Excellent, 2017

I’m surprised I haven’t seen as many new year resolution blog posts this year. Are we just tired of declaring things for ourselves that we can’t stick to? Anyway, that’s besides the point. What’s interesting though, is that more than defined goals, at least 3 people I follow have more of central themes than anything else, for example, a word or a virtue, like “peace” or “joy”. I realized I kind of do the same thing – but I use songs. In 2015, my theme song was Lecrae’s Anomaly. In 2016, I didn’t explicitly choose a theme song, but I guess it unfortunately ended up being Sia’s Unstoppable. I wrote a blog post on it, which I am not eager to re-read, because those were depressing times.

This year’s song just happens to be the appropriately titled Excellent, 2017 by Sho Baraka, off his latest album, The Narrative. Every song has a year attached to its title, and this one is perfect for this purpose. [Side-note: Please listen to The Narrative. It’s great stuff. My favorite changes, but for now, it’s Love, 1959.]

“Hat on top ’cause we think excellent

Frames on straight ’cause I see excellent

Dressed for success ’cause I be excellent

Everything we do, everything we do”

I chose “Excellent, 2017” to remind myself not to settle for less than what I am capable of – because I feel like I have been doing that for a while. And also to remind myself that I need to make excellent things and be excellent because I was made excellent by a God who is excellent.

thenarrativeIn 2016, when Tronomie became my best friend, I invented the word “swagblocking” just for him. At first it seemed like he was just cockblocking himself, but then I realized it extended beyond that context even. He refuses, to this day, to acknowledge nearly anything about himself which is cool. (And that’s everything about him, by the way, because he’s an amazing human being.) So he was swagblocking himself. Speaking down on his own genius, for no apparent reason. And it was ridiculously annoying until I realized I do it too. Now I’m not okay with that.

What really sparked my discomfort is the realization that my influence is growing. An increasing number of people now have their eyes on me, either because I interest them, they resonate with me, or they generally admire what I am doing. Now, the more my influence grows, the more unhealthy my giving in during my battles with my inferiority complex gets. There are several reasons why. For one thing, I cannot imagine the nasty spiral my psyche would take if I kept this up, believing that every single compliment I receive is a lie. The compliments keep getting longer and more heartfelt and there’s going to be a destructive, consuming war within me if the self-deprecation simultaneously augments.

Another thing is that I’m a freaking lexivist – an activist/advocate for word-related things, and I want to actually help people to go forward with their word-related endeavors. AS I said, there are far more people looking up to me than there used to be, and I’m going to be no help to them if I consistently refuse to acknowledge my own abilities and achievements. Then I become a dormant resource, which completely defeats the “activism” part of “lexivism”. So the swagblocking gotta go.

But the most important reason why it gotta go is that it stops me from being excellent. Swag-blocking is being defeated before one has even started. When you begin by believing you are “not that good anyway”, chances are, you will not be able to push yourself into creating art that is anything better than “not that good anyway”. It’s entirely unhelpful when you are, like me, aiming for excellence.

“Art on high ’cause we make excellent”

I am on a mission to become the person I want to be – the person I believe I was meant to be. I’ve found that I waste too much time. It takes far too long for me to bring my ideas to fruition, not because I’m meditating on it, but probably because I spend hours a day scrolling through timelines. And it’s made me realize I’m letting a lot of opportunities pass me by. This must stop.

I’ve decided that I’m going to take my writing way more seriously. Like my life depends on it. Which it does. Well, the career part of my life, anyway. I need to be writing like I actually plan to get published. Because as much as I love words, I must admit that I half-ass things a lot.

Additionally, I’ve discovered that I’ve been passively running away from things I’m too scared to try. Like making new friends. Asking people for favors. Buying books that I want. Saying things that I mean. Being a rapper. Starting a YouTube channel. Learning videography. In IWITP, I said “I just wish I could have been bolder.” In 2017, I am saying, “Well then, be bold now.” A huge part of all this is learning how to not be scared to fail. It’s entirely possible that I could fail at any, none or all of the things I bother to try. The important thing is not, as they say, to at least have tried; for me, the important thing is, if I fail, to have failed excellently. Even trying can be half-assed, you see. But I can only fail excellently if I tried excellently.

