This is my first article for the Throwback Theology series and I wasn’t sure what direction to go in with it. Especially, seeing the awesome job my brother Chican George has been doing with this series. Shout out to him for that. In that vein, since it’s a changing of the guard, I thought it would be good to cover Christian Hip Hop or CHH over the years to bring in the New Year and maybe help us all to grasp the direction it is going in.
The Past: Stephen Wiley and the Beginning of CHH
CHH is an interesting entity in just the fact that it’s Christian, but even more so as you analyze its many parts that played a role in what it is today. For instance, CHH has an unusual start. Especially, in comparison to secular hip hop. Secular hip hop starts with those who are a part of a culture, who would then take aspects of that culture to create a new form of expression to communicate their values, their beliefs and their struggles. CHH didn’t exactly start that way. While hip hop was growing in popularity and spreading across the country, the Christian church took notice. The church took a form of expression that didn’t start in the church and attempted to use it to spread the good news about Jesus Christ. Not a bad idea right? Good in theory, but not in application. CHH in its early stages was considered whack and corny. This is because, to put it kindly, it was. CHH didn’t start from those within the culture. It started from without and others mimicking what they saw in this hip hop culture.
Secular hip hop started with Afrika Bambaataa and “Planet Rock” and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5 with “The Message.” Both songs are still considered classics to this day. CHH starts with its first full length album released in 1986 by a brother named Stephen Wiley and an album called “Rappin’ For Jesus.” Yeah….I know. You’re looking at that album cover and saying, “That’s cheesy!” I agree. LoL. CHH never lacked truth in its music. What it has lacked is quality and an edge to go along with the truth being delivered. When I say edge, I mean that hip hop is an aggressive form of music. When that edge or that rawness is not there, it takes away from the genre as a whole. It would be like if rock music replaced all of the electric guitars with violins. The melody may sound the same, but the feel of the music would be completely different. It would be very hard to sell it as rock music. It would work if you called it something else. Now if you want to add violins to the electric guitars, you still have rock music. You’ve kept it true to an element of the music and added a new flavor to it to make it different, but it’s still rock music. CHH took rapping and stayed true to some of the elements of the ability of rapping, but not the music. They had a rhythm and the words rhymed, but the feel, the rawness, the edge was not there. Part of what draws you into any music is that the artist is able to make you feel raw passion and emotion that they may be trying to relay. Because CHH was more so mimicking, it was not able to reach the full potential of the impact it should have. The love for Jesus has always been real, but the way it was packaged may not have always been completely genuine. Jesus when delivering the gospel always made a genuine connection with the people. He didn’t just package the truth any kind of way and give it to us. God Himself came down and lived like us. He made the truth of who He is real to us in a tangible way. As ministers of reconciliation, we have that same responsibility as we deliver this gospel to a lost and dying world.
Now I’m not saying that Stephen Wiley or anyone else is a bad person or anything like that. I believe they had sincere hearts to reach the lost by any means the truth would allow. This is what happens when you’re first. When things have advanced you can look back and see what you could have done differently, what mistakes may have been made and where you may have went wrong. Then those things done right and wrong can become a blessing to those who will come after you. As cheesy as the presentation may have been, Stephen Wiley laid a foundation for others to come behind him as Christian hip hoppers to use this art form to deliver hope to the masses. As whack or corny as it may have looked or sounded there was at least one person who received the truth and went on to pass that life giving truth to others.
CHH as a sub-genre like us as believers has a rocky start. It may not have started out quite right, but because of people being willing vessels it has been a tool to reach the lost. While it was intended to give truth and an alternative to the lies the world was feeding us through music, I think later we would find that the presentation was an important aspect of delivering that truth. When you look at the album covers you can see a drastic difference. Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash both give raw street edge of that time. Stephen Wiley’s album looks like it could be a kid’s album rather than a hip hop for adults. No disrespect to him. I’m just making an honest comparison. His 5th album Released in 1990, ‘Rhythm And Poetry (RAP)’, would look and sound more like r&b or jazz. More along the lines of the gospel group Commissioned rather than hip hop. My point is that a part of presenting the truth is its actual presentation, how it is packaged, as well as the truth contained in it. If I bring you a plate of food, I tell you it’s good for you, but it looks disgusting to you, I’m going to have a hard time trying to get you to eat it. I think CHH in its beginning stages was only concerned with the truth and it was packaged for church goers rather than in a way that would appeal to the lost or draw anyone’s attention and respect. In years to come CHH would develop in its approach to better serve for evangelism and just to give us good, positive music to bump in our cars.4