So, the other morning, I read a piece from OnFaith entitled “The Best Bible-Verse Checks In The History of Rap.”
And then I overreacted.
Perhaps some backstory is in order. My bio as a writer includes the following sentences: “Topically speaking, Jelani operates at the intersection of hip-hop culture, evangelical culture, and nerd culture. Come and stop by! It’s not a busy intersection.”
So understandably, this piece lit up all my areas of interest. Hip-hop, check. Bible verses, check. An internet listicle, check. Finally, some action at my intersection! I eagerly clicked and read the first sentence:
Even casual fans in recent years know about Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks,” which has been called “the closest thing to a twenty-first century religious anthem.”
It was early, I wasn’t fully awake yet, and I didn’t catch the significance of qualifying phrases like “casual fans,” “in recent years,” and “the closest thing.” If I had, I would’ve recognized this article for what it was — an interesting collection of biblical allusions by mainstream hip-hop artists over the years, curated by a writer who, I later found out, intentionally avoided referencing Christian hip-hop for fear of being too on-the-nose. (As he told me in a Facebook thread, “[F]or me, that’d be like making a list of the best biblical allusions in sermons.”)
As it was, I was kind of irritated.
Because I’ve seen interview after interview of Lecrae, Trip Lee, and Andy Mineo, usually by general entertainment or music reporters, who gush over their music as if they’re the first ones to ever rhyme about God with intelligence, grace, and swagger — even though Christian rap has existed for almost three decades. To me, those interviews feel like the secular version of columbusing, where you discover something that other people have known about for years.
As a fan of hip-hop, and a believer in Christ, I was annoyed. So I reacted like mid-level dealer protecting his block.
This is MY intersection. Get outta here with that garbage. Those aren’t biblical allusions. I GOT YOUR BLANKETY-BLANK BIBLICAL ALLUSIONS RIGHT HERE.
I’ve since calmed down a bit. But I still maintain that no one’s better at quoting or referencing the Bible than . . . you know, the people who believe in it and spend a lot of time with it.
So in no particular order, and off the top of my head, here are my top Bible references by emcees who profess both skill on the mic and a relationship with Christ.
“John316” by Jekob (2012)
“For God so loved the world, He gave His only son / that if we just believed, that we could live forever / He didn’t send His son, to judge us for our wrongs / but to give eternal life, so that we could live it better.”
That one’s pretty self-explanatory. It’s the essence of the gospel in one catchy, Autotuned hook, named after the verse it’s taken from. As a former member of his sibling group Souljahz (and, later, the Washington Projects) triple threat (singer/emcee/producer) Jekob does well here to both articulate his faith and distinguish himself as a solo artist.
“ABNY (Marty McFly)” by W.L.A.K. (2013)
“I wanna leave, but I gotta wait / this world’s asleep, but I’m wide awake / livin’ here’s screwed up, I’m outta my mind / living in the future, Marty McFly / I’m at home already / I ain’t gone, but I’m ready”
Forgive the alphabet soup here.
WLAK stands for “We Live As Kings” and is the name of the Collision Records foursome of Alex Faith, Swoope, Christon Gray, and Dre Murray, who joined forces on one critically-acclaimed album. And ABNY stands for “Already But Not Yet,” which is the theme of the single that they’ve adapted from Philippians 1:21-24. Like the Apostle Paul, these guys have split desires — they need to stay and serve the people, but they’d just the same rather leave this world and dwell with Christ in eternity.
Sounds pretty bleak, but trust me — when you hear it, it’s hot. It’s a shoo in for the Liveliest Hip-Hop Joint About Existential Longing That Also Name-Checks a Popular Sci-Fi Franchise Award — just barely beating out “Luke, I’m Your Father” by DarthNato. (No, that last song doesn’t actually exist, but I had you wondering, right?)
“Psalm 23” by The Ambassador (1999)
“The Lord is my shepherd, and I shall not want / He gave me life so I’m-a stay on point / I got the Spirit so I don’t get drunk / We’re pumpin’ Jesus in your trunk”
This is a classic by The Ambassador, lead emcee for the groundbreaking Philly hip-hop crew The Cross Movement. The hook here is less of a paraphrase of Psalm 23 and more of an interpretation. But what I dig about this song, besides the rock hard no-frills beat, is the way it recontexualizes the first line of the psalm. When David wrote this psalm, he was in fearful anguish. Here, Amba takes David’s central premise — that God is a good shepherd who’s worth relying on — and turns it into a swaggalicious battle cry.
“For You” by K-Nine (2010)
“He said, ‘are you the king of the Jews?’ / And Jesus said, ‘yes, what you’ve said is true.’ / The leaders said, ‘mmm-hmm, told you… see?’ / And Pilate’s all, ‘what’s that got to do with me?’”
Okay, so this is less of a verse check and more of a chapter-and-verse check. In this tune, K-Nine recounts Passion Week as we know it, outlining the events from Mark’s gospel that lead up to the crucifixion. And the point of the song, as he intones in the beginning, is simple: How many of your favorite rappers would endure all that pain for you?
“Justified” by Shai Linne (2005)
“Police end up deceased in mad hot zones / verse 17, ‘the way of peace they have not known.’ / Everybody appears hard, despite the clear odds / verse 18, bottom line, ‘nobody fears God.’”
So Shai Linne could garner his own listicle (or book) on scriptural shout-outs, excelling as he does at line-by-line exegesis in song. In this one, he’s breaking down the first chapter of Romans for his imaginary Sunday school. And at the end, he’s got a surprise for the class — and no, it’s not a pizza party. “Today, we’ve got our very own disk jockey!” So cute. It’s like an evangelical episode of “Yo! Gabba Gabba.”
Speaking of pizza parties . . .
“Pizza Party” by Phanatik (2011)
“Put away your money, I’ll buy you a slice / You ain’t gotta worry ‘how high is the price?’ / Don’t dine with this world, you’ll die on their diet / they like, ‘siddown, eat your slice of pizza and be quiet.’”
Phanatik was another Cross Movement alum who did good solo work as well. This is the hook for a tune that reinterprets Isaiah 55:1-2 in the setting of a grimy, Philly pizza joint. It’s a little odd that the song is called “Pizza Party” but it’s part of dope concept album Phanatik released called Party Over Here, which might’ve been a bigger hit with the millennial set if they still said “party over here.” (I’ve still got my fingers crossed with “dope.”)
“Don’t Nap” by Soup the Chemist of S.F.C. (1994)
“For a brief moment, you’ll be here and then like a flash, you’ll crash, and no one’ll care / you grabbed for what you thought was fly but came up with air.”
Had to go a lil’ old school on this one.
From the late eighties to mid-nineties, no one could articulate a world-weary Christian worldview like Chris Cooper, a.k.a. Super C, a.k.a. Sup the Chemist, a.k.a Soup the Chemist, a.k.a. Soup There It Is (I made up that last one). He was part of a loosely affiliated cadre of L.A.-area emcees that did a lot of collaborations together and also did records and shows with Dynamic Twins, Freedom of Soul, Idol King, LPG, and many, many others. Their groundbreaking sound and makeshift community paved the way for the later successes of L.A. Symphony, Future Shock, and the Tunnel Rats in the late 90s and early aughts.
I love this lyric because it perfectly encapsulates the timeless wisdom of Solomon in the book of Ecclesiastes, and also because it’s the pièce de résistance of a verse that serves a polemic in defense of Christian rap as an artform.
I could go on and on, but you get the idea. And the next time someone marvels at the novelty of Christian rap, feel free to put on your best LL face, copy this URL, and tell ‘em: we’ve been here for years.