Hip Hop Under Siege?

Gerard Bonner In this editorial, GOSPELflava.com's Gerard Bonner delves into the continuing divide between Gospel hip hop artists and those who think that they've got it all wrong.

Over the last twenty years, hip-hop culture and its ensuing musical backdrop have gained prominence within the mainstream community, becoming one of the world's most dominant musical entities.

From LL Cool J and Will Smith to Kanye West and 50 Cent, hip hop has transcended racial and economic lines to impact every demographic at some level. With this level of influence, there is an ever-growing concern about the state of the genre. The musical art form has transformed from a medium that has addressed the ills of society and its need for social and economic change to a money-generating machine, trading social consciousness for a quick dollar. The genre has undergone great scrutiny for its lyrical content, which primarily promotes images of money, power, and sex, all the while experiencing chart-breaking record sales and lucrative business deals, seemingly solidifying this prevailing image.

This controversy within the secular arena has spilled over into holy hip-hop, albeit for very different reasons. Since its inception, there has been an ongoing controversy relative to the validity and authenticity of the genre. Several strident activist groups have recently fueled this debate to an even greater level, causing a most unusual divide within the body of Christ over this burgeoning art form.

Let's spend some time examining the background.

Over the last three years, G. Craige Lewis and Ex Ministries have launched a campaign to "expose the truth" about hip-hop. The result of Lewis' studies have resulted in him putting out three DVDs, titled "The Truth Behind Hip Hop", including the recently-recorded Volume Three of this series, titled "Antichrist Superstar". On these DVDs and in his speeches, Lewis describes his study of the origin of hip-hop, tracing it back to ancient Egyptian civilization. In brief, his position is that hip-hop is the modern-day tool that the Devil is using to deceive today's generation. Lewis references varying experiences he had while researching lyrics from groups such as Bone Thugs-n-Harmony and Three 6 Mafia.

Where things have grown a bit cloudy is that Lewis includes Holy Hip-Hop and urban gospel under the umbrella of hip-hop "tools of the enemy". Lewis has publicly cited issues with not just secular artists, but urban gospel artists, including Tonéx, Hezekiah Walker, Kirk Franklin, Kierra Sheard, The Cross Movement, Platinum Souls and countless others. Through his website (exministries.com) and nationwide speaking engagements, Lewis has aimed to discredit numerous urban gospel artists in his attempts to prove his theory regarding the truth of hip-hop.

One of his ongoing issues with these urban artists is his belief that they compromise the message and presentation of the Gospel by infusing hip-hop within their musical offerings and collaborating with secular artists, among other things. At one point, he was very vocal about issues with gospel trailblazer Kirk Franklin, referencing Franklin's public confession of addiction to pornography while writing and performing the platinum-selling hit "Stomp". Most recently, he's posted commentary regarding Franklin's 2005 appearance on Oprah Winfrey, stating that the appearance was designed to be self-serving and was unable to help the body of Christ. He has since stated issues with artists like Da T.R.U.T.H. and The Cross Movement, claiming that the artists have no impact because of their denominational backgrounds and their affiliation with hip-hop.

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Recently, the Holy Hip-Hop community has responded to Lewis and Ex Ministries' claims regarding the nature of Holy Hip-Hop at large. Most notably, The Ambassador, front man of the East Coast based The Cross Movement, has posted a sound and detailed rebuttal to the claims of Ex Ministries.

So what are we to think?

Regardless of your position on hip-hop, secular music, and urban gospel, there are several truths that can't be denied and deserve to be investigated.

We must remember that the validity and power of music is found in its lyrics. Though instrumental presentations can evoke emotions, it is the lyrical content of the offering that contains true power. "The Star Spangled Banner" will forever be America's national anthem, whether supported by a classical orchestral background, a syncopated jazz beat, or a booming bass line with synthesized horns.

The same is true for the Gospel, for it is the lyrical content of the music that makes a song a "Gospel song". As God is unlimited, so is the ability to musically present the Gospel.

