What Rap Means

by Dec 2, 2013ChurchLife, Culture, Music4 comments

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I was the first to post on a thread that developed into a major blogosphere brouhaha, and I spent some time trying to write out my own thoughts for that thread. But I prefer the obscurity of my own blog to the harsh spotlight Scott Aniol is now under (see his follow-up comments here), so I’ll post this here at By Faith We Understand. I want readers to know in advance that I passed my comments by several mature and respected friends, who encouraged me to post. Without further ado:

Most of the commenters who oppose Scott’s view piled on the weakest guy—the one who (very uncharitably and/or ignorantly, I think) called Lecrae, Shai Linne, Trip Lee, Curtis Allen, etc. “disobedient cowards.” But few commenters picked up with clarity on what Scott has actually said in many places: without denying that music bears culturally conventional meaning, musical forms nonetheless carry meaning apart from their cultural situation. But the only other commenter I remember bringing this point up with any clarity did so only to dismiss it: “Music is cultural. Period.”

I think this commenter is saying that any meaning in music is purely conventional, just as there is no intrinsic connection between the symbol “clock” and the class of objects to which we refer with this word. English speakers have simply agreed among themselves (or rather, inherited an agreement) to use those sounds for that purpose. Spanish speakers agree conventionally to use an entirely different set of sounds to refer to the same object: reloj. There are some natural limits set on which sounds can be used for which referents: a word has to be pronounceable and short enough to remain useful. But other than that, any set of sounds can mean anything a language’s speakers all agree for it to mean.

But is this really an accurate analogy for the communicative medium we call music? I would suggest that music is more like onomatopoetic words: buzz, splash, ding, etc. With this special class of words, there is an intrinsic connection between form and meaning. There is still something conventional about them, because different languages have different ways of saying “bow wow” (guau, guau in Spanish, for example). But “bow wow” is tied to the real world in a way that “clock” is not.

Shai Linne and Scott interacted in a mutually respectful way, I felt. And I hope they can dialogue publicly. If they do, I would like to hear more from Shai on this question of what rap means. I found it intriguing and helpful when he talked—much more knowledgeably than I ever could—about the spectrum of styles within the rap genre. Perhaps my exposure to rap has been limited to whatever makes it onto NPR, but all the rap I’ve ever heard means something pretty clear, I’d say. It means “bravado.”

And it’s not just me. John McWhorter, an African-American and an expert in meaning (he’s one of my favorite writers on linguistics), used words like “bellicose,” “adversarial,” and “oppositional” to describe rap in his lengthy complaint about the genre in City Journal a few years ago. And he saw a direct connection between the music and the lyrics: “Rap’s musical accompaniment mirrors the brutality of rap lyrics in its harshness and repetition.”

If that’s true then the meaning of the musical form we know as rap is not purely cultural, though it certainly is that. If that’s true, and if the world lasts another 1,000 years and all our social classes and cultural roles get rearranged, then rap music will still be inappropriate for a presidential inauguration. And for a processional at a wedding. And for worship. If McWhorter is right, that is.

I don’t blame the panelists for leaving out John Frame’s “situational perspective” in their brief, unscripted comments, but I have to think it would help a great deal. I can imagine future situations in which rap might be an appropriate vehicle for Christian truth. Perhaps it might be used for setting certain Psalms. I suppose there is some bravado in there, of a sort. God-dependent bravado, like 18:29: “By you I can run against a troop, and by my God I can leap over a wall.” And Doug Wilson suggests that rap is good for “prophetic denunciation.” I think I can see that (but read McWhorter’s critique of that view before you’re sure Wilson is right).

But if we did set Psalm 18 to a rap beat we’d have to remember the current, conventional, cultural meaning again. And my impression has been that its cultural meaning is pretty well established, and pretty overwhelming. This is why I bristle a bit at the charges of racism (or “cultural racism,” in the words of Mike Cosper) leveled against these panelists. Calling Christian rappers “disobedient cowards” was wrong, but so is calling the panelists racists without further evidence. I preach every week to more African-American people, at least proportionally speaking, in my little congregation than most other soteriologically Reformed redheaded Bible expositors I know. And the culture of hip-hop is a blight on the souls of these black folk, especially in what it’s doing to their kids and grandkids. It’s not my secret hatred of blacks that causes me to be uneasy about handing them a Shai Linne CD; it’s my open love for them—for T., for J., for A., for S., for Y., and all the other African-Americans to whom I attempt to show Christ’s love weekly. I don’t feel comfortable baptizing a cultural form which has a clearly sinful meaning for them. I would see that as confusing for them, and rightly so.

