The art of rap
Is God using a mainstream hip-hop artist to further His Kingdom?
By Kurt Armstrong | Wednesday, July 20, 2011
When my friend Lyle stopped by for breakfast recently, he picked up Decoded from my stack of books and asked, “What's an Alberta farm boy like you doing reading a book about larger-than-life New York hip-hop?"
Good question. Truth is, I don't know anything about rap music. I usually listen to a lot of roots and rock music, but I've completely ignored hip-hop because it's been impossible for me to get past the violence, drugs, misogyny and bravado that pervades much of the genre. But after hearing Canadian hip-hop artist Shad deliver a lecture about the poetry and tradition in rap music, I started to dip my toes into mainstream hip hop by signing out a stack of CD's from the library and reading Jay-Z's Decoded.
Jay-Z is arguably the biggest name in the hip-hop industry. Besides being a rapper, he's also an entrepreneur and businessman, part owner of the New Jersey Nets, founder of a record label and owner of his own clothing line - a far cry from the Brooklyn housing projects where he grew up. Decoded is Jay-Z's story about his climb to wealth and fame, but much of it is told through verse. Between each chapter, the book includes lyrics to some of his songs that he “decodes" with footnotes, explaining the social, political, cultural and historical meaning behind the poetry.
The first thing you'll notice is that this book is beautifully designed, full of photos and sketches illustrating his stories and songs. And even if you're not a hip-hop fan, this is an interesting book because Jay-Z is an excellent storyteller. He talks a lot about living in poverty, the days when he spent most of his time out on the streets selling drugs. He doesn't brag about the glory of being a drug dealer: he says that boasting about dealing “without talking about waking up in the middle of the night from a dream about the friend you watched die...is a lie so deep it's criminal." But he puts his experience in a social context of poverty and racism, where desperate times call for desperate measures.
But biography is only one aspect of the book. Jay-Z also defends rap as poetry and helps make sense of some of the offensive content in the music. “The problem," he says, “isn't with the rap or the rapper or the culture. The problem is that so many people don't even know how to listen to the music."
When he walks us through the meaning of his songs and exegetes his own poetry, it immediately becomes clear that his music works on so many layers. Rap, he says, tells stories of real life. “We came out of the generation of black people who finally got the point: No one's going to help us. Not even our fathers stuck around."
Rap's bravado reflects the survival of the abandoned, the competitiveness of everyday life on the streets, but it's also a game, manufacturing a persona who expresses thoughts and feelings that listeners will identify with.
“I like leaving the listener without an easy answer," Jay-Z says, recalling Flannery O'Connor's remark that art should resist easy interpretation. You need to listen to a good song over and over again, says Jay-Z, before you can begin to make sense of it. “Great rap should have all kinds of unresolved layers that you don't necessarily figure out the first time you listen to it. Instead it plants dissonance in your head." There's serious storytelling and social commentary going on, but you have to work to find it, which is why rap is so often misunderstood. “The Fox News dummies," he says, “They wouldn't know art if it fell on them."
I trust that God is at work everywhere we turn - as Erasmus said, “Bidden or unbidden, God is present" - and that He can use our half-hearted, failure-prone efforts to further His Kingdom. Jay-Z says he believes in God, but he doesn't make any claim to be Christian. However, that doesn't mean God can't use Jay-Z's music for His own purposes. Scripture is full of prophetic messages that use jarring images and words to challenge our complacency and give voice to the suffering.
Jay-Z never claims to be a prophet, but like the Old Testament prophets, his music can be provocative, confrontational, and disorienting. Whether or not Jay-Z sees his work as spiritual, it seems clear to me that God's hand is at work in the challenging music of this hip-hop superstar.
Kurt Armstrong is the book reviews coordinator for ChristianWeek and the author of Why Love Will Always Be A Poor Investment (Wipf & Stock).