Browsing articles in "hip hop"

Real Revolutionary Hip Hop

Aug 25, 2015   //   by efremsmith   //   hip hop, justice, race  //  No Comments

I saw the movie “Straight Outta Compton” last weekend. The late 1980’s and early 90’s rap group NWA is said by many to have revolutionized music and pop culture as well as having provided a stronger voice on behalf of the hip hop generation at the time. Others are critical of the group for their abuse of women off the stage and the tendency at times to stray away from revolutionary lyrics to ones that glorify drug and alcohol abuse, rape, and violence as the primary means to solve conflict. More socially conscious Rappers from the same era such as Speech from the group, Arrested Development have provided blog posts to offer a better take on the true revolutionary hip hop groups at the time.

As a member of the hip hop generation, I found myself very connected to socially conscious and revolutionary hip hop groups during the 1980’s and 90’s. My favorites at the time included Public Enemy, Last Asiatic Disciples, Poor Righteous Teachers, Brand Nubians, and De La Soul. I was also drawn to Christian Hip Hop artists such as D-Boy, SFC, I.D.O.L. King, GRITS, and Preachers in Disguise.  I never saw NWA as part of the real revolutionary hip hop movement. I actually thought that NWA member, Ice Cube provided a more revolutionary side of himself with the group Lench Mob that he formed after leaving NWA. I don’t want to take away from a few revolutionary leaning songs that NWA put out, but they seemed to be confused on what type of hip hop group they really wanted to be. They also came along during a time when White owned record labels finally caught on to the idea that rap music could make a lot of money. Money making at the highest level of the music industry seems to be the death nail for revolutionary hip hop groups. Not only will “the revolution not be televised,” in many cases it won’t be recorded either.

The mainstream music industry seeing dollar signs within rap music came after Run D.M.C. collaborated on the remake of “Walk This Way.” The music video finally put rap music into regular rotation during primetime on MTV. I loved Run D.MC., but I wouldn’t consider them a revolutionary group when it came to socially conscious hip hop. Their revolutionary work was more about bringing rap into the mainstream. Notice I didn’t state bringing hip hop into the mainstream, but rap into the mainstream. Now, NWA is a revolutionary group in another way. They laid the foundation for gangsta rap coming into the mainstream. Those rappers with tattoos all over their bodies and faces, sagging their pants, and glorifying strip clubs and weed in their lyrics should thank NWA. If there was no NWA and Ruthless Records, there would have been no Chronic Album from  NWA member Dr. Dre’ on Deathrow Records.

Now, I won’t state that NWA wanted to go down as a revolutionary group by launching the gangsta rap movement, but they played this role all the same. At the same time that NWA became popular, Luke and the 2 Live Crew was bringing their pornographic version of rap into the mainstream as well. The mainstream music industry was more than happy to take the worst of rap music or at best a stereotyped Black cultural rap portrayed as real Blackness, put it on steroids, and in turn silence real revolutionary hip hop. NWA West Coast rap also brought into rap music a glorification of gang culture. The movie Straight Outta Compton deals with this by showing us scenes featuring the portrayal of members of The Bloods and The Crips. This is the beginning of a violent culture within the rap industry that would take the lives of rap icons, Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. This is all the foundation of today’s commercial rap music to a significant degree.

Today’s mainstream and commercial rap music is not only un-revolutionary, it’s not even real hip hop. There are some artists such as Common and Kendrick Lamar who work to keep socially conscious hip hop alive, but it’s very much on life support. Many hip hoppers of my generation miss real hip hop culture with the principles of love, peace, community, having fun, and knowledge of God, knowledge of self. We miss the original elements of the emcee, the deejay, the b-boy and b-girl, and the graffiti artist. We miss non-violent house, roller skating, and community center parties. We miss being educated about our African, slave, and civil rights movement past thru hip hop. We miss the commentary on our urban situation thru words such as, “It’s like a jungle sometimes it makes me wonder how I keep from going under” from The Message. Before The Message was a Bible version, it was the story of urban youth and young adults.

I remain hopeful for real revolutionary hip hop though. There is another possibility for the resurgence of revolutionary hip hop and it’s coming from a renewed version of holy hip hop. What Christian hip hop artist LeCrae is doing right now is very revolutionary indeed. Here is an evangelical, African-American hip hop artist whose music sales can be compared with the best secular versions of the music genre. He is also socially conscious in his recent off stage comments on racial profiling and the murders of unarmed African-Americans by Police Officers thru social media. He doesn’t provide a broad attack against the police force but instead offers words of reason, reconciliation, and justice. He provides a Biblical framework for Black Lives Matter. He has also had words about the tragedy of Black on Black violence and murder. He is truly a hip hop revolutionary. I don’t believe he is alone. Could there be an army of revolutionary Christian hip hop artists who could point to liberation and revival? I hope so. For a breakdown of the impact of hip hop on the broader culture and a history of holy hip hop, check out the book I wrote with Pastor Phil Jackson a few years ago entitled, The Hip Hop Church (Intervarsity Press).

