Why Gospel Rap Struggles for Acceptance » VSB

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Why Gospel Rap Struggles for Acceptance

Lecrae (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

 

“…people ask for God, ’til the day he comes/see God’s face, turn around and run/God sees the face, of the man/God shakes his head, says he’ll never understand…” ~ Dice Raw of The Roots, “Understand” ...and then you shoot your cousin

I’m not a fan of gospel rap. Well most of it anyway. I’ve listened to a few gospel rappers who I felt were decent in a rap sense but we’ll get to that later. But in general, I’m not a fan of gospel rap. Now this isn’t to say that I am anti-religion in hip-hop. To the contrary. I actually think that some of the best “gospel” rap has come from rappers we know and love…like DMX. And Tupac. They are rappers who spent a lot of time being introspective to the point where quite a bit of their music – particularly DMX, a man who clearly needs Jesus – had a very spiritual, religious bent to it. I’d even be willing to go so far as to say that DMX might be the best gospel rapper of all time.

OF ALL TIME.

Here’s why: true religion (no jeans) requires a certain level of honesty, knowledge of self, and sacrifice. While many secular rappers are clearly looking to make significant coin from their work – as is anybody who puts music out for sale – there are certain rappers who used their music to exorcise some of their own demons via talk of the struggle in their lives. Which means theres a lot of discussion centering around pain and suffering and attempts at understanding. Mainstream rappers are no stranger to religious reference in their music. Seeing as most rappers are Black males whose mothers are significant factors in their lives, they probably all got dragged to church a lot as youth. Shoot, Pac Div named one of their mixtapes, Church League Champions. It’s part of the fabric of Blackness. And it’s impossible to spend a lot of time in church and not gain anything, even if you chose not to apply any of it.

I think a lot of rappers, and the verse by Greg Porn (ironically titled name given his verse) on The Roots song “Understand” is a perfect example of it, do a better job of speaking on religion because it feels like an authentic struggle most of the time. Many of us struggle with religion and our relationships with God; some for good reasons, some for good reasons to the them.

Which brings me to gospel rappers I actually like. There is no conversation about gospel rappers without mentioning Lecrae. He is by far the one who has received the most praise (no pun intended) and props from rappers and producers alike, to the point where Don Cannon hosted one of his mixtapes, the appropriately titled Church Clothes, Vol 2. He’s got B.o.B. on the album and an interlude featuring Bun B. Boi-1da has made beats for him. And in the gospel rap world, dude has had a string of #1 albums. Lecrae can actually spit. Point blank. Period.

Yet despite the co-signs, his backstory (his life was a mess of epic proportions so he was a rapper waiting to happen, either for Jesus or mainstream America, though he clearly turned his life around), and despite his skill, I still find it hard to take him serious as a rapper. And its the problem I have with most gospel rappers. The posturing, though likely authentic to them as individuals, feels like posturing. It’s the same problem that plagued the string of rappers-turnt-singers (of which my beloved Jagged Edge falls). It’s hard to believe this intended-to-be-edgy persona you present with such aggression when you’re singing about promises and bringing chicks puppies in videos. Even if you do it in a gaudy light blue faux-fur coat and are singing in ice, which is gangsta.

Same thing with gospel rappers. In Lecrae’s song “I’m Turnt” he’s at a house party, presumably getting “turnt up”, but rapping about not smoking or drinking or having  a woman twerk on him because it’s a work night, etc. All very plausible. I have homeboys who don’t smoke or drink or hang out on work nights. But something about it felt very Nick Cannon before he realized he might as well be ratchet because nobody was listening anyway. Lecrae attempts in many of his singles to keep the actual God-speak to a minimum, a smart move by the way, but you know what he’s getting at. It’s still preachy.

And that’s the problem with most gospel rap, it’s talking at us. It’s preachy even if it’s not supposed to be. The person at church that does the talking that’s important is the preacher. He’s giving you lessons for daily living. But he’s not talking to you, he (or she) is talking at you. It’s the gig. Same problem with Tyler Perry movies. It’s all heavy-handed. There’s no nuance. Instead of making a movie, he’s making a message with a movie wrapped around it. Most folks would take a message out of things they do, even by accident anyway so no need to beat me over the head with it.

Lecrae has a song called “Church Clothes”, and in the opening video montage he’s getting cosigns from all of these rappers and producers that you know. And it’s a song about about why folks make up excuses not to go to church because they think its full of hypocrites, how they’d rather be out sinning hoping Jesus isn’t real, lest they find out they should really make changes in their lives. So he ends with what is a very poignant line:

“…and if God gon’ take me as I am, then I guess I’ve already got on my church clothes.”

