Navigating evangelical spaces, my eyes often spy Christians around my age. With the benefits of years under our belts, we now pastor churches, teach at Christian colleges, write books, and publicly interpret the Bible.
Many of us came of age in the church, stepping awkwardly into our sense of self while wading through Christian culture. The music which reverberated off the walls of the church, and the music church people championed, communicated what the church at large prioritized.
Those lines conflate profitable ideas with the unhelpful construct of colorblindness, which compresses the distinctions exalted moments earlier.With a few noteworthy exceptions, the Christian music of the 1990s and early 2000s left mentions of race and racism out of the recording booth. Today I realize high fidelity doesn’t always take the form of a few prayers for change, then quiet persistence. The pervasive evil of racism demands volume and reckoning. White Christians often miss out on the fullness of God’s image by living and worshiping with little concern for the concerns of brothers and sisters of color. This disconnect results from practices and postures that prioritize our comfort, closing us off to both the beauty and pain of fellow saints Christ died to save.
As white Christians like me wake up and walk out repentance for our complicity, and the acts of callous disregard which scar our spiritual family of color, the silence about race in those songs is impossible to ignore.
For better or worse, the Christian music of my youth molded my ideas about sexuality and apostasy, martyrdom and marriage. It lent me language to express my faith and connect belief to motion in the wider world. Artists laid out issues across guitars and beds of synthesizers, giving them space to sing, assigning them weight and gospel implication. For the sake of my adult faith, I had to unlearn some lessons from Christian music; others stuck, resounding still in my head and heart to a G-C-D chord progression.
Race’s conspicuous exclusion from mainstream Christian music communicated something implicit and insidious. What we amplify sets our agenda—so does what is absent.
Rummaging through more than two decades of musical memories, I reexamined the precious few times race struck a chord in Christian music. Surely I shoulder much of the blame for my ignorance. I didn’t come alive to the music of Christians of color until years later. Privilege insulated me from diverse expression and allowed me to see my culture as “mainstream.” That privilege meant never having to hear someone else out.
Still, the relative radio silence from the church’s pop stars raises red flags and unanswered questions. My search ultimately revealed a complicated series of good intentions and unhelpful statements, a jangling dissonance where notes of affirmation and confusion meet.
Consider the curious case of DC Talk. The band’s racial makeup testified to God’s design for unity as loudly as any of its songs. (Toby McKeehan, Kevin Max, and Michael Tait referred to themselves as “2 Honks & a Negro” on a good-natured 1992 track.) DC Talk set a new standard, breaking from racial and sonic uniformity. The trio began as a rap group, remade itself as a rock band, and finished its run as something like a pop machine.
“Walls” (from 1990’s Nu Thang) begins with a booming Martin Luther King Jr. sample. Musically, the song takes a page from the Beastie Boys songbook; lyrically, it takes the fight to the “walls of segregation.” Judgment for racism, the band affirms, begins at the door of the church—they call out separation between believers, exhorting Christians to discover a more excellent way. Mostly majoring in generalities, “Walls” still displays gospel fluency and pronounces our common parentage in compelling ways. “If you’re in God’s army, that makes you my kin,” McKeehan raps. “Yo, our common bond is the Father of men.”
McKeehan’s rhymes produce one cringe-worthy moment: “Yo, we’re the sheep, and the Shepherd’s the Lord / So whether black sheep, white sheep, or even swirl / God watches over all the sheep of the world.” Set against DC Talk’s early catalog, the band gets the benefit of the doubt. Chalk up the awkward phrasing to unresolved corniness, not racial illiteracy.
Fast forward five years to the smash record Jesus Freak. One click ahead of the career-defining title track comes “Colored People,” a slice of mid-tempo alt-rock that outlives its time on the strength of chamber strings and powerhouse vocals from Tait and Max.
Attempting to redeem and reclaim an outmoded phrase, the song acknowledges the goodness of God’s creative design, invoking terms uncommon to Christian rock, words like “epidermis” and “melanin,” as it praises the “beauty in the tones of our skin.” Calling anyone within earshot “colored people,” DC Talk presents a unified front and subtly undermines the idea that white culture is normative culture.
The song rightly calls listeners past ignorance to repentance and, in a surprising turn of the phrase “vengeance is the Lord’s,” hints at a day when decisive divine judgement will fall upon those who stay stuck in their short-sighted ways.
“Colored People” cuts deeper and goes further than any song of its era, but stops short of cultural inerrancy. “Well, just a day in the shoes of a color blind man should make it easy for you to see,” McKeehan raps on the bridge, “that these diverse tones do more than cover our bones as a part of our anatomy.” Those lines conflate profitable ideas with the unhelpful construct of colorblindness, which compresses the distinctions exalted moments earlier.
Kevin Max vamps over the cut’s closing bars and, in something of a throwaway line, sings “red, yellow, black, and white.” A callback to “Jesus Loves the Little Children,” a singsong staple of many Christian childhoods, the lyric attempts to close a circle and affirm God’s love for every kind of person. Yet Max wraps his voice around terms that wound Native Americans and people of Asian descent.
Michael W. Smith stakes his claim as the other CCM icon to tackle the topic of race. In 1992, he offered the song “Colorblind.” A shuffling groove reaches for the relevance of hip-hop, but settles for a mild pop feel—though it boasts a Tommy Sims bassline that should be enshrined in somebody’s hall of fame.
With the opening line, Smith embarks along a road paved with good intentions: “There’s not a world of difference out in the world tonight.” Then he commits a familiar mistake, closing the couplet with “between this world of people, red, yellow, black, and white.” Already the song erases the lovely, God-honoring differences between people.
