we are all kendrick lamar.

Kendrick_Lamar_-_To_Pimp_a_Butterfly_coverart
To Pimp a Butterfly album cover photo credit: comfortmagazine.com

There’s been a lot of buzz in entertainment circles, the web, and friends of mine about the new Kendrick Lamar record, “To Pimp a Butterfly.” Released two weeks ago, this album is considered a prolific genre milestone for hip-hop. Some say this puts Kendric Lamar in line to join the ranks of rap demigods like Tupac with its flagrant social consciousness, diverse sonic influences, and contrast against a generation of mainstream hip-hop.

Kendrick Lamar’s presence as a rapper has sparked conversation among religious circles concerning his music, message, and faith.

Given the controversy, I think this is worth sharing as a way to open to floor to discuss how people express their faith, the art of storytelling, and my thoughts on the debate over his authenticity.

To understand this conversation better, let me provide some context.

Kendrick Lamar is a hip-hop artist native to the rough and tumble concrete jungle of Compton, California. Festooned with drugs, gangs, violence, and economic inequality, Compton is showcased as an example of a place that underpins a myriad of negative influences for young men. Good Kid m.A.A.d. City is an album that paints a vulgar portrait of Lamar’s upbringing. Being raised around gang life, feeding into promiscuity, drugs, and alcohol, the dialogue on this album demonstrates the pull he feels between wanting to fit in and not getting caught up in the negativity. The end of the album marks Kendrick Lamar’s turning point when he publicly professed his faith and was recently baptized while on tour. Throughout GKMC, you hear dispersed voice mail interludes from other family members of Lamar who express their concern and provide silver lining for the sexually provocative, violent, and suggestive imagery. There’s obvious conflict being dramatized. This is where people unsheathe the criticism.

Through recent interviews with the New York Times and XXL Magazine, Kendrick Lamar’s Christianity has become a crux for heated discussion about the credibility of his expressions of faith.

Statistics from David Kinnaman and the Barna research group reveal that millennials are disenchanted with the brand of Christianity that our parents and grandparents were raised by. They’re in search of something that raw, authentic, non-politicized, and accessible. With that comes pastors and modern theologians who raise questions otherwise not questioned by American predecessors. I think people like Kendrick Lamar are the lightning rod for discussion concerning authenticity of newer Christianity.

I’m 22 years old. My age and experiences in the church make me part of this conversation of how do we as Christians openly communicate our doubts, concerns, fears, and shortcomings with dignity and honesty. It’s a hard but necessary discussion to have in house. It’s messy, but is a catalyst for creating tight-knit organic community, growth, and moving forward.

Good Kid m.A.A.d. City album cover photo credit mzshyneka.com
Good Kid m.A.A.d. City album cover photo credit mzshyneka.com

Kendrick is not only conscious of the criticism he receives for the verbiage in his rhymes, but is conscious about the pull he feels between his environment, the temptations of stardom, and his new found faith. I mean, Swimming Pools from GKMC is a perfect example. Underneath the grimy west coast instrumental hypnotism lies a narrative about Kendrick living around alcoholism and his friends tempting him to take part. While it might seem that Kendrick promotes the lifestyle, it’s an undisguised story about peer pressure and how he deals with a very human phenomenon…temptation.

There’s honesty to songs like this in ways that hit me in waves. Tyler Huckabee said it best in an article written for Relevant Magazine… “That might lead some people to call him a hypocrite but then, he’s already beat them to that particular punch.”

It’s a bummer for me to read a sea of Facebook commentary and see people putting Kendrick Lamar and their fellow believers in front of a social media firing squad. People are putting Kendrick Lamar’s character into question and going so far as to saying he’s not really a believer because of his language. Someone did say in this mammoth thread that his story is worth telling, even if he’s not as squeaky clean as Lecrae.

I don’t call out Lecrae to set him as the bar for all others, nor do I encourage Kendrick Lamar to be so vulgar. What I’m saying is that guys like Kendrick Lamar are sharing a testimony in the same language, but in a different dialect.

Kendrick Lamar deserves grace, guidance, and encouragement just like the rest of us do. Our lives aren’t pristine trophies of triumph, joy, and pervasive delight in the Lord. We deal with temptation from the vices of our past and will sometimes feel the pull. It’s how we deal with those temptations and tell that story that matters.

Personally, I can relate to Kendrick Lamar. Not because I grew up around gangs, in an impoverished neighborhood, or was exposed to a lot of violence, but I understand the acute conflict between temptation and searching for God in the midst of coping with my past. It’s not an easy balance and is stressful. When I tell my story it’s not meant to be polished and refined to appeal to a marketable audience. I would rather sit down and be real with someone.