Now, what I believe he was saying with this line is that many of those people make the excuse that if God is real, he accepts all sinners anyway, so I’m basically all good without doing the work of going to church. How I interpret that gets right to the heart of the gospel rap vs secular rap issue. You can get your message across without being heavy handed as long as you keep God first anyway. People will just know because authenticity is palpable.

It’s the difference between somebody who is living life according to God’s plan versus somebody who is always telling you how to live your life according to God’s plan. I stop following all of those people on Instagram for a reason. This is why even good to decent gospel rappers struggle for relevancy and respect amongst the rap masses. Sure they sell lots of records – the church fan base is huge  and if you want to still be hip-hop then it works for you – so maybe that’s all that matters in the realm of success. Plus, there’s no shame in being one of the biggest names in the gospel rap world. He’s a legit talent even if I am being preached at.

But these guys all want the respect of their peers outside of the Christian rap world. It’s why Lecrae is showing you that he has all these rappers and producers, like Kendrick Lamar, 9thWonder and DJ Premier co-signing him. He wants the people who listen to the Drake’s and Lil Wayne’s to peep him too. It’s why he got on the BET Cypher. He wants that cross-over.

And until these guys realize why folks love DMX so much or Tupac or any other rapper, like Scarface, who infuse so much religion into their work (though I won’t pretend these guys are saints in all of their work), they will continue to seek that respect that will likely never come. They’re sharing their story. Not telling us what our story should be.

Oh, and the rest of them just plain suck. Substance is not a substitute for quality.

Yaymen.

Panama Jackson

Panama Jackson is pretty fly (and gorgeous) for a light guy. He used to ship his frito to Tito in the District, but shipping prices increased so he moved there to save money. He refuses to eat cocaine chicken. When he's not saving humanity with his words or making music with his mouth, you can find him at your mama's mama's house drinking her fine liquors. Most importantly, he believes the children are our future. You can hit him on his hitter at panamadjackson@gmail.com.

  • kidvideo

    Im surprised(but not really) Ma$e never went the gospel rap route…i guess he felt it wouldnt sell to the same crowd that bought “Harlem World”.

    • Amber

      Yeah but what other mase album secular or otherwise will have the harlem world numbers?

      • kidvideo

        Point taken…the Bad Boy era was in full swing at that time.

    • miss t-lee

      Yeah, he would’ve had to drop it right after he left Bad Boy.

    • panamajackson

      He did try to make a super happy album for his comeback that I presume had it been successful may have paved the way for more religious endeavors. But it sucked so thoroughly I’m sure he tries to pretend it doesn’t exist.

  • LadyIbaka

    Wait a minute, when you are doing the Lord’s work, why would you want to crossover and be cosigned?!? Isn’t the reason you are in ministry, assuming that gospel rap is indeed a ministry, to win the heathen through music?! So therefore, I fail to understand his undying need to be cosigned by his peers in the secular world. They are on two spectacularly different lanes, independent of each other. Sounds like Lecrae needs our Father who art in heaven hallowed be thy name, thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on Lecraes life for gospel rap don’t pay the bills. #fixitJesus, fixit!

    • RewindingtonMaximus

      If you are skillful at a craft, why would you not want the acceptance of your peers? Yes the Lord’s word is the only one the may be important, but we are still mortals, and moreso than anything, knowing other people acknowledge your work is what gives inspiration that this is why the Lord blessed you.

      • LadyIbaka

        @Rewind,

        Doesn’t he have peers in gospel rap?

        • He does…they suck for the most part. He can rap circles around them so I understand his getting down with “regular” rappers. Him banging with his gospel rap peers doesn’t make him better.

          • panamajackson

            Right, he has peers in that he has contemporaries. But they’re not really up to his skill level.

        • RewindingtonMaximus

          As good as him? Judging from the article..nope, not at all.

    • Amber

      I think you answered your question. If his goal is to get exposure and draw in nonbelievers how else will they learn about him if not from their favorite main stream rapper.

    • Jesus don’t put in on these bills.

    • panamajackson

      I mean, he’s still a rapper, right? It’s still his vocation. And most of us want the respect of people who also do our job, right? At the end of the day, no matter what you rap about, you hope you get that respect. That’s what most rappers claim they want. Gospel rap gets shafted 99 percent of the time, so for him to get placed in BET Cyphers and get cosigns is a major move for any gospel rapper. So I can completely understand wanting the cosigns.

