Today Jackie Hill Perry—rapper, poet, writer, speaker, wife, mother, and much more—releases her sophomore album, Crescendo (Humble Beast). The 14-track record, Perry’s follow-up to her 2014 debut, The Art of Joy, is a rich collection of hip hop songs exploring a wide range of topics (race, gender, social media, church) through the lens of glorifying God and growing in faith. As the album title suggests, the big theme of Crescendo is growth.
“Our lives should be a constant crescendo,” Perry says. “We should be growing in love for God and our neighbor. This is really a story about what it’s like to grow.”
In this exclusive interview for The Gospel Coalition, Perry—who will be a plenary speaker at TGC’s 2018 Women’s Conference next month—expands on the themes of the new album, why she returned to making music, how she stays sane on social media, and more.
Why did you decide to make Crescendo now? It seems like you have so much going on (including another child on the way!). What inspired a return to music-making in this season of your life?
I’ve been wanting to make an album for the last two years now, but this just so happened to be the right time, surprisingly. I’m a bit of a busy bee, so I don’t think there is ever a “calm” season in my life. I’m not the type to wait for things to settle for me to get to work. So, there wasn’t necessarily any “inspiration” for me to return to music. It was as simple as Odd Thomas and Braille [of Beautiful Eulogy] hitting me up and saying, “We’re ready to start working on your next album.” That’s pretty much all I needed to hear.
There are snippets of hymns and worship songs sprinkled throughout the album (e.g. “Come Thou Fount,” “Nothing But the Blood,” “I Love You Lord,” etc.) that give it a feeling of worship. But would you call the album “worship music?” How do you categorize it? Do you think Christians have too narrow categories of how we conceive of art and worship?
I definitely think it’s worship. When I began thinking through what I wanted people to walk away with after listening to the album, that was it. I wanted it to be a small, 41-minute opportunity for them to worship God, whether in thought or in song. I totally think Christians can overcomplicate worship. But at its core, worship is about giving glory to God. I can do that with a 16 bar verse or as I cook with my daughter and rejoice over the good gift of food. If it’s unto God, it’s worship.
At its core, worship is about giving glory to God. I can do that with a 16 bar verse or as I cook with my daughter and rejoice over the good gift of food.
Your first words in the song “Hush” perfectly capture our social media moment: “Blah, Blah ba Blah Blah.” There are just so many words coming at us each day. Unwise words. Words of hate. Some uplifting, mostly corrosive. As someone who is active on social media, how do you deal with it? How do you stay sane in the social media space?
I have to pay attention to how much I’m willing to engage with social media as well as who I choose to engage with. Who I follow and how often I am online really has the power to determine how I feel and think throughout the day. So I’ve been trying my best to just shut it all off more often to protect my peace and guard my heart.
The chorus on “No Ways Tired” encapsulates so much of what this album seems to be about: Life is getting harder / God I need thee. The album has such a beautiful Godward orientation, even as it expresses pain, frustration, exhaustion, brokenness. What can Christians do to keep a Godward focus even with so much that pulls us inward or outward in this world?
Time in God’s Word, time with God in prayer, and time with God’s people. It sounds so simple, or to some, clichéd, but those disciplines have always been the things that keep the church near to God. I honestly believe it all boils down to neediness and affection. If you don’t think you need God, you won’t seek Him consistently. You’ll be content with a little Bible here and a little prayer there. And when you have a lesser affection for God than you do for other things, then all the temptations of this world will be more appealing to you than obedience to God. Just getting back to the basics of Christianity would keep us all more focused on God.
I love the honesty of the album, whether talking about the struggle of faith (“Mustard Seed”), the pain of racial injustice (“Maranatha”), or the complexities of gender (“Woman”). The album is raw but also gospel-centered and hopeful. That seems to be a rare balance these days, with the temptation being to either focus on brokenness to the point of self-indulgence or to ignore it in an unhealthy way. How do you personally balance a healthy honesty about the world with the strident faith and optimism that is expressed so beautifully at the end of “Maranatha”: It might be night but the Son’s coming back / Watch the time and keep yourself on track?
Just reading through the entire Bible, you see a variety of different things. There’s turmoil, grief, depression, judgment, and death. And yet there is so much life, light, truth, and hope. All of these realities exist in the same book. If I believed everything will remain as is, then there would be no balance. I’d be quite cynical and skeptical of any promise of hope. But I am able to both be honest about where we are, including the grief of injustice, and yet be hopeful because I know where we will end up. The Son of God is coming back and He will make all things new. That is a fact and a reality in which I can and will continue to place all my hope.
The Son of God is coming back and He will make all things new. That is a fact and a reality in which I can and will continue to place all my hope.
On “Woman” the line “God forbid I ever tell God how it should be done” stands out as something that is very challenging in this age of autonomy, where we don’t want to subvert our “authentic self” if it conflicts with God’s Word. This has been part of your own story in terms of sexual identity. Unpack this song a bit and how it articulates your journey of womanhood and the Bible.
Womanhood is such a weird concept. There’s so many voices speaking into the topic of what a woman is and what a woman should be. As a black woman—and one who lived a gay lifestyle in which I hated all that made me me—when I came to Christ, I found it hard to not only learn about what God had to say about womanhood but to actually believe it was a good thing. In our culture, there are a lot of people who want to champion womanhood and yet many are actually championing a version of womanhood that isn’t biblical at all—whether it’s the version of womanhood that looks more like I Love Lucy or the version of womanhood that loves autonomy over meekness. Both extremes are the result of being unwilling to let God define what a woman should and shouldn’t be. It’s all about Him. If all things were made through and for Him, then I have to believe my gender and the ways in which I express it are not excluded. So, the song is my very small attempt at communicating that truth.
On “Restless” there is a repeated refrain (I’m doin too much) that a lot of us can probably relate to. We are spread so thin. Life pulls us in so many directions. You are a rapper, a writer, a speaker, a mother, a wife, among other things. How do you balance it all? What do you do to stay centered in a restless age?
Balance is so hard and something I don’t think I’ll ever do perfectly. But I’ve learned that the key to balance is having my priorities in order. If my career is on the top of the list of what I giving all my energy to, then my family and my church will be second on my list of things and people I am to serve on a given day. But for me, my priorities are the Lord, my home, my local church, and then everything else. My schedule and my life have no choice but to submit to what’s most important to me.