Celebrate Chance The Rapper — But Don’t Ignore His Christian Privilege

flickr/Pemberton Music Festival/Rob Loud
Within rap, there are no Black Muslim artists who have been able to reach success by praising Islam in the same way Chance praises Christianity.

Since the release of his third album Coloring Book last year, Chance the Rapper has become one of rap’s biggest names. In the last couple weeks alone, he landed his first No. 1 single; got a shout-out in a new Spider-Man comic; and expanded his Rapper Radio service, a platform to make radio accessible for artists who wouldn’t otherwise be aired.

Chance has been celebrated not only for his prodigious talent, but for his resonant backstory: the obscure Black kid who put together his original mixtape during a 10-day high school suspension, then went on to perform on Saturday Night Live, collaborate with Kanye, and rap for the president — all while staying true to his independent roots, often offering his music for free.

With Coloring Book, Chance added critical recognition to his accomplishments; following a change in rules last year to allow streaming-only releases to be Grammy eligible, he nabbed awards for “Best New Artist,” “Best Rap Album,” and “Best Rap Performance.”

All this success is, of course, very much worth celebrating. I wholeheartedly love few things in this life, and Chance has somehow made the list. But nothing exists in a vacuum — especially not anomalies. And compared to the everyday lunch man dishing out hot tracks along with your hot dish, Chance’s circumstances are undoubtedly as peculiar as they come. As Andre G. notes in his article “Chance The Rapper Isn’t A Blueprint For Indie Artists,” Chance’s success comes from a set of circumstances that your average Soundcloud rapper doesn’t.

Chance the Rapper’s circumstances are undoubtedly as peculiar as they come.

Remember when Chance rightfully came at Spike Lee through tweets and a lyrical shot in “Ultralight Beam” (“Ugh, cause they’ll flip the script on your ass like Wesley and Spike”) during the Chi-raq debacle? Spike fired back by pointing out Chance’s father has worked for two Chicago mayors and with Barack Obama when he was senator. Andre G’s article also notes that Chance managed to snag Cara Lewis as a booking agent, whose past and current clients include Jay Z, Eminem, Tupac, and Kanye. Chance The Rapper may not have grown up rich, but he came from a family with some level of economic benefit, including (political) connections. Moreover, he has the privilege of being a man in a male-dominated industry.

But these privileges have been relatively well-documented. Less discussed, and equally relevant, is the privilege he enjoys as a resolutely Christian man in the rap scene.

Chance the Rapper’s ‘Coloring Book’ album

In Coloring Book, Chance dove into a Christian ideology he had only alluded to in previous works. Coloring Book is oriented around faith, with allusions to Noah, Lot’s wife, and renditions of gospel songs (thank you, Cousin Nicole). It can’t be brushed aside that Chance not only successfully advocated for a shift in academy rules to honor his spiritual-based album, but went on to win several awards for it. Nor should we ignore that, when he won “Best New Artist,” he hoisted his Grammy to proclaim, “Glory be to God! I claim this victory in the name of the Lord!”

When religion is brought up in discussing Chance, it is generally in regards to themes within his work and how his faith helps or hinders fans from relating to him. But we need to keep in mind that along with economics and familial relationships giving Chance access to staff and market ventures, there is a layer of religious privilege when navigating American industries as a Christian.

As much as America has attempted to promote itself as a country separate from God, it has always functioned using a Christian code of ethics. When it comes to our economic system, Christianity in America was instrumental to the development of capitalism. During the times of chattel slavery, the development of anti-Blackness rooted in dehumanization was an economically driven conquest; through manipulating religious texts, such as the Curse of Ham, to demonize and infantilize Africans, white slave owners were able to rationalize attempted genocide and their torture of Black people. Protestant Christian values, specifically, were brought into laissez-faire economics, capitalizing on concepts of devotion and thrift. It is a similar mindset of purported goodwill that allowed Christianity to give way to a system of voluntarism; acts of devotion and service were funneled into nonprofits and opened the door to the white savior complex.

Christianity in America was instrumental to the development of capitalism.

Because of Christianity’s ties to capitalism, and its function within whiteness, there is always a place for Christianity to be positively portrayed in the media in a way that other religions are not.

To this point, it’s telling that Chance’s success has not been shared by Black Muslims — despite the fact that rap and hip hop have been heavily influenced by this group. Within rap, there are no Black Muslim artists who have been able to reach success by praising Islam in the same way Chance praises Christianity. Islam’s roots with enslaved African Muslims, and the rise of Islamophobia, have essentially established the religion as an antithesis to Christianity’s relationship with capitalism. There’s room for the market to profit off of Islam, because the point of capitalism is to profit off anything, but the nature of their relationship is not symbiotic.

Instead, Islam, particularly when associated with Black American communities, has become a political statement in contradiction with the powers that be. A Tribe Called Quest illustrated this juxtaposition perfectly with their hook lamenting Trump’s administration in “We The People”: “All you Black folks, you must go/ All you Mexicans, you must go/ And all you poor folks, you must go/ Muslims and gays, boy, we hate yours ways.”

The day after A Tribe Called Quest’s Grammy performance, numerous people flooded my timeline saying, “I didn’t know any of them were Muslim.” This is no surprise; knowing that Christians can excel in ways that Muslims cannot, it’s not uncommon for Muslim rappers to change their names or at least avoid broadcasting their religion. The religious visibility that Chance is permitted to have, and the fact that his faith is recognized outside of rebellion, changes the ways he can navigate the capitalist systems of the music industry. It makes him less of a threat, and more a representative of good old Christian American values.

There’s another element to Chance’s Christian success, too: the Black Church.

There have been numerous critiques of white America’s interactions with Black expression, such as co-opting AAVE and youth culture. In fact, Black youth are America’s pop culture, and with Chance there was a new element to tap into. Anyone remember Nick Jonas’ song, “Jealous”? Did you know Nick released a version of the song that includes a Black gospel choir? Nick Jonas isn’t unique in being a white artist who utilizes Black gospel in songs where it’s unnecessary. The Black Church has always been fascinating to white people because of its perceived proximity through shared faith, while still existing as a separate culture. For white America, the Black Church has long held an aura of mystery, even existing historically as a subcategory of the “magical negro” trope: The church negro was good and always happy, with a connection to God that existed on a more primal, energetic plane.

With its utilization of gospel music and common imagery found within Black ideologies of spiritual resistance — such as the choir’s allusions to water on the track “Drown” — Coloring Book allowed White America to voyeuristically consume the Black church.

There is a bubble around Chance that people are afraid to penetrate, as if critiques are a direct attack against his other work. But we live in a society that champions Chance, as a Christian artist and rapper, while the persecution of Black Muslims rests at the root of America’s Islamophobia and continues to be relied on today. The anti-Black origins of Islamophobia disallow Black Muslims from succeeding in the same ways Chance has, unless they sacrifice parts of themselves.

I love Chance. I love the presence of church in his music and the celebration of Black life as he knows it. But as James Baldwin once said, “‘The role of the artist is exactly the same as the role of the lover. If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.’”

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