Is this “the year of black memoir?” Imani Perry thinks so, and she places recent books like Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and Clifford Thompson’s Twin of Blackness squarely in the Black literary tradition.
Memoirs come with benefits and drawbacks. The danger is that people may read them as representing all of black thought. “Telling one’s story is one’s story,” Perry writes, not a prototype you can foist on all the people in a group.
But acknowledging this drawback doesn’t counteract the real and personal benefit of a good memoir. “The power of narrative hits the heart and mind harder than that of social science,” Perry writes. “Stories teach us to think more than data does, for better or worse.”
Lecrae the Storyteller
Personal stories are, indeed, powerful, and that’s why I was so captivated by another black memoir that releases this year – Unashamed, the first book from hip-hop artist and rapper Lecrae.
I’ve followed the trajectory of Lecrae’s career over the years – noting his success in Christian circles and his rise to the top of the Billboard chart. But I’ve been only an interested outsider, someone whose foray into rap or hip hop goes about as far as dcTalk during my teenage years. (Which is to say, not at all.) Rap is one of the few kinds of music largely absent from my otherwise eclectic playlists. My wife, Corina, is originally from the Eastern European country of Romania, where the dominant musical style is techno and the cultural backdrop of hip-hop doesn’t exist.
So, needless to say, neither of us comes from a background or experience that would draw us to Lecrae’s story. But there we were on a plane together, reading an advance copy of Lecrae’s memoir, turning pages like it was an edge-of-your-seat thriller.
Unashamed is a story of redemption, yes, but the redemptive struggle is cast in terms of being the “outsider” – a motif that appears at the beginning of the book and carries all the way through to the end. Lecrae’s journey is not merely from sin to righteousness, or from lostness to salvation. It’s the journey of a man who comes to recognize his status as an outsider and embrace it as the paradigm of Christian faithfulness.
Outside on Accident, Outside on Purpose
Unashamed opens with Lecrae “on the outside” while standing on the red carpet at the Grammy’s and then attending a party with Jay-Z and Beyonce. The story then draws the curtain back on Lecrae’s childhood, where his experience of fatherlessness and the verbal and sexual abuse he endured create a void in his life which is filled, at least partially, by hip-hop. He describes Tupac as a “second parent.”
The outsider motif returns with Lecrae at school. He was the artistic type — a writer and lyricist, not an athlete. Exuding creativity and giftedness, he received the nickname “Straight-A Lecrae.”
Many Christian testimonies have dramatic conversion scenes with a clear break from the darkness of the past and the light of God’s kingdom. Lecrae’s story is messier. Even after his conversion, Lecrae falls back into the patterns of his old life. Much of his promiscuity and drug use occur after coming to Christ, including the darkest and saddest moment of the memoir.
Through struggle and heartache, rebirth and rehab, Lecrae finally grows into his identity as a Christian artist. Yet even here he encounters setbacks, including wrong motivation behind his obedience. He labels his misplaced zeal for the Lord as the period when he was “legalistic Lecrae” – the self-righteous opposite of his previous prodigal lifestyle.
The book ends with Lecrae as an outsider to the Christian music industry. His bridge-building between the church and the world leaves him feeling like he doesn’t fit in anywhere. Relying on the worldview thinking of Francis Schaeffer and other writers who believe there is no sacred/secular divide, Lecrae makes a case for art infused with his Christianity even when not explicitly mentioning it. By the end, Lecrae has embraced this outsider tension, confident in becoming the hip-hop artist who is a Christian “but doesn’t fit inside a box.”
Fitting In, But Never Fully
Here is where the benefit of Lecrae’s story becomes so relevant to Christians from all backgrounds, not just the fans of his music. Redemption leads us to stand out. Or as Lecrae puts it, “You fit in, but you don’t fully fit in.”
It’s that classic tension of being both in the world and not of the world, of recognizing your identity will lead you into conflict with the world (because of how you stand out) and sometimes even with the church (because of how you reach out).
White evangelical Christians have a lot to learn from our black brothers and sisters on how we maintain a prophetic hope in times of marginalization. And that emphasis on hope is what sets Lecrae apart from other memoirs.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ work offers no ultimate hope. Its picture of present suffering is bleak, but the future looks bleaker still – a never ending struggle of always being the outsider, without the hope that one day justice will reign and reconciliation become a reality.
Lecrae’s memoir casts this struggle of being the outsider as the test of true Christian faithfulness. The struggle is not what gives meaning to past suffering; it’s what points forward to future redemption. The struggle is redemptive because it has the gospel at its core and the promise for its future. And that’s what makes the struggle worth singing, or rapping about.
(Lecrae’s memoir releases on May 3. If you pre-order Unashamed here, you can download an exclusive song from Lecrae called “Illuminate (feat Dria).” You can also choose a t-shirt or chance to see Lecrae on tour the next two months. At LifeWay Stores, pre-ordering “Unashamed” includes Lecrae’s “Church Clothes 3” album free.)