Here’s an article idea: how Christian rap in the age of black lives matter reveals the contours of white evangelicalism. This could be published in a popular venue, but with some work I think it could be an academic journal article. Who would publish something like this?
Ok, why open up a half-baked idea like this to the public? Historians can play a useful role not only by presenting history to the public, but by being historians in public. The actual work of researching and writing involves lots of questions, lots of confusion, lots of false starts and dead ends. When we only allow the public to see a polished final product, we’re not actually modeling the kinds of thought-processes and critical thinking that are so desperately needed in the public sphere.
Here are some early thoughts on the intersection of rap, whiteness, and evangelicalism.
Lecrae is the most obvious personification of this. He was invited into a world of white Christians and it seemed great for a while. Then he stumbled over invisible tripwires. He embraced evangelicalism, and found that its embrace of him had some fine print attached to it. The terms and conditions included: be an avatar of Christian colorblindness.
With the rise of black lives matter, Lecrae was no longer willing/able to play that role. Then the backlash began.
In his early music, Lecrae rarely mentioned race explicitly. His use of black slang and urban themes made his music “cool” for white Christian kids without necessarily being threatening. When race entered into his lyrics, it came as a foil, a false distinction rendered unimportant by the common spiritual need of humanity or the common mission of the church. In his first album, Real Talk, the song “Tha Church” says:
Cause God’s wrath is something we all gotta meet
It don’t matter if you black, white, Jew, or Greek
God’s judgment of sin made no racial distinctions. Presented with Pauline allusions, this was a message about race white listeners were happy to hear. In 2008, Lecrae released Rebel. Like his first album, Rebel was full of references to scripture and theology. The most prominent use of race in the album was in the popular song “Don’t Waste Your Life.”
Suffer, yeah, do it for Christ
You’re trying to figure what to do with your life
If you make a lot of money hope you’re doing it right
Because the money is God’s you better steward it right
And stay focused, you ain’t got no ride
Your life ain’t wrapped up in what you drive
The clothes you wear, the job you work
The color your skin, naw you’re a Christian first
An unusually alert listener could possibly understand Lecrae’s reference to skin color here as a rebuke of white evangelicalism, a religious tradition where race shapes everything from theology to education to home purchases. But this is almost certainly not what Lecrae meant, and it’s not what his white listeners were likely to hear. If they heard a rebuke, it was a rebuke of black Christians for being too race-conscious, for being insufficiently colorblind.
Lecrae’s latest single shows the distance he’s traveled:
Another murder on the television
Man, somebody go turn it off
I spoke my mind, I got attacked for it
Thought these people had my back boy
Then they tellin’ me I asked for it
I guess I’m just another black boy
And then they killed Tamir Rice
And they just go on with they life
In this song and in interviews, Lecrae frankly admitted that his encounter with white Christians drove him to a place of despair.
To me an article along these lines would be fascinating. But what would it tell us that we don’t already know? My sense is that this would be an article about nuance and texture more than a groundbreaking thesis. We know that white evangelicalism has problems with race. But this is an interesting and revealing way to explore that. Questions:
How does this relate to Christian radio and its playlists dominated by white males?
What does this tell us about how colorblindness functions at the intersection of culture and theology?
What rappers other than Lecrae would the article explore? Sho Baraka? Trip Lee?
Is there a way to more precisely figure out the demographics of Lecrae’s fan base?
What kinds of sources would reveal white evangelical opinion? Social media posts?
How is colorblindness best understood? Is it a theology in evangelicalism? Is it a feeling? Is it a gatekeeper to the community? If you reject colorblindness do you become a probationary evangelical?
Woah…just thought of this: what change over time have we seen since the reception of DC Talk in the early 90s? There’s an idea: white evangelicalism and rap, from DC Talk to Lecrae. Just typing that makes me laugh.
Has anyone written about this stuff?