long before he was arguably more culturally relevant than William Shakespeare (to some), Kanye reached many of those millions through church-boy Rap. Yes, he had Roc-A-Fella Records behind him—but so did a host of other artists who fell way short. Kanye shot his shot, and he used his belief system and church upbringing to put it all on the line. While ‘Ye went from “Jesus Walks” to “Devil In A New Dress” by the end of the decade, No Malice did the reverse. The D-Boy became an altar boy, as Malice left his powdery, trigger-happy, lust-fueled rep within Clipse and Re-Up Gang to make positive Rap music today. Hunte refers back to a conversation with the former Star Trak hit-maker.

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While Hammer, ‘Ye, and Malice all have made secular music that’s gotten recognition for its Christian element, Lecrae is a different example altogether:  “Lecrae has one of the most interesting Rap origin stories. He’s from Houston, Texas. He went to North Texas [and] pledged Kappa Alpha Psi. Phi Nu Pi. He was a drug dealer that used The Bible as a good luck charm,” details Hunte. “He went to a church conference one day hoping to meet chicks when he was 19 years old, but was instead inspired by Christian Hip-Hop act The Cross Movement and began writing inspirational raps. In 2004 Lecrae co-founded Reach Records with Ben Washer and built its following through Cross Movement’s Christian audience. Thirteen years later he’s sold millions of records. He has a Billboard #1 album, 2014’s Anomaly. He’s won three Grammy Awards. He wrote a book, gave a Ted Talk, had a Masters students write their thesis on him. He’s pushing into the mainstream and is pelted with an incredible amount of hate from arguably his core demographic in large part because he does not embrace being called a Christian Rapper. Rather, he’s a Christian who raps,” Justin says, alluding to a famed JAY-Z line. Some of the same audience that pushed the indie MC to #1 suddenly appeared to pump the brakes.

Those pelts are complicated. Whereas Lecrae wants to simply be honored as an MC with a message of faith and positivity, some in his audience resent that. Hunte examines some tweets following Lecrae’s most recent BET Awards acceptance speech. He cites Kendrick Lamar, Chance The Rapper, Lauryn Hill as influences. All three MCs have been outspoken supporters of spirituality and have put Christian themes in their music. But they aren’t “Christian Rappers.”

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“I honestly questioned why he or Andy Mineo or John Givez or This’l or Derek Minor or any artist with Christian leanings would ever feel like they need to move mainstream. There are 50 million Christians in America [and] two billion around the world. That’s a huge hyper passionate market. Wouldn’t it be more fruitful to rock the term Christian Rapper like a ‘Jesus piece’?” For TBD, Justin posed this question to Derek Minor, a onetime Reach Records MC.

“I wish it was that basic, but it’s really nuanced. Let me throw the nuances to you. Fifty million Christians, right?…most Christians, when they think of Hip-Hop culture, it’s hard for them to separate the idea of a culture that is mainstream and Christian…When people become a Christian, often times they cast aside their culture… Let’s just be honest: the Top 20 songs on [Spotify’s] Rap Caviar or whatever, a lot of the music is about hedonism. It’s about ‘Smoke what you want. Do who you want. I’ll take your girl. I’ll shoot you. I’ll do this.’ So with Christians. When they get ‘saved,’ they say, ‘I have to get rid of the dirty stuff.’ And usually, Hip-Hop is one of those things… You would think Christians would embrace Christian Rap music with open arms, but oftentimes they don’t. This is new to a lot of people. In their mind, they’re like, ‘Hold up. You’re Christian, and you rap? Wait a second… I don’t know how that matches because the only thing I know is mainstream music,” says the creator of the new “Astronaut” video.

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He continues, “That’s why it feels like a dirty word to people who are Christians and to people who aren’t Christians. For us, it’s the most logical place, in my opinion, because at least in mainstream music, you can be Chance The Rapper. You can be Kendrick Lamar. You can be Young Thug. Or you can be Tech N9ne. They all have different things about them. They all have their different perspectives. But often times in Christianity, unfortunately, people create extra rules within Christianity that don’t even exist. For myself, I remember when I first started rapping, people told me I was going to jail. And I was rapping about not doing drugs. I was rapping about all this stuff. But it’s because they can’t separate the actual art from the culture. So that 50 million is probably [a lot less]. The reason why Christian Rap becomes a dirty word is because there have been people that have had good hearts to make great Christian art but at times, they haven’t had the resources or the talent to do it. But people will put them up in front of people and say, ‘Okay, this is a Christian rapper. “We want y’all to listen to this guy. He may not necessarily be great at rapping,’ or he may not have the resources to do it to its maximum potential, so people are like, ‘Oh, that’s Christian Rap? I don’t want no parts of it.’ I’d rather not listen to Christian Rap at all. I’d rather just listen to regular Rap because it’s good. It’s a little bit more nuanced than that.”

Hunte summarizes, “Lecrae’s explained his perspective in his book Unashamed and on “Misconceptions 3.” But it makes sense why No Malice separates what he does from [Christian Hip-Hop]. Why DMX will rob you and pray to God. Why despite the gratuitous Christian overtones in MC Hammer’s ‘Pray,’ one word he made sure he didn’t say was ‘Jesus.’ As soon you decide to fully carry that cross, you never really fit anywhere. Sometimes the metaphors write themselves.”

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He closes, “The larger topic at play is marginalization. Labels are everywhere, and society needs them to explain, sell, broadcast, translate new products, new ideas, new art to the masses. But if there’s a population in society that loathes labels the most, it’s artists. Artists hate being boxed-in. We’re allergic to it. And pushing back against marginalization is necessary as part of the artistic journey. Female rappers hate being called female. Conscious rappers hate being called conscious. Mumble rappers hate being called mumble…The point is this. I’ve seen Lecrae kicking it at Rock The Bells. I’ve seen Lecrae kicking it at Epic Fest. I’ve seen Lecrae kicking it during Grammy week. He’s authentic everywhere he walks but can a rapper with a sizeable Christian community ever fully escape the Christian Rap moniker? Is Lecrae’s music dope enough to be competitive with music from Kendrick Lamar and Chance, two artists he constantly compares himself to? Are the accolades coming because he’s flowing in a smaller pond? Islam doesn’t seem to have these same problems in Hip-Hop. Why is that?”