Unlike those other art forms, popular music shadows almost every moment of our waking lives: we get dressed to it, dance to it, shop to it, drive to it; it fills our films and TV programs and the commercial spaces in between.
And everybody (well, almost) listens to it. believer, agnostics, and atheists alike. And they all attach meaning to it, whether they know it or not. Songs/artists get us through tough times, mark moments of great joy, make us contemplative, and even depress us.
One thing audiences can count on the night of music awards shows, at least a frew acceptance speeches will start with, “First of all, I want to thank God.” So when it came time for Kendrick Lamar to accept the 2016 Grammy for Best Rap Album, it was no surprise that he began, “First off, all glory to God, that’s for sure.” This tradition has often been fodder for comedians remarking that these are empty gestures and that, of all requests sent to God, an artist winning a Grammy is likely low on the list of priorities.
But the last couple of years the wisecracking set were largely silent on the issue, as Kendrick Lamar has demonstrated his Christian credentials time and again in his music and public declarations. In a Buzz Feed on Lamar’s Christianity, Reggie Ugwu describes the rapper’s narrative style as employing “a fondness for using songs as parables, in which the horror of violence and rote debasement of humanity can only be tempered by the grace that comes from a higher power.”
The public declarations of faith that were once anathema to audiences have resonated deeply with the public, but he is just one of an emerging group of mainstream artists pointing to the sacred to explain the shape of struggle and love in the world as they experience it.
Soon after the release of a Justin Bieber profile in Complex last year the internet exploded in mockery at a quote that emerged from the interview: “Like I said, you don’t need to go to church to be a Christian. If you go to Taco Bell, that doesn’t make you a taco.” Bieber detractors are quick to pounce on such low-hanging fruit as evidence of his dimwittedness. What was missed by audiences so eager for a punch line was a young man’s thoughtful contemplations of faith, regardless of how childish they may have came out. He is young and a long ways from a theologian.
To a generation brought up in the aftershocks of the Moral Majority and no strong public religious figures that didn’t come armed with brutal social agendas, “religion” and “organized, politicized religion” have become synonymous. For younger generations faith hasn’t disappeared so much as it’s migrated to the cultural region of popular music and away from the community-focused cultural region of the institutional church.
But both mainliners and evangelicals panicking over the rise of young people unaffiliated with a church have been looking for the youth in the wrong places and asking them the wrong questions when they do find them. They’ve been so preoccupied with churches bearing steeples and bells that they’ve failed to see the ways popular music is in conversation, and occasional wrestling matches, with the sacred. Christianity, and a very orthodox Christianity at that, is hiding in plain sight. The last decade has seen a marked rise in mainstream musicians delivering explicit Christian messages, both in their lyrics and in their personal professions of faith.
Yep, the message is hiding in plain site.