When Lecrae’s latest single was released, our country was adjusting to the new realities brought about by the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. The single, titled “Set Me Free” featuring YK Osiris was accompanied by a powerful video that is appropriate for this moment. Directed by Bobby Hanaford, the video projects a simplistic narrative of hope and justice—and parallels some of the recent unveilings of unjust practices by some leaders who are more concerned about protecting their assets than their neighbors.
The opening sequence of the music video shows a gathering of wealthy individuals dressed in fancy clothing, enjoying a table filled with delicacies and fine wines. A dreadlocked prisoner is thrown before them in chains reciting this prayer: “It’s simple, who love me and who don’t, Lord let it reveal/Should I go back to save ’em or let ’em die in the field?” As he continues his prayer, a revolver is placed to his head and off-screen the audience hears the shot go off, serving as the stunning introduction.Lecrae’s “Set Me Free” is an artistic extension and expression of what he sees as an opportunity to not only set himself free but to also liberate others from the vices of self-serving attitudes that consume our culture.
The video continues with the hit song “Shackles (Praise You)” by Gospel genre artist-duo Mary Mary overlaying the track and presenting Lecrae imprisoned, gripping the prison bars, head bowed and eyes closed. From there, the video’s message is clear. There are people imprisoned—physically, spiritually, emotionally—who are suffering unjustly in this world while those with the earthly power to stop it instead look on with apathy and inaction.
The visuals throughout the “Set Me Free” video are an indictment on leaders who fail to lead in a capacity that exhibits service and selflessness. We are seeing plenty of that in 2020 related to the pandemic. One of the most atrocious cases was reported by NPR about Senator Richard Burr, who knew about the grim outlook of the coronavirus but deliberately downplayed it instead of warning the public. In recordings unearthed by NPR, you can hear Senator Burr warning his wealthy constituents and campaign contributors of the impending disaster. “There’s one thing that I can tell you about this: It is much more aggressive in its transmission than anything that we have seen in recent history,” he said. “It is probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic.” All of this information was shared in private on February 27, 2020, but was blithely communicated to the public. Additionally, ProPublica reported that Senator Burr sold personal stocks worth between $628,000 and $1.72 million on a single day in mid-February before the stock market became increasingly volatile.
Drawing attention to Senator Burr’s specific instance as it relates to Lecrae’s music video is to draw upon a universal problem. Burr is not the only leader to appear to act unjustly. Other congress representatives, college university leaders, and hospitals also appear to be making decisions based on selfish self-preservation rather than for the welfare of their fellow citizens and constituents. Additionally, average citizens have hoarded essential goods like toilet paper, paper towels, and hand sanitizer in an immoral attempt to capitalize on their neighbors misfortunes.
Natural disasters in America have proven detrimental for the most vulnerable of society. From Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to Hurricane Sandy in 2012, significant research has shown that people with a lower socioeconomic status have the most to lose in times like these. So when the CDC recommended social distancing and vigorous hand-washing, Lecrae teamed up with the nonprofit Love Beyond Walls to install portable hand washing stations around the city of Atlanta for the homeless. He told news reporters that he just wanted to be “close to the disenfranchised and the marginalized communities.” Lecrae’s “Set Me Free” music video is but an artistic extension and expression of what he sees as an opportunity to not only set himself free but to also liberate others from the vices of self-serving attitudes that consume our culture.
Beneath the visible injustices observed amid the COVID-19 outbreak, though, is another layer fueling the selfishness. Christians know this generally as sin. More specifically, it is part of a list of six things that God hates—seven that are detestable to Him: arrogance, hands that shed innocent blood, and a heart that devises wicked plans (Proverbs 6:16–19).
But if we’re honest, we’re all guilty of arrogance, planning something wicked in the eyes of God, lying or responding with apathy at the shedding of innocent blood. In this way, we are all victims of a disease—or virus, if you will—more deadly than the novel coronavirus. If we are guilty of participating in actions that are detestable to God, we are certainly deserving of His wrath—even more so than the hand-sanitizer-hoarding individuals of the world. For that reason, Lecrae’s music video also works to visually give us all hope.
Reading Isaiah 61, Jesus fulfilled the prophecy to proclaim Good News to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free (Luke 4:18–19). In that same vein, Lecrae shows that as disciples, we are called to do the same. Toward the end of the video, Lecrae is brought before the table of wealthy patrons to also be executed. He prays similarly to the prisoner at the beginning of the video. Between these two scenes, however, as Lecrae awaits his fate, he raps from the prison cage, “You can pick a side if you wanna/You already know who I roll with/You don’t want no problems with me/Get these shackles off of my feet,” as the prisoners in the room next to him hear and are encouraged by his confidence in the Lord.
As a result, when Lecrae is dragged before the table, rapping his confession (“Shackles on my feet you broke the hold and now I’m free, yea/Even in the darkest times you kept your light on me, yea), the prisoners free themselves and overtake the wealthy. Lecrae and YK Osiris then sit at the table, enjoying the delicacies in a chaotic turn of events, bringing to mind David’s praise to God, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies” (Psalm 23:5).
If there’s any critique of the music video’s content, it’s the disturbing chaos of the prisoners overtaking the status quo. It is a scary reality. The undoing of any system feels uncomfortable and unsettling. But even in this way, the scene represents how we all feel about COVID-19: The novel coronavirus has upended all of our plans that we had weeks ago. It’s chaotic and unexpected and everything has turned upside down.
But even the discomfort brought about by this virus can be a blessing rather than a disruption if we allow it to be. I’ve heard of family members reuniting after years of quibbles and disagreements. I’ve seen more people outside on our walking trail enjoying God’s creation than ever before. I’ve experienced more pleasant interactions with my neighbors and intentional relationship building with friends I don’t usually make the time for. I’ve learned more about how my wife is wired than only what I am able to see after work hours. All of these realities would likely not be noticed had COVID-19 not interrupted our normalcy of regular self-indulgence.
The status quo has been disrupted by COVID-19, and we all must adjust so that we can find stability for society again. When so many people are sick and dying, we cannot keep things the way they are. We cannot allow those in power to benefit at the expense of others. The pandemic is exposing the hegemony that has oppressed the weak for centuries, and I pray this will produce another reckoning so that we all, together, find greater health and stability our society needs to flourish.
As most people are shackled and confined by the effects of the coronavirus and the accompanying injustices that follow, Lecrae’s “Set Me Free” music video is a timely reminder that we are freer than we could ever imagine. Even in the realm of unjust acts by self-serving individuals, we are not ultimately bound by what they or the coronavirus can do to us. For that reason, we go forth serving our communities and liberating the oppressed with the truth and resources God has given us.
We all look forward to the undoing of injustice and wrongs being made right. When the captives of lies, deceit, depression, anxiety, selfishness, and arrogance are made free in this life, the coming freedom realized in our next life blossoms into an effervescent reality of service and joy today.