Dwayne Carter Jr.’s release from Rikers Prison in New York may have slipped past many news readers last month. After all, the story didn’t make major headlines but was primarily relegated to entertainment substories or headlines on pop culture website. Dwayne Carter, more popularly known as Lil’ Wayne, finished serving 8 months in federal prison for charges of attempted weapons possession back in 2007. Although many may not express surprise that Wayne’s career involved prison time (after all, he is a gansta rapper), it did contribute to a lengthy discussion that has surfaced repeatedly in my Christian school classroom lately.
The discussion began after my students responded with shock and disbelief to my own musical preferences (which are dominated by Mozart, monks, and medieval polyphony). One student re-assured me that she didn’t believe the rumor of my classical tastes for a second; after all, she added, you’re far too young to like that stuff. Another student was a bit less diplomatic, declaring that my musical tastes are a “disgrace to teenagers” after I mentioned that I began building my classical library during my high school years.
My students turned the tables of surprise on me, though, when I asked each of them to introduce me to one song they deemed worthy of appreciation. I expected Christian rock artists, classic rock ’n’ roll, and possibly some Indy Pop, but I was not prepared for the string of explicit rap artists that hit my desk, including Jay-Z, Kevin Rudolf, and Lil’ Wayne, along with heavy metal songs such as “Raining Blood” by Slayer.
I would be tempted to write this off as a successful class-wide prank to abuse my classically-trained ears and torture my soul, but our class discussions on music revealed a firm belief that the “skill, creativity, and cultural popularity” of this music made it worth listening to. All the students recognized that explicitly sexual, drug addicted rap artists should not be their models in life, but all were equally persuaded that they could listen to and enjoy such music without letting it impact their own lives.
Despite my temptation to condemn such music immediately for its ugly perversity, a moment’s reflection reveals that the issue is much more complex than declaring an entire genre off limits because the lives of its artists aren’t godly, or because many of the songs contain profanity. These standards would call into question a host of art, music, plays, and movies that I have enjoyed immensely. Thus, while I may not enjoy rap music, making the argument that Christians have a moral obligation to set rap music aside demands more than a quick dismissal.
If music is a form of communication it is worth asking what rap artists are trying to say. Of course, even a genre such as rap has different subcategories, and arguments against popular rap stars such as Lil’ Wayne may not apply to every rap song. But I am interested in thinking carefully about the message of the rap stars that my students have idolized. Katie Couric got an answer to this question when she asked Lil’ Wayne what it means to be a gangsta rapper. Lil’ Wayne’s response: “I don't take nothin' from no one. I do what I wanna do. And I'm gonna do that until the day I die."
In other words, at the core of Lil’ Wayne’s music is a message to his listeners to assert themselves, do what they want to, and ignore rules or boundaries. This agrees exactly with what philosophy professor Bill Lawson argued when he wrote that rappers try to show that each person must look after his own interests, and that rap “glamorizes the ‘bad’ guy” who will not be pushed around or told what to do.
Rap pounds this self-promoting, authority denouncing message from every angle. Most obviously, it does so with its subject matter. Sex and drugs pervade the lyrics while violence and anti-cop images fill rap music videos, all urging listeners to revolt against standards of morality and rebel against “tyrannical” authority. Even the most secular moral standard based on “consenting adults” stands in the way of rap’s push for self assertion as rape, degradation of women, and violence to get what I want pervade the lyrics.
Rappers add to this revolt by casting off the laws of language itself. Rap lyrics very literally bastardize the English language by ignoring grammar, pronunciation, or clarity in communication. Thus, rap music promotes a “sing what I want, talk how I want, do what I want” attitude in rejection of standards for right or wrong.
In addition to the lyrics, it is worth remembering that music itself is a means of communication. Music is not a neutral medium that becomes good or bad based on the words that accompany it; music is an art form that creates impressions, communicates to an audience, and presents its listeners with an interpretation of reality.
One doesn’t need to go read dissertations on the reactions of mice in mazes in order to recognize music’s power. Think about the natural reactions of the body to a Braham’s lullaby, a Sousa march, a U2 rock song, or a Lil’ Wayne rap. Although we might be able to curb our natural reactions, the body longs to sit and relax, to march in line, to jump and clap, or to grind and mosh based on the music it hears. Lyrics often become the only litmus test of acceptable music, but music itself impacts both the mind and the body by stirring up emotions in its listeners. Rap music undermines authority as its jolting beat assaults the standards of musical form.
In the long run, streaming such music through our ears and into our minds must eventually impact how we think and act. However, I am aware that many young people listen to such music and do not end up walking out of their house to commit rape or murder. So, is the popular opinion in my classroom correct, that this music is appropriate to listen to as long as we are careful not to let it impact our actions?
If our standard of virtue is built on the likelihood of becoming violent, drug addicted gangsters then this music is probably harmless to many young people. Most of my students will not take this path of immorality regardless of their musical tastes. But if our desire is to live according to biblical principles, this music fails to meet the standard.
God’s desire for His people consists of far more than a mere set of actions they shouldn’t commit or a line in the sand they are not to cross. After generations of watching His people chase after idols, one might think God would be pleased to see his people offering sacrifices on His altars. But Isaiah tells the Israelites that God would rather they not sacrifice at all than sacrifice with their hands while their hearts were far from Him. Thus, our standard of acceptability should not just be whether or not our actions cross the border between right and wrong, but should also rest on whether or not what we watch, listen to, or think about is consistent with God’s calling for our life.
Our Lord commands us to fill our minds with what is pure, lovely, admirable, and virtuous, to take every thought captive to Christ, and to be holy just as he himself is holy. If these commands shape our musical litmus test, we ought to arrive at a very different conclusion about the rap albums our culture calls skillful, creative, or popular. Further, if we consider the message of self-promotion that rap artists claim they are trying to communicate, God’s word again pushes us in the opposite direction.
Christ summons us with such commands as “clothe yourselves with humility” and “consider others’ interests ahead of our own”. It certainly seems paradoxical to desire humility but to enjoy music that undermines self-sacrifice in favor of self-promotion.
In the end, Lil’ Wayne won’t be banned from my iPod because he’s done time in federal prison. Nor am I necessarily concerned that my students who have purchased his explicit album are one step from cop-killing or drug addiction. Instead, I won’t be listening to Lil’ Wayne because I do not want his message to have a repeated hearing in my heart and mind.
I am concerned about the culture of rap music, including the music and the lyrics, because it is fundamentally opposed to the Biblical picture of a Christian life: a life guided by the Spirit, renewed in God’s image, and destined for a glorious future in God’s presence. That’s a calling worth pursuing with every thought, word, note, and rhythm of our lives.
Christopher Walker is a secondary teacher at Veritas Academy in Leola, PA. He lives in Leola with his wife, Kathryn, and 17 month-old daughter, Alana. He attended Hillsdale College (BA in Classics, minor in music) and Westminster Seminary (Master of Arts in Religion).