As American youth have been turning away from religious institutions and labels, you’d think they would also turn away from faith-driven music.
But Christian music is doing better than ever, particularly hip hop. These hip hop musicians are outselling Christian rockers and pop stars in the U.S.
Lecrae Moore, 34, known for his Christian rap, came in close behind Eminem on the iTunes Album Chart. His latest album Church Clothes 2 was released in the same week as MMLP2 and debuted in second place.
Lecrae started out by volunteering to rap at a juvenile detention center and never imagined that one day he would be a Grammy-winner, and own his own record label.
“I’m just as surprised as you are,” said Moore, in an interview with Fusion. “I’m kind of blown away. Obviously, you want to serve your fans. You want to give them some good music and to see the reception of it was amazing.”
So just who is buying his music? It’s the thousands of fans who made his 2012 album Gravity debut in third place on the Billboard 200.
“They tend to be hip hop fans and people of faith,” said music journalist Seth Tower Hurd.
Hurd has been following the Christian hip hop movement since the beginning and written about it for Relevant Magazine.
Nearly 35 percent of 18 through 29-year-olds choose not to be affiliated to any religion, according to a Pew Research study. So, it’s only fair to say Christian music has many secular fans.
Another similar Pew study states that this same generation are more racially diverse than ever and open to different ideas. This might explain why non-religious people are willing to try out various musical genres.
Even Lecrae told Fusion he’s a fan of 90’s Chicana pop star Selena. And he’s also moving away from being labeled as a “Christian rapper” to catch up with the times.
“Obviously I have a lot of fans who are faith-driven and it’s a very central part of their lives. They connect to my music because there is an unashamed approach to that in my music,” he said. “But then there’s also fans of just good music. I’m an artist at the core and I want to do well in my craft. So if people appreciate good music, I think you’ll pay attention to it.”
It’s this message that caught the attention of another fan, Carlos Buitrago, 28, an accountant in Miami.
“Its easy to identify yourself with these type of artists. I say ‘these type of artists’ because they don’t rap about gold chains, fast cars or women,” Buitriago said. “They speak about reality, the struggles of life, growing up in poverty and even bad things they have done in their life.”
Lecrae himself grew up with a single mom and has rapped about the issue of fatherlessness, a topic that anyone, despite religious beliefs, can talk about.
“Christian hip hop has become a lot more accessible,” said Hurd. “In other Christian music, you have had to grown up around a church to understand certain phrases and terms. Sometimes people aren’t offended or their ‘hearts weren’t in the right place,’ they just didn’t understand.”
Keeping the music’s message relatable is definitely a key to success, but don’t underestimate marketing and technology. This has allowed for faith-driven artists to not only rely on the support of church communities.
Seth Tower Hurd wrote a 2009 article about the challenges Christian hip hop faced to grow business-wise. But so much has changed. He says the biggest difference between then and now are the distribution channels and that today’s young generation doesn’t listen to the radio, as much as their iPods.
“Back then you had to become a big radio star or tour and create a cult following,” he said. “Music blogs have become huge. You can market yourself to curators online.”
That’s exactly what Lecrae does. He skips the Christian music distribution companies that historically may not have given his rap music airplay and would have only placed the CD’s in Christian bookstores.
“So if someone doesn’t walk into that Christian bookstore, they’re never going to be exposed to your music until someone plays it for them,” he said. “Where as now, we can put our music straight on music websites like Amazon or iTunes or wherever.”
Hurd says big labels like Capital Records, Provident Records, and Word Label won’t sign rappers because they won’t get radio play, and Christian radios won’t play these rappers because the donor base won’t like it. It’s constant cycle.
“The institutions don’t believe the tides have changed on them,” said Hurd.
That’s unfortunate because rappers like Andy Mineo, Trip Lee, and Lecrae are reaching much broader audiences and fulfilling the mission many Christians have - to provide a spiritual interpretation for life’s experiences.
Lecrae believed he picked up new fans seeking spirituality by providing his music for free. He gave his fans a mixtape version to download for free, which helped him gain more exposure.
Not bad for someone who didn’t imagine such mainstream success.
Many other faith-driven artists who are achieving similar success are signed under Lecrae’s label, Reach Records, which he co-founded in 2004.
- Andy Mineo released Heroes for Sale on April 25 this year. It landed on the Billboard 200, stayed on for about three weeks, and peaked at No. 11. It also placed third in the iTunes overall album and hip hop charts.
- KB released Weight & Glory in July 2012 and sold close to 10,000 albums in the first week. It lasted two weeks on the Billboard 200 ranking at No. 34.
- Derek Minor came out with Minorville in September of this year. In its first week, it ranked 40 on the Billboard 200 and first place on the Gospel/Christian albums chart.
- Tedashii ranked No. 63 during the two weeks his album Blacklight was on the Billboard 200, which was released in May 2011. That same album came in No. 8 on the Independent Albums chart and No. 9 on the Rap Albums chart.
- Trip Lee’s The Good Life came out in April 2012 and lasted four weeks on the Billboard 200, peaking at No. 17. It sold over 22,000 units in the first week.