“This album is actually a Gospel album,” said Kanye West ahead of the release of his Life of Pablo album. Most of us howled with laughter. But once we stitched up our sides that had literally (yes literally) split, we had to think, why would Kanye make such a statement?
Aside from his 2004 hit Jesus Walks, we hadn’t heard a whole lot about Kanye’s faith. We do know that he has a truck load of belief in himself though. So did Kanye have a ‘come to Jesus’ moment?
In the lead up to the at-the-time mysterious Life of Pablo, the rapper was pictured with gospel megastar Kirk Franklin in his studio. The two were snapped along with a number of household names from outside of the gospel sphere including Andre 3000 and Two Chainz. The scepticism from the Christian community forced Kirk Franklin to defend his decision to associate himself with Kanye. A subsequent high profile performance saw Kanye take to the stage on Saturday Night Live in the States with Kirk and a full gospel choir.
Real life music
Is Life of Pablo a gospel album? No. But that hasn’t stopped Kanye and other figures from the world of mainstream hip hop from showing leanings towards having a conversation about faith. Or at the very least, being associated with key figures from the Christian world. But why?
“There’s more room for people to be themselves and not feel like they’re a part of a box. People are open to exploring that. I don’t have to pretend I’m a gangster. I can just be me,” Lecrae said in an interview with Rap-Up. Lecrae himself has just released a new track called Blessings, which features Ty Dolla $ign.
So rappers feel freer to talk about the things that affect them; the things they’re experiencing as opposed to storybook gangland portraits. Maybe it’s the case that rappers wanted to talk about this kind of stuff for ages but felt like they couldn’t because it wouldn’t sell. Or maybe they just don’t care anymore. The best art is authentic, right?
Give rap a Chance
Another artist who was on stage with Kanye and Kirk on SNL was Chance the Rapper. He’s since had another performance on the show at Christmas where he was overt with his Christian message. There was also the performance at the Grammys with Kirk Franklin and Tamela Mann. His album Coloring Book features tracks such as How Great – his own version of the classic church song How Great Is Our God.
For Chance, getting to this point was a result of a battle where he lost the relationship with God he once had. Speaking to Zane Lowe on Beats 1 Radio, he said it was only through daily early morning prayer and listening to Kirk Franklin’s music that he was able to get to where he needed to be.
And that’s the real story here. The Dove Awards fraternity doesn’t have the monopoly on expressing gratitude in their music. No matter where we all are on our faith journey, people want to talk about it. And because of that, we’re hearing beliefs being discussed by some people we wouldn’t expect. It’s great to hear Jesus talked about on other TV networks besides TBN.
It shouldn’t be too far of a stretch for hip hop to go in this direction. Although the subject matter itself was different in the past, the genre was built on issues of social justice (or lack thereof), struggles, and just plain old fashioned personal stories. Whether those stories were always true is debatable but they were always presented as such. No matter who we are, we all ask questions about God, we are all on journeys. Maybe hip hop could be the perfect way to chronicle those journeys in a way that speaks to mainstream audiences.
What do you think? Is hip hop more effective at talking about beliefs in the mass market than we give it credit for? Comment below.