The popularity of rap music in the Christian culture has seen a massive explosion of almost epic proportions in the past ten years. Guys like Lecrae, Trip Lee, Propaganda, etc., have taken rap music and infused it with such deep theological truths that even older Caucasian Pastors like John Piper and Mark Dever not only have music from these rappers on their ipods, but even actively promote their music by having these guys come and rap at their churches. I don’t think many people would deny that the theological beliefs of most Christian rappers is deeply biblical, but there continues to be a push-back from some in the community of faith that can’t seem to come to grips with the fact that God is honored with rap music. Are their reservations with Christian rap based on God’s Word, or does it speak to a level of bias in these individuals that has no foundation in the Bible whatsoever but can be traced back to the fact that these people just don’t like something “different” than what they are used to? A new book Does God Listen to Rap?: Christians and the World’s Most Controversial Music by Curtis “Voice” Allen that seeks to address important questions related to rap.
In Chapter One, Curtis “Voice” Allen provides his readers with the reason behind the writing of this book. I always like reading what motivates authors to write the books that they write, since it lets me know if the book was born out of controversy, trials/temptations, or out of a desire to make sure that the beliefs the author has subscribed to earlier in their Christian walk were unbiblical and in need of correction. For Curtis Allen, the whole reason this book was written was because he wanted to deal with the question of can/does Christian rap honor God. As a Christian rapper who had been faithfully rapping the truths of the Bible to a wide-ranging audience for years, Curtis freely admits that he had a somewhat biblically superficial response to all of the questions that were raised against Christian rap over the years. He seemingly had all of the answers, but those answers were born out of a desire to defend something that he felt was right, but not something he had spent time studying from Genesis to Revelation to discern God’s thoughts about. Now, the first question that most people will think of is the fact that the Bible doesn’t have anything to say about rap music, and that would be a correct statement. Therefore, Curtis didn’t begin his studies to try and find the word “rap” in the Bible, or a word similar to rap in order to prove his point, but he began his studies with the origins of music as whole. This book is the fruit of those labors.
Before dealing with music in the Bible, Curtis gives us a brief history of the rap movement in the African-American urban community so that we can understand its origins. In order to truly grasp a movement/teaching, we need to know how it started. As Curtis sees it, there are “four main causes underlying rap’s existence: The political climate in the inner cities in the 1960s and 1970s; Blaxploitation films; Kool Herc and the birth of the DJ; and The 1977 NYC blackout.” It is hard to argue the fact that race relations in the 1960s were incredibly contentious, especially with the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. Before King’s death, the black community was filled with hope that the ungodly racism that had existed for years in this country was on its way to being done away with, but all of that hope was practically extinguished with King’s death. What started out as hope suddenly turned to anger, and militant-type groups like the Black Panther Party were started. These groups were anti-Government and felt like they had to stand up for the black community against the members of the Law Enforcement Community who were trying to oppress them (see the COINTELPRO Program enacted by the FBI during King’s life and carried over even after his death). The oppression enacted against the black community led to the formation of gangs as a way to stand up for the rights of the black community against the tyranny of Law Enforcement which further strained race-relations. People in the black community began looking for a different kind of hero, though, than the ones that were being presented to them by the Black Panther Party and street gangs. In stepped “Blaxploitation Films”, which “were gritty-looking, low-budget films shot right in the inner city, which made them [the black community] feel authentic to the main target audience”.
The main things that Curtis wants us to take away from Blaxploitation Films are, “they vividly portrayed the reality of racial tension in the US, and they created space for a new kind of music.” Many in the black community began to aspire to be like the characters they were seeing in these films (“drug dealers like Superfly, pimps like Goldie in The Mack, or gangsters and murderers like Tommy Gibbs in Black Caesar”), which led to the uncivil-rights movement instead of the civil rights movement of King’s day. Also, the music in these films was distinct from the Motown sounds of older days. The sound of love was replaced with the sound of pain. In stepped Kool Herc and the Birth of the DJ that took house parties to a whole new level. Finally, we have the 1977 NYC Blackout, which saw hundreds of blacks begin looting after the lights in NYC went black for more than 24 hours due to lightning strikes and poor wiring of the power grid. The main items being stolen…DJ equipment, which led to the fact that almost every hood in the black ghetto had at least one good sound system and that led to a ton of new DJ’s and crews trying to make a name for themselves. Out of that came three rappers who formed the group, The Sugarhill Gang, and their hit song “Rapper’s Delight”. A movement was born.