“If you’re reaching for the top, you better learn to survive

You can either fall or fly when you’re reaching for the sky

Fly excellent

Or fall excellent

But never quit

Never quit”

-Akotowaa

Reflections on Lecrae’s Unashamed Book

Rapper Lecrae Moore’s autobiographical book, Unashamed, is one of the most important books I have read and will read all year. I made so many notes when I was reading, which is usually a sign that I’m reading something fabulous.

hardcover

The title of the book, of course, comes from the Romans 1:16 verse that begins with “For I am Unashamed of the Gospel…” and is the central and underlying theme of basically everything the label Reach Records (which Lecrae owns) does.

The packaging and presentation of the publication has a deliberateness about it which I think is adequately though implicitly explained at the very least by the book’s first two chapters. So, for example, I sincerely hope – and I think this was the intention – that a retailer of this book wouldn’t just dump it in the “Christian literature” section of the bookstore, if it could go in the biography/non-fiction section. As many people as possible, regardless of which faith they ascribe to, should read this book. And I know how limited the audience would be if there were explicit indications on the packaging that it should be placed among Christian lit. It’s not Christian lit. It is, as it says in the paper jacket of the book, “the story of one man’s journey to faith and freedom”.

Lecrae doesn’t call himself a Christian rapper or a person who makes “Christian music”. He goes as far as to deny that there is any such thing as Christian music, but I’ll get to that later. Lecrae is a rapper. He is a Christian. I personally know people who are upset that Crae disclaims the “Christian rapper” label. In their minds, what reason could a Christian rapper possibly have for reflecting the label other than shame in being referred to as one? But then you look at the title of the book and his career motto and then you realize your hypothesis doesn’t make sense. (Or at least I hope that’s what happens to you. Don’t go around thinking wack things!)

One of the reasons reading this was so refreshing to me was the raw honesty with which it is written. It’s not glamorized in the way that commercial biographies are. It’s not a self-help motivational book either. But it also isn’t a fairytale rags-to-riches. The good, bad and absolute ugly is all in there. He writes about his issues in the uninhibited way that I’m only used to reading from myself.

The reason why I say this is no fairytale formula, even though in general, it is a journey from captivity to freedom: I realized there were so many places that the book could have ended at – if it were a Disney fairytale, for instance. You see drudgery. Sex problems, school problems, alcohol and drugs problems, and many more problems prevail. Then Lecrae finds Jesus. The book could have ended on page 87:

“It was like the God of the universe had looked down on that dark rooftop in Atlanta and spoke to his son, Lecrae, saying, “You have the answer to all of your questions…The answer is Jesus.””

The realistic part is that it doesn’t end. Consistently, you see periods where it looks like everything is going to be rosy for the rest of his life. But either a flaw is realized, or life goes all the way downhill again, relapses and all. This is so important to me because one of the most common misconceptions people have is that accepting Jesus Christ is automatically meant to solve all your problems instantaneously. Which is absolutely false. The salvation is instantaneous but the sanctification is a process that is lifelong. When I think of this, I always think of Jackie Hill Perry’s lyrics in I Just Wanna Get There:

“God you’re making me better

You’re making me better

And you choose to do it however, whenever, wherever”

We’re not already perfect. We’re being made better.

Nearly throughout the book, there is a very clear depiction of the evolution of Lecrae’s music based on his experiences and mindset and stage in his spirituality. As for the evolution of his music, I have something personal to say about it.

The first time I met one of my most amazing friends, @EDWVN, we had like a 4-hour long conversation about music. When we were talking about “Christian music” – classically the Reach Records, Humble Beast Records, HGA etc. people, EDWVN had a lot to say about the “boldness” of the content of the music they made. The particular word he used was “safe”. I realized later that, I agree: that for a long time, the content seemed to be stuff that would gain easy acceptance and minimal criticism among the conventional Christian world; that not a lot of it was new, or daring, or relevant, outside of certain spaces, and that only recently had some of them ventured to make risky, challenging music that contained hard truths and values. And here it is, in Unashamed, confirmed by a music maker himself. Which brings us to a very important topical discussion: the reaction of Christians to the content.

“I was still unashamed of my faith – that hadn’t changed – but now I was being bold with my art. Why were people attacking me?” (p. 174)

Well, because they don’t want to hear anything that makes them uncomfortable. (Shout-out to Andy Mineo, who has a whole album dedicated to shaking our comfort zones.) Most of the time, we just want to hear what we already know, what won’t make us think too much or call for radical self-evaluation.

