St Francis de Sales writes that the pious soul should be like a hummingbird among flowers: attracted to beautiful things, and drawing from them the sweet nectar of sanctification. He also warns readers that unsavoury influences disorientate or debilitate our spiritual life, that we are “guilty by association” if, by communing with things antithetical to God, we are thrown off-kilter. Guilt by association is a principle of the devout life which reminds us that unedifying instances of cultural expression make it hard to keep our gaze ever-fixed on Christ, as the saints say it should be.
Those living the principle of guilt by association won’t be listening to Kendrick Lamar, one of today’s biggest hip-hop stars. For Lamar offers full-throttle gangsta rap from the violent LA underworld, with tales of low-level drug-dealing, prostitution, pimping, and all manner of gang-related, violent crime. What de Sales would say, I dread to think. But Lamar is also one of the most explicitly devout Christians in 21st-century music, who speaks unabashedly about his powerful conversion, and the perpetual struggle of a lived faith.
Perhaps we should rethink the principle of guilt by association. After all, who wants art that is all sweetness and light? Shakespeare’s Richard III tells us a great deal about authentic leadership by showing us egocentric corruption at its worst, just as Wilfred Owen’s war poetry tells us a lot, in an inverse fashion, about the importance of peace among the nations.
Lamar’s music comes from heartfelt faith. He is not glorying in gun violence or prostitution, but showing how poverty and racial inequality can lead to activities debilitating for human dignity, while articulating something of what a Christian understanding of such dignity should be. Lamar invites us to enter into the dark realities of contemporary society, into the minds and hearts of those lost in the underworld of South Central LA.
He describes his songs as “time capsules”, meaning snapshots of a particular situation from a particular perspective, which we can experience through music. Someone hearing the lyric “All my life I want money and power / respect my mind or die from lead shower” can discern how a feeling of ineffectual impotence among those deprived of opportunities can resurface as the insanely nihilistic bravado of the gun-toting hustler.
Christian media is struggling to respond to the “Christian turn” happening at present in hip-hop music. The artists tend to be Protestant, but Evangelical commentators dismiss the dark moods and the endless use of expletives, while others, understandably, decry the degrading language about women. On the first point, we Catholics can say that our piety has always been open to the darker, even pathological, aspects of human experience. Modern worship music seems to forget this. It is relentlessly positive and therefore sometimes sounds trite.
Catholicism, in contrast, never loses sight of the reality (and redemptive power) of suffering. How impoverished our tradition would be if Allegri or Palestrina only wrote music about the positives of faith, or if the Psalms avoided topics like vengeance and godforsaken dereliction. It is instructive that Lamar has voiced his frustration about the lack of preaching on God’s wrath in today’s churches, and broodingly raps on the possibility of his own damnation.
On the alleged misogyny, Lamar’s nomenclature for referring to women is certainly not in keeping with mine. But there is something important in the fact that young black men with backgrounds like Lamar’s, who battle poverty and police brutality, refuse to take lessons in human dignity from the same liberal value system complicit in their plight. This is a value system where an African-American woman is nearly five times more likely than a white woman to abort her child. Indeed, Lamar’s music has a renewed relevance after events in Charlottesville earlier this month (his “Alright” is an anthem of Black Lives Matter).
The internal complexity of hip-hop challenges what identity politics discourse calls “intersectionality”, which holds that different “-isms” intersect and combine, so battling one “-ism” (like the strange coinages “speciesism” or “cissexism”) cannot be separated from battling them all (like racism). This caused some Catholics to dissociate themselves from groups seeking to challenge white supremacism in Charlottesville, through reservations about the discourse surrounding other “-isms” of identity politics.
St Francis de Sales would no doubt caution us about Lamar’s music. But others, like Mother Teresa, commend us to surrender wholeheartedly to human brokenness, to meet the Christ who entered into the ultimate depths of human dereliction on the Cross.
Moreover, against the background of recent events in America, we might realise that something might be worse than guilt by association, and that is guilt by dissociation – evading our responsibility to challenge the evil of racism through fear of other discourses associated with some of its most outspoken critics.
Dr Jacob Phillips is BA theology programme director at St Mary’s University, Twickenham