Reformed Theology, Hip Hop, and Race

Dec 9, 2013   //   by efremsmith   //   hip hop, race, reconciliation, theology  //  1 Comment

Recently thru Facebook, I saw a video posted of a panel of reformed theologians answering a question about the validity of Christian Rap as a ministry tool. I thought it both interesting and strange that an all Anglo male group of theologians would even take on this topic. As I listened to their answers it was obvious that they should stay away from the topic from here forward. I would make one exception. I would love to have a healthy and respectful public conversation with any of the reformed theologians on that panel as one who has written on Hip Hop, the Church, and theology. If not me, I would encourage these reformed theologians to have a public conversation with folks like Dr. Daniel Hodge of North Park University in Chicago or Pastor Phil Jackson also of Chicago. I could name many others more qualified to provided a rich and biblical approach to Hip Hop  and specifically the element of rap as a tool for the advancement of the Kingdom of God. Some say this issue has already been dealt with and I’m late to the party. Well, I have a feeling this won’t be the last time Anglo, evangelical, suburban, and male theologians speak as if they know more about God, urban culture, and people of color than urban people and people of color with ministry experience and theological credentials.

There is something else I want to briefly mention here as well. I am amazed by all of the recent conversations that Anglo male reformed theologians and pastors are having lately on issues of Hip Hop, race, and justice. On one hand I would say this is very wonderful. I’m glad to see Pastors such as Dr. John Piper and Dr. Tim Keller leading these conversations. At the same time, I’m very disappointed that rarely do these conversations include evangelical people of color and women who have been writing, speaking, and leading ministry models around these topic for years. Where is John Perkins, Brenda Salter-McNeil, Soon Chan Rah, Greg Yee, Dave Gibbons, Larry Acosta, Ed Delgado, Debbie Blue, Cecilia Williams, Robyn Afrik, and Eugene Cho? Until the conversations become more diverse and represent the broader community of evangelicals, reformed theology will lose ground in an ever-increasing multi-ethnic and evangelical Christian movement.

Lacrae, Theology, and Hip Hop Culture

Sep 12, 2012   //   by efremsmith   //   hip hop, race, theology  //  No Comments

Checkout this recent article on Hip Hop artist Lacrae, Theology, and Race that I am included in.

The Hip Hop Generation and Idolatry

Jul 28, 2011   //   by efremsmith   //   family, hip hop, justice, the church, youth ministry  //  1 Comment

“And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers; and there arose another generation after them who did not know the LORD, nor yet the work which He had done for Israel. Then the sons of Israel did evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals, and forsook the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt, and followed other gods from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed themselves down to them; thus they provoked the LORD to anger.” (Judges 2:10-11, NASB)

As I’ve been studying the book of Judges lately in the Old Testament, it’s hard for me not to think of the Hip Hop generation of which I am apart. I also think about the generation that we have produced, which I will call for now, the Rap generation. For those of you who are not African-American, Hispanic, Asian American, or come from an urban background do not make the mistake of ending your reading here. Hip Hop culture and rap music have a global influence on all of youth and young adult culture today. Though the church is in denial about this to a large degree, the corporate music industry is not. Even churches that don’t deny this primarily see Hip Hop and rap as the enemy of the church. Let me go back to Judges and then I will work my way to the connection with Hip Hop and rap.

The book of Judges is about a people disconnected from their heritage and their God. The initial chapters of Judges shows us a younger generation who do evil because they have no sense of the God who brought them out of Egypt and delivered them into the promised land. Out of this ignorance they become an idolatrous people, serving the gods of the people around them. What is very interesting to me is that we see a cycle within Judges. The younger generation does evil in the eyes of the Lord, the LORD sells them (or allows them to be sold) into slavery and oppression, and then delivers them through Judges when they cry out to the LORD for help. If only they would desire a knowledge of their heritage and a covenant relationship with God, they would not have to live within this cycle. Why doesn’t the older generation take greater responsibility for making sure their younger generation knows their history that they might stay in covenant relationship with God?

My generation has not taken the type of responsibility needed with the youth and young adults below us. You could also argue that the generation above me made the same mistake. The tiredness of promises unfilled during the Civil Rights movement caused many African-Americans above me and with me to give into individualism and consumerism. If I gain enough stuff, at least I can become apart of that smaller group of African-Americans that made it.