This reminds me a lot of Romans 7:15 where Paul writes, “ I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” That feeling of being caught up in something self-destructive but trying to continue finding meaning in what God has for us.

Loud and clear, I don’t endorse Christians cutting rap albums festooned with explicit imagery and vulgar language, but I don’t think we need to immediately go after Lamar for doing so either, especially because he’s new to the faith. I don’t expect people who have newly accepted this life in Christ to be sterile and unaffected by a life they have lived for so long. I didn’t. I still don’t.

Now that I think of it, all of us as Christians are Kendrick Lamar in a way. We are all in this narrow walk towards Christ, taking the bumps as they come along – sometimes with ease, sometimes with hardship, always with grace. We are all telling a story of restoration that is sometimes painful and is also partially unwritten. We have growth ahead of us, joy to look forward to, rough times to tackle, lessons to learn, and are always striving to be more honest with each other, our neighbors, ourselves, and God.

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hello hurricane.

On a cold, grey night towards the end of last fall, I packed my car full of friends and drove to Minneapolis to see Switchfoot perform at First Ave. At that point in my life, I felt like I was walking through fog. I could only see far enough in front of me to take one more step, but aside from that I couldn’t see anything else in front of me, above me, or to my side. I was slipping back into an abyss of a recurring addiction, my problems with anxiety resurfaced with a vengeance, and my priorities were off kilter. I was in the most stressful academic semester of my career, my leadership ability was impaired, and didn’t know how to process it all. I was in need of a big break. This was it. I didn’t have to worry about assignments, job shadows, or leadership meetings. It was me, my friends, and the music.

The show was mesmerizing. The crowd was energized and the atmosphere felt so right. The lasting impression was the finale. With lead singer, Jon Foreman, hanging from the balcony of the venue and crowd surfing, the band played their last song, “When We Come Alive,” an epistle about finding your purpose and living life with meaning. Not only was that final act inspiring, it provoked me to think about how far I have come. For a moment, life was good. Everything was in line for that moment. In those moments where there seems to be harmony in the midst of chaos is when I think about God’s faithfulness.

Beginning to put parts of my life to rest and close the book for one last time reminds me that what life can look like on the other end. I think about what I can do with that freedom and what God has in store with me. In the midst of the stress of school, sickness (I’ve been fighting off a respiratory infection), starting counseling, and unpacking years of scars and souvenirs, I’ve been able to experience joy…

Coffee in Minneapolis on warm spring evenings. Driving with the windows down and cranking the radio. Getting owned in Monopoly. Crappy ABC Family movies on Netflix. Walks with my mom. Passing out on the mat from working out. Trivia nights with my sister. Halo 3, skee ball, and steak nights with the guys. Playing with my cat.

Switchfoot playing at First Ave. in Mineapolis. I took this photo during their acoustic version of Hello Hurricane.
Switchfoot playing at First Ave. in Mineapolis. I took this photo during their acoustic version of Hello Hurricane.

These are simple reminders that life can still be celebrated in the midst of disarray. I don’t say this as a plea to ignore life’s hurdles and avoid the pain (as I mentioned in the last post), but it’s a reminder to keep the little things in mind. Though these moments seem miniscule, they began to stack on top of each other and over time I started to take solace in them. I never had this outlook until I began to realize how God had begun to slowly transform me and give me a new lens to look at life through. Ecclesiastes 7:14 says that all good things come from God. All of those things I have been able to enjoy are gifts bestowed on me from God.

Furthermore, when I reflect on God’s faithfulness, I think about the fact that the pain is temporary. It’s not forever. The Marine’s have a famous slogan that my dad liked to say… “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” There is truth in a statement like that. Knowing that I am addressing my short comings accordingly through wise counsel, time, and dedication makes me remember that the pain will last for a while, but the possibility of what’s in store for me on the other side keeps my fire lit. It’s reflected through verses like 1st Peter 5:10 – And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.

In 2009, Switchfoot wrote an album called Hello Hurricane, which was lyrically inspired about a Hurricane Katrina survivor determined to live confidently after the devastation of the storm. The title track is an audaciously uplifting anthem of perseverance that rings true in its melodic chant. I think about that when I live in these moments and understand that a storm is up ahead and I can do nothing to stop its rage. All I can do is face it with confidence knowing that it may hurt, but it will subside and clearer skies will come.

My encouragement is to find those small moments in your day, whether it be a laugh with a co-worker, lunch break with a buddy, reading a favorite novel in the afternoon warmth, cuddling with a pet, or cranking your favorite album at warp 20. Cherish those moments and understand that those are small gifts we are given to experience, especially when life weighs on us.