This is entry three in our micro-series, The Rapper’s Prayer. To read the first two entries in the series, click here.
“Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
In the 32nd chapter of Genesis, the Hebrew patriarch, Jacob, is about to be confronted by Esau, his bloodthirsty brother whom he fled from 20 years ago. Jacob, a man known for deception and cowardice, decides to send his servants ahead with lavish gifts to soothe any lingering hatred Esau is harboring. Then he sends his entire family—wives, children, everyone—ahead to delay the encounter as long as possible.
In the middle of the night, left alone, Jacob is met by a stranger with whom he wrestles until daybreak, unwilling to let go without the stranger’s blessing. Finally, the stranger relents and offers Jacob a new name: “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”
I think about this story a lot. I think about it when I hear Kendrick Lamar’s “How Much A Dollar Cost?” in which Kendrick converses with a transient stranger who reveals himself to be God. Jacob wrestled with God over his anxieties, his deceptive past, and his self-preserving cowardice. Kendrick wrestles with God over his greed, concluding that his superiority complex and materialism would lead to damnation.
I think about these stories because I, too, know what it’s like to wrestle until daybreak. I know what it’s like to be unhappy with the status quo, yet unwilling to pray: “Your kingdom come. Your will be done.”
I find comfort in the examples of Jacob and Kendrick because they offer an alternative view of conversation with God. It doesn’t have to be a pristine piece of recitation, nor an outpouring of adoration. The prayers of Jacob and Kendrick are prayers of discontentment, even anger toward God. Frustrated by the situations God put them in, they air their grievances openly. They wrestle until every concern and desire is laid bare, until their will has been heard and given a worthy answer.
As we’ll see, wrestling is an essential part of the Rapper’s Prayer. The wills of rappers and God clash time and again, yet prayer offers space for reconciliation and leads to a place of healthy surrender.
We see an intimate example of the wrestling prayer in the lyrics of Dreamville rapper Omen, who prays on J. Cole’s 2010 song “Enchanted.” Unsatisfied with God’s plan for his life, Omen considers commanding his destiny:
“God, I know you only do what’s best for me / But is it cool if we negotiate my destiny? / They always tellin’ me it’s temporary / Then why it’s feelin’ like a cemetery? / My dreams ain’t got no obituaries.”
Omen later admits his “foolish pride” might be a fatal flaw. Still, he sees the only way to survive is to hold tightly to his own will and keep running.
In the following verse, Cole echoes Omen’s uncertainty about God’s will: “I face the sky and hope that God ain’t acting unfamiliar / You play whatever cards he deal no matter how peculiar / They tell me that it’s God’s will, I’m asking ‘God, will ya / heal a n***a from all this pain?’ Mama smokin’ cocaine.” Cole goes on to lament violence in his community, questioning God’s motives amid pain. Ultimately, though, he’s willing to pray.
Reconciliation is never reached on “Enchanted,” despite Cole and Omen’s prayers. But not every prayer leads to peace immediately. Like any relationship, sometimes you have to grind away at the problem. You have to continue the conversation.
“Technology turning the planet into zombies / Everybody all in everybody’s dirty laundry / Acid rain, earthquakes, hurricane, tsunamis / Terrorists, crime sprees, assaults, and robberies / Cops yelling “stop freeze,” shoot him before he try to leave / Air quality so foul, I gotta try to breathe / Endangered species, and we running out of trees”
Black Thought’s prayer questions why God allows these injustices and issues to persist. If God can require God’s will be done, why don’t we see it? In response, Black Thought makes his will known, rapping, “If I could hold the world in the palm of these hands / I would probably do away with these anomalies.” Yet, Black Thought doesn’t hold the world. He must appeal to the one who does instead. As singer Jim James repeats in the chorus, the ongoing injustices of the world often shake our faith. Still, he chooses to pursue constant prayer and faith as he concludes, “I know you have your reasons.”
Finding the true peace in order to honestly pray, “your kingdom come, your will be done” isn’t easy. J. Cole and Omen are only beginning their search, holding tightly to their wills on “Enchanted.” The Roots, while still questioning God’s methods, display a belief that God’s will is love and release from injustice on “Dear God 2.0.” Neither fully embrace surrender in their prayers, but this shouldn’t be seen as a lack of faith. Even Jesus, knowing he was to be betrayed to death, prays: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”
Thus, the questions and doubts expressed in prayer are essential to the exchange of wills. Yielding one’s will is a Herculean task. We want to control our surroundings. To surrender control, we are to believe, is to show weakness. Yet, the wrestling of the Rapper’s Prayer often leads to more profound peace when self-will is finally replaced with dependence on the counsel received from prayer.
In his 2019 song “Last Night,” British MC Kojey Radical finds comfort in God’s will after he wrestles with his vices and mortality. He talks about his smoking habits and frivolous sex, admitting his inability to change: “Know my end is coming, don’t know how to quit / Know my people dying, don’t know how they’ll live.” This downward spiral of self-inflicted guilt finally leads him to a conversation with God: “I spoke to God last night / She said don’t worry, son, I’m proud of you.”
God answers Kojey’s anxieties with affirmation, not damnation. She reminds him God’s will isn’t found by looking at what could’ve been or what vices should have been avoided. Instead, praying that “your will be done” means to accept grace for the past and follow God’s guidance into the future. It doesn’t always look how Kojey may expect, but God’s will means “The right time might not always fall on the right day / And that’s fine, that’s life, that’s life-like.”
For Kojey to surrender his will to God is to lose his pride, selfishness, and grip on his destiny. But in losing those things, Kojey experiences a deeper relationship with heaven uninhibited by guilt and vice. The goal of surrendering to God’s will, Kojey finds, is not to commit to living a life he doesn’t want. On the contrary, prayer brings Kojey and God closer together, just like communication in any relationship should.
Again, we see that prayer is an exercise in shrinking distance, in building and connecting, and in so doing, synchronizing the realities of “on Earth” and “in heaven.” Whatever faith tradition you follow—or even if you don’t at all—many of us long for the reality of God’s kingdom as described in the Bible: “Death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” It’s the basis of J. Cole’s prayer. Of Omen’s. Of Black Thought’s. Of Kojey’s.
We all have our ideas of how those pictures of paradise are achievable. But the Rapper’s Prayer reminds us this isn’t something we can bring about by our strength. It requires a community with each other and communion with heaven. Though the Rapper’s Prayer leads to humility, it doesn’t mean expressing blind faith. Sometimes the best prayer is 10 rounds in the ring with God, and trading blows until you feel each other’s pain intimately. Your bruises become mirror images, your collective sweat pools on the canvas. It’s then you realize you’re fighting the same fight. It’s at this moment the kingdom comes.