James Broad considers how violence is used in UK Christian rap in the presentation of a Christian identity.
Rap music is sometimes associated with violent lyrical content. As such, there may be an expectation that Christian rappers who adopt rap musical styles, may avoid violent language in their music. As I will show, however, some UK Christian rappers adopt violent lyrical themes, drawing on influences not only from wider rap but also, from the Bible. As a rap fan and rap artist myself, I frequently extoll the virtues of rap as a musical and lyrical form which has given me (and countless others) so much. My PhD research examined UK Christian identity, as detailed in the musical narratives and rap testimonies of select UK Christian rappers. Here I will briefly consider how violence is used in UK Christian rap in the presentation of a Christian identity.
Christian rap songs are often not written for an explicitly liturgical purpose but are more often attempts to evangelise by engaging with a popular music style. Borrowing from the genre musically, can also mean adopting some of the lyrical styles, including violence. Itis important to note that rap music is multifaceted, and not all rap is violent. In fact, some of the violence in rap lyrics can be misinterpreted by those outside of the genre. Rap as a genre, contains a competitive element and a desire to demonstrate lyrical dexterity and superioritythrough a hermeneutic of ‘play’ where ‘word-play’ is employed metaphorically.
In examining how Christian rap interacts with mainstream versions of the genre, it is important to examine how Christian rappers themselves present rap. Often the understanding of rap is as part of a fallen world. The “world” is presented both as a force which pulls believers towards temptation and away from God and also a dangerous spiritual terrain believers must exist in, but not become part of. This notion is often present in conversion narratives where binaries of old and new are employed alongside more metaphorical language such as light and dark.
Identity then is constructed, in part, via comparison with “the world” and thecompetitive rap element is sometimes utilised in Christian rap to portray the artist as separate to mainstream or secular rappers. In this paradigm, violence is externalised and rival rappers sometimes become targets for lyrical attack, legitimated by their perceived allyship with the world.
A good example of this is the song ‘Kill A Rapper’ by J Walker (2020) which includes the lyrics “I might kill a rapper just for fun/ They’re talking like they’re God but I only heard of one.” These lyrics, along with the song title, emphasise the central theme of conflict with other rappers, and the use of rap to define their own Christian identity as separate to, or in opposition with them.
In using the phrase “to kill” it is important to note that J Walker is not advocating physical violence. This is noted explicitly later on in the song with the lyrics: (2:14-2:18) “I’ll kill one, lyrically. With no gun, til they’re all gone.” He references killing in a lyrical sense here, drawing on the hermeneutic of play noted earlier. Musicologist Alex De Lacey notes that the phrase ‘kill’ is more often directed at opposing performers as a metaphorical demonstration of lyrical supremacy.
This song serves as an example to demonstrate how rap’s themes of violence are adopted, along with the competitive and often metaphorical language in the presentation of a Christian identity. Here, this violence is externalized in the presentation of a Christian identity as separate or in opposition to, mainstream rap and by extension, the world.
As well as adopting violent, metaphorical language as informed by wider mainstream rap, some UK Christian rappers also adopt violent imagery based on specific understandings of scripture. Where before, violent lyricism was externalized and focused at rival rappers as representative of “the world,” here violent metaphorical language is internalized. Despite conversion narratives often presenting conversion as a transformative experience, individuals still exist in and inhabit the same world as they did before conversion. In this way, the temptations of the world are not only a pre-conversion, but a post-conversion concern. A recognition of sin post-conversion can create a tension in identity.
Along with binaries that divide life into old and new, another post-conversion binary differentiates between following God and not, namely; the flesh versus the spirit. In this paradigm, flesh is considered in opposition to the true self and in rebellion to God and the spirit. Here violence is internalised with a notion of a murder of the flesh. This understanding draws on a particular understanding of Gal. 5.24 (NRSV) – “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”
An example can be seen in the music of UK rapper Feed em, particularly his EP release Murder the Flesh (2018). In this understanding the process of denying the desires of the flesh and dying to self is sometimes conceptualised lyrically as a destruction of self, often with the metaphor of murder. A good example of this comes in the song ‘Outro’ (2018) whereFeed em details a murder scene in which he finds his own slain, former self: (2.04-2.18) “Tracey be the name on the gravestone let me get back to the truth/ Murder me twice no evidence I guess they’re looking for proof/ It was a KJV aimed at the temple/ LED right dots with a black text/ straight down to my conscience/ Double edged sword to the chest.” This lyrical presentation of identity employs violent wordplay to demonstrate an understanding of scripture and it’s role in the formation of a religious identity post-conversion. Here, thecompetitive, battle-like metaphorical language borrowed from rap is internalized, with the enemy presented not as a rival rapper, but an element of self.
In this presentation, flesh is found murdered and the murder weapon is a KJV (King James Version) Bible. The description of the Bible as a double-edged sword employs a weaponry metaphor that draws on Heb 4:12. (New Revised Standard Version): “Indeed the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirt, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” The Bible is presented as the murder weapon because it exposes parts of self that need to be destroyed, evidenced by a reference to “conscience.”
Authenticity of self-expression is a common theme of rap lyrics and an expectation of audiences and practitioners who are concerned with “keeping it real.” There is an important note here to be made regarding audience, not only are the songs directed evangelistically to those outside the faith, they are also directed at other members of the faith. Thesepresentations of internal conflict employ violent biblical imagery alongside violent rap wordplay to portray honest testimonies of the struggles of living as a Christian in society.
In the examples highlighted, a Christian identity is presented musically through rap lyrics that could be interpreted as violent. This violent language is sometimes directed externally at other rappers and at other times, is internalised. In each, a post-conversion identity is presented that utilises interactions with both rap and the Bible, drawing on violent metaphorical language to present self.
James F. Broad writes on rap music and Theology, drawing on his own experience as a rapper and performer. His research examines musical testimony narratives and Christian identity in the UK.
As with all guest blogs, the views expressed in this blog post may not represent the views of the CSBV.