Kind of Red

July 17, 2009

The Sound of Music

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Painted One @ 9:24 pm


Somewhere in between studying the law of the United States, and that of Pennsylvania, I paused for a moment to glance at an article my wife sent me earlier in the day.  The article, posted on HolyCulture, and originally featured in The Dallas Observer, chronicles the efforts of Elder G. Craige Lewis to expose hip-hop as an occult religion, abolish its emergence in the church as a legitimate means to convey the gospel and stymie its further growth throughout the nation.  Mr. Lewis has derided some high-profile members of the faith with his relentless onslaughts and commentaries, making high-profile enemies in the process.  He also has created a budding following that grows by the day.  As cited by the article, his self-produced DVDs The Truth Behind Hip-Hop volumes 1 and 2, along with What Every Church Needs to Know about Hip-Hop sell at a rate of roughly 100 copies per day.  The problem is, the message he has his followers follow.

Elder G. Craige Lewis

Elder G. Craige Lewis

Elder Lewis and I disagree sharply on a fundamental issue.  I do not believe hip-hop is a religion, but rather a cultural expression associated with a brand of music.  What makes Elder Lewis’ proclamations so potentially damaging is the lack of historical foundation with which he makes his presumptions along with the venomous nature with which he assails those who disagree with him.  He makes no qualms about justifying his verbal assaults–calling noted leaders in the church and gospel industry “fags” and declaring others simply are not authentic members of the faith–simply because he feels called of God to do so.  He also makes little effort to research his subjects before drawing conclusions.  His inflammatory rhetoric has seemingly engulfed his perspective to the point that he has become blinded by his own bigotry and xenophobia, which in turn impairs his ability to see how his scathing attacks do not embody the nature of the God in whose name he makes such accusations.

Additionally, Elder Lewis message is potentially dangerous because it has bits of truth interspersed between his personal feelings.  For example, KRS One has founded a temple of hip-hop and does seek recognition from the federal government that hip-hop is a legitimate religion, yet few have taken hold to this notion with conviction.  Moreover, Elder Lewis is correct in stating most of the hip-hop culture (he says all) portrayed by mainstream media outlets is riddled with images of materialism, misogyny, promiscuity, gangsterism, illicit drug use and drunkenness.  I too have discussed the Hip-Hopcrisy in hip-hop at length, and fully repudiate much of what our culture endorses within it, yet I also recognize its power to reach those who ordinarily would disregard my message.  Others have joined me in arriving to similar conclusions.

Early on, when debates regarding the appropriate use of hip-hop music with Christian content began intensifying, Pastor William “Duce” Branch, whom the world knows more famously as The Ambassador, offered clear, concise, well-reasoned, biblically based commentary on the matter, and has since commented more recently.  Nonetheless, Elder Lewis seems to become more emboldened when confronted with sound biblical and historical critiques of his message regarding hip-hop.



While Elder Lewis is one of the more widely regarded opponents of hip-hop culture and its acceptance by the Church, he is not the first to make such assertions, and will not be the last.  The Church has a history of shying away from what It views as an amalgamation of the sacred and the secular.  Examples of such reluctance by believers to partake of that which is deemed,“common” or “unclean” literally harkens back to days of the Church’s infancy.

This especially holds true when we examine the intersection of our acculturation of faith and its expression in sound during the modern Western Church’s history; in other words, these examples are most clearly evidenced in the modern Western Church’s response to the appropriate use of music.  History bears record of countless examples of this, from churches closing their doors on Mahalia Jackson because her sound mirrored the blues too closely for their liking, to modern “holy hip-hop” artists being thrown out of churches today because pastors too often associate their music with what they have seen and loathed on Mtv and BET.

Quite simply, the church has traditionally waited for the taboo to leave a genre of music before it reluctantly deems it worthy of adding the gospel message.  Mahalia Jackson demonstrates this case exquisitely.  Today most gospel circles hail her as the greatest gospel singer of all time, but that does not negate the fact the she, along with Thomas Dorsey, endured more than her share of persecution in her day because of the music God placed deep within her soul.

Mahalia Jackson

Mahalia Jackson


Such occurrences are rampant within the Church’s history, which is the cause of many current secular artists denouncing Christian artists as imitators rather than innovators of musical expression.  The Church must stop running from the creativity God has graced His musicians with, only to embrace it once the world has proven it will work.  We do a disservice to our Father, the Giver of gifts, when we do so.  Should we  disregard the Bible’s decree to sing a new song unto the Lord simply because some within earshot may not like the sound of it?  God forbid.

In essence, musical expression offers preconditions of autonomy by allowing various cultures to receive and disseminate information from a vantage point that it may directly relate, and thus allow art to imitate the life of the people.  Music, quite simply put, is an extension of culture, and culture is like energy, meaning that it cannot be created or destroyed, but merely transferred.  This debunks the notion that modern musical genres emerged out of thin air (it would be the equivalent of me saying I randomly appeared on earth twenty seven years ago), but rather every genre of music bears its roots in some of those that preceded it (just as I bear my roots in my ancestors that came before me).  What is hailed today as traditional gospel was emerged from  soul, which came from jazz, which came from the blues, which came from Negro spirituals, which came from field songs, and so forth.   Hip-hop similarly, evolved from genres and subgenres of African American music that preceded it: spoken word, funk, soul, rock, jazz, the blues, etc.  Even its various forms of dancing come from previous forms of dance (watch this for further evidence).

