Chancelor Johnathan Bennett (aka Chance the Rapper) was born in Chicago on April 16, 1993. His third mixtape album, Coloring Book, won three Grammys on February 12, 2017 (best new artist, rap album, and rap performance). He was 24.
Of his nominations, NPR Music writes, “The Grammy board is recognizing Chance for what he has done this year as well. Streaming is the only component to the charts that Chance the Rapper had this year, and he stayed on the Top 200 chart for 33 straight weeks and counting — he’s still on the charts. He’s had so much streaming this year that it’s the same equivalency as selling over 500,000 albums.”
Chance also performed live at the Grammy award show and captured the attention of the Christian community. Billboard recognized this: “He opened the performance with ‘How Great’ accompanied by his cousin Nicole—the star of the song’s iPhone-shot music video. Chano then dipped into bits and pieces of ‘No Problem,’ ‘Blessings’ and ‘All We Got’ while joined by Tamela Mann and Kirk Franklin. A full-fledged choir was also present to maximize the gospel undertones inherent in Chance’s music and message.”
One writer claimed, “Chance the Rapper leads millions in worship at Grammys singing ‘How Great Is Our God.’”
Chance by Chapter and Verse
After his appearance at the Grammys, several writers used Chance the Rapper as a role model for Christians.
Amy Gannett argued that his performance at the Grammys was an example of missional evangelism. In her view, Chance took the gospel to Hollywood like Paul did on Mars Hill, proclaimed the good news of hope from the stage, and combined it with his personal testimony. She concludes, “Is Chance the Rapper the new model of missions for the Church today? Probably not. But we would be remiss if we did not learn from his example.”
J. D. Wills viewed the Grammy performance as a worship service and dealt with the tension in Chance’s music this way: “Chance presents the gospel in a way that’s unique to his personality. He follows the song ‘How Great,’ a remake of a Chris Tomlin number featuring a full worship choir, with ‘Smoke Break,’ a song with a vivid description of smoking weed. Chance puts his imperfections right next to his understanding of the importance of a relationship with God.”
Wills concludes, probably without recognizing the irony, “Often when people look to pop culture to satisfy intangible needs, they return empty-handed. Encounters with Chance’s music provide an exception to the rule. His presence in popular music offers people the answer to what they search for, and the answer is God.”
Well, or weed. Or sex. Or music. Or . . .
J. Nick Pitts sees three ways Chance’s Grammy performance represents millennial Christians: he is unsigned by a label and millennials are skeptical of institutions, he is “rough around the edges,” and “he understands the urgency of now.”
In so doing, Pitts concludes, Chance is a role model: “Chance the Rapper’s faith looks different than that of previous generations. Then again, we have come a long way from fishermen and tax collectors to the millennial Christians of today. But the mission remains the same.”
So, it’s Christian-ish?
This naturally has led to a lot of speculation about what Chance’s religious faith meant for his music—and discussion was rampant on social media. Is he a Christian? Is he a Christian who raps? Is he a Christian rapper?
Recently, Chance answered these questions this way: “One of my biggest fears with Coloring Book was that it would be labeled. I hate labels. I never sought out for people to recognize it as a gospel album. I don’t make Christian rap, but I am a Christian rapper. When I was going out and trying to fully give glory to God, in my setting, I feared that people would be dismissive of it, like, ‘This is Christian rap, I’m not trying to hear it.’ But it’s the total opposite: People were very accepting of it.”
So, Chance claims to be a Christian rapper, who covers Chris Tomlin’s “How Great Is Our God,” but also demonstrates his mastery of multiple ways to rap the “f-bomb” as well as endorsing drug use. So, what do we make of him?
On the one hand, it is encouraging that many Christians have been willing to extend grace to Chance, to attribute his cursing and drug use to irresponsibility and immaturity, perhaps in the hopes that he will change as he grows older.
On the other hand, a more cynical read is that they are willing to accept these flaws because he recorded a worship song and performed it on the music industry’s biggest stage and, after all, he is famous.
Regardless, the apparently widespread love affair with Chance is in stark contrast to one major Christian retailer’s response to another Christian rapper.