Now, that was a ton of information, but again, it is necessary to know the origins of a movement so that we can fully grasp why/how it started. After Curtis takes the time to give us a brief history of the origins of rap, he then proceeds to make it abundantly clear that rap music was most definitely not “rooted in the rich soil of holiness…rap itself rose specifically from a culture of crime, drugs, violence, racism, self-promotion, sexual abuse of women, and more.”. The sinful origins of rap led the church to labeling it as “all bad, all the time.” (which is a thought process that still permeates a significant part of the church). However, is this a correct way that the church should continue to label rap music? Is it ok to “throw out the baby with the bathwater” and declare the entire movement ungodly because of its sinful origins? I submit to you, as does Curtis that this is a wrong assumption by the church, and one that needs to be rectified so that the Gospel can be furthered for the glory of God. It is far easier to label all rap music as bad because of its sinful origins, which means that a great majority of the church will try to put the movement “out of sight and out of mind”. However, rap music is a global force and one that looks to be here for a while. Therefore, instead of making broad-brush statements about it, let’s deal with the movement instead and see what the word of God says about it.
The one major indictment against rap music, if you were to poll those who are against it, is that rap music has sinful origins and is rooted in a subculture that permeates with ungodliness. Therefore, since the root is wicked, then the fruit it bares has to be wicked too, right? I would submit to you that this is a wrong way to look at Christian rap, and music as a whole for that matter. And, in order to prove that this is a wrong way to look at Christian rap, Curtis takes us on a journey through the Bible to look where music was first mentioned as well as the first song ever recorded. Curtis wants us to see the character of God and how He relates to music. The author takes a theomethodosophical approach which is “a method that starts with and remains grounded in good theology but throws in some basic logic and philosophy where needed. It’s not too different from what somebody else might call common-sense speculation.” The reason for this approach is simple: rap music is not directly mentioned in Scripture. Therefore, we have to figure out a way to examine the theological questions concerning rap music without actually having a clear text of Scripture to look at. As Tom Schreiner (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) said: “If it’s not in Scripture, you’re free to develop and stand by a position so long as it doesn’t contradict any other positions that are already clear in Scripture. Because then you’d be standing by heresy.” Consequently, Curtis chooses to examine the (false) claim that all rap music is bad because of its sinful origins by considering the origin of music, the origin of multiculturalism, and how God feels about musical styles based on the origin of music and multiculturalism.
I am not going to look at all of these positions in detail due to space constraints, but I will say that, for me, Curtis’ strongest argument against people who claim that all rap music is bad because of its sinful origins is in Theomethodosophical exercise #1 which deals with the origin of music. Most people fail to realize that music came from the ungodly line of Cain (yes, the same Cain who killed his brother Abel) and not from the godly line of Seth (which included such stalwarts of the faith as Enoch and Noah). Aren’t the obvious questions: (1) If God is Sovereignly in control (and He is), then why wouldn’t He have caused a good thing such as music to come through the godly line of Seth instead of the ungodly line of Cain?; (2) If sinful origins immediately make something bad, then why did God have music originate with Jabal (Genesis 4:17-21) and not with Noah (or someone like him)? I had honestly never thought about this point, and was truly blown away by its implications. The other points that Curtis makes (using other Theomethodosophical exercises) were equally good, and really backed up his point that claiming all rap music is bad based on its origins is both wrong and unbiblical.
Chapter 5 is a clear call from Curtis to see God as neither “pro-sin or pro-rebellion, and we shouldn’t be either”. The truth is that we are all totally depraved by nature, so God is “pro-redemption” and we should be too. The implications are profound…we should see people, and movements, the same way that God does, and that is that they are sinners in need of redemption so lets share the Gospel with them (and Christian rap is one of those ways we can get them the Gospel). To God, rap is not a thing, nor is it seen as an industry in God’s eyes, nor is it a culture…”It’s people-individuals whom he sees and knows perfectly. Some of the people you and I would understand as being part of rap or hip-hop culture are God’s sworn enemies and will remain that way forever. But some of them will one day become his children [and our brothers/sisters]. Some are already his children. And some of these are creating and performing rap music that glorifies him with amazing artfulness, holy passion, and theological clarity.” Amen!
The final chapter of the book deals with answers to the following questions: “But if rap looks like rap in terms of clothing style, thumping beats, manner of delivery, a particular approach to stage presence, and the way the crowd responds-what’s actually wrong with that? Are believers never to borrow stylistically from unbelievers just because those styles were created by some people who had sinful motivations?” These are both legit questions, and the answers provided by Curtis are strongly biblical and worth the time it takes to read them.
Does God listen to rap? Or better yet, can God get glory from Christians who rap? I would agree with Curtis that the answer has to be a resounding “YES!” However, I think it is healthy to continue to have conversations about rap music and things like just how much theology does a rap song need to contain in order to be classified as Christian (which is a current struggle in the movement and one that Curtis only briefly deals with in this book). Read this book, and ponder through its implications for your life and the Christian community as a whole.
I received this for free from Cruciform Press in exchange for this review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”