This is Part 3 of a four-part series on The State of Christian hip hop. In this series we will address Artistry, Balancing Business and Ministry, and Engaging the Culture.
Christian hip hop’s ministerial approach inflamed one of its leaders into calling for a reformation.
“To keep it one hunnid, a lot of it’s whack. Forget Christian rap, you can have it back,” said Flame on his controversial “#1 Spot” track which has the entire genre talking.
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The conversation— music’s role in a Christian artist’s ministry—isn’t young or unique to hip hop, however. Believers in the industry as a whole have debated it for decades. Nevertheless, the lighting of the recent flame has amplified the argument, almost like never before.
“At some point in your artistry as a Christian, you have to expose [the gospel],” he told Wade-O Radio. Flame spoke as if his opinion was absolute truth, but for some artists, it isn’t as black and white.
Japhia Life, who believes artists are capable of fulfilling the great commission without putting the gospel in their music, is one of them. He claimed that presenting the gospel doesn’t accomplish much, if anything, if listeners don’t accept or understand it.
How does an artist help listeners accept and understand the gospel?
Life stressed that building relationships, an aspect of disciple making which he said isn’t emphasized enough, is the key.
“My approach is to do life with these people,” he said. “To me, it seems a little one sided when I hear artists say, ‘If you’re going to go to the culture, just make sure you give the gospel.’ Well, if your only concern is if I give the gospel or not, that shows me how much you really care about the lost because at the end of the day, you’re just a presenter.”
While Life has nothing against artists giving the gospel in their music, he explained that he’d rather show his listeners what the gospel looks like, as opposed to simply telling it to them. Ultimately, though, he believes there are countless ways to engage culture.
Phanatik, who recently released a book on the topic titled “The Art of Christianity,” shares that view. He instead showed more concern for what artists shouldn’t do—engage the culture sinfully. As long as it isn’t immoral, have at it, said the Cross Movement rapper.
Whether or not it’s tolerable for artists to distance themselves from the Christian rapper label, on the other hand, is a debate that Phanatik possesses a more-defined stance on.
He’s vehemently against it.
Phanatik told the story of how Cross Movement had always intended to engage hip-hop culture with its theology-rich music—which was directed toward a northeast hip-hop scene saturated with non-Christian theology from groups like the Five Percent Wu-Tang Clan. Instead, the church assumed it was Cross Movement’s target audience due to The Ambassador, Da’ T.R.U.T.H. and company’s heavy, theological content.
When Cross Movement began to receive letters from Christians claiming the rap group had taught them more than their pastors, they were forced to target the church alongside its original burden, hip-hop culture.
Despite that burden, Cross Movement garnered so much success in the church that targeting fellow believers became the norm for much of the Christian hip-hop scene, so much so that Phanatik nearly went on a campaign urging artists to present a broader message. He applauded Lecrae and Sho Baraka’s recent shifts to the mainstream which allowed Phanatik to stay off the campaign trail, but he didn’t clap for how they went about their transition—denying that they were “Christian rappers.”
“Even though many people counted it as a victory that these secular outlets were now accepting Lecrae, I counted it as a defeat because what victory is it if the world is telling you, ‘Oh, you’re willing to disassociate yourself from the Christian label? We’ll play you now,’” he asked. “That’s no victory at all, especially not in light of the long line of succession that have come after the Sho’s and Lecrae’s. They’re taking a step backward if acceptance is because you’re not Christian art.”
Phanatik couldn’t care less if a Christian artist chooses to label his music gospel. On the flipside, he does believe distancing oneself from the label is a grave danger—that it’s the equivalent of saying, “Don’t worry, I’m not here to preach,” which sounds like wisdom, but limits an artist’s potential impact.
“The second you deny the title fits, you tell people, ‘It’s OK to treat me as generic,’” he said. “What that does is not just allow people to treat you as generic, but now your message is generic. I don’t think people understand that dynamic. If you give people the right to treat you generically, they’re going to treat you and your message generically.”
Shai Linne’s take on the debate didn’t oppose Phanatik’s, but he brought a different perspective to the table.