Kanye West’s newest track, “Wash Us in the Blood,” tells an old, old story that has become new for him as a recent convert to Christianity. “Wash us in the blood / And as we live in this evil and crooked and Jezebelic world / Wash us in the blood,” he raps. This track was preceded by Jesus Is King, the album in which Kayne tells his story of Christian conversion.
Before Kanye, many other hip-hop artists were using the genre to tell their own Christian faith stories. And long before the genre developed in the 1970s South Bronx, ancient gospel storytellers relied on certain elements seen in modern-day hip-hop. A fresh new beat has always held the power to move feet, modify hearts, and even change the world.
“Hip-hop was birthed in conversation,” said Esteban Shedd. “It became a medium to voice the stories of the places that mattered least to any pop media platform.” Shedd—who with Aaron Lopez and Loren La Luz form the hip-hop trio Alert312—says hip-hop originated as poetic cries from people in lower-income neighborhoods.
Ancient Athens was a quite different place from 1970s Bronx, but both were havens of communal discourse and public art. At the Areopagus, an ancient public meeting space, Paul started with a mic check: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious” (Acts 17:22).
Referencing a piece of religious art dedicated to an unknown god, the apostle said: “Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring’” (Acts 17:27–28). Sampling the poetry of Epimenides of Crete and Aratus’s poem Phainomena, Paul remixed these poets and used their words in his sermon. Since most ancient poetry was composed for oral performance, he could seamlessly drop these into his sermon. Predating modern hip-hop artists by two millennia, Paul took competing beats, created a new context for meaning, and used them to complement the gospel.
Some heard this as a noisy record scratch. Others heard it as a fresh new beat.
Similar practices can be found in North African early church communities. The Passions of Saint Perpetua and Felicity tells the story of Vibia Perpetua, a 22-year-old Christian and mother of a young child. Perpetua lived in Carthage in the late second century into the early third century. Carthage, under the colonial rule of the Roman Empire, was a major city in the ancient world. During Perpetua’s lifetime, Christians in the city were often marginalized and persecuted. Her life ended in martyrdom as she was publicly executed in a coliseum on March 7, 203. Perpetua’s story, however, survived through a diary that was “written with her own hand and [told] in her own words.”
Two hundred years later, over the course of several sermons preached in the early fifth century, Augustine gave this marginalized woman a shout-out. He sampled her work, mixed her story into a new social context, and performed these words for his listeners.
Predating modern hip-hop artists by two millennia, Paul took competing beats, created a new context for meaning, and used them to complement the gospel.
The hip-hop storytelling format always has a social component. “Your story always sits in the scene with what’s going on around you in society,” said Marcus Gray, a hip-hop artist from St. Louis known as FLAME. “Yes, it’s personal. But it’s also in light of the times.”
Marginalized and colonized, the North African city of Carthage was a place of Christian oppression and social subjugation until the Edict of Milan in AD 313. Perpetua’s story of marginalization and martyrdom, as it was told and retold, helped to voice the stories of the places and people that mattered least to the Roman Empire at the time.
The stories of Paul and Perpetua shows how hip-hop culture has shared in some of the same values and practices as the Christian faith. Both share a history of telling stories from marginalized places. And both recognize the power of telling an old, old story in fresh new ways.
Modern Faith Soundtrack
Modern hip-hop has become a place for telling Christian faith stories––even before Kanye made it mainstream. From Shai Linne to Lecrae, KB to Trip Lee, Beautiful Eulogy to Sho Baraka, and many more, theologically rich hip-hop has thrived in recent decades.
With words and sounds, beats and beatitudes, hip-hop artists tell stories of religious conversion and theological transformation. FLAME’s latest album, Extra Nos, tells the story of his journey from Calvinism to Lutheranism. The album tells about how studying Lutheran theology at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, led to theological transformation. FLAME’s album includes a shout-out to a theology professor, intricate doctrinal distinctions, and copious amounts of Latin. Each track tells part of his theological conversion story.
Raw and real, hip-hop is amenable to telling authentic faith stories. It provides a space to express stories of struggle and deliverance, doubt and conviction, conversion and transformation. Lecrae’s newest album, Restoration, is another example of how hip-hop artists tell stories of conversion and transformation.
“Rap music is and has always been in your face; this is what I believe, take it or leave it,” FLAME said. “The gospel itself is very black and white and in your face. . . . And I think that pairs well with the rap format of communication.”
Translating the Gospel
There is one more connection between hip-hop culture and the Christian faith: accessibility. Hip-hop culture, like Christianity, has a practice of localizing language and translating practices in order to be accessible to diverse people groups. This was a hallmark of Paul’s ministry. While in Athens, Paul proclaimed the gospel to people in the Jewish synagogue as well as Epicurean and Stoic philosophers (Acts 17:16–18), localizing his language to fit different contexts and hearers (Acts 21:37–40; 1 Cor. 9:19–22).
The hip-hop scene in Houston, Texas, is not identical to the hip-hop scene in Tokyo, Japan. Likewise, Christian communities in Nairobi, Kenya, are not the same as Christian communities in São Paulo, Brazil. The culture of hip-hop, like that of Christian faith, can be translated into different environments and mediums.
Hip-hop artists are proving Lamin Sanneh’s notion that Christianity can translate the gospel message in and through any culture. Streetlights, known for their audio Bible, is an example of how the culture of hip-hop uses digital tools to translate the Christian faith into radically different digital environments.
“Any means we have to communicate where people are already communicating, we want the gospel there, we want the Good News there,” Shedd said. “That is where eyes and ears are and that is where minds and hearts are. In a very congested, distracted, and false-filled plaza of thought, we want Christ to be known.”
Christ’s disciples are called to be “witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Making him known to all people in all places is central to the Christian faith. Hip-hop artists are doing exactly this as they tell faith stories with words and sound, rhetoric and poetry, beats and bass drops.