As a Christian hip-hop artist, I’ve had the privilege of proclaiming Christ in my music for many years now. One of the encouraging and surprising aspects of that journey has been seeing how the Lord has used music to make connections across ethnic lines. Before the recent pandemic, a Christian hip-hop concert was often a beautiful picture of the diversity of the new earth, with people from many walks of life united around the message of Christ and him crucified. On many occasions, I’ve marveled at the reality of me, a black man from Philly who grew up steeped in hip-hop culture, united with brothers and sisters of different ethnicities, ages, and cultures as we fix our eyes on Jesus together.
Over the years, I’ve heard from many people that they were affected by the truth contained in my music, even though hip-hop wasn’t their natural cultural preference. Whenever I heard this, I was struck by the power and beauty of likemindedness. It was clear to me that we were likeminded concerning particular emphases in the music—the glory of God, the supremacy of Christ, the centrality of the cross, and the importance of biblical theology. By God’s grace, I will fight for all of those things until the Lord takes me home.
But one of the painful things I’ve discovered over the last eight years or so since Trayvon Martin’s killing is that it’s possible to agree on those things and yet be in a completely different place when it comes to the issue of racial injustice. Just because I’ve made an intentional decision to focus on that which is “of first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3) doesn’t mean there aren’t other important things that need to be addressed in the church. It also doesn’t mean that being a Christian has exempted me from the reality of being a black man in America and all the stigma that comes with it.
Empathy, Understanding, Unity
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing, my wife and I received an email from a white sister in Christ. I was hesitant to let her know how I was feeling, for fear of being misunderstood and, frankly, because of emotional exhaustion. But as I began to write, I poured out my heart in a way I’ve never really articulated all at once. I’ve been encouraged by some around me to share this publicly.
In doing so, I understand that I don’t speak for all black people on this issue, though many can resonate with my experience. I also recognize the risk that comes with putting yourself out there and being vulnerable in the age of social media, online trolls, and keyboard vigilantes. But if this can help promote any empathy, understanding, and unity in the body of Christ, it’s more than worth it. Here is what I shared with her.
Sister, I’m going to tell you how I’m doing. And as I tell you, please understand that I’m incapable of completing this message without weeping. There’s a part of me that’s saying, “Spare yourself the pain, Shai. It’s not worth it.” But I’m choosing not to listen to that part of me because I would be robbing you of an opportunity to “bear one another’s burdens” and “mourn with those who mourn”—and I’m sure, as a sister in Christ, you want to do just that.
Sister, I am heartbroken and devastated. I feel gutted. I haven’t been able to focus on much at all since I saw the horrific video of George Floyd’s murder. The image of that officer with hand in pocket as he calmly and callously squeezed the life out of that man while he begged for his life is an image that will haunt me until the day I die. But it’s not just the video of this one incident. For many black people, it’s never about just one incident. Just as it wasn’t just about the videos of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Laquan McDonald, Walter Scott, Rodney King, etc., etc., etc., etc.
This is about how being a black man in America has shaped both the way I see myself and the way others have seen me my whole life. It’s about being told to leave the sneaker store as a 12-year-old, because I was taking too long to decide which sneakers I wanted to buy with my birthday money and the white saleswoman assumed I was in the store to steal something.
It’s about being handcuffed and thrown into the back of a police car while walking down the street during college, and then waiting for a white couple to come identify whether or not I was the one who’d committed a crime against them, knowing that if they said I was the one, I would be immediately taken to jail, no questions asked.
It’s about walking down the street as a young man and beginning to notice that white people, women especially, would cross to the other side of the street to avoid walking past me—and me beginning to preemptively cross to the other side myself to save them the trouble of being afraid and to save me the humiliation of that silent transaction.
It’s about taking a road trip with my sons to visit Blair’s family in Michigan—and my greatest fear being getting pulled over for no reason other than driving while black, told to get out of the car, cuffed, and sat down on the side of the road, utterly emasculated and humiliated with my young boys looking out the window, terrified, which is exactly what happened to a good friend of mine when he took his family on a road trip.
It’s about the exhaustion of constantly feeling I have to assert my humanity in front of some white people I’m meeting for the first time, to let them know, “Hey! I’m not a threat! You don’t need to be afraid. If you got to know me, I’m sure we have things in common!”
It’s about me sometimes asking my wife to do things in certain customer-service situations, since I know she’ll likely get treated better than I will.
It’s about borrowing a baby swing from a white friend in our mostly white suburb of D.C. and her telling me, “Sure you can borrow it. I have to step out, but I’ll leave it on the porch for you. Just go grab it”—and then feeling heart palpitations as my car approached her home, debating whether or not to get the swing and being terrified as I walked up the steps that someone would think I was stealing it and call the cops on me.