      • I wish you would point to a quote in context or interview where Lecrae stated the intentions you have subscribed to him in his own words and not yours. Your article is full of your own thoughts about Lecrae’s intentions and really unfairly represents him to a new audience.

        • panamajackson

          If you are truly going to tell me that his actions don’t indicate this then we’ll just have to agree to disagree. I also didn’t use the words undying need. But Lecrae has sought out the co-sign and acknowledgement of establishment artists. You don’t think that signals a desire to want that recognition? You think he’s bringing in secular artists for his albums just because? And getting mixtape DJs to co-sign him? Come on. You might not agree with my assessment and perhaps even, mistakenly, think that I have no idea what I’m talking about. But even a blind man could see that.

    • “…his undying need to be cosigned by his peers in the secular world.” This is Panama’s take. I’ve never heard Lecrae say this.

  • You know this happens a lot with art and Christianity. The best and most compelling, at least for me, Christian art comes from heathens and non-believers. They seem to have a better grasp about what makes Jesus such an appealing character and why people would convert, submit, how people battle with their faith, or want to believe in God. The most devout Christians that attempt to explore their relationship with Jesus/God and Christianity seldom go past the surface of “God is perfect” or “He is my guiding light” or how perfect he is. Which is pretty dull to listen to. Blu is probably my favorite rapper that frequently integrates his faith in Christ into his work. J E S U S being the best album for that (yes with the spaces).

    Also, The Gospel According to Matthew by Pier Paolo Pasolini still remains the most faithful interpretation of Jesus on film. Which is surprising considering it’s 50 years old, how often Jesus’ life has been adapted to the screen, and the fact that Pasolini was a gay atheist.

    • it’s almost like the redemption has no choice but to be genuine. You can feel it. People who sing from within Christianity appeal to those already in it because the position is familiar. Same coin, two sides IMO

  • RewindingtonMaximus

    Given that rap was always secular music, its hard to fully envelope lyricism and flow with the anointment of the Gospel. If this dude can be the first to merge both successfully, then he is awesome. But music fans will always be quick to judge because we haven’t gotten past the stereotypical assumptions of what criteria a rapper must fit to be a rapper.

  • I don’t get down with most gospel rap or gospel music period but when I like a song in the genre I really like it. When I first heard Lecrae I was impressed. He wasn’t playing a role of being contrived but he felt honest and wasn’t peachy. I respected that.

    • Amber

      Yeah tried to get into gospel rap some years ago and the thing is that it never felt authentic. It feels like many gospel rappers are trying to copy the style of mainstream rappers which just feels cheap since they probably don’t have those budgets and they can’t seem to make a lane for themselves.

      • That’s my point, it always feels sneaky when you try to put gospel in a mainstream format.

        • IcePrincess

          Kirk Franklin got it right imo

          • True, his message has been overt from the start.

            • Wild Cougar

              You probably haven’t heard his many, many very traditional and very beautiful songs. You probably wouldn’t believe they were his if you heard them. Don’t hate what you don’t understand

              http://youtu.be/dMBAvJWj3Lk

              • Not bad. Learn something new every day.

              • beautiful indeed but it sounds like a gospel song; my argument was artists who try too hard to sound mainstream that they lose the essence of what is gospel music

                • Wild Cougar

                  My argument, stated above, is that the “essence” of gospel music has always followed the mainstream and what you consider traditional was considered too secular when it was new.

                  • How is this possible when Black secular music was originally borne of the gospel tradition?

                    • Wild Cougar

                      Well, from what I was told, and I was raised deep in it, but I don’t know everything, the pre-70s contemporary era gospel that is the inspiration of a lot of popular music was inspired by blues from the 40s. Before that gospel was hymns and negro spirituals.

                    • I could stand to do some research myself lol. But I believe one basis for blues was spirituals. I agree with you that for decades gospel has been informed by the secular, but I think the genesis of the two musical forms is closer than separate.

              • MysteryMeat

                dang i forgot about this song. He does have some cuts now that i think about it.

          • I haaaaaaaate Kirk Franklin on records. He’s like the Diddy of the gospel world. gah.

            • So damn accurate. #GPisyouwitme

            • I can’t stand that dude.

            • Amber

              Yes he messes up good music and he started a terrible trend in gospel music because now just about every choir director/producer talks over otherwise great and heartfelt music.

