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.