Lecrae’s Balancing Act: Religion, Race, and Holy Hip-Hop

Lecrae may be the best rapper you’ve never heard of. His synthesis of hip-hop and Calvinism has fans saluting his talent. But some question the wisdom of mixing rap with a predominantly ‘white’ theology.

REFORMED MIX: Rapper Lecrae inspires both praise and debate with his blend of solid beats and Reformed theology.

With the release of his new album, Gravity, earlier this month, Lecrae is growing in popularity as a hip-hop artist among audiences Christian and non-Christian, black and white. The Associated Press, among others, praised the album, saying, “Lecrae delivers a strong piece of work. He’s not afraid to rap about his past mistakes, supplying inspirational rhymes filled with Christian values backed by well-produced secular hip-hop beats.”

Lecrae (his full name is Lecrae Moore) stands at the intersection of two contrasting cultures: the urban vibe of historically black hip-hop and the theological leanings of the historically white Reformed tradition with its roots in Calvinism.

It’s a cultural mix common in Holy Hip-Hop, says author and “hip-hop theologian” Efrem Smith. Holy Hip-Hop artists often appear in front of white evangelical audiences and receive support from white Reformed pastors like John Piper and Mark Driscoll (who have both interviewed Lecrae). But the artists themselves tend to be young black men from inner-city backgrounds who ironically struggle to find an audience among urban youth.

The reason for that, Smith argues, is because the African American church has too often rejected hip-hop culture and because urban youth sometimes dismiss Holy Hip-Hop as inferior to secular hip-hop music.

“Lecrae and Reach Records are the main reason why Holy Hip-Hop is growing in popularity in urban American and African American communities,” Smith said in an interview with UrbanFaith. “Put the Christian stuff aside for a minute; Lecrae is more gifted and talented than many artists being pushed by secular companies today.”

Lecrae’s Scripture-packed music hits a variety of urban issues, like fatherlessness, drug addiction, and violence. Lecrae himself was raised by his mother in the inner city of Houston and was involved in gang activity before his conversion at age 19. He went to a black church when he first became a Christian, but later visited a white Reformed congregation and was attracted to their take on the Bible.

But as Lecrae said in a video produced by The Gospel Coalition, “To drop Calvin’s name (in the black community) is to drop a curse word.” The Reformed tradition has historical links to racism in the U.S., going back to Calvinists who used their theology to justify slavery.

For that reason, Smith cautioned Holy Hip-Hop artists against depending solely on Reformation theology (which he wrote about in a blog post). Rather, he said, they need to draw upon other theologies that address the concerns of the oppressed, like liberation theology, reconciliation theology and missional pietism, to speak a prophetic message. Smith suggests that’s one area where Lecrae could grow musically, although he likened this constructive critique to criticizing LeBron James’s basketball skills.

“He does a great job of talking about individual sin and individual responsibility and the importance of accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and living by the Holy Spirit,” Smith told UrbanFaith. “What I’d like to see him do more is raise the systemic issues — the corporate issues of sin and injustice in our country and the world — and point to kingdom justice and mercy to deal with these corporate sins.”

For Lecrae, the Reformed tradition describes how he interprets the Bible, and his adoption of that theology is a way to bridge the racial divide.

“I don’t feel like I’m under theological imperialism or whatever,” Lecrae said in a video produced by The Gospel Coalition. “I feel like I’m in search of truth, and I’m going to get it wherever I can find it. And I feel like I am in some senses a contextual ambassador, a cultural ambassador, and I do want to bridge those gaps and tear down those walls.” Check out the video below.

What do you think of Lecrae’s music and Holy Hip-Hop?

About the author, Catherine Newhouse

Catherine Newhouse is an UrbanFaith blogger from the Chicago area who attends the University of Missouri, where she is majoring in journalism, religious studies and international studies. She has written for Christianity Today, the Columbia Missourian and The Chicago Reporter, a newsmagazine that investigates race and poverty in the city. She blogs at ponderingpeace.tumblr.com and can be contacted via Twitter and email.
  1. It seems to me that such an approach to Hip Hop provides so many answers to a generation and culture that has yet to hear good questions. If the current critique of Lupe Fiasco is that he is too preachy, what will be said of this. For this generation, Reformed Theology seems to be as relevant as cassette tapes, floppy disks, or VHS.

  2. I don’t think he needs to be less dependent on Calvinism because of the oppression of white Calvinist in the past, he needs to go and draw from were God is leading him. As Calvinism has a black eye because of racism word of faith, baptist, Lutheran and pentecostal churches have black eyes with selling false hope in the projects, focusing on the building fun, or on the attire of the next generation. it’s funny that Calvinist theology is reaching were historically it couldn’t. I would say the practicality in life and the sensitivity in not trying to remove the externals of a person, realizing what is negotiable and what isn’t (especially when dealing with another’s culture) when dealing with an unbeliever before his or her heart is changed. This is what draws young people to it. Coming from a word a faith and then a pentecostal church I can say those things and the non cultural shifting things accept what is sin of course appeals to the urban youth. The options in the projects tend to be armenianism in the form of the pentecostal word of faith church or the “black politician church were politics is pushed first, racism is pointed out at every turn and God is third similar to (Jesse and Al Sharpton) Do I think Calvinism is perfect, no culturally it needs to be more open to different cultural expressions (but god is raising up young men like chandler , Driscoll, etc. who know this culture and don’t mind grappling with it to the glory of God) but as far as doctrine I think it brings me to a better understanding of what god is requiring of me then the other options I’ve had in the black community. I question Efrem saying taking on the other theology will bring growth. maybe the ability to relate to black churches better but not growth in anything other than sales which I think he won’t do. the theology he believes in, in my opinion deals honestly with the oppressed more so then your pentecostal or word of faith. They tend to be more practical and cover more areas in the Christian life slowing down the Sunday morning segregation trend.

    • It just to find a presbyterian church like that in new york is rough I settle with maybe a non denominational like CCC or Calvary Baptist in NYC because they invite reformed people to speak also this theology compared to the theology of blacks and latinos churches often lead to apologetics a really needed area in the church were you reason out what you believe in and why you believe. this education through Calvinism has been very valuable to me.

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  4. It is not about denomination. He brings truth to the table in a way that this generation can relate. We need to get past the denominational divide. As a 41 year old mother of 5 I have to say I love Lecrae and his music. Its something all the kids can relate to (christian or not) and talks alot about accountability and making a change something todays society a lot of! Stay true to what God is telling you

  5. I agree sis jeanie,
    the denominational thing is something mankind created– NOT God. God sees us as ” Believers”in His Son, our Savior, Jesus (or Yeshua, same dude.). The devil uses that stuff to confuse and discredit the Gospel.
    The video was very insightful and encouraging yet had a lot of words that were a little too big for me, yet, I understood the essense and meaning of them because I listened to the way, or by the context they were used. God bless those men of GOD in Jesus’ name amen. God bless you sister Jeanie and all the brothers and sisters across the globe. Amen.

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