White Rappers and Theology: Racial Reconciliation?

19 10 2010

Top 10 Rappers of the 21st Century

 

White Rappers

Or rather, white rapper.

BET (Black Entertainment Television) just released its list of the top 10 rappers of the 21st century. Excited to see if rappers like Andre 3000, Nas, and Jay-Z were on the list, I was disappointed when I did not them on the list to even be considered for the honor. The newcomer, Drake and even decent rappers like Jadakiss made the list, but the greats who had been rapping since the 1980s and 1990s and well into the 2000s did not.

I was confused.

What actually confused me most was not just the list, but the number one rapper of the 21st century: Eminem. I was shocked because, like so many other Caucasians, his being white gave him that spot.

Now before I get a bunch of hateful responses, let me qualify my reasoning. It is pretty obvious that Eminem is lyrically one of the best rappers today. He is clever, poignant, and even utters some of the violently honest lyrics we’d love to hurl at our bosses, enemies, significant others etc. He is definitely a voice for the people. Record sales can tell you that.

But what record sales can also tell you is that his support is mainly from the white community. In fact, all the rappers of the lists’ support are mainly from the white community. It’s been a trend for a while now: Caucasian people love and therefore are the main consumers of black rap and hip-hop music.

Eminem’s sales, though, are much more precisely because he is Caucasian. Who wouldn’t get excited to see “one of their own” making amazing strides in an industry where their race is hardly represented? That sounds pretty familiar for the black community.

Caucasians aren’t supposed to be dominating rap and hip hop but Eminem clearly is. He is the best; and the best denotes prestige, power and control in that area of entertainment, sports, business or whatever.

The black community cannot get upset at the overwhelming Caucasian support because we do it too. We cheer on Omarosa on The Apprentice, the Williams sisters in tennis, Tiger Woods in golf (or at least some of us used to). We cheer on the black person in that unconventional vocation where they stick out like a sore thumb because we want to be (or at least our token representatives to be) the best at something that we are not supposed to be good at.

But what if being the best minority isn’t all what it’s cracked up to be. What if being the best also denotes communal ownership of that token, that representative. Something evil even, since possession of a title, reinforces superior ability over and against another.

What if minority tokenism violates something sacred, like the space to be individual and unique and not have to rely on a “chosen one” to defeat the forces of the majority?

What if?

Theology

I wonder about our competitive nature and need to have a representative in order to make a splash or be the best. It’s as if we can’t be happy if another group is doing better than “us.” This silent competition redraws the “us”/”them” binary. It recreates division where the unity is supposed to be in the craft. In a strange way it creates race dynamics. It hurts feelings when a white person is dominating a black enterprise. It turns heads. Despite whether he deserves the title or not (and I understand that both sides can be argued), Eminem is a white man at the top of an industry that is culturally a black one.

It begs the question of ownership. And worship.

What do we worship? What we own? What believe is ours? What we know belongs to us?

Honestly, when I pose this question I’m asking myself. I’m asking myself can hardship’s transformation into rap lyrics belong solely to black people. Do the streets just belong to one demographic? Is transfiguring one’s pain into a catalyst for success a black thing? Not necessarily.

Sure I have named potential sins: tokenism, domination, competition, but perhaps the biggest sin of all is this false right of ownership. Maybe Eminem is legitimate. Maybe he’s the best not because he raps about material things all the time but about the painfully true abjections in life. Maybe he’s the best because of white consumerism, but maybe he’s the best because lyrically he does something that a lot of us are afraid to do: he speaks the truth about himself and others. He doesn’t focus on “hating” but hates himself and others when they do wrong and loves himself and other when they are wronged. He loves enough to be angry.

Sitting on this list after a few days shows me that I have racialized rap. I rejected the list solely because Eminem is white. I have fallen prey to the same practices that spurned hate the mess that we’re still wading through today.

I have sinned because I rejected Eminem’s act of confession. I don’t know everything about him. He may be very disturbed or he may not be, but that doesn’t change the fact that his message is in the music and in his skin.

Petty lying doesn’t quite work for Eminem. He has to speak straight from the heart even if it’s too violent or disturbing for some of us. Maybe he’s alerting us to the fact that we lie to feel safe in a disturbing world. Maybe he’s at the top of the list because of the social commentary laced within his lyrics. Or maybe not.

All I know is that Jesus hated petty lying. He hated falsity for the sake of keeping something the same and untouched. No, he wanted the truth to be the norm. His words touched not only ears but hearts. Jesus made people angry and changed the social situation, or at least how people thought about it. And it worked.

