Hip hop has long been regarded as the unacceptable face of mainstream music, especially to middle America. With its promotion of gang culture, drugs, homophobia and perceived misogyny, hip hop is often sidelined, especially when it comes to awards and network TV exposure. However, one man is trying to change this with his unique brand of Christian hip hop: the self proclaimed Christian rapper, Flame.
Born Marcus T Gray, Flame (usually stylized as “FLAME”), comes from a Southern Baptist background, and originally started writing rap while practicing applied theology and Biblical counseling. His music, heavily influenced by his Baptist background and traditional gospel music, caught the attention of Cross Movement Records in 2004, who released his debut, self-titled album, Flame.
Since then, Flame has released three more albums, launched his own record label, and sold over 170,000 records. His music has even become an anthem for the St Louis Cardinals, and is played at the Busch Stadium whenever Albert Pujois comes to bat. Having infiltrated that most American of activities, baseball, Flame is fast becoming the acceptable face of hip hop, and is even being embraced by conservative, middle America.
Christian Hip hop
Christian hip hop is nothing new. Gospel rap can trace its origins back to the mid-eighties, when Stephen Wiley released his 1985 album, Bible Break (Benson Music Group). However, Christian hip hop never seemed to appeal to either the conservative mainstream or hip hop and rap fans, who still preferred the music of more antagonistic rappers who sang about gangs, drugs and guns.
Of course, many rap stars have come from quite religious backgrounds, an influence that can be heard in the music of Tupac, Jay-Z, DMX and Kanye West. However, while many of these hip hop acts may indeed be Christian, few brand themselves as such, and are not seen as part of the Christian hip hop movement. Whether this is because they fear alienating their more traditional and hardcore fan base, or they think the label “Christian” will somehow dent their image, isn’t clear.
What Flame has managed to do, which is unique amongst Christian hip hop acts, is appeal to both the hardcore hip hop fan and to mainstream America, many of whom are as far removed from the gang culture that forms the basis of most hip hop, as the average hip hop fan is from pressures of white collar America, such as settling credit card bills, paying the mortgage and moving finances about. However, Flame’s approach is all-encompassing, and he suggests the financial pressures of conservative America are no less worthy subjects to rap about than the street culture so typical of traditional hip hop.
In the south, where Flame has his roots, Christianity forms the back bone of all society, whether white, black, rich or poor. While Flame’s music is steeped in religion, he isn’t afraid to use the same course and aggressive approach to rap about more theological and anthropological subjects that many traditional hip hop stars use when rapping about guns, women, and drugs.
Flame believes hip hop, in whatever form, has enriched American culture, claiming it has provided an outlet for urban teens and young adults, many of whom feel ignored by mainstream culture.
“As hip hop evolved and began to take shape; it reflected more accurately the views of its founders. It would eventually become a conduit to raise awareness to the ills of society. Hot topics included police brutality, racism, classism [sic], and injustice. It was obvious that people were upset and angry with the current state of affairs. Many found hope in the awareness the Hip Hop culture began to raise,” he recently was reported as saying.
He claims hip hop is the ideal conduit to express not just social and political messages, but also religious beliefs and ideologies, a tactic that has earned him nominations for a Grammy, Dove and Stellar award, and has seen his brand of Christian rap feature in the rap billboard, normally dominated by gang culture. His latest album, The 6th, was released on March 6 and has reached number 8 in the rap billboard chart. He describes this latest work – so called because God created mankind on the 6th day – as a study of society where he examines mankind from different angles. “Money, fame, power, women – nothing can ultimately satisfy you the way Christ can,” he said on the album’s release.
He says his goal is to use hip hop to give others hope and reach people from all areas of society, and if his recent billboard success is anything to go by, it is a goal he is very close to accomplishing.
By Imogen Reed
By Imogen Reed