            • IcePrincess

              That’s why I like him! #turnupforjesus

              • I don’t mind his turnup. I mind him talking over EVERY track, putting his name on it, when he hasn’t sung ONE note. Why is it Kirk Franklin and The Family when the The Fam did most of the heavy lifting? And then what happened to the Family? DROOOOOOOOOPPED lol. He’s had umpteen groups where he does the same thing: put nameless talent behind a mic, stand in front of them, and receive credit. The fact that we know Tamela Mann’s name is a testament to her hustle, not any favor that Franklin did that group.

                • Wild Cougar

                  It’s cuz he’s tiny and can’t sing. He wanted to be in the adult choir but they wouldn’t let him cuz the couldn’t hold a note or see the choir director. He was left in the youth choir till he was 25 and they noticed his mustache and kicked him out. Now he’s getting his Napoleon revenge. Pray for him.

                  • Rachmo

                    DONE

                    • Wild Cougar

                      Aside, I’ve met Kirk Franklin, twice. Once at a free New Years Eve concert he gave at one of the churches close to me. He made fun of my hair. It was the best NYE ever, though. The second time was at NOLA airport. I spotted him getting out of his town car and said hi and took a picture and then went on my way. I remember looking back at him and he was looking at me weird I think because I didn’t alert the whole airport that he was there. I’m thinking he was grateful for that. Maybe not.

      • Going back to what @dtafakari:disqus said upthread I don’t really listen to a lot of secular hip hop anymore because the subject matter bores me to tears. Her examples of T.I, Ross, and Aubrey’s on record behavior actually doesn’t resonate with a 35 year old me. Most secular rap feels cheap but most gospel rap always felt extra-manufactured.

        • I’m not the target demographic for their music. I never have been. And that is O.K. with me.

    • Rawtid

      i feel the same about gospel music

    • panamajackson

      I feel like Lecrae has songs that aren’t contrived and then I’ll hear the ones that are just like everything else. I feel like to some degree, and maybe he has to, he plays both sides to attempt to appeal to everybody. He’s at his best when he’s just going full rapper though.

  • Amber

    Panama, Scarface is definitely a better gospel rapper than DMX.

  • So this security guard at work would always try to get me to listen to his mixtape right, eventually i caved and threw it on, first track its a Jahlil Beats track because all mixtapes have a Jahlil Beats track, he starts shouting out 50 lem crews, spits a few bars and……..then it got extra preachy and i was even more done. Christian rap always feels like a bait and switch, its like those fake 5 dollar bills they hand out and one the back is a scripture on it.

    • panamajackson

      Funny enough, many years ago I decided that I was going to try to work with “gospel rappers” to see if I could make an album that was religious in nature but still had good production and authenticity. I got NOTHING but inquiries from dudes like that. Folks wanting to keep it real…for Jesus. 40s, blunts, stunts, etc. I closed down the piano and moved on from that endeavor.

      On an old phone i cant find, i had a voicemail from this rapper who spit his “God rap” on my VM. it was THE most hilarious thing i’d heard in my life. oh, and by hilarious i mean terrible and me and my girlfriend at the time were like…how exactly is this for jesus???

  • Rawtid

    lmao true story–DMX truly is the best gospel rapper of all time. no debate.

  • Tentpole

    Gospel Rap is an oxymoron and that’s the major problem. It is now to the point where you can slap gospel in front of a word and it is suppose to give it spiritual validity. All this because Kirk Franklin repurposed Stomp and opened the flood gates.

    • Mary Mary had chicks in the club popping bottles to gospel as well….

      • Val

        Before Mary, Mary, The Clark Sisters had this club jam back in the early 80s. It was a big controversy. Secular radio started playing it and gospel radio stopped. They darn near blew up their careers with this song it was so controversial.

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pq-XKuzVgCM

        • didn’t know that

        • Hey, this joint is tight. And Jesus is really the answer for those fools in the club.

        • miss t-lee

          and before that, “I’ll Take You There”, and “O, Happy Day”

          • oh yaaaaaaasss!

          • cakes_and_pies

            Help me out. I can’t figure out if this is a gospel song or not. She’s thankful to the Lord for sending her a man, right?

            http://youtu.be/VpC637CBmBM

            • miss t-lee

              First, this is a great track, I’ve always loved it.
              Second, yes–she’s thanking the Lord for sending her a husband (I’m assuming), doesn’t sound like a drive-by situation…lol

              I always took this as an R&B song, with a gospel twist. Then again, it could be a praise song. You’re right…it could go either way.