Let’s be clear: I’m not calling Eminem, Jesus. He is a figure of sorts, not a salvific one, but a figure nonetheless.

What I am saying is that after harshly judging Eminem on this list, I believe he deserves to be on this list precisely because he is a different rapper with a slightly different message. Sure socially conscious rappers are out there and have been out there for a number of years. But in the 21st century Eminem is arguable doing a pretty good job of being a white male talking about the social issues that we don’t even want to talk about too in-depth (like domestic violence for example).

So I retract the hate behind the first part of this blog entry. I still do believe that whiteness has propelled his record sales. Like I said earlier, white people buy hip-hop and rap albums. His race definitely has played a role in his sales.

But, I can say that Eminem is deserving of being in the list of the top ten rappers of the 21st century. His message/lyrics alone say something. He is speaking out honestly and it’s not always about his women, cars, and house or people who want his women, cars, and house. He is speaking for some people who didn’t really have a voice until he came on the scene and started confessing for them, their issues to the world.  He speaks for a white lower-class and white middle class (even the white upper-class) concerning their social and cultural issues. He speaks through lyrical confession.

Confession is healing. I wonder if Eminem is bridge-building. I wonder if his presence is saying “Hey black world, white people exist and hurt too. And here’s how we react to it or want to do better about how we react towards it.” And I wonder if black people can and will respond to that knowing, or just become jealous or upset (like I was at first).

Or will we continue to fight to reclaim the top spot, always imagining rap and hip-hop as a game to be won and conquered instead of an expressive social movement with hopes of invoking healing for many.

Eminem is making some issues of his race, class and culture known. I wonder if black people will listen and listen well and engage this whole community thing where we love each other not because of race but because of our journeys in life. Maybe Eminem is (drum roll please) doing racial reconciliation is a subtle way by taking step one and honestly informing others about himself and many like him so that responses can be made.  

He could be or I could be giving him way more credit than necessary, but I know for sure that I’ll be paying more attention to his lyrics and hopefully his life and the lives of many others.

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Deconstructing the Masks of Racial Reconciliation

7 10 2010

Disclaimer: I am no expert on racial reconciliation, nor do I claim to be one; I write solely from my observations and experiences, but I write with the intention to identify the obvious and unspoken, the uncomfortable results of the racial reconciliation movement that we who have decided that church cannot be church without reconciling, repentant, loving, inclusive action and being have a duty to name and hopefully address honestly, not simply with reprimanding in mind, but repentant and faithful living. (and yes, that was a run-on sentence!)

Racial reconciliation should transcend the boundaries of actions that are close to but don’t purport the notion of community through sacrifice: sacrificing all that is familiar for the unfamiliar, sacrificing personal preference in order to embrace the preference of another, and especially sacrificing pre-meditated understandings of peoples and places and believing the people of those places who tell you differently. Racial reconciliation is not racial welcoming, racial tolerance, nor racial observation. It is more personal than we think. It affects more people than we think. It affects the body of Christ entirely, not just a congregation here or there. It runs deep into Jesus’ body, not as a fad, but as the life-giving connection between His blood and our worship, His veins and our stylistic preferences, His arteries and our cultures.

What it is not is un-sacrificial. It is not a runner-up to what Jesus meant when He sat, ate with and was joined by sinners. It is not achieved in the welcoming level, tolerance level, or observatory level.  

Racial welcoming comes close to what people think to be racial reconciliation, but lacks the effort and commitment to adopt a theology of discomfort from both parties covenanting to be with one another. It welcomes as long as it is not transformed into something unrecognizable, for unrecognizability resists the “predominantly” label so many churches are accustomed to having and being.

Racial tolerance is even further from the target than racial welcoming as it signals one group at the center of the Christian universe, whether they’re African, African-American, Asian, Latino, White etc and allows other to be, to a certain extent, only in light of their being. One group sets the standards and others are “appreciated” in light of how much they are not like the standard, for diversity must be celebrated, right? Celebrated but not integrated, racial tolerance gives permission for Christians outside of their majority to exist within the confines of what the majority deems Christian existence.

Racial observation rests even further on the outskirts of racial tolerance for it is simply a ministry of on-looking. It witnesses difference from afar, and witnesses from afar alone. Nothing is done to see if racial difference and cultural distinction can mean more, it is simply observed and in that observation a false sense of education is exercised, pejorative reading of the Christian church is made precisely in that inactive “education,” and the division between groups remains glaring and distinct.  

