By Conway Norwood
If there is one thing that can accurately define the durable culture of what we know as the church, it’s tradition. For much of the church, tradition is a safe haven that makes sure we live right and conform to proper Christian principles. With that, it is no surprise that that very characteristic is reflected in gospel music. When we think of gospel music, it brings to mind a choir, maybe an organ, and that explosive churchy singer that knows how to belt out a note just right to put any saint at attention. The average person would rarely, if at all, picture rhythmic head bobbing, oversized clothes, rapid lyricism, and “krunk” beats, characteristics of the ever-growing genre of spiritual expression, hip-hop gospel.
In his 1997 hit Stomp, Kirk Franklin said it best: “For those of you that think that gospel music has gone too far…you ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” This proclamation came at a time when many Christians attacked various forms of urban gospel music as disorderly and outright carnal because of its sound and audience, but Franklin’s words continue to resound with relevance as many attempt to take gospel music to that coveted “next level.”
Is this really the “new thing” that God is doing in today’s generation? Is the inclusion of rap and hip-hop in the realm of today’s gospel music immediately a bad thing? It is true that flesh and gain (and not godliness) could potentially serve as motives for the expression of gospel music through hip-hop; we’ve all seen the choir member that did a little bit too much shaking in a few too many places and the supposed-to-be Christian artists that were in it just for the money, but isn’t that a universal issue?
The fear in the old school is that the new school has become too worldly, and they may have good reason to fear. Hip-hop gospel finds its origins in the secular art form. With such popular figures in rap music as Detroit’s own Eminem and slain rap icons 2pac and the Notorious B.I.G., it’s shaky ground for many die-hard saints to accept such personalities as Enock, Lil Irocc, and the Gospel Gangstaz. However, it is important to understand that gospel music must change as its listeners do. The message will never change; Jesus made that clear when He said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will never pass away”(Luke 21: 33). But as societies and generations evolve, so must our methods of ministry, including gospel music. Hip-hop gospel is a method that brings a message that secular hip-hop cannot even begin to comprehend.
It’s as if we’re conditioned to believe that anything that does not fall in line with the traditional characteristics of gospel music is worldly. But aren’t we putting God in a box if we prohibit young people from expressing themselves in a way that only they understand? Aren’t we telling Mary not to anoint Jesus with the expensive ointment from her alabaster box? Aren’t we telling Bartimaeus to hold his peace as the Lord passes by with the very blessing He needs?
The fact is that the young people of this age are a hip-hop driven generation, and if we’re going to reach them, we’ve got to draw their interest and reach them where they are. Hip-hop’s fusion with gospel offers the attitude, energy, creativity, and innovation that define what it is to be young in 2004. It all has to do with what the Lord was talking about when He said that He would make his disciples “fishers of men.” You cannot draw fish with bait that is of no value or interest to them. You draw them with what they like. Gospel music has to enforce that principle if it is to be effective. Traditional gospel music serves its purpose as it attracts a generation of more mature believers; it works in its own time and space. There should be no doubt that hip-hop gospel is a medium through which God will establish a young church. Therefore, to paraphrase Balaam the prophet and countless other preachers, you can’t curse what God has blessed.