Faith, Not Rap, Fueled Great Black Leaders
Coretta Scott King died as black history month began — and her death helps remind us that most black leaders came from strong faith based communities.
Booker T. Washington, Fredrick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks considered themselves committed Christians with a mission to set things right. They inspired generations upon generations of young black Americans.
Yet today something else seems to capturing the hearts and minds of many young black Americans.
It’s a cultural movement that instills anger to the point of utter rage.
Young men sporting baggy pants, high-top sneakers, chunk jewelry with a stocking cap pulled over their head show off this cultural trend. It started in the poor black inner-city and raced across the country breaking ethic and racial barriers.
It’s now even turned into an international cultural movement — hip-hop culture, which originates from hip-hop music, currently among the most popular and lucrative music in the world.
Most music critics call the most celebrated and influential form of hip-hop music gangster rap, known as the slang gangsta rap. Gangsta rap vents rage over the plight of inner-city life but idealizes vengeance, violence, drugs and uncontrolled promiscuity. It measures success only in terms of the things and the pleasures that money can buy.
The rise of this kind of music spells moral chaos for millions of young people.
When it comes to hip-hop culture, Christian leaders agree on one thing: They must find a way to break the toxic hold of gangsta rap over so many youth. But Christian leaders don’t agree on how to do this.
Two schools of thought stand opposed to one another. On one side, you have Christian musicians like Joseph Simmons, better known as “Run” and Daryl McDaniels, known as “DMC.” They are now born-again Christian rappers, but at one time Run-DMC were the most successful rappers in the music industry, and their music reflected the gangsta image. Now, when they dance and rap onstage, the music “stays clear of misogyny, gun imagery, cussing, lewd gestures and the like.
Run and DMC pull in large audiences, which means Christian rap sells. Their recent recording, Down with the King, received rave reviews from the hip-hop community and the secular press. Some Catholic musicians perform Christian rap as well. Take for example, Father Stan Fortuna, a priest with the community of the Franciscan Friars of Renewal. He uses his musical talent to evangelize the youth through rap.
Advocates of Christian rap see this as the most effective way to combat the enormous social impact of gangsta rap. They argue it’s a smart way to fight fire with fire or to beat the enemy at his own game.
The reasoning goes something like this: Rap music is here to stay, so try to reform it into something healthy. It’s naive to think that the MTV generation will drop hip-hop music to move their feet to the beat of Mozart or Beethoven. That’s not going to happen. Solution: Baptize it. In practice, this means changing the lyrics of rap music to reflect a Christian message.
Will this strategy work?
Absolutely not, says Rev. Calvin Butts, a black Protestant minister. Butts considers all rap music ungodly music that serves only to tear down the moral fiber of the black community. To stress his opposition to rap music, he gathered up a number of hip-hop albums and had a steamroller pulverize them. This symbolic gesture, for Rev. Butts, expressed the attitude that youth ought to take towards rap music. It’s the position of total disengagement.
Are Christians like Butts justified in their condemnation of all rap music, even Christian rap? Or should they take a more nuanced and compromised approach to the phenomenon of rap music and hip-hop culture?
This entire debate centers around one fundamental question: Is rap music compatible with Christianity? For anyone who really understands the nature of rap music, the only answer is No.
From a moral viewpoint, I see two fatal flaws intrinsic to the nature of rap music that make it incompatible with Christianity.
Let’s begin with the rhythmic structure of rap music. The intense rhythm-focused beat of rap music focuses on the basest passions in human nature. It feeds on anger, hate, lust and similar sentiments. Consequently, it will take more than a change of lyrics to make rap music Christian. The entire rhythmic structure would need to change. But if that were done, it would cease to be rap music.
The fact that rap music brings out the worst passions in people means it tends to generate decadent lifestyles. Many rap artists live out the bizarre situations they rap about. For instance, rap superstar 50 Cent often raps about his fixation with guns. He has been shot 11 times. The rap icon Eazy-E pioneered the aggressive sound of gangsta rap in the 1990s. He died of AIDS at the age of 22.
My point is this: Rap culture doesn’t provide good role models. It will never produce a Rosa Parks or a Martin Luther King Jr.
Only one thing will provide America with souls like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. — Christianity.
Legionary Father Andrew McNair
is a theology professor at
Mater Ecclesiae College in
Greenville, Rhode Island.
- February 19-25, 2006