“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name”
As I sit down in Whole Foods to begin my exploration of the Rapper’s Prayer, six young adults are circled at a table across the room from me, praying. I have an internal sense that I’m intruding on something important. I think, “Why is prayer able to transform a Whole Foods dining room into a sacred space?” But then I remember music holds similar power. Like prayer, it can transform a morning commute into a personal sanctuary, a desert into an oasis.
Prayer offers an opportunity to experience what we can’t physically touch. More importantly, it provides us with a chance to build a long-distance relationship. As we dive into The Rapper’s Prayer, it becomes necessary to define this relationship. The Lord’s Prayer—our template for this series—begins with a call to “Our Father in heaven.” We receive two relationship qualifiers in these first four words, and they both deal with distance.
Prayer’s power wholly depends on the distance between earthly hardship and heavenly peace. A prayer to the “Father in heaven” is an appeal to someone who supersedes those hardships and can offer change. Thus, prayer comes most natural when the distance between our current pain and our future hope seems an unnavigable chasm. As Fabolous raps on “I Pray”: “We call in bad times, don’t stay in touch when we good.” Prayer defies this distance, allowing the person of prayer to have a meaningful conversation with heaven.
We saw this in—surprisingly—Slaughterhouse’s 2009 song “Pray (It’s A Shame).” The group, unable to effect global change themselves, calls on heaven to shine light into darkness through Joe Budden’s repeating prayer: “Lord, can you please shine that light on your sons / They sent you a million prayers, you ain’t answered near one.” The realities Slaughterhouse pray over are dire.
First, Joell Ortiz shares a broken picture of life in poverty. Royce da 5’9” laments his childhood, raised by an abusive, coke-addicted father (“My daddy beat our ass, that’s probably why we assassins”). Lastly, Crooked I outlines the constant threat of street violence: “Instead of hangin with thugs he’s slangin drugs / Shoulda got a college degree / But growin’ up in the hood’ll leave your mind baffled / We put haters in the past like time travel.”
Evil haunts each member of Slaughterhouse to the point of prayer. They’re heartbroken, angry, nearing hopelessness. Crooked I concludes, “I’m past purgatory / I need prayer though, Joey put a word in for me.” This need for heaven’s divine intervention is absolute. There’s no other option. Even in the direst situation, however, the Rapper’s Prayer offers the hope of bridging the valley of pain and death.
When disaster strikes and death takes its toll, rappers carry on the tradition of rap eulogy, an opportunity to remember the lives of those who have died and reflect on their own lives. Frequently, these meditations on mortality lead to a conversation with the “Father in heaven” who bridges the distance between life and death. We saw this in Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s 1996 hit “Tha Crossroads.” As the group members pay their respects to recently-deceased family and friends, the Eazy-E-mentored group repeatedly resolves: “And we pray every day.”
Unlike Slaughterhouse, who prayed for an end to ongoing pain, Bone Thugs face an irreversible affliction. In the wake of familial death, they ask for comfort and rest. Wish Bone cries to the “Father in heaven,” “But when it’s time to die, gotta go, bye bye / All a lil’ thug could do was cry, cry / Why’d they kill my dawg? / Damn, man, I miss my Uncle Charles, y’all.” His prayer is birthed from a desire for reunion, not only with God but with those he’s lost. Krayzie Bone, recognizing mortality as an inevitable reality, requests rest for his soul in anticipation of that day: “While you laughin’, we’re passin’, passin’ away / God, rest our souls / ‘Cause I know I might meet you up at the crossroads.”
Here, we see the ultimate expression of prayer’s ability to connect Earth to heaven. When death seems imminent, the Rapper’s Prayer to the father of heaven is a plea for acceptance, an appeal to stand at the crossroads and be granted access to the straight, narrow road leading to paradise.
The geographical divide between heaven and Earth is but the first of two relationship-defining distances. The second is the distance between identity and authority. Prayer depends upon a hierarchy between the person of prayer and the recipient. In the Lord’s Prayer, this is addressed in the identification of God as Father and the implied identification of the person of prayer as Child. In the Rapper’s Prayer, the recipient changes names often—Lord, Yah, Jesus, Allah, He, She—but what never changes is God’s authority and holiness.
