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The Rev. James Ellis III The Rev. James Ellis, III

The Rev. James Ellis III is Chaplain of Discipleship at Hope College in Holland, MI.

Member of:

Cooperative Baptist Fellowship

Representative of:

Hope College, Holland, MI


Good Music, Where Art Thou?

September 19, 2010

"Self-destruction, ya headed for self-destruction!" This is the vibrant chorus that my classmate and I delivered in swayed, rhythmic unison during our abbreviated rendition of "Self-Destruction"[1] so many years ago. We were the hit of our elementary school talent show. I never did quite make it to emcee stardom (thankfully, God had something else planned). But, no worries-I can still recite nearly all 6-minutes of the aforementioned single. Just ask my wife who has lovingly endured countless impromptu lyrical flashbacks from yours truly. Oh, those were the days.

The great thing about "Self-Destruction," (and songs like it) which represented the "Stop the Violence Movement" spearheaded by KRS-One, and supported by a bevy of fellow rappers in 1989, was its well-articulated, noble message; in this case, of nonviolence. Of course, though, rap music lacked the mass popularity that it commands presently, which many argue has compromised the quality of its broad message, while increasing the caricatured quantity. Do you remember Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" in the legendary film Do the Right Thing, by Spike Lee? What about "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five?

A child is born with no state of mind
Blind to the ways of mankind
God is smiling on you but he's frowning too
Because only God knows what you'll go through
You'll grow in the ghetto, living second rate
And your eyes will sing a song of deep hate
The places you're playin', where you stay
Looks like one great big alley way
You'll admire all the number book takers
Thugs, pimps, pushers and the big money makers
Driving big cars, spending twenties and tens
And you wanna grow up to be just like them, huh,
Smugglers, scrambles, burglars, gamblers
Pickpockets, peddlers even panhandlers[2]

During rap's inception it inspired so much hope, passion, and justified aggression, but those days seem to be ancient history now. Even still, there are artists like Mos Def, Talib Kewli, and Common, for example, whose rhymes embody the organic qualities of rap's formative years, even while achieving some commercial success. However, they are not easy to come by. The immature, uncreative monotony of today's rap music is unfortunate. Really, what is "Pretty Boy Swag," and why should we be two-stepping to it?

The same sort of thing has happened to blues, jazz, r&b, and even the genre(s) of contemporary Christian or gospel music. Poor theology, little talent, or the combination of both illustrate that speaking about God doesn't, or at least shouldn't, automatically qualify one's musical offertory as "sacred." For example, take the popular track "God In Me" by Mary Mary (featuring Kierra "Kiki" Sheard).

You see her style, you think she nice
You look at her whip, you say the whip tight
You look at her crib, you thinking she's paid
You look at her life, you think she's got it made

But everything she's got, the girl's been given
She call it a blessing but you call it living
When it come to money she can be a hero
She writes them checks with a whole lot of zeros

But what you don't know is when she get home
And get behind closed doors, man she hit the floor
And what you can't see is she on her knees
And if you ask her she'll tell you

It's the God in me....[3]

Now, don't get me wrong. It is indeed a catchy tune, very contemporary in its appeal, but I wonder how it is any different than the "me-centered" theology of conspicuous consumption and materialism that, understandably, is so rampant in so-called "secular" music. Both versions, in their own ways, treat God as a celestial slot machine or a genie whose ultimate desire is to bless chaotic adherents with material trinkets of success. In essence, it is about one-upmanship-showing the world that God's people can compete, and compete well against the God-less in this game called life, isn't it?

The 19th century British pulpit giant Charles Haddon Spurgeon, known widely as the "Prince of Preachers," said, "Temporal blessings are not definite marks of divine favor, since God gives them to the unworthy, and to the wicked, as well as to the righteous." God allows the sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.[4] Consequently, equating possessions with God's presence and favor contradicts the Good News that seemingly Christian music ought to be sharing.

Nonetheless, I am not one without hope.

I am learning, however, that while everything that glitters isn't gold, also everything that is popular isn't so because of the best rationale, nor is it unworthy of earnest exploration or, at times, artistic support. Music to merely listen to is one thing.

Music to be moved by is quite another, whether secular or sacred.


[1] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jxyYP_bS_6s
[2] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O4o8TeqKhgY
[3] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hmbulZdev6M&feature=related
[4] Matthew 5:45.


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