It has been 27 years since N.W.A. released Straight Outta Compton, an album that took the hip hop world by storm. The album, featuring tracks such as “F--- tha Police,” pioneered the subgenre of gangsta rap, a form known for overt misogyny, violence, and in-your-face profanity.
It is hardly surprising that a group whose acronym stands for “Niggaz Wit Attitude” would garner some attention. But N.W.A. did more than just ruffle some feathers; they stood at the headwaters of a new and influential rap movement, setting the tone for rap music over the next decade (if not longer).
N.W.A. is back in the news with the recent release — and soaring box-office success — of the biographical film by the same name, Straight Outta Compton. I have not seen the movie, nor can I recommend it based on ratings and reviews. But the movie’s popularity gives us occasion to reflect on an oft-maligned art form: rap.
N.W.A. was so successful at shifting rap towards the gangsta variety that many — including Christians — have responded by writing off the art form as inherently destructive. This is a mistake. Rap may often be distorted and corrupted, but it remains a genre that we can direct toward its true end in Christ.
Gangsta Rap as a Corruption and Misdirection of the Genre
Every art form has the potential to be corrupted and twisted. Rap is no different. We must recognize that the tone and content of gangsta rap are far from wholesome. One of the most prominent ways that rap has been corrupted is in its emphasis on braggadocio and arrogance. This sort of hubris is most clearly seen in battle rapping, which is a sort of verbal warfare between an MC and his competitor on stage. The MC celebrates himself, disses his opponent, and talks trash in every conceivable manner.
It matters little whether the violent lifestyle creates the violent art, or the art the lifestyle. In reality, both are likely true. The reality of gang violence in Compton created an environment in which N.W.A. decided they needed to fight to survive. Their art matched their lives. But once that art went public, it became the anthem of other young males. And the art form, while not exactly creating a violent life, at the very least confirmed what many young males suspect — that the only path to success is that of violent and destructive self-promotion.
Rap to the Glory of Christ
Many people have recognized the corrosive and subversive nature of gangsta rap. Unfortunately, many also have neglected to recognize rap as a legitimate art form. But it is a legitimate form of artistic expression. Perhaps the best way to describe rap is to say, as Adam Bradley has, that it is poetic meter rendered audible. It is both music and literary verse, both word and song.
It is not merely speech or precisely song, but a mixture of both. “Simply put,” Bradley writes, “a rap verse is the product of one type of rhythm (that of language) being fitted to another (that of music)” (Poetics of American Song Lyrics, 37). The rapper’s toolbox includes rhythm, rhyme, and wordplay, and is often characterized by an emphasis on the rapper’s unique life story. So rap is an art form with potential to glorify Christ and serve humanity.
Gangsta rap is a stain on the rap genre, but we can’t allow it to define the genre. If N.W.A. and others wish to tell the story of self-centered, violent prowess, Christians enter into the genre telling a better story. In so doing, we redirect the fans of the genre to Christ. Instead of creating a narrative with the MC at the center, the Christian artist works within a master narrative that places Christ the King at the center. The Christian rapper does not live under the illusion that he is at the center of the story or in control of his own destiny, but urges his audience to give up this illusion in exchange for reality.
Instead of cultivating a self-aggrandizing style that emphasizes the power of the MC — power over competitor MCs, women, and authorities — the Christian artist cultivates a persona that gives glory and honor to Christ. The MC is strong, but his strength is derived from his Lord, and gives tribute to his Lord. The MC is exultant, but instead of exulting in sex, money, and power, he boasts in the Lord. Some may find it difficult to reconcile this narrative with the art form of rap. This thinking only proves that we have, for too long, abandoned the field.
Signs of Gospel Life in Rap
There are encouraging signs of gospel life in the rap world. One of the most significant developments in contemporary pop culture has been the rise of gospel-driven rap, illustrated especially by The Cross Movement. The Cross Movement was a group of Christian MCs intent on using rhythm, rhyme, and wordplay to proclaim the gospel and point to Christ in a way that subverted the self-aggrandizement and violence of the broader rap industry. Their artistic success led to the creation of a record label and a non-profit ministry, but even more importantly, inspired a generation of gospel-driven MCs.
These rappers are living illustrations for the Christian community that gospel-minded Christians can and should enter into every sphere of society. We enter into every sphere for the purpose of directing our efforts within that sphere to Christ. We claim every square inch of the cosmos for Christ. Yes, even the artistic realm of rap music.
In light of the booming success of Straight Outta Compton, the Christian community should not merely issue censures against the immoral side of the gangsta-rap culture. We also can renew our support for gospel-driven rap music. We can leverage our financial and cultural resources on behalf of MCs who will stand under the bright lights of the stage and proclaim that Jesus is Lord. We can provide creations as well as critiques — alternatives as well as antidotes.
And the only way we can do that is through the gospel, holding out the aroma of Christ to all — to one an aroma that seems like death, but to others “a fragrance from life to life” (2 Corinthians 2:16).