This authority, the basis of the prayerful requests we’ll discuss later, requires the praying rapper to take a posture defined by the phrase “hallowed be your name.” While prayers of petition—like Budden’s “Lord, can you please shine that light on your sons”—are common in hip-hop (and life), prayers of praise are less so. However, there’s a feeling of freedom that stems from praising the hallowed (or holy) “Father in heaven.” “Tha Crossroads” is a somber song— you’re lying if you claim you haven’t teared up listening to it—but Layzie Bone’s voice brings levity as he raps, “God bless you workin’ on a plan to Heaven / Follow the Lord all 24/7 days / God is who we praise / Even though the Devil’s all up in my face / But He keepin’ me safe and in my place.”
The Rapper’s Prayer of praise is more for the benefit of the rapper than God. The “Father in heaven” doesn’t depend on praise for power. Instead, the rapper depends on the freedom and joy which comes from the “Father in heaven”’s security, grace, and preeminence. Chance the Rapper keys into this freedom on 2016’s Coloring Book song “How Great.” “The first is that God is better than the world’s best thing / God is better than the best thing that the world has to offer,” a sampled voice sermonizes.
The distance Chance perceives between God and the “world’s best thing” drives him to praise, as he begins, “Magnify, magnify, lift it on high / Spit a Spotify to qualify a spot on His side.” For Chance, blessings like remaining independent as an artist, having his “dream girl” behind him, and the “gift of freedom” are immaterial treasures worth celebrating with choruses of “How great is our God.”
In the song’s second verse, professing Muslim Jay Electronica, the author of a brand new, heavily-religious album, joins the celebration as he remembers his brokenness without the “Father in heaven.” “I was lost in the jungle like Simba after the death of Mufasa, no hog, no meerkat / Hakuna Matata by day, but I spent my night-time fighting tears back.” Despite Jay’s tears, the faithful sowing of faith the size of a mustard seed (a reference to Matthew 13:31-32) bore praiseworthy fruit: “From a lofty height we wage war on the poltergeist with the exalted Christ / Spark the dark with the pulse of light / Strike a corpse with a pulse of life.” Jay praises God for his dark-piercing light and death-defying life, things only the “Father in heaven” can offer.
Prayers of praise, like those of Chance The Rapper and Jay Electronica, address the hallowed identity of God. They focus on God’s great deeds and unmatched power. But there’s an implied flipside to the phrase “hallowed be Your name,” which focuses on the Rapper’s identity because of God’s holiness. On “Blinded By Your Grace, Pt. 2,” UK rapper Stormzy comes to God with an attitude of humility. He begins, “Lord, I’ve been broken / Although I’m not worthy / You fixed me, now I’m blinded / By Your grace, You came and saved me.” Stormzy recognizes his brokenness and childlike dependence on the “Father in heaven.” Note, this isn’t self-flagellation. Stormzy isn’t wallowing in weakness. Instead, he finds strength in humility. He finds freedom in surrender to a benevolent “Father in heaven” who overlooks weakness and offers life-giving grace anyway.
In recognizing the divide between God and humanity, the Rapper’s Prayer brings the two into communion. Scarface further nails this point in his 2002 song “Someday.” Though it’s natural for someone to feel like they can handle troubles on their own, Scarface admits:
“Even gangsters need to pray, cause when I pray it’s understood / That I got flaws about myself, I can’t make it by myself / I need the heavens’ help, I want to follow in your footsteps / Done seen the strongest man bow down to a higher power / And given all his glory to God cause God towers”
Strength, Scarface recognizes, isn’t determined by how much you can carry, but by your dependence on someone else to take it with you. The dependent Rapper’s Prayer, then, is a beautiful display of strength where freedom is wholly accepted, and glory is given to the “Father in heaven.”
We define so much of a relationship by an individuals’ understanding of its terms. Our Rapper’s Prayer begins with a clear expression of identity before jumping into a more in-depth conversation. The prayers of petition, forgiveness, and seeking counsel, which we’ll explore in the third entry in our series, begin with an understanding of the distance between heaven and Earth, father and child. However, the humility and surrender required for this understanding aren’t easily achieved. In prayer, like any relationship, wills are bound to clash. The divide between selfishness and selflessness becomes glaring. As we’ll discover in the next installment, prayer is a wrestling match designed for humanity to hash things out with God.