A controversy has been brewing in Christian hip-hop (CHH) for ten years.
At the center of this controversy is rapper Lecrae and the record label he co-founded, Reach Records.
Reach’s mission is “changing the way people see the world.” Their artists and fans rally around Romans 1:16, being “unashamed” of the gospel.
The Reach brand was built on music that shared the gospel. Listen to Lecrae’s 2006 album After the Music Stops. If you get through the first song without realizing Lecrae is a Christian, the second track, “Jesus Muzik”, makes it clear.
In the hook, Lecrae boasts he’s “riding with my top down listening to this Jesus music.” He’s proclaiming Jesus as king.
After the Music Stops was a breath of fresh air in a genre that is a giant hotbox. It offered Christians good hip-hop, free of misogyny, drugs, drinking, and violence. It offered a way to participate in hip-hop without getting a contact high.
When Lecrae released chart-topping Gravity in 2012, fans started to notice a shift in his lyrics and self-description. Big K.R.I.T., a secular rapper with a hit song titled “Country Sh*t,” was featured on the album. While the gospel still permeated Lecrae’s songs, it was less overt.
Then came the tweet heard round the CHH world.
Ashamed of the Gospel?
RT @thejeffsublett: Do you consider yourself a Christian Rapper?// I am a Christian. I am a rapper. But Christian is my faith not my genre.
— Lecrae (@lecrae) February 15, 2013
For many in the CHH community, it seemed like Lecrae was distancing himself from his roots. The hosts of the CHH podcast Trackstarz expressed that a lot of folks felt that, “You [Lecrae] were like us, now you flipped on us.”
The controversy flared up again in October and November 2015.
Andy Mineo, another Reach artist, performed on Fox 5 NY. Before his performance, co-hosts Greg Kelly and Rosanna Scotto commented on Andy’s clothes. He was wearing a 116 hat and mentioned that 116 is “his team.” When Kelly asked him, “What team is that?” Andy answered, “uh, uh, my team.”
Then Reach changed their “About Us” page, removing Romans 1:16 and any mention of Jesus Christ. They retained the mission “to change the way people see the world” and the story of Reach’s founding.
To many CHH fans, these were proof that Lecrae and Reach were ashamed of the gospel. Mineo neglected to share the gospel when given an opportunity and Reach removed it from their “About Us” page. Fame was causing them to forsake holiness and pursue worldly success.
These changes look like a distancing from the gospel, but examining the ideas shaping the changes reveals an artist and a label repositioning themselves to better advance the gospel.
‘A Quirky, Goateed Man in Lederhosen’
Lecrae and Reach are enabling cultural engagement, bringing restoration, and making good art.
In a 2013 interview on The Exchange with Ed Stetzer, guest host Eric Geiger asks Lecrae about his biggest theological influences. Lecrae names people like Tommy Nelson, John MacArthur, and John Piper. Studying them prompted Lecrae to ask where they got their ideas. He tells Geiger,
I started to dig back and got into my D.O.G.’s — my dogs, my dead old guys. That’s when I started getting into the Spurgeons, the Calvins, and for what I do, one of my personal heroes is Francis Schaeffer. I think he just got it. He totally got being immersed in culture, affecting it, transforming it, but not losing his grip of his solid convictions of who Jesus was.
If someone says “for what I do, one of my personal heroes is insert person here,” we need to understand that person and what ideas they exposed.
So to understand Lecrae, we need to understand Francis Schaeffer and what he said about art.
Francis Schaeffer, founder of L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland, was one of the foremost evangelical thinkers of the twentieth century. Recognized for his work in Christianity and culture, Schaeffer’s books still influence evangelical artists like Lecrae today.
In the foreword to Schaeffer’s Art and the Bible, Michael Card recounts Schaeffer’s influence on the “Jesus Movement” in the 70s:
As soon as the movement began it was plagued with confusion. While some of us were trying to embrace the gifts God was pouring out on the body, others were calling them a curse. They claimed that contemporary styles, even certain instruments (like the guitar) were not appropriate or acceptable for the church.
Sound familiar? A fledgling movement riddled with debates about how to make art that is true to Scripture and beautiful and culturally engaging.
Into that confusion stepped “a quirky, goateed man in lederhosen,” as Card describes Schaeffer. Schaeffer offered answers. Card recounts,
At a time when we needed concrete, biblical objectives, Schaeffer provided perspectives and structures…We were free, he insisted, our imaginations were free. We were free to create, as long as we never forgot that we are slaves to Jesus.
