Thursday, October 04, 2007

Dear Slim

by Nathan Brown

For a regular writing gig I have with the Salvation Army’s youth magazine in Australia—Venue—I recently had the opportunity to interview Christian hip-hop artist KJ-52. And I was prompted to revist two of the most intelligent and inspiring examples of contemporary Christian music I have come across. And an article that I wrote a little while back—as follows . . .

The tracks come from an unlikely-looking white-boy hip-hopper called KJ-52. While you might be tempted to agree with P. J. O’Rourke’s less-than-complimentary description of this musical genre—“a form of music created by one performer shouting obscenities in a singsong voice while other performers torture a cat and throw garbage cans down a flight of stairs”—let’s give KJ a chance.

The two songs—“Dear Slim” (from the album Collaborations) and “Dear Slim pt 2” (on It’s Pronounced Five-Two)—are addressed to controversial and hugely successful shock-rapper Eminem.

“Dear Slim pt 2” tells of the attention received by the film clip to the first track when it was played on MTV in the United States. Both tunes provide an example of a credible Christian engagement with popular culture. KJ employs the style of the culture itself to communicate with that culture and translates the gospel into a language just as significant as that of some obscure jungle community.

When it comes down to it, decrying popular culture as sub-standard is a cheap shot: it’s not hard to do and achieves little—even P J O’Rourke without much in the way of Christian or moral pretensions can do it. And so often, albeit well-intentioned, Christian cultural critique simply misses the point.

Commenting upon Eminem’s 8 Mile movie from a couple of years back, a newspaper reviewer questioned one prominent Christian response. By way of movie critique, the particular Christian review had tallied up the number of uses of various swear words through the movie, presumably concluding that this automatically implied an “unsuitable viewing” label. The newspaper reviewer justifiably questioned the significance of this word count in comparison with the unmentioned culture of poverty, violence, and desperation portrayed in the movie, reflecting the real-life background from which Eminem and his movie alter-ego emerged.

We need to find a better way to engage with the art and entertainment of our culture and KJ demonstrates how it can be done. As a fellow white performer trying to find credibility in a largely-black musical genre, KJ expresses his identification with Eminem’s struggles, disadvantage and heartbreak. In “Dear Slim,” he reflects upon his initial resentment at comparisons with the more-famous Eminem but comes to recognise the compliment and opportunity this gives him within that culture.

Though not expressing it in such terms, KJ is echoing Paul’s mission statement: “I try to find common ground with everyone so that I might bring them to Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:22). Through hip-hop, KJ is meeting the culture on its terms—and subverting it to the cause of the gospel.

And KJ does it well. His songs are not awkward, half-hearted ditties—the “fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music” of much of C S Lewis’ church experience. As Lewis noted with a touch of irony in his essay Good Work or Good Works, “good works need not be good work, as anyone can see by inspecting some of the objects made to be sold at bazaars for charitable purposes.” To be credible to our culture, we need to ensure we appreciate and respect the artistic forms we use to communicate.

If we are simply feigning an interest as an evangelistic hook, we are not respecting the integrity of the art and the people who find expression and meaning through that form. God expressed great satisfaction at the excellence of His creation (see Genesis 1:31); we need to take similar care with our creative communication.

When an artist such a KJ-52 can address Eminem, his music, his fans and the wider culture, reminding them all—in a culturally-relevant artistic form—that “I only want to share with you Jesus’ love for me,” “not a day goes by that I don’t pray for you,” and “a life without Christ is still a life that is never fixed” (from “Dear Slim pt 2”), we have to rejoice. Regardless of our musical appreciation, “the fact remains that the message about Christ is being preached, so I rejoice. And I will continue to rejoice” (Philippians 1:18).

1 comment:

  1. Nathan, I have been a fan of yours, via the Review, for as long as you have been contributing Your honesty and the skillful way you make you editorialize is impressive. Thanks for sticking your neck out here. What followis is the address of my new blog. I believe you might find it entertaining, and, I hope, informative.