The Other Christian Rapper
A resident of Atlanta, Amisho Baraka Lewis (aka Sho Baraka), born January 10, 1979, released his fourth album, The Narrative, in October 2016. He received some unexpected publicity earlier this year when Lifeway Christian Stores stopped carrying The Narrative reportedly because of customer complaints about language, widely reported to be his use of the word penis in the final track, “Piano Break, 33 A.D.”
In the song, Sho Baraka raps, “I was an insecure boy who just thought he was a genius, but always pissed off, that’s because I thought with my penis.” Lifeway is the brick and mortar retail arm of the Southern Baptist Convention; Baraka was for several years an elder at a church affiliated with the SBC.
As a retailer, Lifeway is free to carry or not carry the album, but what makes this story interesting to many is the reported reason for the decision. In the song, Baraka is confessing his pre-Christian lifestyle, in which he had not been monogamous: “It wasn’t profane in context, Baraka says, because it communicates how ‘God has been good in my life,’ while acknowledging ‘how wretched and evil I am.’”
In contrast to Chance’s lyrics, this is not a song that glorifies sexual immorality, uses provocative language to appeal to prurient interests, or even deliberately uses the word for shock value. Using a common contemporary idiom to make decisions focused on short term pleasure without considering long term implications, the rapper humbly confesses his shame and guilt because of a lifestyle he now regrets.
The song thanks God for being good to him, a gracious gift the rapper knows he doesn’t deserve.
In linking these two stories, I am aware of the danger of over-generalizing about these two cases. They are not the same nor are the people involved necessarily identical. Probably the “soccer moms” who complained about Baraka’s lyrics would also complain about Chance’s, if they heard them, if they were able to buy his music in a brick and mortar store. And it is unlikely that Christian fans of Chance were offended by the “p-word” in Baraka’s song.
Yet Chance has bypassed the gatekeepers by making his album available online. So, the decision to listen or not is up to the individual. And he can say or do whatever he wants; he answers to no one but the audience. He is free.
These two stories raise some intriguing questions for me. Questions that ask more of Christians and culture, particularly with the use of language.
Lifeway won’t carry Baraka’s album but they restock books that use the same language. Take, Sheet Music, for instance—a sex manual intended for Christian couples containing forty-five uses of the word penis, along with euphemisms like Mr. Happy. Apparently, it was not the “p-word” that was the problem for Lifeway. It was something else.
What story are we trying to tell?
When Christians tell their stories, how truthful should they be? Should they censor their pre-Christian lifestyle? Should they clean up the story to make it “safe for the whole family”? Or does doing so undermine our view of depravity and sinfulness, and maybe even minimize the transformative grace of the gospel?
If the gospel is good news—the solution to the human need—the answer to the longing of the human heart, isn’t seeing how it changes people—sinful people—an essential aspect of telling the story?
I think truth-telling is the goal. Even truth that is hard to hear. Does Chance worship God, curse, and also smoke weed? Apparently so. Does the older, and presumably more mature Christian leader, Sho Baraka, have the benefit of seeing how the grace of the gospel has been changing him? One would expect so.
Maybe both stories should be told. The language must be appropriate to the context, and to the audience, and therein lies the rub. Who is the audience? Who controls the content and its delivery? Are there limits to what an artist can say? Who gets to decide?
In his response to the Lifeway decision, Baraka explained that many Christian artists face a tough decision. Some will choose the option of abandoning the Christian market or they will have to make their “music palatable for these soccer moms so I won’t get complaints about using the word penis.” Baraka’s approach sounds similar to Chance the Rapper, to try to redefine what it means to be a Christian artist. Both are willing to own the label Christian while denying that they are making “Christian music.” Baraka goes even further, calling for artists to build their own networks of production, distribution, marketing, the entire “top to bottom” of production and delivery of the art. Chance has already done this with his music.
Maybe this is another lesson of Chance’s Grammy wins. He has shown that it is possible to bypass the gatekeepers. He alone controls the music he makes and who has access to it. He has shown that it is possible for an artist to reach the biggest stage and to expand the audience for his art using the delivery systems of the twenty-first century, not those that the music industry created and controlled in the last century.
Chance doesn’t care whether the marketers approve his music—he isn’t dependent upon them. He’s too busy making music.
Cover image by Kai Oberhäuser.