Hip-hop music is riddled with parallels to African culture even though it presently has obvious influences from other cultures. In traditional West African society, the griot perpetuated the oral tradition of the community by telling stories in rhyme-format over drum rhythms played in the background.  In hip-hop music the emcee replicates the role of the griot in African American culture—disseminating information in the form of rhymes spoken over instrumentation which places a heavy emphasis on polyrhythmic elements.  African music also by nature has a proclivity towards call and response, a form of verbal exchange between the performer and the audience that seeks to create communal participation and expunge emergent expression from members of the audience.  In live performances, rappers oftentimes initiate call and response exchanges with their audiences in order to liven the mood of the crowd and or to establish a personal connection with the audience.  The role of the drum is key in virtually all African music, and routinely significant in all hip-hop music.

buggin-outOver the past four decades, hip-hop has blossomed from relative obscurity into a multi-billion dollar, multi-faceted industry and cultural phenomenon, and peaked in recent years as the highest selling music genre in the world.  Yet and still, on its face, hip-hop is merely a microcosm of a larger cultural, economic, historical, political and spiritual struggle of African Americans in their quest for developing an identity in American society. It represents an unbridled articulation of the condition of a marginalized people that has since regressed with the precipitous decline of our societal norms.  In short, hip-hop is a cultural expression that can be redeemed very similarly to elements from the overarching societal cultural expression that encompasses it.  To declare that hip-hop music and its culture cannot be redeemed presumes that hip-hop is greater than God.  I do not believe that is what Elder Lewis seeks to assert.  Nonetheless, he and those ascribing to his doctrine still proclaim hip-hop is beyond redemption.


Because of this line of reasoning, and a general lack of mutual understanding, hip-hop has become the symbol of a generational rift within segments of the Church, a marker of the chasm between the old and young, and potential harbinger of future strife. Elder Lewis’ proclamations are steeped in ignorance and resemble criticism that each generation received from generations before.  My grandparents’ generation derided the soul music and rock music of my parents’ generation.   My great-grandparents’ generation complained about the influence of the music from the “juke joints” during my grandparents’ youth.   Older generations typically find fault in the expression of the youth, particularly when it does not conform to their expectations. God loves us as we are.

GrillzThe prayer is that we come to God as we are and leave different.  In so doing, any vestiges of the ungodly culture that has latched onto us would dissipate when we encounter a loving God.  Christian hip-hop artists and urban missionaries alike proclaim the everlasting love of God to the hip-hop generation, a love that demonstrated itself while we were yet sinners.   I personally have witnessed this outpouring of love reach hundreds if not thousands of young people who ordinarily may not responded to our message.  When I spoke their language, they did.

ap_sagging_pants_071015_msMeanwhile, Elder Lewis diminishes the impact of urban missionaries and other Christian hip-hop artists.  These men and women wield the vehicle of hip-hop music to help preach the gospel to an entire generation of misguided youth.  Our goals are the same as Elder Lewis’ (at least nominally), and our methods do not differ as dramatically as they may initially appear.  Yet Elder Lewis claims youth who listen to Christian hip-hop respond in frenzied, chaotic fashions during concerts, but leave only to return home and listen to the same filthy music they listened to previously.  He uses this as an example of Christian hip-hop’s ineffectiveness to compel the youth to live differently.  As Pastor Branch would say, Elder Lewis fails to acknowledge the inward miracle of conversion and further misses the process it entails.  In the aforementioned critique on holy hip-hop culture, Elder Lewis also neglects to mention how millions of people across America attend church every weekend, respond in “frenzied, chaotic fashions” to “shouting” music or sermonettes accompanied by organs blaring in the background, and resume the same pattern of behavior they exhibited prior to coming to church.  Nevertheless, we do not discourage them from returning the next week, but rather we encourage them to continue coming in hopes that their continued encounters with God would compel them to live differently.  In so doing, we acknowledge the inward struggle of conversion, and recognize how the wisdom of God uses varying means, even ones we might deem lowly, to capture the attention of people.

FrigatesThe Apostle Paul used epistles and ships to assist him in transporting the Gospel across the known world at beginning of the Common Era.  Nonetheless, we do not critique his vehicles because ungodly seafarers subsequently used similar vessels to transport human cargo or engage in forms of piracy.  Vehicles are vehicles, we cannot and should not ascribe value to them aside from their ability to transport cargo.

When I have the privilege of performing in different venues, I oftentimes begin my set by telling the audience that hip-hop and my car have a great deal in common.  Aside from making far too much noise at times, both are vehicles.  I typically further the point in saying the fact that my car brought me to the evening’s venue does not make it good or bad, it simply makes my car a vehicle.  Likewise, hip-hop is not good or bad; it’s a vehicle, that when used correctly, can transport the listener to a greater understanding of this life we live, and the God I serve.  Essentially all musicians are taking their audience for a ride, the question then is, where are they taking them?  I know where I am taking my audience, and I pray Elder Lewis’ audience knows where he is taking them.



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