Too often, some in the body of Christ are guilty of condemning the things that they do not understand. Many look to vilify the artists and supporters of the urban Gospel movement, and state that the art form has no spiritual validity because of its presentation.

But there must be a clear line drawn between spiritual validity and personal preference. Because one prefers apple pie instead of chocolate cake doesn't mean that all cake is bad and has no redeeming worth or value. The fact of the matter is that the Gospel can be presented in several avenues.

Whether it comes across the pulpit on a Sunday morning, a theatrical presentation on Broadway, or a cinematic presentation, if Jesus is being lifted up, and if He is being presented consistent with Who scripture says that He is and what He has done, then this is a presentation of the Gospel.

We have to work hard to avoid using position and influence to preach personal preferences, and rather, use that power to promote Christ.

One of the tragedies in this ongoing debate is that there seems to be little focus on what's really needed in the culture. While Lewis and Ex Ministries look to expose and poke holes in the ministries of prominent Gospel artists, the generation is desperately in need of music with a Christ-filled and inspirational message.

Some will argue that the term "inspirational" is a watered-down term for the Gospel. However the reality is that, in a world filled with natural disasters of a local and global nature, the world is looking for inspiration to do better and encouragement that remind all that troubles will not last forever.

Seeing that the secular music industry is not in the position to provide this (since artists in that realm are searching just like their listeners are), the responsibility falls on those who claim the name of Christ.

So, is there really harm in Donnie McClurkin and Kirk Franklin covering "Ooh Child" and reminding all that a brighter day is on the way? Certainly that message coming from ministers of the gospel will impact and inspire Hurricane Katrina victims much quicker than rhetoric and foolish arguing over the authenticity of McClurkin and Franklin as Gospel artists.

The Word of God instructs us to do everything in love. God tells us that love thinks no evil, is not puffed up, and endures all things. Attacking our brothers and sisters in the name of proving a point is not representative of the Christ that we serve. As the body of Christ, we need to seek out our own personal relationship with Christ so that we don't give an audience to those who would put down our brothers in order to lift up their own personal agendas.

The "truth" about hip-hop is the same as the "truth" of any other element of the world's fallen culture, be that jazz, pop, classical music, poetry, theatre or cinema. The Lord has placed us on this earth to be the light to the world. Light is only necessary in areas of darkness.

Hip-hop frequently does contain darkness —we're not saying that it doesn't. But it doesn't have to. And it's certainly not our job to throw out an art form simply because others use it for worldly or fleshly purposes. Rather, it's our opportunity to fulfill our God-given purpose and be the light to hip-hop that cannot be hidden. It's our option to transform it.

It's the same reason that God has placed the vast majority of us in jobs in the milieu of a secular workspace. We're not there solely for a paycheck. Rather, God has given us a mission to infiltrate the darkness of our society with the light of Christ. We've been given this assignment on our jobs and Christian artists have been given the same task in the music industry.

We shouldn't look to leave our job because everyone around us in unsaved. In fact, that's the field that God's planted us in so that we can gather a mighty harvest. Running from it solves nothing. Cursing it solves nothing. Staying and making an impact is the solution.

So is hip-hop under siege? We all are at war. It becomes imperative that as believers, we understand the nature of the war that we're fighting. The enemy wants us to fight each other, and if we're not careful, we'll get caught up in a war of words fighting over what should and shouldn't be done in music and church, all the while missing the war that we're supposed to be fighting.

Let's be encouraged to not concentrate our energy in warring against our brothers and sisters in Christ. Certainly, ingesting toxic lyrical content is unhealthy for anyone's spiritual well being and a consistent unhealthy spiritual diet will lead to death.

Instead of focusing our energies on Gospel artists who embrace hip-hop and urban presentations, let's focus on providing a healthy spiritual smorgasbord for this culture that will allow them to experience true, healthy living.

Let's focus on introducing them to the only One who offers that. To take a page from the Apostle Paul, let's be all things to all people, in order to win them to Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 9:19-22).

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— editorial opinion by Gerard Bonner
August, 2005

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