I've got it! After all these years, I really think I've got it this time. For years, I've scratched my head and racked my brain trying desperately to understand the genesis of the love affair between the kingdom of God and secular hip hop (I put special emphasis on secular for a reason). On the surface, it doesn't seem like the two go hand-in-hand at all. Secular rap music is dominated by those aspects we who are Christians know go against the very nature of Who we know Christ to be in our lives: illicit sex, greed, violence, crime, mistrust, beef for the sake of having beef, degradation, and general debauchery in every sense of the word. Even the segment of rappers who are considered positive or "conscious" (your Commons, Mos Defs, and Talib Kwelis of the world) still stoke the flaming coals of conflict between the church and society because the amount of profanity and n-word usage is still extremely high even in their sometimes uplifting, activist lyrics.
I'll back off the term majority, but much of what is considered mainstream in hip hop today has served as a poor example for our young people and has set an especially unfortunate tone for young men, many of whom have taken to the personalities of those figures dominating the industry today, blindly patterning their thoughts, speech, attitudes, ambitions, and (some) even their lives after them. I won't go as far as Kansas City sports writer Jason Whitlock and blame hip hop for everything that's wrong in Black America, but I will say that the culture could stand to have an even greater impact on our world today by playing a more unifying than dividing role in society, the way the culture used to way back in it's years of infancy as a subculture, rather than the dominant culture.
Now, with that being said, let's get to the heart of the matter. Hip hop, to a large extent, gets it. The attitude of your everyday hip-hopper is driven by one thing, and a rapper's (or R&B singer's) success and marketability are predicated off of how much of that one thing he/she has. What thing am I speaking of? What do we talk about everyday? What do you hear in almost every song or see displayed in every video? What often separates the job seeker who finds employment from the one who gets looked over? What can sometimes get you a second date? That thing is what we all know as swagger (bka swag), and Beyonce displays plenty of it in her song, "Ego".
Ever since R&B group Destiny's Child stormed onto the scene in 1997 with their first hit song, "No, No, No," lead singer Beyonce Knowles has ruled the industry, selling millions of albums, winning numerous awards, garnering plenty of national attention, and doing even more of all three as a solo artist. Not only is she married to Jay-Z, the biggest, most iconic figure in hip hop today; and not only has she been recently been named Billboard's Woman of the Year; but she has ascended to the top rung of R&B royalty, gaining such a universal popularity that anyone, like myself, who claims not to be a fan of hers, is likely to get told and called a hater by women of ALL ages, even those of great faith, which absolutely baffles me.
What has shocked me even more until now is that she has accomplished all that she has over the past decade-plus, capturing the hearts of 99.6 percent of music and dance lovers worldwide without having any superlative abilities. That is to say, Beyonce is not the best at ANYTHING she does. She can carry a tune, but contrary to popular belief, she is an adequate singer at best, good enough to sing this watered-down product they call R&B today, but not skilled enough to sing other genres of music. She was blown out of the water by Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls; she sounded terribly insincere and unmoving every time she sang a gospel song with Destiny’s Child on an album or an award show; and she sounded (and looked) awful trying to sing classical music at that disastrous embarrassment called the 2009 BET Awards. I could go on, but I won’t. She looks good, but she isn’t the finest girl on the block. There are plenty women out there who look better, but she won’t dare share the stage with them. Why do you think better-looking, better-singing Farrah Franklin left the group? Hmmm, Selah. Bey’s also widely recognized as a great dancer, so great that they dedicated a whole America’s Best Dance Crew episode to her; mind you, this is the same show that also dedicated an episode to the late, great Michael Jackson, who we ALL know absolutely was THE preeminent dancer of our time, arguably ALL time. However, again, I’ll contend that, while she does have some solid choreography, she’s NOT the best dancer out there. We’re already well aware of her acting skills, or lack thereof, so it’s not even worth mentioning.
What she does have, however, is that one intangible that brings all of those aforementioned aspects into light, constructing a total package that has most thinking she’s the best in all but one (the obvious) of those categories. I hear so many successful women talking about how talented she is and I always think to myself, “Talented? I just don’t see it.” I have figured it out, though. That intangible IT factor, similar to what “experts” claim makes a truly great professional athlete, is, again, swagger.
Swagger is exactly what Beyonce’s hit song, “Ego,” is about.
--Well, actually, no, it’s not.
--Yes, it is!
--NO, it’s NOT!!