Some pastors are corrupt. Why should Christians get mad if other Christians acknowledge that? Some members of the church are gay. Why do you get mad at someone who’s telling the story of a closeted church choir member? It’s stating facts. To go as far as writing explicit hate comments online, calling someone hurtful names and trying to get them banned from performing, is honestly not what I would call Christian behavior from so-called Christians. It’s this conservative fear that’s been holding us back since the beginning of time – so I’m so glad that rappers like Lecrae are helping us break out of it.

At the same time, an important theme I found within the book is how to influence the culture with grace, rather than being obnoxious. It is acknowledged multiple times how much of an ass Lecrae was, with his obnoxious “evangelism” in his early stages, more often than not, serving to push people away from the faith rather than draw them closer.

But…3 things.

  1. Grace isn’t a compromise on truth.

At some point, he talks about how he doesn’t perform a certain line in a song where he took a shot at some church. And it’s not because what he said about the church wasn’t true; it was because it was ungraceful. And honestly, truth spoken without grace probably won’t have any positive effects. Repulsive effects are far more likely. It’s probably one of the major causes of church hurt. So, I like what he said on page 136:

“I almost never perform that song anymore, and if I do, I don’t sing that line. Not because I don’t still believe the truth of what I said – I do – but because I’ve learned to temper the truth with grace.”

I really hope this speaks to anyone with a tendency to just go off on others in the name of God.

  1. Preaching at people isn’t the only way to spread good news through art.

“Have you checked my lyrics?

What I sing about?

Do you know my message?

Have you heard me out?”

-Adomaa, Born Again

There’s something strange about what we call secular music. It makes me upset that we have typecasted all music with a Christian message to have a particular sound. If it’s not Don Moen or Hillsong, we can’t deal, right? And even when we get past that and acknowledge that some rap lyrics may belong in the church, we don’t want to acknowledge that rap can be edifying even if every other lines does not mention the name Jesus or quote a praise Psalm. =(

“I felt like if I wasn’t teaching, preaching, reciting Scripture, and evangelizing through my music, I wasn’t doing it right. Being theologically educated is a great thing. And using music to explicitly express theology is needed. But I mistakenly believed it was the only way to make music.” (p. 139)

But what happened when he let go and wrote personal music? Suddenly, people could personally identify – duh. Music that speaks to people’s own hearts and struggles can actually do way more for them than preaching to the choir sometimes. There are too many things we feel obliged to hide when we are members of the church. But pretending that problems don’t exist doesn’t make them go away. Lecrae’s honesty about drug abuse, sexual abuse, difficulty with prayer etc. spoke to people going through similar issues in ways preachy lyrics never could.

  1. A division between content is not a division between genre.

By which I mean, hip-hop is hip-hop. It doesn’t suddenly become an entirely different genre because it lacks swearwords or whatever.

Page 193 has my favorite paragraph in the whole book:

“This has changed the way I do music. There is no such thing as Christian rap and secular rap. Only people can become Christians. Music can’t accept Jesus into its heart. So I am not trying to make Christian music or secular music. I’m just making music. Hip-hop, like all music, is a good thing. I could use it for evil by filling it with violence and misogyny and profanity. Or I can use it to glorify God. Every song I write doesn’t have to have the Gospel spelled out or quote Scripture so that people will know I love Jesus. My goal is just to use my gifts to produce great art that tells the truth about the world. If I see the world through a biblical lens, the music will naturally paint a picture that serves people and honors God.”

Wasn’t that beautiful?

The last thing I have to comment on is that there is no point in Lecrae’s life where, as far as I can tell, there was a stark resolution to atheism. Yes, there was a falling in and out of faith cycle, doubt, but never truly an atheistic belief period. It is the reason for this that struck me – particularly because I could identify with it and have even written about it myself before:

“But I was such a mess at this point that the thought of being responsible for my own life was mortifying.” (p. 56)

Exactly. No way could I possibly be expected to rely on my messed-up self to be my own savior, no matter what 21st-century rhetoric you throw at me. This is consistently what keeps me grounded.

I think everyone should read this book, because it’s extremely relevant. If it doesn’t speak to at least one misconception in your life or mind, I will be genuinely surprised.

-Akotowaa