It’s a hot Phoenix day at the end of March. The car lot at Grand Canyon University is filling up to the 6th level. Troves of people walk down to the auditorium: families, college students, some dressed to party, others in t-shirts that read “Anomaly,” others “Un-Ashamed.”
Arizona has been a frequent stop for Lecrae for more than 5 years. For the last two, I had the pleasure of interviewing him at his concerts. I’m brought to a holding area back stage, texts are sent, and through a cloth partition emerges this six-foot plus figure. Having published his first album more than ten years ago, he still thinks about what he’s doing with rap, how he wants to deliver his unusual rhymes. He recently published the book, Unashamed, a collection of thoughts on these subjects.
Below you’ll find my recent conversation with him, which has been edited for publication.
Charles Carman: Hip-hop and rap begins with Wu-Tang, Tupac, N.W.A. They’re angry; they’ve seen some stuff, and they want to reply to it. They threaten. They’re very creative with their threats. They’re violent. Then you enter the scene. Given how it began, where do you want hip-hop to end? Where is it going?
Lecrae: You have to go back further, to the late 70s, early 80s, when you had artists like Melle Mell or Grandmaster Flash, who spoke out against societal ills and were anti-violent, anti-drugs, and anti-misogyny. Then in the 1980s you have “The War on Drugs”, which radically changed the urban community. The community experienced a militarized police force, drug lords, senseless violence, murders, and the music became a mirror of what was going on. As people began to associate hip-hop with criminality, out of protest, rappers embraced the stigma, and said, “Ok, if this is what you think I am, then I’m just going to go with this.” They started making tons of money, so why change the formula?
Rap has always involved social commentary and scientific commentary—science of the mind and society—but rarely has it engaged the soul and spirituality. As an artist, I’m willing to engage the soul and the social; it’s an alternative view to how we wrestle with societal ills and who we are. I come with an eternal hope, a view of peace, and a view that things can change. I represent more Martin Luther King Jr., while most hip hop is a little more Malcom X.
C: Since “Real Talk” and now with the recent release of “Church Clothes 3”, how has your own work changed?
L: I’ve matured. I’ve always rapped about my experiences. In “Real Talk” you’re listening to a young man who was for the first time experiencing a systematic way to understand his Bible. It was new and I was passionate about this newness. I rap about whatever is fresh on my mind, whatever I’m learning. In “After the Music Stops”, I’m doing foreign missions and traveling. Then you have “Rebel”, where I’m engaging the inner city, standing against culture, and trying to be distinct in my perspectives. In “Rehab” I’m burned out, wondering, “what do I say now?” Then comes now, when I’ve realized that my new mission field and place to engage is the arts community and society. That’s what your hearing, the growth and progress of a person who’s experienced new things.
C: Going back to when hip-hop became an outlet, or a mirror as you say, of the violence in certain communities — some would say: “look, if Eminem, Kanye, Jay-Z, even Kendrick can’t be angry, you’ve taken out the gasoline, anger is the reason they rap.” You want to introduce hope, but they’ve never used that.
L: (Skeptical noise). Two fronts: Yes, hip-hop has consistently been the voice of disenfranchised, marginalized, and angry voices. That’s typical. But at the same time, hip-hop has changed. You can’t really pin it down. Like rock—what’s rock these days? Is it Foo Fighters? Is it Arcade Fire? What about Alabama Shakes? That is what’s happening to hip-hop. It’s become an umbrella—is it Macklemore, Drake, or Kendrick Lamar? This opens the door for people like me to offer an alternative brand or speak from a different vantage point.
C: Though, you do have criticisms, especially in “Anomaly”, opening with “Welcome to America”, and then in “Church Clothes 3” with…
L: No, there’s definitely angst in my music.
C: But you seem to be angry at different things, or at least willing to talk about it differently.
