Rejecting Labels: Lecrae Goes Mainstream

Rejecting Labels: Lecrae Goes Mainstream
Words by Lecrae
Portrait by Caleb Chancey
Words come with baggage, no matter which words you choose. So when people heard I was going “mainstream,” the initial response was weighed down by the connotations of the word.  In a lot of people’s minds, “mainstream” meant selling out, chasing fame, and forsaking a part of who I was. That was never what mainstream meant for me though.

Early in my music career, I was labeled a “Christian rapper” or “Christian hip-hop artist.” Growing up, I went to church occasionally with my grandma but would never have called myself a Christian. I was raised around guns, drugs, gangs, and by a single mother.

In college, I started to follow Jesus and stepped into the Christian world. I was met by a culture I wasn’t sure what to do with. I was told to conform: “You can’t wear that. You can’t say that. You can’t do that.” I didn’t know when to stand up or when to say Amen. Was it OK to clap? Shake my hair like punk rockers do?

It felt like I was born and raised in a rainforest, and suddenly I was stuck in a greenhouse, unsure how to act and be my full self in those spaces. So while I was unashamed of my faith in Jesus, I was never completely sure how to fit the different pieces of myself within that label. A group of us created our own culture within Christian hip-hop, but that still meant our music was done only for and by Christians. I wasn’t bothered until it became a barrier between people and the music and message.

While on tour in 2011, I was invited to an NBA practice. I took CDs of my newest album. The coach introduced me to the players, saying, “Hey guys, we got a gospel rapper here, and he wants to give you some of these CDs.”

Immediately the faces of the players filled with disgust and covered-up laughter. I walked over to one of the players and asked why he didn’t want a CD, and he responded, “Man, I don’t want to listen to none of this gospel rap.” He hadn’t heard a single word or beat, but because the label “Gospel” or “Christian” was attached to it, he couldn’t get past it.

I never set out to make music just for Christians. My theological convictions actually point me toward the idea that God wants us to engage culture and not create our own subculture. Those NBA players and I had a lot in common. Many of us had come from similar backgrounds, without fathers, and I knew they would benefit from music that talked about struggling and pain and also hope and reconciliation. That’s when I knew I needed to do something different.

I had to get back to the rainforest, out of the greenhouse, to be around the hip-hop culture and the people in the mainstream world. Initially, a lot of people from the Christian rap community were hurt because they felt like I was abandoning them when I was really just trying to expand.

The transition was filled with a lot of hard conversations but was overall more positive than what was to come. Round one of going mainstream was instigated by my theological convictions, but round two was much more complicated.

In 2015, racial tensions in America heightened. I spoke out in support of my black brothers and sisters, and my largely white, conservative Christian audience could not understand why I was so outspoken about issues of race and justice. This wasn’t part of their world. Many of them thought I was deviating from my faith and from just making music. I had to double down on connecting with the mainstream audience who could support me in this deeply personal fight.

The controversy grew. Parents sent me messages saying, “I just deleted every song of yours off my child’s iPod!” “How dare you create division in this country.” Words turned into videos of them burning my music and threats from extremists who thought they’d be doing God a favor by taking me out.

These months became a profoundly dark time for me. Initially, I was angry. Then the anger turned into shame from feeling less-than-human because of everything that was being said to me. And with the shame came a depression I struggled with for almost two years.

How could the people who were once my biggest supporters turned their backs on me as soon as I spoke up for black lives in America? Did they not see that I was also black and that we were suffering? My faith was challenged. I couldn’t believe that these people, who were supposed to be Christians and who claimed to love God, were treating me like this. Is Christianity real if this was how God’s people were responding?

It took a long time to resolve these questions. I spent two years processing, taking trips around the world, studying, and reading. I saw God in small villages in Africa and in quiet moments reading my Bible. I wrestled constantly with myself and with what I believed. Eventually, I landed at a place in the Bible’s book of Hebrews that says, “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (chapter 12, verse 2). Slowly, I saw that on the other side of this shame and this cross I was enduring, was also joy.

Most of the controversy surrounding me came from misused labels. Categories are helpful for things like batteries, but we do a disservice to the beauty of our complexity when we slap a label or category on a person. We are not homogeneous. With race, we use “black people” as if all black people think the same. It happens with “the church” too, but not all believers think the same. Step one toward unity is to let humans be complex, not so easily labeled.

There’s more hope, more love, more understanding, and more unity when we ask one another, “Who are you?” In this way, people are understood, listened to, and empathized with. That is when we will see the beauty of our humanity. This is how we confront our biases and see the humanity behind one another.

My goal was always to create music that gave an alternate perspective to the things we hear in culture—music for any audience, without a prerequisite of believing in exactly what I believe. It’s an opportunity for me to share with my listeners that things are hard, but in the end, I believe it will all work out.

Similarly, my music and career have been a place for me to stand up for justice and equality. While I know that all things work together, I also know that it is our responsibility to work toward this hope. Together, our complexities have the power to create change between one another and the world.