"Holy Hip Hop?" you ask. Yep. Things done changed.
I couldn't help but ask the obvious question: "Where have you been?" That's polite parlance for "Did you fall off or were you pushed?" For those not familiar with the culture, hip hop time is like dog years ... a career spanning five years in the rap game is not only respectable, it's dynastic. Martin answered calmly that he simply lost the passion for the music, for the industry and all of its trappings. He recounted a life in which material acquisition contrasted with a burgeoning spirituality and emotional emptiness.
"The more I acquired and possessed ... with everything that I bought, I thought I would gain some satisfaction. That chain, that woman, that crib. I was spiritually bottoming out."
The description struck me as remarkably similar to a confession of addiction. What's wild is that what he was smoking is what's pushed on us every day in this culture: fame, greed and materialism. Martin's disaffection grew until he simply ceased to be the same "Play" to his friends, or even to his wife. Without that drive to create, that constant desire to sell himself, he withdrew from the spotlight. His demons remained, however, and his discontent approached despondence. "I reached a point where I just didn't have an answer. I got to where I was actually suicidal, in my thinking, but didn't have the courage to go through with it. "
While at his lowest point, he found Jesus Christ. His newfound faith brought him the peace that he'd been seeking but couldn't find in material possessions. The self-induced isolation took on new meaning with his spiritual rebirth, and he became a recluse for the Lord's sake and for his own sake. He immersed himself in this new world, for the joy of it, but also out of desire to maintain a sense of purity, a monastic detachment from the life he'd previously lived.
Biblically, Moses and Paul both took years after their conversion experiences to "get themselves together" in seclusion before venturing back out into the world for the ministry that would be the rest of their lives' work. Martin ain't on a messiah, or even prophet, kick. But he does feel that he has been given unique skills and opportunities, as well as an opportunity to use them to reach out, particularly to young people. Hence, the movie.
To examine so-called Holy Hip Hop, gospel rap, or however it's cataloged in the music stores, one has to examine hip hop, wholly. In speaking on the state of contemporary hip hop, this former platinum-selling rapper shares a perceptive insight, generally lost on critics:
"I can't look at the kids now and say that they're doing anything that is so much worse than what we were doing. Our agendas were the same. Because I know the kind of kid I was, what I was into. I was not an innocent cat. I was trying to get the ladies, the money, etc ... LL [Cool J] said it well. An interviewer at around the time his sitcom was coming out did his homework and dug up an earlier quote from LL saying that he would never do television." Martin laughs.
"LL responded to the interviewer, point blank: 'I probably said that because I thought I couldn't,'" Martin continued.
"When you are not in a position to have or make a choice, it's easy to say what you would or wouldn't do. I think God has an interesting sense of humor, in that he can put you in that place where you actually do have to make those decisions and see for yourself how difficult it is. That's why he tells us not to judge others."
There are so many directions we can go with that. I'm certainly guilty of passing judgment on the entire genre of Christian hip hop, having written it off as corny a long time ago. Truth be told, a lot of it was corny. The lyricism wasn't there yet, the beats weren't there yet, no matter how well-intentioned the subject matter. But things done changed. I could be cynical and say that the decline in mainstream hip hop has fomented a "meeting in the middle," but in reality, a lot of the premier gospel hip hop acts have flows and beats that compare very well with their secular counterparts. I'd put money (just to be ironic) on, say, the emcees from Cross Movement in a battle versus a lot of the regular rappers out there today who are highly regarded.
Christopher Martin had a couple of judgments of his own to overcome. He admits that music was a barrier for him early in his Christian walk, as he was just not feeling much of the mainstream gospel. Likewise, when he had the idea to use his hip hop background to spread the Gospel, he kind of assumed that he would be "the father of this new thing," only to do some research and find folks had quietly been putting in work for years in several parts of the country and, frankly, doing their thing before he had even thought to do his.
One of these established collectives, the Holy Hip Hop movement (holyhiphop.com), produces an annual hip hop concert and conference that draws together artists, ministers and fans from across the country. The documentary focuses not only on the performances of the artists, but on the artists themselves, delving into their backgrounds as human beings. Those who would dismiss out of hand the idea of using hip hop music as a form of praise or as an evangelistic tool would do well to first examine the accounts of these young people previously caught up in the same cycle of drugs and violence that claim so many young people. These artists testify that they have been delivered, in part, with the aid of an old message made relevant to them by people unafraid to separate custom from content.
I asked the Rev. Earl Callair, youth minister at Body of Christ Church in Raleigh (which is hosting a screening of Holy Hip Hop: The Movie on March 24 at 7 p.m.), about his feelings regarding the use of hip hop to reach kids.
"As I got into youth ministry," he said, "I basically started asking myself 'What are the largest influences on our culture today?' Looking at the media, there is so much we are exposed to. I grew up with hip hop, and it's not always positive. But when you look at its presence, its appeal across cultural lines--no other style of music has that now. This genre of music has this potential to reach all types of people.... If the heart is right, why would you not use it? Like the written word or other styles of music (which, coincidentally, drew criticism from conservative religious leaders in their day), it's a tool given to us by God. There's nothing wrong with Him, so if there are problems, it's us that are in error."
Callair is certainly not new to this idea of reaching out to the hip hop generation on their own cultural terms. At Body of Christ Church, with the blessings of Senior Pastor Kelvin Redmond, he's established a monthly event called The Jump Off, in which local and national gospel hip hop acts perform, giving church kids an entertainment outlet and unchurched kids the sense that they don't have to give up having fun for the sake of God.
It was initially directed at teens; however, attendees now range from younger siblings to parents at the events, with the older folks often amazed at the talents, zeal and passion of those who view this music as part of a larger calling. Skeptics who doubted the appropriateness of rap music in the church come away impressed, especially when they listen to the lyrics of these emcees, who eschew the doctrine of materialism and gratification prevalent in mainstream hip hop, rampant in American culture, and unfortunately pervasive in the content of many popular preachers and traditional gospel artists.
The mainstream media, of which corporate hip hop is only a component, constantly bombard us with visions of people on the way up, documenting their rise, their ascension along the stairs of acquisition. The paper chase. They don't glorify those who fail to reach those heights, and definitely don't shine a light on what happens when you get "there" and "there" is not enough.
Christopher Martin, speaking about his former self, says, "I was addicted to things. I was ultimately chasing and serving a false God, caught up in the tricks and deceptions of material gain." That candid assessment is not only antithetical to what hip hop is purported to be nowadays, it also leads 180 degrees away from the path set before us all by society at large. He is convinced, however, that the peace and purpose he has found along this road less traveled is well worth the trip.