              • cakes_and_pies

                It is a great. The first time I actually listened to all the lyrics I went from “Hey…that’s my jam” to straight confusion.

            • I remember posting this song on FB after the Colts tanked towards the end of the season, thus allowing the Jets to make the playoffs in 2009. Such good times. :)

              • cakes_and_pies

                So wrong, but so right..

            • Freebird

              wooooooooow this song right her takes me back to my summer days as a shortie. thanks for posting.

        • Wild Cougar

          This is so true. Tell it Val. The Clark Sisters used to be considered too secular. Man this song brings me back. Thanks for that

        • Straight up and down this is just a good damn song.

      • CamCamtheGreat

        OMG, I remember that!! Mid-00’s or something like that? What was the name of that song? I remember being in the club when that came on and hitting the immediate screw-face.

        • h.h.h.

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=agxi8cei9h8

          had a dope beat. i was always waiting on a remix.

          • miss t-lee

            David Banner did the beat.
            Folks keep talking about hearing this in the club…I never did…lol
            Plus Mary Mary’s songs always jammed. I think folks were just mad about them working with a rapper.

          • CamCamtheGreat

            Good lookin out! I had forgotten all about this. Triple H got the answers, Sway!

      • I got you beat. I have seen with my own eyes, a pole dance recital girl buss it wide open to Kirk Franklin’s “Imagine Me.” This happened.

        • im half mortified half intrigued

          • miss t-lee

            Also…lol

        • JESUS TAKE THE WHEEL!

          • “JESUS TAKE THE WHEEL POLE!

            • RewindingtonMaximus

              Jesus take the G-string

        • Amber

          lol but I can totally picture it because that song is so smooth.

        • KKay

          Lordy, lordy, lordy!!

          There is so much wrong in this thread…I LOVE IT!!

    • I agree with this and really extend it to why I never really enjoyed Black churches even when I was fervent Christian. Too heavy of an emphasis was always placed on making things contemporary and fun to keep the under 50 interested and invested in church.

      • Wild Cougar

        This is how we used to jam back in the day. The old folks couldn’t stand it, it was too fast and too secular and they accused Walter Hawkins of copying James Brown with that hair. RIP Walter Hawkins

        http://youtu.be/jiGTJJjNGD0

        • Mary Lou Williams’ Black Christ of the andes and a couple Sam Cooke songs are as contemporary as my gospel gets. Outside of that I don’t listen to any post sharecropping gospel.

          • Wild Cougar

            Booooooooooring

            • We just have vastly different opinions on how music intersects with spirituality.

              • Wild Cougar

                Snort! I’m very tall and I can still barely see your nose hairs you nose is so high in the air with that comment. Your snobbishness could use a little less snobbish

                • Not better. Just different.

          • lolol. i love gospel music. it’s beautiful stuff when it’s done well.

            • Rachmo

              Gospel can get me all in my feelings sometimes.

              • Wild Cougar

                don’t listen to my Kirk Franklin link then. #icrieverytahm

          • miss t-lee

            “post sharecropping gospel”

            Okay, I’ll bite. So who exactly are you listening to?
            You own a phonograph?

            • i just got a picture of my great grandparents sitting on the front porch of a shot gun house talking sh8t about Woodrow Wilson,

              • miss t-lee

                Okay?! Are they sippin’ some shine, or corn liquor from a jelly jar as well?

            • No phonograph. Watch the documentary rejoice and shout. Pretty much my entire gospel listening comes from artists I’m the first half of it.

              • miss t-lee

                Interesting.

        • miss t-lee

          Oh, this was the jam!
          Thx for sharing.

      • Epsilonicus

        “Too heavy of an emphasis was always placed on making things contemporary and fun to keep the under 50 interested and invested in church.”

        You kind of have to because that is what is going to be the lifeblood to keep the church moving in the future.

  • h.h.h.

    I think I see what you’re saying… The authenticity of a gospel rapper’s lyricism and his life, comes from the exposure of his walk with Christ, and his introspection, rather than the urge to xturn every verse into a sermon. I think its a tough line to walk because they have to satisfy two different types of consumers; people who want The Word in their music, and people that want to know that they aren’t alone in their walk. But I think LeCrae knows the way he wants to go.

    • panamajackson

      I definitely think he wants that mainstream access. It’s like wanting to be a big name pastor to a degree….everybody knows me and what I do…and i’m respected and called upon by the everybody. I just don’t know if he can get there. Not completely.

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