The up-and-coming rap star Chance the Rapper took home Best Rap Performance, Best New Artist, and Best New Album with his streaming-only mix-tape Coloring Book at this yearâ€™s Grammy Awards. Chance the Rapper (born Chancelor Johnathan Bennett) has continued to operate as an independent artist, and according to the New York Post, has turned down $10 million in offers from record labels.
His latest album is only available via streaming, and Bennett reports that he makes his money selling merchandise and by touring. Rubbing shoulders with the likes of Kanye West, Lil Wayne, and T-Pain, Bennett displays his Chicago roots and often speaks of his experiences in the rougher neighborhoods in the city, addressing topics such as paying child support and gang violence. His albums have featured explicit language, on par with mainstream rap genre.
Yet, as demonstrated during his Grammy performance, Chance the Rapper is incredibly up-front about his faith.
His song â€œHow Greatâ€ was performed alongside a gospel choir and featured an a cappella rendition of worship icon Chris Tomlinâ€™s â€œHow Great is Our Godâ€ before launching into his verses with lines such as â€œWith the faith of a pumpkin-seed-sized mustard seed/Hear, for I will speak noble things as entrusted me.â€ In another place in the album, Bennett declares â€œIâ€™m going to praise Him, praise Him â€˜til Iâ€™m gone, good God!â€ Twitter also saw the artist share both his struggles and his beliefs in February of 2016 when Bennett tweeted: â€œTodayâ€™s the last day of my old life, last day smoking cigs. Headed to church for help. All things are possible thru Christ who strengthens me.â€
Chance the Rapper ostensibly has broken all the rules. On one hand, it was widely assumed that an artist couldnâ€™t achieve mainstream success while being so explicit about faith. In an interview with the Boston Globe in 2004, Jon Foreman of the band Switchfoot was hesitant to adopt any Christian label: â€œFor us, it’s a faith, not a genre. We’ve always been very open and honest about where the songs are coming from. For us, these songs are for everyone. Calling us `Christian rock’ tends to be a box that closes some people out and excludes them. And that’s not what we’re trying to do.â€
More recent examples, such as the band Needtobreathe, seem to still take a similar approach. Though Needtobreathe was once a darling of Christian radio with songs such as â€œSignature of the Divine (Yahweh)â€ and â€œWashed by the Water,â€ the bandâ€™s latest album HARDLOVE uses some indefinite spiritual references but makes no direct reference to God, Christ, or the Christian faith.
The rock band Paramore, who took 2015â€™s Best Rock Song with â€œAinâ€™t It Funâ€, also found its beginning marked by explicit faith, saying in an interview with BBC in 2008, “Our faith is very important to us…But we’re not out here to preach to kids, we’re out here because we love music.” The original members of the band would break up in 2010, citing lead singer Hayley Williams of compromising on her faith. It seemed like commercial success and being vocal on matters of faith were incompatible.
Yet Chance the Rapper has put that theory in the ground, not only having his beliefs feature prominently and unapologetically in his latest album, but also sweeping the Grammyâ€™s in the process. Bennett, instead of avoiding any religious labels, is leading the way for the Gospel-Rap genre. Indeed, other artists that are traditionally labeled as â€œsecularâ€ are apt to speak about God and faith in their music, Kanye West being a prime example. The question is whether artists who have moved their faith out of the spotlight will see Chance the Rapperâ€™s success and reverse course?
But Bennettâ€™s style also prompts another question: Will Christian artists who are vocal about their faith be encouraged to adopt profanity in an attempt to relate to mainstream audiences?
Christian rapper Shai Linne, who admitted he hadnâ€™t heard a lot of Bennettâ€™s work, did pose a series of questions on his Twitter account the night of the Grammyâ€™s, including â€œWhy are we so eager to stamp any pop cultural artifact that mentions God as â€˜Christianâ€™, regardless of the context?â€
Faf Driscoll, in a review of Coloring Book, wrestles with Bennettâ€™s joy mixed with â€œsinful complicityâ€ and offers his take:
â€œFirst, we must understand that for Chance, although the gaining of wisdom is not over, life and light has shone forth in Christ, shattering death and darkness. And thatâ€™s something Chance is joyful about, even if we donâ€™t see it permeate all of his actions yet. Perhaps the next step for us, as well as for him, is to pray in line with James 1:5; â€œNow if any you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives to all generously and without criticizing, and it will be given to him,â€ (James 1:5).”