See, therein lies the genius of this song. Music has always been so powerful because it’s given both its creators and its listeners an outlet to express that which they could never say on their own or in regular, everyday terms. Rap music has become as popular as it has because not only do you hear catchy delivery, but it takes that aforementioned expression to the next level, effortlessly towing the line between taboo and acceptable conversation. Even though “Ego” is not a rap song (outside of Kanye’s remix offering), it does what I just described, executed flawlessly. The song not only talks about actual ego, swagger, confidence, arrogance—whatever you want to call it—but it gives the world a new euphemism to talk about the male genitalia in a way that cannot be censored. Kanye’s rap in this remix is mostly about how his ambition has gotten him to where he is today and how his ego has grown because of that success, but, watching the video, you can tell by the expression on his face that when he sings, “Such a big ego,” before beginning his verse, he means so much more than just ego. Beyonce does much of the same, first talking about genitalia, and then talking about her own actual ego. Surely, young girls all over the world, not mentally or emotionally mature enough to handle sex will be texting their little friends about how big they think their little crushes’ egos are for years to come. Just like when “Single Ladies” blew up last year, “Ego” will be talked about or alluded to in some way, shape, or form for years to come. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not, by any means, praising this song, or saying that I have been or will be bumping this in my car for the next several months, but anytime you can beat the FCC censors at their own game by using one very common word to express multiple concepts without once getting censored, you’ve constructed a work of creative genius.
What is more important here is the fact that Beyonce doubtlessly practices what she preaches. There is plenty of swagger to go around on this track, which should not be surprising because she has done this her entire career. Everyone thinks she’s so wonderful even though she’s not the best at anything because what she does have the most of is indeed swagger. She has a confidence about herself that says, “I know I’m the best, whether you say so or not,” that helps her carry herself in such a magnetic way that you get hooked on her because she expresses for you that confident part of yourself you’ve never been able to exude. Every man, black or white, wants to get with her, and every woman, young and old, wants to be just like her. I’m sure she’s probably so confident about herself that she probably still thinks she can act, even though the public has said otherwise. In “Ego,” she takes all of that swag to the highest level possible with her lyrics, her expressions, and her dance moves. I think, in all seriousness, that she has tapped prophetically into an element that will be very important for the kingdom of God as we go forward.
When I think about this, my mind goes back to something Kirk Franklin said a few years ago on BET’s “106 & Park”: “I just wanna show the young people that you can have a little bit of swagger about yourself and still love Jesus.” I doubt if few people will remember that, but it was such a profound statement to me because it expresses what I think the issue is for all of Christendom (or at least in America) right now, which is that we the Church allow the world to exude more confidence about money, sex, and fame than we do about Jesus, salvation, and His power in our everyday lives. We displayed so much adoration for the King of Pop, but we’re so timid about what the King of Kings has done for us! We’re more likely to share a business plan with someone than we are to share with him/her the gospel! Beyonce so proudly sings about how a man with a big ego opens up her body and finds her secrets, but we can’t seem to muster that same confidence to talk about how a Man lived to have His body opened up to die for your sins and mine so our wretched lives can be made whole. Christians who really do love the Lord will comfortably have Gospel sandwiched between Jeezy and Weezy because hip hop exudes a creative confidence in its message that gospel simply just doesn’t. It’s that simple.
I gave my life to the Lord Jesus Christ at the age of eleven; however, no one ever helped me contextualize salvation to understand what it meant to be an adolescent Christian. I therefore grew up with very little confidence in myself as a Christian. I was always different and stuck out in crowds like a sore thumb, but I didn’t have any friends in my immediate circle living the same life I was living who could encourage me and help me find my identity as a believer. On the flip side, I went to U of D Jesuit High School with a young man who met Jesus as a sophomore. Unlike me, he somehow figured out what salvation meant for him and was able to love Christ and represent Him, while still being his popular self. Not only did this young man ascend to the presidency of one of the school’s most prominent organizations, and not only did our senior class confer upon him probably the most prestigious honor our school awards, but his lifestyle shift and his ability to confidently express that caught the eye of our school principal, who allowed him to preach the homily (the sermon in the Catholic Church), at our senior class mass, something virtually unheard of. Needless to say, he made a strong impact in our school for the glory of God, an impact I wish I could have made in my youth.
Long story short, we who have the better, more positive, more uplifting news must share it with gladness and not be so timid about being a Christian. Just like it took swag for Beyonce to become a household name, it’s going to take that same swag for us to make Jesus a household name (and I’m not talking about how people blurt out, “Jesus Christ,” in vain when expressing frustration)! How big is your ego? Well, if you take Romans 1:16 to heart—For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…(ESV)—then, prayerfully, it’s HUGE because you know there is no greater power on earth or in heaven.
Stroke your ego! Be confident in Who you serve!