I must say that I’m very concerned that too many African-American and urban churches have not seen the value of having a full-time pastor to children and youth on their staff. This is a key strategy to reaching a rap generation influenced by the gods of others pursuing them daily. Will senior pastors be willing to sacrifice some luxury in order to have a staff person and a comprehensive strategy for the younger generation enslaved by commercial rap music? Michelle Alexander in her book,” The New Jim Crow” does a great job in connecting commercial rap music and the mass incarceration of African-American males. She also wonders why this issue isn’t a top priority of civil rights organizations. I wonder why it isn’t a top priority of the church.

Commercial rap music today is full of idolatry and mainly is about serving the gods of the people around them. These people around them are corporate heads that are mainly European-Americans who have no interest in the health of the African-American and urban community. They are using the worst of this community to sell a product to a suburban community. I believe that if the African-American and urban church would take responsibility for its own enslavement to idolatry today, we could reach a younger generation that does not know the LORD or the work He has done to deliver African-Americans out of slavery and Jim Crow segregation.

Much Love for LaCrae (Holy Hip Hop and Theology Part 2)

Jun 19, 2011   //   by efremsmith   //   hip hop, justice, race, reconciliation, theology  //  2 Comments

Last week I had the honor of speaking on main stage at the Ichthus Music Festival. I spoke right after a very powerful performance by Holy Hip Hop artist LaCrae. Earlier that day I was on a panel with LaCrae, Trip Lee, and Pro speaking on the influence of Hip Hop and Urban Culture on all of youth culture today. These artists are all apart of Reach Records. Some of you may remember a post I did not long ago on the “Odd Marriage Between Holy Hip Hop and Calvinism.”

In this post I shared my concerns about Holy Hip Hop being dominated by Calvinist theology without the balance of Reconciliation theology, Liberation theology, and Black theology rooted in the history of the Black Church. My point was not to say that Calvinism has no place in Holy Hip Hop, but to say that Calvinism alone makes Holy Hip Hop no Hip Hop at all and limits its ability to be a true transformational and evangelistic force in urban America and beyond.

First let me make one more point about my concerns on a Holy Hip Hop movement dominated by Calvinism. Calvinist theologians and pastors have not fully dealt with a theology that has ties historically to the economic structure of capitalism, the replacement theology connected to colonialism, and the unbiblical development of the race structure and imagination dealt with by theologians such as Willie James Jennings (The Christian Imagination) and J. Kameron Carter (Race: A Theological Account). What this means is that historically, Calvinism has had moments when it was not on the side of the liberation of African-Americans, especially during slavery and Jim Crow segregation. This does not mean that there weren’t some Calvinists that would have been against slavery or on the side of the Civil Rights Movement. We can say though, that evangelicals must own a sketchy history at best around issues of race. We’ve truly come a long way, but we haven’t yet arrived as a truly reconciled people. This is why the Reconciliation theology of Tom Skinner, John Perkins, Howard Thurman, Martin Luther King Jr., Brenda Salter-McNeil, and Curtiss DeYoung is needed within the Holy Hip Hop Movement.

With all that said, I need to give much love to the Ministry of Reach Records. I especially need to show much love to LaCrae. As I sat on the panel of with the artists of Reach Records and witnessed the ministry of LaCrae on stage, I was moved by his gifts, character, and theological depth. I’m also honored that these artists have so much respect for me and my contributions to the Holy Hip Hop Movement. My last post on this subject was in no way meant to dishonor these artists. My heart is to serve as a Hip Hop theologian and to see this movement have a significant Kingdom impact in Urban America and beyond. I pray for LaCrae and the ministry of Reach Records that God would bless them in a mighty way.

Introducing Post-Black Theology

Post-Black Theology is rooted in the thesis that there are theologies and best-practice models that have come out of the Black Church in America and Africa that are meant from God to be a gift to the whole church. You can’t present Post-Black Theology though without first dealing with Black Theology.

Black theology is a theology for Black people. Black theology is about a biblical understanding that God, thru Jesus, identifies with the historical suffering and current social disparities facing Black people. Theologian James Cone and Religious and African-American Studies Scholar, Cornell West are the pioneers of Black Liberation Theology. Black Liberation Theology has connections to Liberation Theology coming out of Latin America. Black Liberation Theology has not been fully received within evangelicalism because one, it’s focused on God identifying with the conditions facing Black people and two, it has elements which seem more rooted in marxism and humanism than Scripture. South African theologian Allan Boesak has offered a version of Black Liberation Theology that is more palatable for evangelical tastes.