Part of that freedom was the freedom to dialogue with the modern secular world. In “No Little Person,” J.I. Packer’s tribute to Schaeffer, Packer writes that one of Schaeffer’s contributions to evangelicalism was his empathy, saying,
He [Schaeffer] listened to and dialogued with the modern secular world as it expressed itself in literature and art, which most evangelicals were too cocooned in their own subculture to do.
Schaeffer gave Christians the confidence to step outside the walls of the church and engage in cultural production and critique. As Michael Hamilton describes, Schaeffer “tore down the gospel curtain that had separated evangelicals from contemporary cultural expression.”
Hip-Hop Engaging with the Totality of Life
In light of this, we need to take another look at the controversy surrounding Lecrae and Reach Records.
Critics are uncomfortable with Lecrae’s recent music because it is no longer a monologue preaching an agenda. It engages with culture and dialogues with the modern secular world.
To use Schaeffer’s words, Lecrae has shifted away from making art that is self-conscious evangelism to making art that engages with the totality of life.
Making music that is an expression of who he is as a whole person allows Lecrae to create music that is accessible to Christians and non-Christians. In a review of Anomaly for Grantland, Rembert Browne writes,
Christianity isn’t universal. Feeling odd, misunderstood, and weird very much is. That’s the true foundation of this album, and that’s why it deserves its place in the mainstream. It’s why the album prompts the most skeptical of listeners to eventually let down their guard, to stop worrying about when he’s going to start preaching at them — the biggest hurdle for any piece of art with a perceived agenda.
In “Good, Bad, Ugly,” Lecrae recounts dropping his girlfriend off at an abortion clinic. While all of his listeners can’t relate to that situation directly, we can all relate to regretting mistakes we’ve made.
If Lecrae stopped here, his critics would have a point. If he just related to people through shared feelings like regret, joy, and weirdness, he would be neglecting the influence of the gospel in his life.
Thankfully, he embraces its influence on his life. He’s still unashamed.
“Good, Bad, Ugly” doesn’t end with Lecrae coming to terms with the bad things in his life. It ends with redemption and restoration from his Savior: “But I’ve been forgiven, my Savior risen/I’m out the prison, I know that.”
In presenting the totality of his life, Lecrae is living out what Schaeffer taught. Dr. Anthony Bradley sums this up in 49 characters:
There was once a man named Francis Schaeffer. Then was Lecrae (as profiled in the Atlantic Magazine). http://t.co/o6WlXTC3B3
— Anthony Bradley (@drantbradley) October 6, 2014
Gate-Smashing and the Gospel
Even with this understanding of cultural engagement, we haven’t reached the heart of this controversy. We need to dig even deeper, past Schaeffer’s influence, to our understanding of the gospel. How does the two-chapter gospel of sin and redemption inform our actions vs. four-chapter gospel?
Salvation is the only concern of art motivated by the two-chapter gospel. This music is solely, self-consciously evangelistic.
If our art is motivated by the four-chapter gospel, the full biblical narrative, we will be driven by the power of the Holy Spirit to join God in the restoration of all things.
For some Christians, their role in restoration may require them to work in the Christian community. For others like Lecrae, their calling is to step into society, keeping one foot firmly rooted in the church and one in culture.
In an interview with Rapzilla, Lecrae calls his mission“gate smashing.” He talks about how in Matthew 16 Jesus took the disciples to a place called the Gates of Hell. He goes on to say that Jesus is calling us to,
Establish his kingdom in every area. And so that’s how I approach music and hip hop, those gates are meant to be crashed. We’re not supposed to stay behind our little gates…we’re supposed to crash their gates and go in there and say “the earth is the Lords and everything therein.
Lecrae is bringing the gospel and its restoration into areas in desperate need of it. These areas might not be reached if he didn’t engage with them.
By God’s grace, Lecrae isn’t alone. Artists like Propaganda, Andy Mineo, John Givez, JGivens, Beautiful Eulogy, Trip Lee, KB, Jackie Hill Perry, Social Club, and Tedashii are engaging culture and bringing restoration to hip-hop and the world through great music.
While I’m not sure if Francis Schaeffer would have appreciated their style of music, it’s safe to assume he would have been proud of their approach.