Secular Jewish journalist Hanna Rosin once suggested that when you “sanitize” (her word) “Nirvana or…Jay-Z…You shoehorn a message that’s essentially about obeying authority into a genre that’s rebellious and nihilistic, and the result can be ugly, fake, or just limp.” I’m not calling Shai Linne ugly or Curtis Allen fake; I have listened to them talk to Mark Dever and I felt I was among godly men of substance—who tend to write lyrics with a theological substance superior to the treacly gospel songs my church tradition is so enamored with. I rejoiced to hear their testimonies of salvation. I would love for the young black men in my ministry to turn out like them, rap and all. But I would still want to talk to those young men, to encourage them to consider that genres of music are not exempt from the effects of the fall, that the medium is a message.

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  1. Christian Markle

    Thank you! This was helpful.

  2. Scott Aniol

    This is very good and helpful, Mark. Thanks. And thank for the MCWhorter article. I’ve read his book but haven’t seen that.

  3. Mark L Ward Jr

    Check out the helpful thoughts of my friend Brian here:


    I re-watched portions of that video just now, and I agree with Brian that Joel Beeke’s thoughts deserve careful interaction. I agree with Beeke: if one of the young black men in my ministry came to me all excited about a Reformed rapper, it might be a good while (depending on the spiritual maturity of this young man) before I raised any objections.

  4. Paul M.


    You don’t have to wait for a rap setting of a Psalm. Lecrae’s “Far Away” is deeply Psalmic. It quotes Psalm 18 explicitly, borrows from the opening verses of Psalm 10, and in tenor belongs among the Psalms of communal lament.

    The musical craftsmanship of the piece is astonishing. Watch the video and read through the lyrics and you’ll see what I mean. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0rerU_NYwD8

    The first stanza is a lament questioning God’s inaction. Looking around at the devastation all around he asks “are you still there?” and “do you still care?” He then expresses his intense pain by describing the loss of his family, friends, and home. He acknowledges that God went through tragedy Himself–a reference to the cross–but although Phillippians 1:21 promises that “to die is to gain,” the speaker does not feel like he has gained anything. Still, he acknowledges his desperate need of God; he is just “holding on,” feeling “empty inside,” and doesn’t “know what else to do.”

    Then, the refrain/chorus/hook summarizes and intensifies the mood of the first stanza. God seems and feels to be so “far far away.” The second stanza again mentions the pain of loss; the speaker is “cut so deep” that he doesn’t know if he’ll ever be able to smile again. Intellectually, the speaker is aware that God is “big enough to handle any evil that harasses” but it still feels as though “he passed us.” The speaker echoes Christ on the Cross, “God have you forsook us?” (and Psalm 22). He wants reassurance that God is still with him – “tell me you never left, even in the midst of death” – and acknowledges the creative and redemptive power of God – “breathe on me, I’ll do anything to feel your breath!” Again, the refrain/chorus/hook summarizes and intensifies the mood of the second stanza like that of the first. God seems and feels to be so “far far away.”

    The bridge is Psalm 62:5-8 (ESV) and prepares the speaker (and the listeners) to face the climax of the song. God is an unmovable rock, an unconquerable fortress, a reliable refuge. His people can trust in Him for salvation. When the bridge ends, the speaker utters “yeah,” the modern-day equivalent of the “selah” after verse 8. Selah is a hard word to translate, but it expresses agreement and a desire to meditate on the truth of the preceding passage. Finally, the conclusion of the song is the recognition that the God who previously seemed so far away was really not. In light of God’s promises, the speaker exhorts his listeners to remember that “our God is not far away.” While the refrain/chorus/hook emphasized the seeming distance of God following the first and second stanzas, that same refrain now announces that God has been close all along. Using the same words – “far away” – to describe both God’s distance and nearness highlights the speaker’s change in perspective. God had been constant; it was the speaker for whom God seemed far away.

    Lecrae’s song is a psalm. Like King David millenia ago, the speaker first questions God, then remembers and clings to His promises, and finally delights in God’s presence. That beautiful narrative is further intensified by the music and the filmography. For example, notice the backbeat, the musical foundation of the tune. That beat is removed at the beginning of the bridge and replaced by a chaotic noise (Psalm 62). Lecrae’s noisy soul is confused, looking for an anchor, which it finds when he cites “on God rests my salvation.” That’s the moment the backbeat returns. Just as our salvation rests on the foundation of God’s promises, the music rests upon the backbeat. That removal and return also reminds the listener that the beat was there all along, a picture of God presence even in the midst of tragedy. Likewise, the snare that accompanies the words “I shall not be shaken” evokes shaking, audibly intensifying the backbeat when it returns.

    The images fit the message as well. The despair that the speaker describes is illustrated by the injured people (2:21), sad children (2:24), material loss (2:33), and the destruction of the physical church (1:04, 1:28, 1:38). But that despair and suffering is then transmuted to joy with smiles (3:01), Bible reading (3:03), and an outdoor church (3:16). The words, music, and images remind us that God is good even when our circumstances are terrible. Even when God seems far away, He is with us.

    Hope that’s of interest,

    Paul M.