L: Everyone is interpreting a story, and to interpret a story correctly, you have to have a protagonist and an antagonist. A lot of times people have the wrong protagonist and antagonist, people make someone the antagonist who shouldn’t be. I have a broader perspective and don’t think any of us are the protagonist—none of us are the heroes in life’s grand story. All of us are more villainous than we would like to imagine.
C: Eminem would agree.
L: Yeah. But I’m not angry at a particular person. I’m mad at the infrastructure. At the same time, I understand that there are powers and forces of darkness and evil beyond that, and that’s what I’m really upset at, how we’ve become puppets for the forces or evil. That’s what angers me.
C: That reminds me of the short film made for “Church Clothes 3”. The kid at the very end; he’s seen a friend or a brother get shot and runs to get a gun. And everyone watching thinks, “We know what he’s going to do. What would all of us do?” It ends with the kid pointing the gun at the camera and lingering with it there. In the next scene, he throws the gun into the river. That seems to be what you and other rappers like Kendrick would agree with and say together—the throwing away of the gun. But what does the kid need to pick up next?
L: Someone needs to pick the kid up. There’s a lot of cognitive dissonance about what’s going on, but no one’s willing to get in there and pick the kid up. And even if they do, it’s about what we’re communicating and teaching. There are practical things that anyone can teach that young man to make him better. But at the core of who he is, he’s a spiritual being. He has a soul. If that’s not addressed, we’re starting in the middle; we’re not dealing with the actual disease, we’re dealing with symptoms. It’s great that people want to treat the symptoms and stop the bleeding, but what is causing the bleeding? Who is picking this kid up?
C: Now I’m thinking about your unique place in the history of rap. You use this word, “Jesus,” then everyone says, “Wait a second, is this guy really a rapper?” But if they don’t have access to that hope, how long do we listen to them be angry?
L: Some people just embrace the mess that we exist in. For them, hope is just protecting your body, just staying alive, survival of the fittest. There’s no hope: just survive. There’s no divine intervention or solution.
This is a fallen world, susceptible to suffering. People who have a hope beyond this life still have to wrestle with temporal consequences. One’s mom is still going to die. Regardless of whether you see her again, she is still dead, and that’s frustrating, and so you have something to lament, something to point your anger at.
Let’s imagine a scenario where all of hip-hop embraces hope. You now have a different type of hip-hop. The culture looks completely different. You can still call it hip-hop. It’s refined, revised; it’s changed, redeemed. But if we’re realists, we’re going to see that not everyone subscribes to hope. There’s always going to be anger, always tension. We’re not going to arrive at a utopian society in this society of glory.
C: Is hope one of the reasons why you choose very carefully how to speak? You are very careful not to let the anger take over your language. Through this precision, it seems you are resisting a culture, especially within hip-hop, where it is so easy to spout anger.
L: Well, part of that is coming from a false sense of masculinity. But hip-hop is pretty masculine as an art form. Bravado is how you identify, and it takes someone who’s confident in their masculinity to say, “That’s not how I’m identified. I can be selfless, I can be gracious, and that makes me a man.” Because if my standard of masculinity is Jesus, and he is the picture of selflessness, humility, responsibility, and courage, then we’re operating from a different narrative.
Culture is not amoral. You can’t just take every aspect. You have to know what to take and what to reject. Simply adopting it would mean rejecting some aspects of my faith. This means that my faith should supersede and win out, and from this, I hope that people see an integrated faith.
For so long, people have believed that to be a Christian, I have to look like something, instead of re-imagining what you could look like in your culture as a Christian. I hope I’m embodying an integrated faith. I hope to redeem and redefine hip-hop, and not continue with the old model.
I believe changed people change things. You don’t just talk about it. Don’t just picket against abortion. Don’t just stand outside the building with a hashtag. Go talk to a young lady and say, “Hey, are you planning on having an abortion? What if I take the baby on?”
You just gave her hope. Pick the kid up.
Charles’ earlier conversations with Lecrae can be found here.