Christian rapper Lecrae: A new American evangelical leader?

Christian rapper Lecrae speaks with pastor and author Dimas Salaberrios on the Praise the Lord ministry talk show on TBN (Trinity Broadcast Network,) in Manhattan in May. ((Photo by Yana Paskova for The Washington Post)

NEW YORK - The black rap star came on the white evangelical's radio talk show to discuss his memoir, a tale of surviving drugs, crime and sexual abuse. Only a few days after its release last month, the book by Grammy-winner Lecrae had already hit the New York Times bestseller list.

But within a couple of minutes, the interview took a turn.

Host Eric Metaxas raised a controversy from a few days earlier, when liberal black comic Larry Wilmore used the n-word to refer to President Barack Obama at the White House correspondents' dinner.

"Can I say what he said to the president of the United States?" the preppily dressed, 53-year-old Metaxas asked his younger, T-shirt-wearing guest. "Surely if he said that to the president of the United States, I can say it?"

"I'm pretty sure that's not a good idea," Lecrae said gently. Lecrae then chuckled and the collegial interview went on, just two traditional evangelicals chit-chatting about the greatness of God.

It was classic Lecrae: deflecting, attempting to avoid the deep gulfs among Christians that have been laid bare by the candidacy of Donald J. Trump. His skill at resetting conversations about race has made Lecrae one of the biggest musical stars alive among his fellow evangelicals - white ones in particular, who make up three-quarters of this huge faith group. Yet this fan base, Lecrae is finding, is complex - and combustible. The 6-foot-4, smiley former drug dealer has become a lightning rod as his stature as an evangelical leader has risen. He is trying to navigate those who embrace his increasingly nuanced approach to burning social issues and those who think the Christian rapper is in the process of selling out.

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Long-standing assumptions about American Christianity are exploding in public every day of this divisive campaign season.

Is an evangelical someone who prioritizes fighting abortion and gay marriage or instead a pragmatist who looks for middle ground? Does it go against Christian values to support a candidate who wants to deport Muslims and who uses "Mexican" as a slur? And is there an "evangelical" position on police treatment of blacks in 2016?

Cruising Manhattan in the back of a stretch black SUV on a recent afternoon, pin-balling from one corner of the American culture war to another as he promotes his book, Lecrae Devaughn Moore knows he presents a new evangelical archetype. And he loves it.

"What I bring is unique; no one else brings to the table what I am," said the 36-year-old. "That's how I look at myself - a clear voice in the middle of it all."

Many evangelicals who love Lecrae do so not in spite of his middle-of-the-road stances but because of them. American Christians, particularly young ones, are dying for leaders willing to walk away from partisan polarization, and for some, Lecrae may be the model. They fill his concert tours, like the one in April that hop-scotched from one largely white Christian college town to another. They buy his books, listen to his lectures and watch admiringly when he's on national news doing something like when he brokered a truce between a cop and protesters near his home in Atlanta after the post-Ferguson riots.

"This generation doesn't have a Billy Graham," said LaDawn Johnson, a sociologist at Biola University, an evangelical school outside Los Angeles where Lecrae performed in April. "We've lost any kind of significant evangelical leader people could point to, and Lecrae is in a position where he could definitely for many young people be that voice and be that model."

Lecrae was raised mostly by his mother and grandmother in crime-troubled parts of Houston, Denver and San Diego, where, he writes in his memoir, "Unashamed," he tried to fill the hole left by his absentee father with drugs (using and selling), dreams of being a gang-banger, tons of sex and explosive fights with various violent men who dated his mother. He showed early interest and talent in music and theater, and hip-hop rushed in to fill his void.

Rappers are able, Lecrae believes, to give voice to the pain and sadness of inner-city boys who would be pummeled if they actually complained about the hands they'd been dealt.

He writes about yo-yoing back and forth between violent street life and the artistic crowd, the Christian scene of his holy-roller grandmother and the secular scene of the rest of his world, and very much between white kids he met in high school and later college and the black kids who had been his world before then. He wondered whether his role model should be his gun-toting uncle or Theo Huxtable from "The Cosby Show."

It was only after a near-suicidal, angry, breakneck drive one night on a dark highway that he landed in rehab and, eventually, in a college ministry aimed at African Americans. That group, called Impact Movement, was the first time Lecrae heard Jesus described as a character a street kid could love.

The Jesus he'd always pictured "was frail and weak and bashful," Lecrae wrote in his memoir. But the one Impact described, who was beaten and bloodied while carrying the cross, "was someone I could respect and trust at the same time."

