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The Church And The Streets: A Study Of The Christian Hip-Hop Music Scene In The U.S.

Published on February 17, 2022

Christian hip-hop, or more generally Christian rap music, has been around almost as long as rap music itself. That style or genre was easily adaptable to people living in the same urban environment which spawned the more popular and mainstream “street” music, but some took those rapid-fire drum beats and bass-heavy guitar riffs and used them as the base to express lyrics about praising God, instead. The designation of a “Christian rap artist” remains vague, however, as Christian hip-hop in the U.S. is an underground form of music that has no fully encompassing niche in any marketing segment. There are some nuances to Christian hip-hop in the U.S. that will make this more understandable, along with a brief history of the Christian hip-hop scene in the country.

From The Streets To The Pulpit

Contemporary Christian Music as a genre has been around since the 1960s, but its many pop forms (gospel, rock, etc.) have overshadowed Christian rap music and long been the dominant styles with more mainstream success on radio and in album sales. That has been changing recently as more Christian hip-hop in the U.S. has seen an influx of rappers that consider themselves a true “Christian rap artist”, and more young people become attracted to hip-hop but seek out the Christian-centric lyrics and messages that best associate with their worldview.

The first known music to be designated as Christian rap music was by a Queens, New York, artist known as McSweet called “Jesus Christ (The Gospel Beat)” in 1982. A full-length Christian hip-hop album wouldn’t come out until years later in 1986 – Bible Break by the Oklahoma rapper Stephen Wiley. Wiley would become the first recognized Christian rap artist with the title track from the album enjoying mainstream success on Christian radio stations around the country. 

There has always been many contemporary rap artists who are considered at the top of their class that identifies as Christian and deliver Christian messages (at times) in their music – Scarface, DMX, UGK, Nas, etc. – but their overall penchant for delivering obscenity-laced lyrics with commentaries on lewd living, in general, preclude them from being labeled as Christian hip-hop in the U.S.

Mainstream rap music has become so popular as to be the chosen voice of many people living in American urban environments, but its morality might make it no wonder to a Christian why Christian rap music is growing when people living around so much strife begin to gravitate towards a much brighter message. Christian rap music has even been known to be used in missionary work in large cities, and some churches have brought hip-hop into the pulpit as a way to get young people who otherwise would not attend excited about Sunday services. Well-known rappers who had major success in their times, too, have switched their styles along with their new-found faith, and are now prominently helping the further growth of Christian hip-hop in the U.S. Kurtis Blow – now Rev. Kurtis Blow – is one of the founders of the Hip-Hop Church in Harlem. MC Hammer is now an ordained minister who preaches a hip-hop-infused service at the Jubilee Christian Center in northern North Carolina.

Christian Hip-Hop In The U.S. Is Bigger Today

Christian hip-hop in the U.S. continues to expand and reach new audiences, and some of the music industry’s biggest accomplishments have been achieved by Christian hip-hop artists in recent times. Christian rap artist NF debuted at number one on the Billboard 200’s album chart with his 2019 release “The Search”, and with “Perception” in 2017. In 2013, Christian rap artist Lecrae became the first hip-hop artist ever to win the Grammy Award for Best Gospel Album at the 2013 Grammy Awards. 

Christian rap music is only today beginning to see the kind of recognition that could push it into the “mainstream”. Both BET and The Rolling Stone magazine have done features on a Christian rap artist recently, but Christian hip-hop always seems to struggle more for exposure than mainstream hip-hop had to do in its early years. Christian rap music has inherited from mainstream hip-hop the same secular reputation in the eyes of many churches and Christian organizations who say it has zero place in the church, and possibly as little in their congregant’s personal lives, as well. Christian hip-hop can also elicit a negative bias response that would limit its appeal virtually forever from mainstream success. Some people are so opposed to religion at all, and a lot of that vitriol is aimed at Christianity in particular in the U.S. today. There are enough of those people, too, that can be logically attributed to the reason why most record companies do not have an active Christian hip-hop division, and the genre rarely gets played by any of the major radio stations. One reason why Christian hip-hop in the U.S. is maybe not being promoted nearly enough by mainstream gatekeepers is that they do not think there is a big enough market for it to appeal to.

But Christianity itself faced similar hurdles and has become one of the biggest religions in the world. America is predominantly Christian, with estimates of 65% to 75% of the population identifying as such. As mainstream hip-hop grows, Christian hip-hop in the U.S. isn’t doing so proportionately. That leaves a lot of room for the possibility of Christian rap music to find new audiences and expand into the success it deserves, especially with the new talent that continues to swell its ranks. The argument that the musical corporation giants use against promoting Christian rap music to the masses is that they don’t want it, but that goes against common sense when many, given the choice, would reach for the light when in the dark.

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Find links to the latest news and music in Christian hip-hop at HolyCulture.net.

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Jasmina Cuevas

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