In this series, I’m recounting the years of my life when I identified with a Christian subculture, just as that culture’s music was taking off into a new phase in its history. For a time, Christian Rap (CHH) was not just my favorite music; I was The Christian Rap Guy. Part I covered my origin story. Part II introduced the main characters in an unforgettable concert experience, and Part III showed how my faith and fandom changed after being exposed to new Christian communities. In this part, CHH and I start to distance ourselves from evangelicalism, and our relationship is never quite the same.
In the fall of 2014, Lecrae was on the Anomaly Tour, named for his album that had hit number one on the Billboard. My dad and I, still in our concert-going prime, would catch him in Milwaukee. It was primed to be a must-see concert, given that Lecrae was reaching heights no Christian rapper had achieved, Anomaly had a bevvy of concert-ready bangers, and he was touring with Andy Mineo who was, by then, his primary wingman. To me, this was the CHH version of Kanye and Jay-Z’s Watch the Throne Tour. On that tour, Yeezy and Hove had wowed city after city by doing “N—s in Paris” as an encore five, six, even seven times. It was almost certain that Lecrae and Andy would do “Say I Won’t” as the encore, and I was, going into the Riverside Theatre, considering trying to organize the crowd to be so raucous at the end of the show to demand they do it over and over.
I’m glad I didn’t try that, because it wouldn’t have worked.
There was a lot that was great about the show. Lecrae and Andy are both excellent performers, and there were several moments that rewarded us for being down in front: screaming “You Can’t Stop Me” with Andy,”; the beat dropping on “Dirty Water“; and, most especially, Lecrae’s performance of “Fear,” the best song on the album, which gives chances to shout “I ain’t never scared! Never scared, never scared!” and “JesusJesusJesusJesusJesus!” Thrilling stuff. The concert production was also tremendous, with an array of practical and digital effects.
But it wasn’t quite right.
Two years before, in Chicago, Lecrae had the entire Congress Theatre at his command. From the front to the back, people shouted and sang and gave the high hands. That night in Milwaukee, the group of us up front were separated by a fair distance from the rest of the crowd who were standing by their assigned seat. There were no chairs on the floor of the Congress, but I guarantee you if there were the crowd would have pressed up to the front. To make matters worse, the group at the front – there because we bought the early access tickets – was not necessarily cliqued up 40 deep all saved all serious. There were a lot of kids, and even the adults in the room were a little less into it than one would expect. The most telling moment was when, during a break in the show, DJ Promote was spinning some tracks and he played “Don’t Waste Your Life,” and, as is common at these things, he would cut the sound on certain lines and let the crowd carry it forward, rapping in unison.
We failed. Miserably. And this is “Don’t Waste Your Life,” at that time maybe the most recognizable CHH song ever written.
At the end of the show, Lecrae and Andy only came out to do “Say I Won’t” because artists just schedule encores; we didn’t do nearly enough shouting to make them come back out. The crowd in the Congress Theatre would have called for another until security shut it down.
Really, against all odds, Anomaly in Milwaukee is not even one of my top 5 CHH concert experiences (probably slot it at number 8 or 9 tbh). It was awesome, of course – if nothing else had happened but Lecrae doing “Fear,” it would still have been awesome. But it wasn’t what it could, what it should, have been.
It was the same Lecrae (and the same Andy), but there was something different in the crowd. There was a youth group vibe, a mainstream vibe, that didn’t used to be there. This is not to say that youth group kids can’t know all the words to Lecrae or sing loud at a concert, and it’s not a rejection of entering the mainstream, but I believe those factors in some way contributed to this environment where Lecrae was not connecting with his audience in the way he had before.
The Anomaly Tour is not a perfect microcosm for what was happening for Lecrae and for CHH at large, and the reasons for that show’s shortcomings are not the same reasons for what would develop, but it is appropriately symbolic.
If this part of the series is brief, it is because it demands too much to do justice here, and because I started to write this series for fun, and this is the part that is most painful.
In the wake of the killings of Mike Brown and Tamir Rice (and Akai Gurley (and John Crawford (and Freddie Gray (etc. (etc.))))), many Christian rappers became vocal about police violence and other racial issues. And they were immediately lambasted for it. Sho Baraka was the first high profile artist to take this turn, earning his banishment in 2013 with the release of Talented 10th, but after Ferguson, many more would follow. Without fail, any tweet or Facebook post or song lyric about racism was met with the Evangelical party line of “stick to the Gospel.” And this has not stopped since, with one of the most visible recent examples being that [redacted for explicit language] Charlie Kirk saying that Lecrae should never be allowed to perform at churches because of his support of Raphael Warnock (that’s now SENATOR Warnock thank you Atlantaaaaa). Fans have left Lecrae and others in droves, and now CHH – once co-signed by John Freaking Piper – is absolutely estranged from Evangelicalism.
And, well, so am I.
I went through a big transformation in late 2014 and early 2015, adopting progressive views pretty much across the board but, first and foremost, on race. And I watched in horror as the Evangelical world not only remained ignorant on so many fronts, but eventually came to throw its full support behind that [redacted for explicit language] who became the 45th POTUS, not once but twice.
And so, for a time, CHH was one of the few places where I was finding what I believed to be a just and compassionate Gospel being preached. It was a haven for me in a Christian world I no longer recognized. Now I could listen to my favorite artists rap not only about God, but about the applications of Christian faith in an unjust world. The unmatched achievement is Sho Baraka’s The Narrative in 2016, but the flow of socially-conscious CHH has persisted. Swoope’s verse on Propaganda’s “We No Entiende” from just a few weeks ago is…man. MAN. I was able to feel this new community each summer at Legacy Conference, as bold cries for justice, like Propaganda’s jaw-dropping “20 Years,” were met with approval, not criticism. Christian Rap was still my favorite type of music, and I was still finding content and community in that world that was a great blessing to my soul – something that still seemed, at times, almost too good to be true.
But I wasn’t really The Christian Rap Guy anymore. My sense of Christian identity and my love of this Rap music were no longer in harmony. The faith I found in CHH, the faith that led me to write my Master’s thesis on Black Jesus after years thinking about Bonhoeffer in Harlem, wasn’t something I found reflected in the Christian communities I had grown up in.
This fission also set the stage for the next significant in my development, which was a waning interest in the music itself. In the last five years or so, the sound of much of CHH has mirrored mainstream rap in adopting trap-influenced sounds. Lecrae even released a mixtape called Let the Trap Say Amen. And I just don’t like this type of music as much, even if I’m down with the lyrics. Maybe 18-year-old me, feening for a game of pickup basketball, would have loved all this music, but as I got older, my musical tastes started to evolve and slow down. I was still finding CHH I liked, but not as easily as I had in the Golden Age.
And so – what? – is this the end of the story? Estranged from Evangelicalism and falling out of love with contemporary rap, I went from being The Christian Rap Guy to a guy who occasionally listens to Christian Rap?
Well, considering Christian Rap may or may not have made me move to Oregon, I’d say no. No, the story’s not over yet.
In the fifth and final part, I find a new niche.
Forth now, and fear no darkness.
Soli Deo Gloria