These three models of racial reconciliation I believe are more often than not, falsely practiced in place of true and Holy Spirit led racial reconciliation. They provide the foils against which true racial reconciliation can be recognized, but are utilized often because they are disguised as “we’re getting there” and “this is a messy vocation that takes time” language. These three types of models mirror the three categories of personality types present within many churches who find themselves a part of the racial reconciliation conversation. They enter into a conversation without calculating what it would cost them and thus mete out what they are willing to sacrifice, giving rigidly, contemplating giving, or convincing themselves that their interest is gift enough.

The Racially Welcoming Christian (RWC) exhibits 1 Corinthians 11 behavior (vv. 17-33). They are most than happy to sit at the table with everyone, but do not change their eating habits. They feast the same, not cognizant that even their being at the table (implying communion) has to be received differently. They commune not only for themselves with Christ, but with and for others in Christ. They love that difference exists in their midst. They embrace their brother or sister as important, imperative to their understanding God’s kingdom, valuable to and in the body of Christ. What they fail to do is change as a result of another person’s permanent place in their life. Their church body may change, but their personal theology doesn’t change much at all. They listen to the theological background of another, but do not add it to theirs since addition of another’s means subtraction of their own theological beliefs. They operate the same, but appreciate and recognize the difference in everyone. They are touched, but only changed on the surface. Nothing changes in their life, except information about other people. The information does not penetrate deeper than their intellectual capacity; it may touch their heart, but it rarely reconfigures it.  

The Racially Tolerating Christian (RTC) models the Galatians 3 confusion assuming that people are entering their world and thus need to adhere to their way of existing. The Gentile is welcomed in, but the confusion surrounds what the Gentile is entering into. It is a Jewish existence for sure, but what they misunderstand is this notion of being the “original church body” in the first place. Both groups are Gentilic, entering into a completely new existence. Chosenness rests in Jesus’ body that both, the majority and minority church body, are equally invited into. Both are bringing aspects of themselves into community together that looks messy, feels incomplete, and hurts a lot of the time, but leaves without a shadow of a doubt absolutely no room for selfish ambition to parade around as if it is God’s will. It takes both groups out of their traditions of comfort and asks them to be together uniquely and collectively. It leaves no room for human effort, but encourages desire and participation; the Holy Spirit does the rest. It requires faith in Jesus Christ, faith that His words, and body and practices did something to old ways of doing and thinking and constructed something completely new, un-like what we would deem comfortable or perfect and yet is perfect.

The Racially Observant Christian (ROC) parallels the rich, young ruler in Luke 18 (vv. 18-23). They have resources, they have culture, and they have influence and power and do not find it necessary to lose them in order to be with other people. They face Jesus and honestly think that they have done their Christian duty but cannot handle a re-drawing of the boundaries of their commitment and love. They fear that the loss of their resources will affect how others view their culture and influence although that is precisely the story of others’ lives. Their understanding of faith is contingent upon comfort. They believe themselves to be educated on the crux of a life that follows after Christ and models His ways, but are unaware of the depth of this pledge. So they choose to remain afar and give up absolutely nothing. But no doubt, continue “keeping” the commandments.

These responses and ways of being in the racial reconciliation conversation are produced from a desire to do something righteous and right, but after the cost is counted, kill and hinder true racial reconciliation’s attempt to spring forth. The messages sent forth in their failure to break out of the selfish grips of church tradition, racial and cultural purity and generational war deter us from truly seeing the form of racial reconciliation. It is an ugly one at that, a hunched over, injured, and imperfect figure that Christ calls us to. It may not have the stage for P&W (Praise & Worship), the hymnal, the fiery preacher, the contemplative chants, the whatever. Or it may have all of those together mashed together as the same thing; those interested in being reconciled must understand that racial reconciliation happens when people of those different cultures are reconciled, brought together, asked to and taught to live together.

What the racial reconciliation conversation should continue to emphasize is the “person” aspect of Christian life. The church preferences belong to the people, they come from the people. The people who swear up and down that God loves to hear Christian Contemporary Music, and guitar solos, and see young adults in small groups and mission trips are people!

Once the people recognize that it’s more than sitting beside, allowing people to sit beside and thinking about but in the end choosing not to sit beside another, but rather that it’s sitting with that person entailing changing perspectives, open dialogue, holy disagreements, and holier shifts in what one’s “particular” culture is, then racial reconciliation can truly be the strange, weird, ugly, and holy love movement Christ’s body has affectionately called “community.”








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