By the second verse, Smith clumsily condemns socially respectable forms of racism: “Somebody’s just assuming he’s up to nothing good / ’Cause he’s not like the others, there goes the neighborhood.” But the song ultimately lives and dies with its core message, underlined over and again in its chorus: “We could see better / If we could be color blind.”
Again, this notion has the ring of truth but breaks down when we reckon with its application inside and outside the church. Movement in this direction often leaves us with nothing more than whiteness, the supposed norm taking over in the absence of dynamics we sacrifice on the altar of colorblindness.
During my teen years, I studied the pages of CCM Magazine and like-minded publications more diligently than Scripture. I practically memorized the cassettes, CDs, and music-video samplers in my youth pastor’s lending library. Yet when I tally the times I heard a household name touch on racism, these songs are all I can excavate.
One track, however, existed in my periphery, like the legend of a bygone ballplayer relayed in reverential whispers. Insiders and just-outsiders invoked it as the last gasp of an untamed, upstart brand of Christian music that could say or do whatever it pleased before something shinier and more suitable seized the day.
Steve Taylor’s “We Don’t Need No Colour Code” crashed into the church in early 1984; I was 3 years old then and wouldn’t hear the tune until adulthood. The song stuck it to one particular man: Bob Jones, whose prominent Christian university earned an inauspicious reputation for rigidly conservative, sometimes downright retrograde, social policies. Taylor confronted the school’s fiat against interracial dating, a rule it defended all the way to the Supreme Court and clung to until 2000.
Over a warped Bo Diddley groove, Taylor—whose persona registers somewhere between David Bowie and Frank Zappa on the strange-o-meter—sounded alarms against white supremacy and fascism, deploying cockeyed humor as he compared the situation at Bob Jones University to apartheid-plagued South Africa.
As all of us work together to form at last the multicolored, multifaceted church Paul describes in Ephesians, God demands we sing a better song.Taylor found few musical children so bold. Christian ska royalty Five Iron Frenzy never quite entered the mainstream, their sound too heavy, their lyrics too sarcastic. But many a youth group got down to their jubilant, horn-saturated sound. If they listened closely, they would have noticed a series of songs, stretched across multiple albums, that skewered white America for its treatment of indigenous people.
Unafraid to traffic in specifics, or sit with the reality of America’s early racism, the band amplified statements such as “West or bust, in God we trust, ‘Let’s rape, let’s kill, let’s steal.’ We can almost justify anything we feel” (from 1996’s “The Old West”). Frontman Reese Roper let harsh words stain his lips, so that listeners might be forced to face the brutality behind them.
In their vital book Divided by Faith, sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith perform needed heart surgery on the American church, exploring and exposing the causes of both willful and negligent segregation.
White Christians often fail their brothers and sisters of color with a single-minded concentration on individual dimensions of sin and salvation. Whereas black and brown Christians call on the blood of Christ to cover broken cisterns and broken systems, their white counterparts tend to assume that once enough people are saved, the chains of racism will disintegrate. “Despite having the subcultural tools to call for radical changes in race relations, they most consistently call for changes in persons that leave the dominant social structures, institutions, and culture intact,” Emerson and Smith write.
For all their good intentions, songs like “Colorblind” only give quarter to these counterproductive tendencies. “Colored People” recognizes the role of communities, but stops short of holding the collective accountable.
Bearing bad news, then pointing to the good news which overcomes it, is risky business—even for rock and roll. Troublemakers like Taylor and Five Iron Frenzy buck up against the natural desire to use music, especially music penned in Jesus’s name, to feel better about ourselves and the world around us. But they acutely understand that mourning and rejoicing are community projects, and we will never realize our spiritual destiny until we reach it together.
Today’s Christian music steps forward, though tentatively. DC Talk put hands and feet to its songs, creating the E.R.A.C.E. Foundation to further dialogue and education. In 2017, McKeehan joined Mandisa and Kirk Franklin on the track “Bleed the Same,” which serves up similarly tame calls to unity yet makes thinly veiled references to police shootings of innocent black men.
In my youth, few black and brown artists reached the radar of white listeners. Those who did, like Nicole C. Mullen or Jaci Velasquez, stars orbiting a mostly white industry, rarely tapped the topic of race. Or, particularly in Mullen’s case, they used many of the same terms and tropes as white peers.
Now artists of color own a more equitable share of the spotlight as hip-hop asserts itself as the sphere around which all youth music orbits. Theologically informed, culturally aware artists such as Lecrae, Sho Baraka, and Jackie Hill Perry turn hearts and heads toward white fragility, systemic injustice, and ignorance while upholding the gospel as the only force great enough to overcome them. Their presence doesn’t relieve the responsibilities of white listeners or white artists. Creating and listening beyond what’s comfortable must take place to move beyond a world in which black artists bear the burden of illumination.
White, thirtysomething Christians like me can’t assign Christian music full blame for our failures. If we let pop singers and rock bands seal our theology, that’s on us. If we neglected important conversations on race, we have only ourselves to blame—and perhaps those entrusted with our spiritual custody. Youth pastors and Sunday School teachers clearly feared the culture creep of secular music but rarely questioned whether its Christian counterpart stretched out to cover both the horizontal and vertical implications of the gospel.
Yet God stitched a uniquely formative power into the creation of music. Music seals our earliest experiences of love; creates a magnetic field around cherished memories; and accents the truths of Christ and his cosmos, anchoring them to our souls in ways words alone cannot. As all of us work together to form at last the multicolored, multifaceted church Paul describes in Ephesians, God demands we sing a better song. He calls us to remember that what is left unsaid and unsung will also be left undone.
Together, we can lay aside mixed musical messages and tune our ears to something richer: a God who gets specific about sin and its remedies calls us to do the same, to name what is done in the dark and, singing, bring it into his marvelous light.