The 19-year-old convert was a zealous one. Believing he could no longer kiss girls - even while acting in a play -- he quit theater and lost his college scholarship. Purging secular music, he dumped his massive, beloved CD collection in a dumpster. Half the world was holy, or good, and half secular, or evil.

But as he became a bigger star, Lecrae started to wonder whether his dogmatic style was the most effective kind of evangelizing. One could see him charge into public debates and then stop and pause.

In 2013, he asked fans on Facebook what could be the basis of marriage equality. "What if I love my sister? A 13-year-old? An animal?" Perhaps surprised by the thousands of evangelicals passionately commenting on all sides of the topic, he followed up that day with a post saying he wasn't asking in a religious sense. "If you are a homosexual, I apologize for any hate spewed your way," he wrote, saying he was aiming to create a dialogue.

In a 2014 lecture before a mostly white evangelical ministers' conference called Resurgence, he compared homosexuality to selling drugs, but said Christians need to remain in the culture in order to change it. "I'm grateful to be there," he said. Church values are fading in America because Christians have become just a shell of "morality and religion and rules."

In his book, which came out the first week of May, he says he's changed and is now wary of rigid faith, of "a spiritual high that can lead to legalism."

In an interview, he says he used to be more idealistic, unable to handle what he now characterizes as the beautiful gray. He talks often and openly about his perspective on race and how it's in flux.

Lecrae takes a photograph with a fan, Marcus In the 2014 lecture, Lecrae described growing up in a "militant" household, with a mom who studied the Black Panthers and wanted him to embrace her understanding of blackness. ("You 12 black people out here, you know what I'm talking about," he cracked to laughter).

"I wore African medallions. . . . I had a feeling I didn't need you," he said as he bounded across the slickly-lit stage. "Then Jesus reached me." The sense of resentment toward white people, "it's not there anymore! Jesus changed me - we're cool."

The image of a superstar rapper - his last album hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 - preaching to a bunch of white evangelical pastors isn't the only seemingly contradictory scene in which Lecrae appears. He has made a cause out of criticizing obscenity in his own genre of hip-hop, yet jetted after Metaxas last month to Wilmore's liberal show, where he appeared following a skit in which actors did obscene things with a banana.

Lecrae's concerts are packed with white evangelicals - young people and soccer moms - as well as black and Latino youths. Then again, this is hip-hop without obscenities. This is hip-hop about Jesus.

That's because Lecrae wants to be that role model Johnson described, particularly to his fellow evangelicals.

He has launched a media campaign called "Man-up" aimed at encouraging young urban men to embrace traditional roles as husbands and fathers. He travels to the Middle East and the Far East as a kind of celebrity conflict-reconciliation facilitator. He pens editorials on the need, post-Ferguson, post-Charleston, for more racial healing. He says he wrote his memoir specifically as his career is soaring to show troubled young people his scars so they know they can move on.

He wants to be a cultural role model in part because he knows that the field of traditional Christians who become mainstream superstars is, well, very thin.

Christian rapper Lecrae signs a book for pastor and author Dimas Salaberrios after speaking on Salaberrios's talk show, "There were others who wanted to be Christians and artists" but seemed to slip into moral decay, Dimas Salaberrios, a Bronx pastor and radio personality, said in an interview with the rapper that sunny Manhattan morning last month. "I pray for your strength."

"The concern is having no role models," Lecrae told him. "I'm trying to be a voice in the culture."

Lecrae's popularity among his fellow evangelicals is a way of tracking what happens in this huge American faith group -- about a quarter of the population - when it comes to sorting out religion and race, among other things. Whether there will be room for diversity of views on minority policing, the causes of racism, whether the Black Lives Matter movement is more or less effective -- or Christian - than the 1960s civil rights era, whether hip-hop is "a cancer or a cure," as the title of Lecrae's last TED Talk put it.

"He's an important voice. He has an immediate influence on churches when he speaks," said Russell Moore, head of public policy for the Southern Baptist Convention and a popular writer on race and religion. He said Lecrae's rise is happening at a time in American evangelicalism when "the main thing being sorted out here is identity. Who are 'we,' when we use the word?"

Younger evangelicals are starting to place racial and ethnic justice up there as a "sacred thing," said Mark Galli, editor of the flagship evangelical magazine Christianity Today - a cause that defines whether you are an evangelical Christian. That separates them from their parents and grandparents and is the topic most dividing evangelicals as they consider whether they can legitimately support Trump, Galli told The Washington Post.

