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Crooked: My Hiphop Odyssey

In the last few years I’ve had an increasing fascination with hiphop music. (Yes. You read that right.) I suppose it started when I was working with teenagers and one of them was a fan of Lecrae (this was years before his Grammy wins). Christian rap? No thanks, I thought. But I listened, and after a while I found myself interested. It didn’t win me over at the time. It was mainly a means of finding common ground with kids, but it got me started.

A couple of years later, Coldplay’s Viva La Vida album became a favorite and that led to a fascination with Jay-Z’s mashup Viva La Hova. I was secretly addicted to that album for several weeks, and I had no idea what to make of it. I just couldn’t stop listening.

Then Josh Garrels Love and War and the Sea in Between came along. I played “Farther Along” and “Ulysses” and “Beyond the Blue” a million times like every other folk/acoustic-steeped, middle-aged guy, but my other favorite track on that record was “Resistance.” I love that song. I think it completed the bridge for me. It was clearly hiphop, yet it was also clearly something else, something closer to what I was used to. And after I admitted to myself how much I loved that song, it got a lot easier to look for similar stuff elsewhere.

A few months ago I talked to Randall Goodgame about the new Sing the Bible record he’s working on and he told me a hiphop artist named Propaganda was coming to the studio to record something for the album.

That name rang a bell, and it didn’t take me long to remember that when we premiered N. D. Wilson’s short film The Hound of Heaven at Hutchmoot, Propaganda was the man at the center of that, the narrator reciting the text of the poem. I remember Nate telling me I should listen to some of Prop’s work, but I never followed up on it. I’ve rectified that now.

Check out this video of one of his spoken word performances.

The more I listen to and learn about Propaganda, the more I like him. Spend some time on Youtube and you’ll see what I mean. Even if you aren’t a hiphop fan, check out his spoken word videos and interviews. And if you do much digging, you’ll learn he’s part of an organization called Humble Beast, which is an awful lot like the Rabbit Room. Here’s their mission statement:

Humble Beast exists in humility to disciple God’s people and advance God’s kingdom through beautiful acts of creativity and theology for the worship of the triune God. Out of this mission comes Humble Beast’s four major distinctives: Creativity, Humility, Theology, Doxology.

Check out their website here. It’s home to my other favorite hiphop artist, Sho Baraka (more on him in another post, I hope).

Last Friday, Propaganda’s new record, Crooked, was released. I listened to it straight through, twice—and it made me cry both times (seriously). It’s an album about problems and anger and frustration and the complicated nature of relationships, but it’s not only about how crooked the world is, or about how crooked our hearts are, it’s about making things right.

Prop’s ability to paint a landscape of America in all its darkness and light reminds me of the best of Springsteen, and his ability to diagnose social issues with appropriate anger yet without losing hope recalls the best of U2. And it’s all done in his own unique and articulate style mixing spoken word, rap, and R&B together into a symphony of sound and words. If you love poetry and wordplay, you owe it to yourself to pay attention.

I realized a few days ago that the reason I’m drawn to hiphop is the same reason I’m drawn to storytelling in general. Storytelling is the most powerful way in which I experience the perspective of others. Whether I’m reading a novel, or a poem, or watching a movie or documentary, or listening to a hiphop album, I’m in the skin of another person, seeing the world from their eyes, feeling the tension of their particular lives and struggles. And through the process of seeing better what others see, I better understand what I see myself (and what I’m blind to). This is what art does. It has the power to transplant us into the mind and experience of another, and if we’re paying attention, we might learn something of ourselves—we might change something of ourselves.

Crooked’s messages are hard to hear at times, but that’s as it should be if we’re looking at the true nature of the world (or of our hearts). But what makes the album great is its acknowledgement that the brokenness of the world is systemic to all creation and answerable, reparable, only by the coming of the Kingdom. In an album full of ironies and arguments, the consistent underlying theme is that we’re all broken and in need of the Gospel. And in that, Crooked reminds me of Light for the Lost Boy more than anything else. Musically, the connection might be tenuous, but emotionally and thematically, both of these albums tickle my soul in the same way.

We wake in the night in the womb of the world We beat our fists on the door We cannot breathe in this sea that swirls So we groan in this great darkness For deliverance Deliverance, O Lord –“Come Back Soon” by Andrew Peterson
Longing for escape and hoping in salvation Yeah, hoping in salvation Waiting for the day He make the crooked way straight [Chorus: Audrey Assad] We march on a crooked road And we raise our eyes And we raise our eyes Justice is going to roll Like a river wide Like a river wide —“Made Straight” by Propaganda

Did I even mention that Audrey Assad makes an appearance?

If you’re like me, you’ve got an iTunes library full of acoustic folk-rock music that you’ll love until the day you die. So I get it if you’re skeptical about branching off into something as musically foreign as hiphop, but I’d encourage you to stretch your boundaries. There’s good music being made out there, and I’m glad I’ve discovered the Humble Beast artists. They’re doing good work. Check them out. Crooked is a fantastic place to start.


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