Chance the Rapper brings doubt to ‘faith versus success’ theory

Recording artist Chance The Rapper performs onstage during The 59th GRAMMY Awards at STAPLES Center on February 12, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

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 year’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 “How Great” was performed alongside a gospel choir and featured an a cappella rendition of worship icon Chris Tomlin’s “How Great is Our God” before launching into his verses with lines such as “With the faith of a pumpkin-seed-sized mustard seed/Hear, for I will speak noble things as entrusted me.” In another place in the album, Bennett declares “I’m going to praise Him, praise Him ‘til I’m gone, good God!” Twitter also saw the artist share both his struggles and his beliefs in February of 2016 when Bennett tweeted: “Today’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.”

Chance the Rapper ostensibly has broken all the rules. On one hand, it was widely assumed that an artist couldn’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: “For 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.”

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 “Signature of the Divine (Yahweh)” and “Washed by the Water,” the band’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 2015’s Best Rock Song with “Ain’t It Fun”, 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 Grammy’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 “secular” 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 Rapper’s success and reverse course?

But Bennett’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 hadn’t heard a lot of Bennett’s work, did pose a series of questions on his Twitter account the night of the Grammy’s, including “Why are we so eager to stamp any pop cultural artifact that mentions God as ‘Christian’, regardless of the context?”

Faf Driscoll, in a review of Coloring Book, wrestles with Bennett’s joy mixed with “sinful complicity” and offers his take:

“First, 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 that’s something Chance is joyful about, even if we don’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; “Now if any you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives to all generously and without criticizing, and it will be given to him,” (James 1:5).”