Features

'Holy hip-hop'

Black History Month | Calvinism meets thumping baselines in a new breed of Christian rap

Issue: "The surge is on," Feb. 3, 2007

Bethlehem Baptist pastor John Piper took the podium at a Saturday evening service in downtown Minneapolis last fall and introduced Curtis "Voice" Allen, a hip-hop artist. After warning the largely white congregation that his music would "thump" a bit more than typical Bethlehem fare, Allen launched into a lyrical testimony about the unstoppable power of God's irresistible grace: "I been exposed to bright lights, the doctrines of grace, I'm elected, imputed perfected, becuz of the power of God resurrected and his gift of faith, that when we see his face we're not rejected."

Allen repeated the rap at two subsequent Sunday morning services, enough to ignite a full-scale firestorm within the Christian fundamentalist blogosphere. The internet churned with volatile reactions, one blogger labeling all rap as "rape set to music" while others denounced Piper's entire ministry.

"I felt bad for them," Allen said of his critics. "They were so emphatic and so sure about something that Scripture really doesn't clearly define. There's no verse saying this particular music is good or bad."

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But many verses examine human frailty and divine sovereignty, topics Allen tackles from a distinctly Reformed perspective. Even the harshest online attackers had no ill words for the theology of his rap, a departure from the shallowness that has characterized much of Christian hip-hop since its commercial inception in the mid-1990s. Allen is part of a small but growing cadre of artists who lace their stylized rhymes with orthodox Calvinism.

For many white, middle-class Christians, hip-hop represents a culture of drug use, violence, and promiscuity-something parents must fight to expel from their children's iPods, never mind their church services. But attitudes may be changing. For all the condemnations of Allen's presence at Bethlehem Baptist, a chorus of counterbalancing voices has come to his defense.

Supporters cite the fruit of Allen's ministry, his unique conduit for taking biblical teaching into places it might otherwise never tread. He knows well the desperately depraved lifestyle of many urban hip-hop fans, having once roamed the streets of Washington, D.C., packing guns and dropping drug deals. His music narrates departure from that scene and calls others to follow.

Allen's path led him to a pastoral internship at Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Md., a large, suburban congregation connected to Sovereign Grace Ministries. Covenant Life pastor Joshua Harris encouraged Allen to redeem the musical genre of his past, an idea the former thug initially resisted. Upon his conversion to Christianity, Allen had discarded rap along with his old identity.

His debut album, Progression, maintains such animosity for hip-hop culture even while employing that very musical form. On a track titled "All Rap IS," Allen condemns the lifestyle he once idolized: "All rap is, is the lust of the flesh that is easily seen through drugs and sex. All rap is, is the lust of the eyes, almost any video can help you realize that all rap is, is the boasting of what he has and does from how we live to MTV cribs. I ain't hatin' but to me rap's the glorification of what led Christ to propitiation."

On Allen's latest cut, Crucible, he teams up with fellow Reformed rappers from the group Christcentric for a return to classic East Coast flow. A song titled "Contribution" asks introspective questions about hip-hop's place in the church: "So God do you accept my contribution? Does hip-hop not get props with your son? . . . Lord let me know, is the flow inherently evil?"

Like Allen, the members of Christcentric belong to conservative, Bible-believing churches. Quincy A. Jones, aka Q-D.O.G, is an elder candidate at Hope Bible Church in Columbia, Md., where he lives with his wife and five children. Chege Njoroge, aka Evangel, is a father of two and a small group leader at Gaithersburg Community Church. Will Mendoza, aka Apologist, has one son and serves as an elder at Shady Grove Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Derwood, Md.

Christcentric came into existence in the late 1990s and began rapping Reformed theology several years later as its members grew in doctrinal understanding. They released Reformation in September of 2004, an album emphasizing what are commonly referred to as the five solas-Scripture alone, Christ alone, faith alone, grace alone, and the glory of God alone. Their latest CD, City of God, features such tracks as "Redemptive History," "Didactic Music," and "TULIP," an acronym for the five points of Calvinism.

Such titles might help explain why Christcentric and other Reformed rappers have struggled to generate much commercial success. Jones, Njoroge, and Mendoza all hold down other jobs and develop their hip-hop projects on the side, an arrangement they expected when first starting out. "We didn't know if our goal of really having our music saturated with the Scriptures and with theology would even be marketable," Jones said.

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