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Holy Hip-Hop: Hostile Gospel

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Holy Hip-Hop – it is not just for the deeply religious and positive thinking. Today, rappers from the mainstream are moving away from the secular and reconnecting with a Christian faith that was once just a hush-hush topic in Hip-Hop circles. With a Rap community that is filled with misogyny, drug and alcohol abuse, and endless violence, Hip-Hop’s need for a balance has turned many listeners and artists back to their faith in order to reconcile a society’s turmoil. Former Three 6 Mafia member Mr. Del, rapper Shawn Pen (formerly Lil Shawn) and producer Rockwilder are just a few prominent names who have recently revamped their music into Christian Rap. And smaller and up-and-coming artists like 2Five are still fueling the Christian Rap movement with their own brand of in your face preaching.The integration of Christian values within the realm of Hip-Hop isn’t a new concept. Tupac nearly put himself on a pedestal right next to (and even above) Jesus himself as he filled his music with images of himself leading his disciples to a better life. On the cover of his first posthumous record, The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, the image of Tupac nailed to a cross pinned him as a Hip-Hop martyr. Though Tupac used his thug image to come off as a gangster to be reckoned with, he always portrayed himself as a “Black Jesus.””In times of war we need somebody raw, rally the troops/Like a Saint that we can trust to help to carry us through/Black Jesus He’s like a Saint that we can trust to help to carry us through,” rapped Tupac on The Outlawz’ “Black Jesuz.” Tupac’s connection with Christian and Muslim ideas is an obvious part of his upbringing; as a son of the Black Panther, he took his personal struggles to the street and found solace in his faith. His music relayed himself as a warrior of God just trying to make it in this world. As Tupac took a no holds bar approach to his music, other well-known artists have flirted with ideas of Christianity in their music. MC Hammer took off as a pop star joke in the 90s, but even after the fame of “U Can’t Touch This,” Hammer’s biggest US hit was his Christian-infused song “Pray” (peaking at #2 on the Billboard Charts). Hammer even went on to start a short-lived pastoral career – the truth remains even after being Hip-Hop’s punch line, MC Hammer wasn’t afraid to out his Christian side (“up” was the only direction for him to go at that point). [MC Hammer "Pray"]Even the dawg himself, DMX has fluttered between his street cred and Christianity to come to new terms musically. In 2006, DMX released the Scott Storch produced “Lord Give Me A Sign,” calling out to Jesus as his savior. “In the name of Jesus/Devil I rebuke you for what I go through/For trying to make me do what I used to.” While Tupac infused his music with the whole world around him (druggin’, bangin’, hoochin’, and believin’), it begs the question, does a few Christian themed songs make you a real Christian artist? Today, more and more Hip-Hop artists are not only being “saved,” but they are also bringing their Christian values to the forefront of the music. When Memphis-based Three 6 Mafia hit the scene, Hip-Hop was taken by storm with the group’s new brand on “crunk” music. With chart-topping albums and nationwide exposure, Mr. Del was getting ready to release his own solo album when his musical career and personal faith took a turn. “While sitting in service not really paying attention, God spoke to me and said, ‘Come out and I want you to do exactly what you’re doing now but do it for me,’” Mr. Del says. “My response to God was you have to take care of me and he said, ‘Trust me.’ So, I have been rolling with God every since.”But bringing faith into his music didn’t change Mr. Del’s love for Hip-Hop. “I came from Three 6 Mafia, and I was able to bring the same passion and drive to what I’m doing now which makes me different from the norm.” [Mr. Del “U Can Do It 2”]Today, Mr. Del heads up The Holy South Movement – his own musical imprint. Pushing aside the idea of the “Dirty South,” Mr. Del started his faith-based record label in attempt to allow artists with a heavy Christian backdrop to shine musically, and to bring the idea of the “Holy” South back into mainstream Hip-Hop. “Hip-Hop currently lacks substance and the Holy Hip-Hop movement can provide that substance through God’s anointing,” Mr. Del says. When you lose faith in the streets and everything you knew growing up, where do you turn? For Shawn Pen, rekindling his faith was the next best step for him to grow personally and musically. Shawn Pen went from rapping about his pimp status and gangsta lifestyle on his 1992 album The Voice In The Mirror, to serving a five-year federal prison sentence. With a hit Notorious B.I.G. collaboration, “Dom Perignon,” turning his music towards faith was never expected. “Coming home after a five-year Federal stretch, I lost all faith in the streets after being snitched on by street dudes who I considered close friends,” Shawn Pen says. “Also, I personally didn’t feel right being a negative influence lyrically to the many kids that listen, love and purchase the music.” But for Shawn Pen it wasn’t just a change in ideology that led him back