I looked up the definition of gospel, then a separate definition of rap. I connected the dots in my agnostic brain, and came out the other side with a new appreciation for what I have loved all my life.
Allow me to (attempt to) explain.
I’m not religious. I identify as agnostic to put a hard pause on my spiritual journey. I’m young, in college, and fine with figuring out all that later. I’ve always connected with music, especially rap. I have a perfectly crafted agrument for why rap is the best genre of all time: it’s so clever, twisting words and syllables in ways other genres simply can’t. Rappers invoke so much uniqueness in slang, word play, and pronunciation, they have essentially created their own language. Rap can be loud and mainstream, subtle and underground, and every quirky grey area in between. Rap is flexible, up for interpretation, and means something different to everyone – just like my agnosticism. Although religious rap exists, I’m not here to talk about that. I’m here to talk about how rap music is influenced by people’s worldview identities regardless of it falling under “religious rap.” In fact, popular rappers such as Kanye West or Kendrick Lamar bring their faiths to the table all the time. They do it without a concrete label separating their music from the general population. In other words, some rappers rap about their faiths the way we tend to live our lives – bringing our whole, complex, intersecting identities to the table.
Now, let’s play with some definitions.
Gospel, primarily defined within a heavily Christian context, can also be defined as “a doctrine ‘preached’ with fervour as a means of political or social ‘salvation’.”1 Gospel, to me, then, acts as a way to speak of one’s experiences with the intention of being emotionally moving. Rapping has two interesting origins: “the action of striking or knocking sharply, esp. repeatedly” and “ the sharp utterance (of an oath).”1 The word that gets me here is “oath.” To define, oath means “a solemn or formal declaration…as witness to the truth of a statement, or to the binding nature of a promise or undertaking; an act of making such a declaration.”1 Gospel is to speak with the intent to be emotionally powerful; to rap is to utter something striking, repeatedly, in the form of a powerful declaration. Gospel takes place in church while rap takes place in concert venues. But for me and my identity as an agnostic, the two aren’t so different. Take Chance The Rapper’s Coloring Book mixtape.
There’s a lot to unpack here. Firstly, the mixtape Coloring Book is not placed under the rap gospel sub-genre. Critics have described it as such, but Chance described it as “[simply] music from me as a Christian man.”1 He does not hide his faith, and simply uses his worldview as a foundation for his album, just as anyone brings their experiences and perspectives to what they do. I see this from beginning to end in his album. The very first song,”All We’ve Got,” plays on Christian imagery very well. Take this stanza:
It was a dream, you could not mess with the Beam
This is like this many rings
Y’all know wha’ mean?
This for the kids of the king of all kings
This is the holiest thing
This is the beat that played under the Word
This is the sheep that ain’t like what it herd
This is officially first
This is the third
There’s a lot happening in this stanza. The beginning starts with a throwback to “Ultralight Beam,” a song Chance is featured on, and a nod to Coloring Book being his third album. Then Chance starts weaving in how I interpret his visions and views as a Christian. This line – this is the sheep that ain’t like what it herd – shows off his ability to express his worldview, incorporate real life circumstances in his music, and speak to a wider social issue, all in one line. Firstly, the idea of sheep and herding are extremely prominent in Christian imagery. Jesus refers to himself as a shepherd in John 10: “I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine.” Sheep are also what we call people in society who fall into place and don’t think about the bigger issues at hand. The plays on homophones herd and heard are fantastic, as Chance is getting across two messages as once. He refers to himself as a sheep, who “ain’t like what it herd/heard,” referring to his previous turmoil with his record label who gave him issue after issue with his music. This line is also a declaration as to how the music industry works – get signed or die trying – with Chance fighting against that. Jesus’s gospel is also referred to as The Word.
Clearly, there are novels worth of analysis one can do about rap music. That’s why it holds the importance that it does in my heart. But rap is more than just clever words, it’s a way to express real world pain and emotion. It’s a way to move people. And, most importantly, it’s a way to connect with those around us regardless of the background we come from. As an agnostic, I appreciate the ways in which people try to connect across difference without sacrificing any piece of themselves. Chance does this by bringing his whole identity to Coloring Book, producing one of my favorite albums of all time. It goes to show you how unifying music is, and how much it matters in the work of interfaith.
Featured image is the official album cover of Coloring Book by Chance the Rapper.