Few cultural expressions celebrate social evil more than hip-hop culture and rap music. With very few exceptions, the big names have paved their roads to success with rhymes to four-letter-words and lyrics celebrating crime and drugs while objectifying women and demonizing authority.
Columbia University professor John McWhorter thinks it’s one of the clearest (and saddest) examples of how art—for better or worse—shapes imaginations, which in turn shape behavior.
“The rise of nihilistic rap,” he wrote over a decade ago, “has mirrored the breakdown of community norms among inner-city youth.” Rap stars produce music videos “flashing jewelry, driving souped-up cars, sporting weapons, angrily gesticulating at the camera, and cavorting with interchangeable, mindlessly gyrating, scantily clad women.”
The message of these lyrics and images hasn’t been lost on young people, he says, particularly African Americans.
“It was just as gangsta rap hit its stride,” he writes, “that neighborhood elders began…to notice that they’d lost control of young black men, who were frequently drifting into lives of gang violence and drug dealing …hip-hop, with its fantasies of revolution [in] community and politics, is more than entertainment. It forms a bedrock of young black identity.”
But hip-hop’s most destructive legacy may not be its glorification of vice and violence. The real damage happens when artists promise young people salvation through money, fame, in pleasures or taking whatever they can from a society they’re told owes them.
“Hip-hop may be full of sound and fury,” writes John Rosenberg in a “New York Post” interview with McWhorter, but it is “‘at heart about acting up for its own sake.’ [I]t signifies nothing…”
And that’s precisely the message Lecrae Moore has for fellow hip-hop artists in his first number one single, entitled “Nuthin.”
“Here we go again in circles,” he raps, “I think I heard it all / we been here before / But we need something more.”
“I wanted to say something meaningful [with “Nuthin,”], he explained after his recent appearance on Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show.” “And I just wanted to articulate that I love music, I love hip-hop…and I wanted hip-hop to have some substance.”
Prior to becoming a Christian, Lecrae says he lived to imitate his favorite rappers’ lyrics and values.
“My whole world,” he confesses, “was surrounded by guns and drugs and gangs…By 16 I was getting high on a daily basis, I got involved with woman after woman…and when you mix drugs, you mix alcohol, you mix youth, it’s a cause for an explosion.”
Well, that explosion came in the form of a car accident that should have killed him. Despite flipping his truck while wearing no seatbelt, Lecrae emerged with barely a scratch. And that was when he surrendered his life to the Savior he knew had spared it.
Shortly afterward he began rapping for inmates at a juvenile detention center. Their overwhelming reaction to the “hope and encouragement” of his story and performance convinced Lecrae that his passion for hip-hop didn’t have to die with his old life.
Fast-forward fifteen years, and he’s become the most successful Christian rapper ever (though he prefers to avoid that label). He’s earned a reputation for theological depth, catchy music and a message of restoration for his genre.
With songs like “Don’t Waste Your Life,” “Fear,” “Confessions,” and “Church Clothes,” Lecrae uses his art as a vehicle for smashing idols and offering an alternative to the “nothing” of hip-hop culture. And he’s not afraid to use the J-word, reminding fans regularly that Jesus is the reason behind his rhymes.
“I couldn’t offer you nothing,’” he raps in one of his most popular songs, “but your care and kindness keeps comin’ / And your love is so unconditional…I got the old me in the rearview, now the new me got a clear view.”
Lacrae is living proof that Christ can redeem the art as much as He did the artist, and an example of the sort of cultural engagement that the redeemed are called to.
BreakPoint is a Christian worldview ministry that seeks to build and resource a movement of Christians committed to living and defending Christian worldview in all areas of life. Begun by Chuck Colson in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. Today BreakPoint commentaries, co-hosted by Eric Metaxas and John Stonestreet, air daily on more than 1,200 outlets with an estimated weekly listening audience of eight million people. Feel free to contact us at BreakPoint.org where you can read and search answers to common questions.
John Stonestreet, the host of The Point, a daily national radio program, provides thought-provoking commentaries on current events and life issues from a biblical worldview. John holds degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (IL) and Bryan College (TN), and is the co-author of Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview.
Eric Metaxas is a co-host of BreakPoint Radio and a best-selling author whose biographies, children's books, and popular apologetics have been translated into more than a dozen languages.
Publication date: September 29, 2014