Friday, September 26, 2008

Q & A Fridays #1- Rap vs. Hymns

For all who asked questions, I decided to post them in the comments section of the original post because I realized that some of the questions could be answered there rather than writing a separate blog for them. I'll be interacting with some of the questions there, so be sure to refer back to that section. Now, for our question this week, Derek asked:

"In the potential Christian Rap has to convey large amounts of teaching within smaller context than your average song (because of the word count) you think Christian Rap will ever have as rich a heritage as the hymnody of the past? Essentially I'm asking for you to make a forecast of Christian Rap based on where it is presently and where it seems to be going."

My Answer:

Good question Derek. I tried to unpack the premise of your question (Christian rap as an ideal medium for conveying large amounts of teaching) in a lecture I did at Westminster Seminary a while back. You can find a link to that lecture here. To answer your question, no I don't think Christian rap will have as rich a heritage as past hymnody. There are a couple of reasons for this, in my opinion.

1. Hymns lend themselves to congregational singing in a way that rap doesn't. Because of the structure of the typical rap song, the vast majority of the listeners will only be able to join in at the hook or chorus. With hymns, everyone is usually singing the whole song together. In the context of Sunday worship, I see Christ-centered rap as special music more so than congregational worship. This doesn't mean that rap can't be worshipful. To "worship" God simply means "to ascribe worth or value" to Him. This can be done in a number of ways. I absolutely believe that you can obey Colossians 3:16 with a rap, provided the lyrics are gospel-centered and magnify the worth of God through Jesus Christ. I also appreciate it when Christian emcees write good songs that are vertical (addressing God rather than addressing people) in nature. However, even when this is done, it's still more difficult than a hymn for a large group of people to sing along word-for-word.

2. In my opinion, rap is more restricted to its original musical context than hymns. One of the brilliant things about western hymnody is that it is structured and metered in a way that makes the hymns transferable to different tunes. This is because most of the older hymns were already established as metered poetry before the tune was added later. Therefore, one can take a tune that fits the structure of a hymn and fit the words to the tune in a way that allows someone to sing the same exact words with a completely different melody. This is one of the reasons why I love the Trinity Hymnal. Using the index in the back, I can find a hymn that I don't know the melody to and sing the same words over a tune I'm already familiar with and fits the poetic meter. This flexibility is extremely helpful, especially as the years (and generations) go by and cultural shifts occur. You can adapt the tune to the cultural shift while still preserving the ancient truths contained in the words of good hymns. The ministry of Indelible Grace is a good example of this, in my opinion. The closest equivalent in rap is the idea of the "remix", where the same lyrics are placed over a different beat. But even with that, you would still have the same problem from #1 because of the nature of the genre.

3. As I look at how Hip-hop has developed over the years, most rap in my opinion has very short musical staying power. Songs that were made just 5 years ago already sound dated, not to mention things that came out in the 80's. Hip-hop culture has a microwave, hot today/ not tomorrow tendency about it. Some of the great hymns we sing (The Gloria Patri comes to mind) were written over a millennium ago. Think about that. That's amazing! Rap has only been around a little over 30 years. I don't see rap having that same kind of staying power. This doesn't mean that Christ-centered rap can't be helpful or edifying. It has and can continue to be leveraged for the glory of God in this generation. This is just an acknowledgement of its inherent limitations.

This is something I've reflected on a lot over the years, which is why I generally try to stay away from making pop cultural references in my songs that won't have any meaning to audiences a few years from now. I'm also writing more modern day hymns and songs of worship that can be sung by congregations rather than just a solo artist. By God's grace, I want to write songs and other things that will outlive me!
Thanks for the question and feel free to follow up in the comments section.
grace and peace,


Purple Soapbox Admin said...

Shai, you gave some helpful insights. Some disagree that Hip Hop can be used for God's glory but, Biblically speaking, almost anything can be used for either good or evil. Your points about the validity and longevity of Holy Hip makes perfect sense as to why it many not have the same longevity as hymns. However it can still be used to edify those that listen and give a reflection of the saints of a particular era.

Gabriel said...

Very well written response to an awesome question. I love hip-hop, though one of my only disappointments is the longevity of the songs as well. Even "classics" will begin to sound very dated. I always wondered if that is because the way the artist delivers the lyrics; the only thing that I can come up with is that simply rhyming words is not good enough for longevity. Rappers almost seem to be 'talking' the song to you where as hymns, there is almost no need for the music since the words are 'sung'. Somehow I think that ties into the longevity. I have always felt that hip hop is one of the, if not the, most influential genre because of that reason though. With that delivery that is almost 'talking' the artist can make a point much clearer simply because there can be much more information contained in the song. "every rapper is a preacher..." so to speak. I personally find HHH a perfect compliment to the hymns sung in church. God has been very gracious to hiphop fans by raising artist as sound as lampmode and reach records amongst others. Great post.

teisha said...

good insights Shai. i have been reflecting on the idea of holy hip-hop being liturgical. and a communal responsive act. i still think it is possible (granted, as you said, it is more difficult).

also, i have a question concerning holy hip-hop. in my opinion, Christian rap is a very male dominated arena. this could possibly be because there a so few women involved. as a writer myself, it is at times discouraging because there are issues related to women that are not discussed. Christ-centered rap aims to magnify Christ in all things. i was just wondering if you have any insight on the view of women in hip-hop.

msshaylaj said...

also, is rap still considered male-dominated and even 'urban'? is the primary audience changing? rap not lending itself to the 'corporate' experience makes sense especially since it is a product of postmodern times which stress the more individualistic/personal view.

it's interesting though. i sometimes think it could have the same 'staying power' potential, but because it is still a 'recent' form we may not know until enough time has passed.

hymns have been more widely distributed and universally embraced cross-culturally and cross-gender...rap appears to be headed in that direction, but it's funny...we try integrating it into our worship time as a house group and it's well an adjustment.

Anonymous said...


Was just thinking about you and, having heard about your ministry, I typed you into Google. I cannot tell you how thrilled I am that you have pressed on to live for the glory of our wonderful God. I'm so happy that God has opened doors and paved a way for your music as a vehicle for the biblical gospel. I have such great memories of you and I wanted just to say hi.

Rick Phillips

John T. Meche III said...

I really would like to see an entire congregation singing a rap song. I envision a church standing in unison and opening up a hymnal to number 403 "Attonement Q&A". That would be pretty awesome.