General Social Survey data show younger evangelicals are much more likely to say "lack of willpower" is not a reason for African Americans' lower employment, income and housing status than U.S. whites.

But as Lecrae gets bigger, and more vocal, the easy-going singer gets more controversial. His decision to start speaking out about police brutality garnered a huge backlash on social media last summer - mostly, he suspects, from white evangelicals.

Many commenters said he was wading into politics and should focus on the gospel, he recalls. That prompted Lecrae to issue a video post to his "white brothers and sisters."

"When I have posted about abortion, Christian persecution and Planned Parenthood, I get thanks and encouragement," the rapper said in a video posted to his Facebook page that has been watched nearly three-quarters of a million times. "But yet, when I've spoken out recently about what I see to be authoritative or racial injustice, there is this sentiment of what feels like hostility. . . . I don't want to read into people's comments, but it feels like hostility or defensiveness. . . . And so I'm interested in understanding what the sentiment here is?"

A key turning point for Lecrae was Ferguson. It was perhaps the most forcefully he'd ever spoken out on the impact of systemic disenfranchisement of black Americans. Then he spoke out about how he felt he was being shoved into a corner by the white evangelical community that has nurtured him.

"In order to cry out for my black brothers, I had to hate the police. It was like: 'Just stick to the gospel!' I was like, 'Wow, this is bigger than I thought,' " he says.

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These days, Lecrae is all about the gray. As he tours the hyper-polarized media landscape, every interviewer tries to pull him in. Abortion, gay marriage, Trump, whether Christians are discriminated against in Hollywood - under the bright lights, the 2016 Lecrae hedges. Or tries to make peace; how you see him depends on your perspective.

"I want people to wrestle with the gray. There is some black and white, but there is more gray. They killed Jesus because he was too gray," he says.

In recent months, some in the Christian media say he's selling out, that he isn't "Christian enough." People dissect his comments, noting that he now refers to himself as "a rapper who happens to be Christian" rather than the other way around. News in mid-May that Columbia -- Sony Music's biggest label - had signed Lecrae triggered social media panic about how he'd keep his faith at the same label as Beyoncé and Snoop Dog.

He's also talking more about racism among his fellow evangelicals in ways that challenge everyone across the spectrum.

Lecrae arrives at the On the Metaxas show, Lecrae described what he tells young African Americans when he speaks to them.

"I say: You need forgiveness and justice, not just vengeance."

Back in the SUV, the singer said he understands why black Americans don't trust church leaders - white or black. "The church has been absent as far as race and justice for three decades. We're like: 'We haven't seen you since MLK!' "

This isn't nearly enough for some African American public figures, who see Lecrae as using his massive stature too meekly.

"I don't know if this is too harsh a term, but Malcom X talked about 'mascot-ism' - when a group lets someone come in, but it's not a serious role; they are kind of a mascot," said Christena Cleveland, an African American professor of reconciliation at Duke University who has taught at several white evangelical schools. "The same students who play Lecrae in their dorms are the same ones protesting Black Lives Matter. Somehow in their minds they're able to separate it."

Some white professors also want Lecrae to push it more.

Johnson, who is white, uses Lecrae in her classes and has taken her two teenage sons to his shows. In particular she loves his song "Welcome to America," a strong critique about the treatment in particular of immigrants. The week he performed at Biola, a swastika was found on campus, triggering public discussion that Johnson saw as far too accepting of the symbol and a conclusion that it was just "joking around," she said. She wishes Lecrae would lead the charge among the evangelical elite - who are mostly white - to change such dynamics.

"I look at him and he's in a position where he could definitely for many students be that leader. And the sad thing is, I don't know if he recognizes that and he's not stepping into that role," she said. "It would be nice if it could go to the next level."

What would such a Lecrae revolution look like? When he ticks off his battle plan for healing America, it is this: "unity, forgiveness, equity and justice." Not resistance or rebellion, he says as his SUV speeds towards Midtown.

"I don't see this as a black-white issue. In India, the Filipinos are being treated like they are less than human. I'm not focused on race, exactly," he says. "If blacks in America are treated equally, I'll move on to the next group."

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Author Information:

Michelle Boorstein is the Post's religion reporter, where she reports on the busy marketplace of American religion.

(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Michelle Boorstein · FEATURES, RELIGION · Jun 14, 2016 - 11:42 AM



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