Post-Black Theology, though not labeled that, begins with African-American theologians and organic scholars such as Howard Thurman, Martin Luther King Jr., Tom Skinner, and John Perkins. Thru these leaders we find the foundation of Reconciliation Theology. Reconciliation Theology is about the redemption, liberation, and reconciliation of both the oppressed and the oppressor. Black Liberation theology is primarily about the oppressed, with little or no focus on the transformation of the oppressor.

Post-Black theology also includes a more authentic missional ecclesiology. The Black Church has been a missional church since its inception. The Civil Rights Movement is both a missional and emergent movement before European-American pastors and theologians began the discussion. Hip Hop culture today is both a Post-Black movement and the most visible sign of post-modernism. Because it is a movement of urban African-American, Asian, and Hispanic youth, it is marginalized by the dominant culture. If the church in the United States is truly going to be missional it must learn to advance the Kingdom of God in an ever-increasing multi-ethnic, multicultural, urban, global, technological, and hip hop reality.

The Black Church is missional because it has also been engaging culture for justice and transformation as well as being a development center for the empowerment of African-Americans to become Post-Black leaders. If not for the Black Church influence on some level, there would be no Post-Black leaders such as President Barak Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell, or Tony Dungy. Whether in their generation, their parents, or grandparents, the Black Church had influence.

I will spend time in future posts breaking down further Post-Black Theology. Stay tuned and I would love your thoughts.

Holy Hip Hop and Calvinism: An Odd Marriage Indeed

May 10, 2011   //   by efremsmith   //   hip hop, justice, race, the church, theology  //  46 Comments

In the recent edition of Christianity Today there is a story on the marriage between Holy Hip Hop (or Christian Rap) and Calvinism (or Reformed Theology). Contemporary Reformed Theologians such as John Piper and John MacArthur are having a major influence on Holy Hip Hop artists such as LaCrae and Flame. Though I have some issues with this, I understand the reasons why. First let me present my issue with this odd marriage.

Hip Hop influenced entirely by Calvinism is no Hip Hop at all. Reformed Theology, though it contains some theological elements that I totally agree with should not be the only or primary theology influencing Holy Hip Hop. Calvinism is Eurocentric in nature and in the United States of America has evolved into a theology driven by the privileged. Hip Hop, Holy or Secular is about the engaging and presenting of the issues surrounding a sub-culture of the historically marginalized of urban America.

True Hip Hop is constructed around the elements of the emcee, the deejay, the b-boy or b-girl, the graffiti artist, and most importantly, knowledge of God for knowledge of self. The original principles are peace, love , community, and having fun. Hip Hop originally was about providing an artistic and social alternative to gang violence, drug dealing, prostitution, and other negative elements of urban culture. It was also about speaking truth to power. It was about poor urbanites feeling rejected by upwardly mobile people of color.

This doesn’t mean that the culture was ever Christian in nature, although there has always been a respect on some level for God. Today, many are stating that true Hip Hop is dead. It’s been replaced by a European-American controlled record industry that makes money off of exploiting the very things that Hip Hop culture was created to go against. Please get this point, secular Hip Hop is being influenced by people outside the culture, who have turn it into a contemporary plantation.

Now back to Holy Hip Hop. Holy Hip Hop is being controlled by people outside of the culture theologically. I have great respect for John Piper, but I question his understanding of Hip Hop culture. I pastored a Hip Hop and multi-ethnic, evangelical church in Minneapolis for almost eight years. Dr. Piper never consulted us on our theological or philosophical approach to this type of Kingdom advancing ministry model. Myself, Rev. Phil Jackson, and Dr. Daniel Hodge have been labeled as Hip Hop Theologians. We all count this as an honor. We have written scholarly works on the subject. We desire to love, mentor, and embrace our brothers and sisters in Holy Hip Hop. Holy Hip Hop artist need to know scholarly and organic theologians such as Tom Skinner, John Perkins, Brenda Salter-McNeil, Soon-Chan Rah, Martin Luther King Jr., James Cone, and Howard Thurman.

I want to make it clear that I don’t want to put down Dr. Piper. I have great respect for him and would love to have healthy dialogue with him on this subject and others. What I am saying is that Calvinism cannot be the lone theology shaping Holy Hip Hop. This is why currently most Holy Hip Hop takes place at Evangelical events, in front of predominately European-American audiences. I don’t blame Holy Hip Hop artists for this though. I put the full blame on the African-American church, which has done a great job over the years of rejecting Holy Hip Hop artists. Because the African-American Church has made orphans of Holy Hip Hop artists, theologians such as John Piper have become spiritual fathers to the movement. I can’t hate on Dr. Piper for that. I do want Holy Hip Hop artists to know though, that they are loved by many African-American pastors, I being one. I’m also willing to bring to the table liberation and reconciliation theology, so that the movement might be true Hip Hop and true Jesus. Let’s come together for the sake of the Kingdom.

