Is Run the Jewels More Christian Than Toby Keith?

run_the_jewels-9699

Run the Jewels. Photo by Tracy May.

[Post credit to guest blogger Marty Solomon]

I’ve often heard folks say that rap music is somehow un-Christian or dangerous.  But that hasn’t been my experience in twenty-five years of listening to it.  Instead, like every other kind of music that I’ve earnestly explored, I’ve found some true poetry scattered among a lot of forgettable efforts.  And I’ve also found some of the finest creative expression that human artists can muster, springing from their own unique, historically-grounded, and God-given perspectives.

As art, rap is often pure fiction. Yet, those who attack it argue that rap is intended to literally encourage sin when it speaks to street-reality, violence, drugs, sexuality, and materialism. There are plenty of rap songs like that, to be sure. (Here is the most offensive example I can recall personally; caution, not only are these lyrics inappropriate for children, but if you’re a self-respecting adult, you may be sorry you heard them).  But, to be fair, there are also plenty of songs by loudly self-proclaiming Christians whose lyrics seem equally repugnant to Christ’s Good News.  And many of them sound to me like they’re intended to be much more literal and realistic than your typical rap.

Test yourself on this. Which of the following is Toby Keith, and which is Jesus?

1.       “[Because of 9/11,] we lit up your world like the 4th of July…[Y]ou’ll be sorry that you messed with the US of A, ‘cause we’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way”

or

2.       “They say, ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But God doesn’t want you to fight and do violence resisting evil people in the material world; if someone hits you on your right check, turn your face and let them hit the other side of your face too instead of raising a hand against them. (Matt. 5:38-39)….Put your weapon back in its resting place…because anyone who uses a weapon for violence will cause injury and death and God might not forgive it. (Matt. 26:52)”?

Yeah, sorry, I gave it away with the scriptural citations because I was worried you couldn’t tell. Not. But at least I tried to disguise it a little with my own street-English mash-up of a NIV and a CEB. If I’ve missed a subtlety in Aramaic, or committed some long-settled doctrinal mistake, I would sincerely appreciate constructive criticism (but only from those who can muster citations – it’s not as if this is a five-minute hot-take, for goodness’s sake). But I confess, I’m no theologian, and I really have no business doing my own “translations” of anything, other than perhaps legal briefs or stereo instructions.

Anyway, so back to rap music. Do me a favor, since I’m your friend and a self-confessed fan. Next time someone tells you that rap music can’t be genuinely spiritual art, ask them to take a look at the lyrics below. The rap itself is in bold and enlarged for easy-reading, but my notes and comments are not.

This is “Crown” by Run the Jewels (written in 2014, but unfortunately not performed when they appeared with longstanding Brooklyn super-band TV On the Radio on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, on September 15, 2015).

In the first verse, forty year-old Michael Render, stage name Killer Mike, reflects on the guilt of a ghetto drug dealer and the forgiveness of his victims:

“Down with the shame,
Down with the shame.

Used to walk traps in the rain with cocaine.
Used to write raps in the traps, as I sat in the rain, and I prayed that God give me a lane.

Give me a lane.
Give me the fame.
Give me the fame, and I promise to change.
Won’t be the same, won’t be the same type of man that puts cocaine in this lady’s hand.

Heard she was pregnant. I’m guilty, I reckon, ‘cause I hear that good shit can hurt baby’s brain.
Heard he was normal till three and then he stopped talkin’.
Since then, ain’t nothin’ been the same.

Seen her some years later, out in Decatur, told her that I’m sorry for causin’ her pain.
“Causin’ me pain?”
“Causin’ me pain?” she asked again, and she grabbed my right hand, asked am I crazy?
Said “Look here, baby, I release you from all of your sins and your shame,
‘cause I’ve been redeemed,
I’m found in The Christ.
Whatever it takes, I hope you find it, Mike.”
The look on her face shown that glory replaced all the shame and the hate and that she wears a crown.
My late Grandma Bettie had prayed with her heavy and told her to tell me to lay my burdens down.”

(The hook sounds female, but is not. Instead, it’s sung by Diane Coffee, the current stage-project name of male vocalist Shaun Fleming, best known as an actor in the Disney animated series “Kim Possible.” Valuable trivia points are available to anyone who can correctly guess Fleming’s role on the show without resorting to the Internet. The fact that Run the Jewels chose Diane Coffee to sing the hook may have been a meta-argument – i.e., an argument found within the song, but not on its surface, so that it’s accessible only to those who study the matter – in favor of Christian reconciliation with the LGBTQ community. But I hadn’t picked up on this point until I did the research for this piece, and I haven’t really dug into it to get the real story):

“Can’t pick up no crown, holding what’s holding you down.
Can’t pick up no crown, holding what’s holding you down.
Can’t pick up no crown, can’t pick up no crown…”

(In the second verse, producer El-P, the Irish, Cajun, Jewish, Lithuanian son of minor jazz pianist Harry Keyes, reflects on the guilt of the aging soldier about how his nation responded to the same emotions described by Toby Keith in the song I discuss above):

“Down with the shame,
Down with the shame.

Carried the flag in some other men’s name.
Loaded my weapon and swore to them vengeance and stepped with aggression right into the fray,
into the haze,
into the murk.

Told me to prove to them what I was worth.
We’ll teach you to move without mercy, and give you the tools to go after the causers of hurt.
You’ll become death.
You will take breath.

This is for everything you’ve ever loved.
Use all the pain that you’ve felt in your life as the currency.
Go out and trade it for blood.

You are not ‘you.’
You are now ‘us.’
We are the only ones that you can trust.

You’ll become fear.
They’ll become dust.
Before this moment, you didn’t mean much.
You are the smoldering vessel of punishment, born to do nothing but justify us.

Give us your empathy, we’ll give you lust.
Let yourself go, my son, time to grow up.
Give up your childish obsession with questioning anything we don’t tell you is irrelevant.
Everything you’ve ever been is replaced by the metal and fire of the weapon you clutch.

(Hook, sung by Diane Coffee):

Can’t pick up no crown, holding what’s holding you down.
Can’t pick up no crown, holding what’s holding you down.
Can’t pick up no crown, can’t pick up no crown…”

My bottom-line on this is that no reasonable Christian, considering the matter in good faith and attempting to lay down whatever racial, cultural, or regional biases may color their own views, could condemn “Crown” as un-Christian.  Nor, for that matter, should anyone deny that “Crown” is genuinely good art by comparison to a song like Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American).” And I hope no one, whether American or Christian or any other thing, will any longer try to tell us that Keith’s word’s partake in more of Christ’s spirit than those of Killer Mike and El-P.

Yours in Peace and Love,
mjs

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