to religion – it had always been a part of him. “When I was in the streets getting money, I always had a foot in the music industry. What they knew of me personally never coincided with the music I made because the two were so night and day.”Christian rap music has in some form or another always been part of the Hip-Hop community (does anyyone remember Sketch and Frankie’s choir rap “Are You Down With G.O.D.” from Sister Act 2?) – unfortunately, it’s been easier for record labels to promote profanity and music with high production value. “The spotlight is put on the only thing we have and that is the glorification of where most of us come from,” Shawn Pen says. And that’s where Christian rap artists like Shawn Pen take a stand and start rapping about what they know best, and that’s God. “The reason why there’s a wedge between Gospel rap and secular rap at radio is because one didn’t keep up with the other when it came to the production and the rapper’s flow causing it to fall short in quality,” he says. “All it is, is positive.” Hear it right, Christian Rap is a movement of its own. Some may say its gaining popularity because of listeners’ boredom with mainstream rap, but the music does have its own following. It is a different world of artists who are accepting their personal faith and spreading positive values through God. Shawn Pen’s not a perfect man with a clean record (and who really is these days?). “The kids in my neighborhood knew me for three things: rap, coke and jail. Now, they still respect me on many different levels because they’ve seen me ball, fall, leave and return with encouraging words about staying in school, remaining sucker free and doing it legally.”In the same realm, rapper 2Five has been coming up in the industry as a heavyweight Christian artist, but for him, it’s not about pushing religious values onto others; instead, he’s using Hip-Hop as a platform to spread his message of savior. “Gospel rap tends to cater to the ‘already saved’ where as I’ve been called to reach out to the streets, the broken, the lost, etcetera,” 2Five says. So many from the Hip-Hop community, including artists and audience, are stuck in this ‘hood mentally where “making it” means reaching a goal by any means necessary. Today’s mainstream rap music has cultivated the ideals of the street gangsta, but that’s where Christian-themed rap music comes in to foster a new way life. Current Hip-Hop is “in a state of denial,” says 2Five. “It lacks substance lyrically, musically. The passion to do it is found in what some folk can get out of you with their nonsense, instead of pouring something good into your life. The wack ones won’t admit it ’cause it’s working for them right now.”[2Five  “We Won’t Stop”]Christianity within any music is viewed as a taboo subject, the only acceptable form being Gospel. Specifically within Hip-Hop, Christian values as a basis for music is seen as a weakness, and a dependence on faith is only for Christians, an opinion 2Five disagrees with. “The contemporary Christian music market and Christians in general keep calling it ‘Christian/Gospel Rap,’ therefore it means they only want Christians to buy it!” 2Five says. “How dumb is that when we’re supposed to reach the lost?” And while 2Five uses his music to give hope to those lost in negative values of the streets, Christian Rap music is slowly finding acceptance within Hip-Hop. “In the past, HHH has not met nor exceeded standards for quality, talent, creativity, and basic uniqueness,” 2Five says. In 2002, KRS-One’s released gospel rap album Spiritual Minded, which failed to break any musical barriers, but a mere two years later, Kanye West took the mainstream by storm with “Jesus Walks” proving that religious ideas within Hip-Hop have a place and production value doesn’t have to suffer because of it. Today, that’s all changing as we see bigger names entering the Christian Rap realm. Grammy Award winning producer Rockwilder is giving mainstream Hip-Hop a rest and taking his music back to his roots in church as he works with new Christian artists, and even DMX plans on taking another stab with his upcoming gospel rap double album Walk With Me Now and You’ll Fly With Me Later. [Kanye West “Jesus Walks”]So even though the future of Christian Rap is unknown, it is fact that this branch of Hip-Hop is not just another form of art. Christian Rap is a movement that has embraced many of the fallen, but will this music save the current state of Hip-Hop from destroying itself? Maybe, but only when Christian Rap is accepted fully and integrated into the community as a norm. “[We need to] start calling it Hip-Hop with a message,” 2Five says. “[And start to] embrace and foster positive relationships with our communities instead of pushing religion.” As Christian Rap barrels through the boundaries of mainstream Hip-Hop, more and more artists are using faith to serve a positive message to a community in dire need of saving. It’s time for Hip-Hop as a community to stop glorifying violence and materialism, and what better way than using the common ideals of religion for an audience to relate to? For a musical genre branded with a bad rap, Christian Rap may be able to break this negative cycle. Hip-Hop could be on the verge of musical resurrection with a faithful backing.

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