Crooked: My Hiphop Odyssey

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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.

Crooked is now available for free at Humble Beast.

 

 

 

Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he’s the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.


20 Comments

  1. Jen Rose Yokel

    @jroseyokel

    I’m very much a dabbler in hip-hop (forever intrigued but haven’t fully committed to the genre), though I’ve thought for a while that some of the most truthful lyrics in Christian music were coming from hip-hop artists, especially after Lecrae and Reach Records proved Christian rap didn’t have to be cheesy. But yeah, I love Propaganda. The organic sound elements and spoken word style tracks drew me in, but the writing… dang.

    I downloaded Crooked and Sho Baraka’s The Narrative the other day, but I haven’t had a chance yet to give them the proper level of attention. Looking forward to diving in soon!

  2. Michaiah Bryan

    For years I have loved the Rabbit Room and hip-hop, and I’ve always silently hoped those worlds would someday collide. This article couldn’t be more perfect.

  3. Scott Barry

    This is exciting to read! I’ve been listening to this album the last few days. It’s strange to listen to an album that is lyrically hard to hear and yet hard to turn off. It is dripping with Kingdom truth. I challenge anyone to listen to “I Hate Cats” and not feel something.

  4. Justin

    Definitely coming from the same place as you Pete. Folk / Indie is in my blood, but I love good hip-hop; Beautiful Eulogy is another Humble Beast artist that is quite good, and Jackie Hill Perry has some amazing writings and spoken word performances.  Prop’s new album slipped under the radar for me, I’ll need to listen to it. Humble Beast co-hosts a two day event in Portland every year called ‘Canvas’ that explores the intersection of Christianity and culture – largely through a hip-hop lens as that is who organizes the event and provides much of the talent.

  5. BenjiKunz

    Excellent piece, Pete. It makes me giddy to see Humble Beast and Rabbit Room connecting even in a small way because your visions are so similar and I’ve been deeply encouraged by both. And this new Propaganda album is astounding.

     

    Also, if you haven’t heard Beautiful Eulogy, go spin Instruments of Mercy first chance you get. It’s incredible. It borders on folk rap at times.

  6. Jonathan Wisely

    Interesting! I’ve always thought Rabbit Room and Prop were likeminded. Prop’s lyrics from my fav song of his “Lofty” is a great example:

    “But worth, value, and beauty is not determined by some innate quality

    But by the length for which the owner would go to possess them

    And broken and ugly things just like us are stamped “Excellent”With ink tapped in wells of divine veins

    A system of redemption that could only be described as perfectA seal of approval, fatal debt removal

    Promised, prominent, perfect priestBrilliant designed system, redemption for our kinsmenCan only be described as perfect with excellent execution

    And I’m in awe, the only one truly excellentThe only source of excellenceWe are declared excellent only by his decree with his systemThe only accurate response is awe

    So we make lofty artSee the presence of good art will unconsciously refine a communityAnd poor art will do an incalculable harm

    Only accomplished in the light of his excellencyIt’s too high, it’s lofty”

    Sounds like a shared vision to me. I’ve always loved how you both encourage us to love art and to make beautiful things because he is worthy.

  7. Scott Barry

    I concur with others’ recommendations here – check out Beautiful Eulogy. Very creative and Christ-centered. If anyone who is Rabbit-Room-ish wants a place to start, try the title track from Instruments of Mercy. That track has brought tears to my eyes.

  8. mayajt

    I love Andrew Peterson, Jenny and Tyler, Audrey Assad, Randall Goodgame, Jill Phillips, Andy Gullahorn… most of them because of the Rabbit Room. I am not usually into hip-hop, but this was interesting and beautiful. Thanks, Pete!

    By the way, I know your real name.

  9. Tom Murphy

    The Rabbit Room and Humble Beast are two sides of the same coin.  Are you planning any intentional collaboration between the two Pete?

    Did you see Humble Beast’s “Canvas” Conference this year?  Prop is probably their strongest spokesman.

    The connection between the two is Gospel Thoughtfulness – not offering trite answers, but an entrance into a deep examination of our hearts together in community to find our desperate condition and neediness for Jesus.  A Seminarian friend turned me on to the Humble Beast universe – there are a ton more that will blow your mind.  Rooming with a black roommate during some of my Seminary years was enlightening to see how much music I was never exposed to because I am white and middle class…

  10. Tom Murphy

    For those that have a desire to understand the cultural context of Rap and Hip-Hop.  This discussion with Questlove and David Byrne is a good primer.  It’s long, but worth it.

    If you grew up in the 80’s/90’s and were Caucasian with a middle or upperclass upbringing (self included), chances are you were insulated from the social dynamics from which Rap and Hip-Hop grew.  One of my friends who was a burgeoning DJ challenged me in High School to appreciate Rap/Hip Hop earlier, but couldn’t understand until I became friends with a broader range of folks from different social contexts after getting saved.  I needed to put aside my preferences and enter into understanding social hardship foreign to my personal experience.

  11. Eddy Efaw

    Pete I’m soooo glad you posted this!!! I’ve been a hip hop fan since the Sugarhill Gang brought Rapper’s Delight oout in 1979 (when I was 9). I still have that original on vinyl … somewhere. Later (1990) the rap group Arrested Development (< link to a song called Tennessee) caught my attention with their socially conscious lyrics. As a teacher at a Christian prep school in Memphis I often suggest Lecrae, Alert 312, Beautiful Eulogy, Jackie Hill Perry, Propaganda, Joseph Solomon (spoken word) and Reconcile to my students who like rap. I have found the creativity, artisty, and lyrics in these artists to be inspiring and challenging. Propaganda also guest speaks on a session of The Liturgist podcast (Michael Gungor) called Black and White in America. His thoughts on white privilege changed me forever!

  12. David Getz

    @davegetz

    Great post, Pete.  I totally can relate to being drawn into story, and hip-hop is such a unique (and catchy) vehicle of communication that I feel it draws me in on an even deeper level.  I’m excited to pursue your suggestions as well as those left in these comments.  Although I must say… when I first read the title of your post I was hoping that you had maybe written a hip-hop musical about the Odyssey.  If “Hamilton” is any indication of what the American public wants these days, a rap spin-off of Homer’s epic could probably be a money-maker!

  13. Matthew Benefiel

    Pete…we walk a similar path. “Resistance” also became my secret favorite and prepared me to like 21 Pilots, which a few years back I would have turned my nose up at. My sister showed 21 Pilots to me and I dove in pretty quick as Tyler’s lyrics are also very well formed, even it they don’t appear so on the surface. Of course it’s not straight Hip Hop, but I found it interesting that Tyler switches to Hip Hop when he can’t fit the lyrics he wants into the song. Seems like a cheap way out, yet he does it so well. Anyway, I started listening to some of Propaganda after Randall posted he was singing on the new Slugs and Bugs Bible Songs Vol 3 (love them kick-starters) and I loved it. It is like any genre, when used appropriately it can really bring out a message. Anyway, everyone knows 21 Pilots by now, but they are worth checking out. My favorite song is actually from their first title album, called “Addict With A Pen.” At this rate I may even wake up someday and find out I like New Country (but I hope not). And finally, for more folk/acoustic-steeped, middle-aged guy music, I recommend The Arcadian Wild, that album has been on replay for a month now, my brother-in-law and I stumbled on it while listening to The Orchardist on Spotify. Which is yet another strange branch off from Rabbitroom recommendations. If not for Rabbitroom half my music library would be undiscovered!

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