I wrote a poem that turned into a rap song last week. You can check out the lyrics here.
For a recent assignment, I had to “reimagine” the story of God and his relationship with his people in my own context – the context of working with teenagers in Lawndale. I currently have two of them living in my home, and interact with them and others on a daily basis. Following the completion of my internship in Oak Brook, I imagine finding myself back in Lawndale or in a similar professional setting, which is reflective of my deeper calling toward community development through the church. In exploring the particular sub-culture of urban adolescents, one of the most universal mediums is hip-hop music. I thought that a creative way to reinterpret the gospel message would need two things, a culturally relevant hook (e.g. the hip-hop format) and an absence of overly “Christian-ese” verbiage. Often times, this language is seen as a “holier than thou” demarcation between the insiders who grew up every day with the King James Bible and the outsiders who barely knew what the Bible was. This is often seen as a deterrent for many of the youth who are not even familiar with the most basic of Bible stories. But reimagined in today’s context, many are able to relate to the stories from the street with the same themes.
Seeking to meet both of those criteria, I have written a poem and turned it into a rap song. This poem was written and performed completely by me (so feel free to chuckle at my absolute lack of any sort of compelling rap voice), and set to the beat of Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks” from his 2004 album College Dropout. I chose this backing track because of two main features. Of course it was important that it fit the rhythm and cadence that I had written the poem to, but I also found it poignant that this particular song was exploring some of the same ideas that my poem was written about. For example, the original lyrics included lines such as “I walk through the valley of the Chi where death is,” and, “To the victims of welfare, for we living’ in Hell here,” speaking to the specific experiences of the youth that are my unique ministry context. With this as background, I thought this particular beat and its associated lyrics already provided a great introduction into the story of Christianity-already-contextualized here, in North Lawndale. Additionally, the choir singing in the background is performed by the Addicts Rehabilitation Center Choir and is taken from a rendition of the old gospel song “Walk with Me”. This is just an added bonus, considering that the youth in my neighborhood have daily encounters with the snares of various addictions and vices within their own families.
While the original song included three accompanying music videos, each took a slightly different take on the lyrical interpretation. In the first, Kanye depicts a preacher who ministers to various marginalized populations – drug dealers, prostitutes, alcoholics –who are led into his church by angels. This speaks to a significant divide in the perception of what “church” is, particularly in the inner city. Often times church is treated as a “saints only” respite from the evils of the rest of the world, whereas others see the church as exactly the kind of refuge for the broken that Kanye depicts. In the second, Kanye explores the duality of man, juxtaposing images of evil such as contract prison labor, a Ku Klux Klan cross-burning, and drug smuggling with iconic Christian imagery such as a man being beaten by the authorities with his arms out to the side, a man carrying the cross (both are metaphorically Jesus, of course), and the release of hundreds of doves. In the third, Kanye goes throughout his day in Chicago, his adolescent hometown, with Jesus following close behind, performing miracles in his wake. Of these three, the second was by far the most popular due in large part to the depth of the content, which spoke creatively to several societal ills.
Most evangelicals would never consider the original song or the accompanying videos as any sort of orthodox Christian message, but Kanye himself has said he wrote the song for as much and his mother reports instances of mass conversions and confessions of faith after performances. In my reimagination of the gospel message, it is helpful to reimagine the original song as well. With the same goals in mind as Kanye, the following will attempt to interpret the poem and song and provide clues as to where this poem recapitulates the gospel message for the target demographic.
The poem is loosely written into three theological sections. In the first, we explore the common understandings of “hell” set against the conditions that many are living in today. In the second, we explore what the Kingdom may look like, examining a place that is appealing to those who long for a different way to live, and relief from the present circumstances that feel like hell. In the third, we present a treatise on conversion and discipleship that is meant to be the narrow path toward making the present world more like the Kingdom (right living) and what we look forward to in the future world in the eschaton.
I’ll post my lyric-genius exegesis later for you to scope if you want the line-by-line breakdown.