On the opening night of the Yeezus Tour, multi-platinum, Grammy award-winning rapper Kanye West brought out an actor to portray Jesus during his concert in Seattle. Most of the time when I see "White Jesus" depicted, I don't get offended because I don't find it to be historically accurate. But between this and the title and theme of Kanye's last album, Yeezus, I was initially fed up. His antics were disrespectful, offensive, and just plain unnecessary.
Before I began to write this post I searched for concert footage of the event, but I stumbled upon an interview Kanye had with Wild 94, a hit music station in San Francisco. During the interview, which was done a few days after his Seattle performance, he was given the opportunity to explain his motives behind bringing out Jesus.
"We do plays all the time. People play Jesus,” West said. “You know what’s awesome about Christianity is we’re allowed to portray God. It’s a painting, it’s a sculpture, it’s a moving opera, it’s a play, it’s a message. God knows where my heart is at.”
Then came the comment that changed the entire direction of this post:
“One of the things that I really wanted to get across is that you can have a relationship with Jesus. That you can talk to Jesus. This is the way I express it.”
After hearing this I was forced to take a step back and reflect on the type of relationship many rappers have with Jesus. Rap music, similar to the blues, arose from the plight of the black community. We can still hear the agony, frustration, and struggle from artists who give us a glimpse into the world in which they grew up and the one in which they currently live. It is out of that anguish that many of these artists connect with the gospel.
Some of the work of artists such as Tupac Shakur, Nas, DMX, Common, Jay Z, J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, Joe Budden, The Clipse, Lupe Fiasco, and Kanye West can be profoundly theological. The church has been too quick to dismiss the theological implications found in the music of these artists because of the coarseness and vulgarity of the music, the contradictions that are often found in the lifestyles of these rappers, and a general lack of understanding of rap culture.
However, the faith of such artists and individuals who grew up and live in similar inner-city environments and deal with the same kind of temptations and demons (i.e., drugs, sex, and violence) is very authentic. That type of faith cannot be comprehended by middle-class or upper-middle-class Christians because the type of saving that needs to take place is not one exclusively spiritual. In fact, it cannot even be comprehended by most Christians because it is not draped in false piety.
The type of faith exhibited by these individuals is very rugged and, according to Dr. Daniel White Hodge, their theology engages, "the profane, the secular, and the sacred—an area frightening to those still etched and stooped in the hallways of simplistic and 'milk' theological paradigms."
"This type of theology," Hodge writes, "creates space outside the traditional corridors of God searching; it opens up the door for those who do not 'fit' an approved or established approach to being a spiritual person; it is the way for the n----, the thug, and the ‘hood rat to find God in a space God can meet them in."
You do not have to be holy to come to God.
That very space, outside of the norm, is a place that the church has denied recognition out of an attempt to monopolize the rules of spirituality. What we have done in the church is both erroneous and fallacious considering that biblically it is that space where we find Jesus dwelling. Matthew 28:16-20, otherwise known as the Great Commission, does not tell us to condemn, shun, or judge from afar and wait for those who have failed to abide by our precepts to come to us in shame. Jesus commands us to go. Therefore, it should be the obligation of the church to meet such individuals exactly where they are.
I consider some of the theology I have heard in rap music to be quite prophetic. Although, I will admit that not all of it is solid or strong and can lead to unsound doctrine. But instead of labeling them unChristian or belittling their faith, we should help nurture and mature it.
Many of these rappers are searching for guidance, moral vision, and ethical direction as explained by Michael Eric Dyson, professor of sociology at Georgetown University. If we take their theological offerings serious it will prove to be a valuable insight on how to affect change in an urban setting where most individuals would identify with hip-hop culture.
I’m still unsure of how I feel about Mr. West’s onstage conversation with Christ. After hearing him give the meaning of the portrayal and the intent behind it, I don’t find it nearly as offensive and disrespectful as I initially did. It may have been over the top, but what better place to bring out Jesus than at a rap concert?
Ryan Herring is the marketing assistant at Sojourners. He also blogs for The Ghetto Monk, where this post originally appeared.
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