It’s about intentionally making sure the carseats are in the car, even if the kids aren’t, so that when (not “if”—it happens all the time) I’m stopped by the police, they will perhaps notice the carseats and also the wedding band on one of my visible hands on the wheel (which I’ve been taught to keep there and not move until he tells me to—and even then, in an exaggeratedly slow manner) and will perhaps think to himself, This man is married with a family and small kids like me. Maybe he wants to get home safely to his family just like I do.
It’s about having to explain to my 4-year-old son at his mostly white Christian school that the kids who laughed at him for having brown skin were wrong, that God made him in his image, and that his skin is beautiful—after he told me, “Daddy, I don’t want brown skin. I want white skin.”
It’s about having what feels like genuine fellowship with my white brothers and sisters who share the same Reformed theology—until I mention racism, injustice, or police brutality, at which point I’m looked at skeptically as if I embrace a “social gospel” or am some kind of “liberal” or “social justice warrior.”
And it’s about sometimes feeling like some of my white friends aren’t that particularly interested in truly knowing me—at least not in any meaningful way that might actually challenge their preconceptions. Rather, it feels like they use me to feel better about themselves because I check off the “black friend” box. Much more could be mentioned. These were the first things that came to mind.
So when I watch a video like George Floyd’s, it represents for me the fresh reopening of a deep wound and the reliving of layers of trauma that get exponentially compounded each time a well-meaning white friend says, “All lives matter.” Of course they do, but in this country, black lives have been treated like they don’t matter for centuries and present inequities in criminal justice, income, housing, health care, education, etc. show that all lives don’t actually matter like they should.
So, whenever someone asks how I’m doing with everything going on, this is some of what I bring to the table. And it’s a big part of the picture of who Shai Linne is.
Grieving, But With Hope
But it’s not the whole picture. Though I’m deeply grieved, I am not without hope. Personally, I have little confidence in our government or policymakers to change the systemic factors that contributed to the George Floyd situation. But my hope isn’t in the government. My hope is in the Lord. In a different context, the prophet Jeremiah said some things that resonate with me as I process this: “I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me” (Lam. 3:20).
I love that the prophet doesn’t minimize the pain or act like it isn’t real. There are three whole chapters of “bitterness and gall”—and no trite clichés wrapped in theological terms. Jeremiah acknowledges how much it hurts and, as a result, his soul is downcast. Too often when people are hurting, we can play the role of Job’s friends, saying things that may be theologically true while adding to our suffering friend’s pain. One of the most hurtful things we can do is to make mourners justify their pain.
One of the most hurtful things we can do is to make mourners justify their pain.
Jeremiah gives thoughtful meditation to the trauma he has experienced at the hand of the Lord. But then he does something remarkable in the next verse. He preaches to himself!
Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope. Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, “The LORD is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.” (Lam. 3:21–24)
Jeremiah makes a conscious decision to think about something that fuels his hope: God’s character. He considers God’s “great love,” God’s “compassion,” and God’s “faithfulness.” He reminds himself that the Lord is his portion. Jeremiah knows he and Israel deserve to be consumed because of their sin—but he also knows that the God who disciplines is the God who saves (v. 26).
Life as ‘Usual’
So, brothers and sisters, in a nutshell, I’m so thankful for Jesus. I deserve to be consumed, but I’m not, because of God’s compassion. That’s what the cross and resurrection are all about. My pain and trauma are real. But my salvation, in a sense, is even more real, because my pain and trauma are temporary. My salvation is eternal. This is why I choose to focus on what I do in my music. It’s the glory of God, the supremacy of Jesus Christ, the centrality of the cross, and biblical theology that put my experience as a black man in America into its proper perspective.
I hope I’m not giving into skepticism or pessimism, but I firmly believe that unless the systemic problems with policing and the criminal justice system are addressed, we’re going to continue to see these kinds of things for years to come. My fear is that the attention garnered by the protests will eventually die down (as it always does), and then my white friends will go right back to “life as usual.”
But I don’t have that luxury.
For me, “life as usual” means recognizing some people perceive me as a threat based solely on the color of my skin. For me, “life as usual” means preparing my sons for the coming time when they’re no longer perceived as cute little boys, but teenage “thugs.” Long after George Floyd disappears from the headlines, I will still be a black man in America.
And you know what? I thank God for that! He knew exactly what he was doing when he made me the way he did. Despite the real and exhausting challenges that come with my outward packaging, I know that I’m fearfully and wonderfully made. And I wouldn’t want to be anything other than what I am: a follower of Jesus Christ who has been saved by grace and redeemed by the blood of the Lamb—who also has brown skin and dreadlocks and does hip-hop. And God has chosen, in his great mercy, to leverage it all for his glory. Praise be to him.