Featured in Publication of Duke Divinity School

Mar 2, 2011   //   by efremsmith   //   hip hop, reconciliation, the church  //  No Comments

I am honored to be featured in this publication of Duke Divinity School. Check it out and let me know what you think.

The Future of Christian Music?

Because I’m very fortunate to speak at a lot of christian churches, conferences, and other events, I get a chance to hear a lot of christian music. In general, christian music can be broken down into the following categories; contemporary christian, gospel, southern gospel, urban gospel, holy hip hop, and traditional hymns.

To be more specific though, you can break christian music down to black christian music and white christian music. Many people don’t want to talk about this, but that’s the current state of christian music and it’s been that way for a long time. It’s race-based and is mostly influenced by places like Nashville and Detroit in the United States. Even when I preach at a Latino church, the praise and worship is mainly contemporary christian(white); it’s just being sung in spanish.

Even christian radio is segregated. Rarely, does a ccm station play urban gospel and never have I heard a black gospel/urban gospel station play ccm. As a matter of fact there aren’t very many black gospel/urban gospel stations, but mostly shows that last about two hours weekly hosted by Be Be Winans or Dr. Bobby Jones. Why is it that in this multicultural reality, christian music is for the most part, race music? This shows how far behind christian music is compared to so-called secular music.

Secular music has transcended race. A black artist like Seal to some sounds white, while Pink sounds black. A white rapper named Eminem is one of the hottest artists in what is considered a black and urban genre. Yet, we expect our multicultural, christian youth today to value christian music over secular music. You may want to push back at me (and you’re welcome to), but christian music is held captive by race and we don’t want to seem to talk about it. My theory is that this is done by secular record industry powers to keep christian music a second class genre and we need local church folks to fight against this reality.

Most christian record labels and other companies have been sold to larger secular companies. Find a christian for profit and it’s most likely owned by a company headed by someone who is not a christian. Maybe this explains it. Or maybe it’s because many christians don’t want to have healthy and real discussions about race, business marketing, and power and its impact on christians.

There is hope though. There are christian artists such as Toby Mac, Israel and New Breed, John Reuben, and Kirk Franklin who are being bold enough to cross race lines and create kingdom music. This must be the future. We must move beyond christian music enslaved to race, to a more liberating genre. I will this call kingdom music. Kingdom music is christian music set free, designed for all God’s people, also able to reach all lost people. Can I get a amen? Now what we need is a group of non profit kingdom music record labels that won’t sell out to secular companies. Can I really get a amen?

Beloved Worship and the Arts

Jun 17, 2009   //   by efremsmith   //   hip hop, the church  //  No Comments

Wow, I can’t believe it been over a week since I posted a blog. That’s way too long and I’ll work to make sure that doesn’t happen again :) I was blessed and humbled to be able to speak last week at Willow Creek’s Arts and Worship Conference. I spoke on the title, The Wonder of Beloved Worship. Using 1 John 3 as my main text, I shared about, a leading worship from the identity of the beloved verses the broken.

As I prepared for this message, I reflected a lot on art, worship, identity, and transformation. Before I accepted a call into ministry, I had dreams of becoming an actor and a singer. I was in a performing arts program in high school and majored in theater in college at Saint John’s University in Central Minnesota. It was during my senior year in college that I sensed a call into ministry, which led to my going to Luther Seminary to receive a Master of Arts degree in Theology.

Today as a pastor, I still feel that I’m an artist. I use comedy, story-telling, and singing in my preaching. As an African-American, I’ve been raised that preaching is an art form as influenced by the Black Church tradition. Leading a multicultural congregation that desires to engage culture for Kingdom purposes, has allowed me to connect my passion as an artist with one for theology as well. I believe that it is important for the church to equip and empower artists within the experience of corporate worship. One of the ways we do this at Sanctuary Covenant Church is through a monthly Hip Hop worship experience. I’m excited about spoken-word artist, break-dancers, rappers, and deejays being apart of a church worship experience. 

Many artists outside of the church are using their gifts out of brokenness. There is a great opportunity through the church to also equip artists through Christian formation to use their gifts out of the identity of being God’s beloved. Beloved worship is about artists using their gifts as an extension and expression of God’s love that lives might be transformed. Worship in this way can be a liberating and Kingdom advancing movement.