“Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”
I’m not Catholic, but there’s one staple of Catholic tradition that has always intrigued me: the confessional. A person overcome by the guilt of their wrongdoings enters a cabinet. Divided by a curtain, a priest listens to the person’s confessions. The priest is not a God that can offer a clean slate to the troubled person. Nor is the priest likely the person wronged by the confessor. Still, the confessor asks for forgiveness, for the clearing of debts and conscience.
The relationship between a rapper and their audience is one and the same as a confessor and a priest. In a way, the Rapper’s Prayer is a confessional, and we, the audience, are the priest.
Though we haven’t been directly affected by the rapper’s vices, we bear witness to their pleas for forgiveness. We then have the opportunity to offer grace, to embrace empathy instead of judgment, to erase guilt.
A surprising example of this confessional prayer is offered by the rapper Offset on Migos’ 2017 song “Get Right Witcha.” Sandwiched between flex-heavy rhetoric from fellow Migos members Quavo and Takeoff, Offset’s penitence is easily missed. As he begins, Offset sounds too busy to be bothered: “In the kitchen with a lot of white / I done fucked a lot of n****s’ wife / Make a milli, then I make it twice / Bought that Wraith and had the ceilin’ light.” He continues, boasting his wealth and status until the very last line, where he concludes, “Askin’ the Lord, forgive me.”
With one prayerful statement, Offset spins the entire verse on its head like an M. Night Shyamalan film. Just as he’s shared his need for God in the past, Offset recognizes how his fast lifestyle has led him down an unhealthy path. He is looking to get right, to find a way toward peaceful reconciliation, to shed his debts instead of belittling debtors.
Offset offers an opening prayer of confession and asks for forgiveness; the conversation ends there. He doesn’t provide a glimpse of his emotional state, nor his plan of repentance. In her 1997 song “Confessions,” The Lady of Rage, born Robin Yvette Allen, gives us a more substantive picture of the Rapper’s Prayer for forgiveness. “Forgive me God, for I have forsaken thee / I’m not gonna say that it’s the devil that’s makin me / Do what I do, the things that I’ve done / Just because I’m young, and it’s all for fun,” she begins. Allen doesn’t make any excuses for her wrongdoings. She pleads guilty, relying on grace to erase any penalty for her youthful hedonism.
“I never really thought about the consequences,” Allen continues, “But ever since Eazy died, I said ‘Now I’mma listen.’” We’ve seen how death affects the Rapper’s Prayer before. As rappers lose their loved ones, artists like The Lady of Rage take stock of their life choices, set out to change their motives, and ask forgiveness for the unchangeable past.
In his 2010 song “Heavenly Father,” we see this practice from Fat Joe, who prays out of survivor’s guilt: “They killed Tom right in front of his home / They even murked Skee in my MPV / So I dropped to my knees, why it couldn’t be me?” Eleven years earlier, a close encounter with death forced Master P to his knees on “Ghetto Prayer”: “Forgive me, I was tryin’ to be a man / With this pistol in my hand / But took a forty-four slug in my back / Just to make me understand.”
Artists like Offset, The Lady of Rage, Fat Joe, and Master P pray with childlike fear and dependence for forgiveness and security when death arrives at their doorsteps. They quote the familiar children’s prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray, the Lord, my soul to keep.” As the Rapper’s Prayer reminds us, death is a hell of a motivator. It creeps in when tragedy occurs and exploits every fear.
Forgiveness precipitates repentance. This feeling is more than regret; it’s an action. After all, the past can’t be changed, and there’s no reason to bury yourself in it. Repentance changes the attitude we have toward the past and our hopes for something new. It’s an opportunity to receive grace, the cancellation of debts. It’s an opportunity to embrace new habits—life-giving habits, not soul-sucking ones. The Lady of Rage hopes her righteous way will steer her clear of death, promoting total health and a refreshed beginning through surrender to God’s will.
“I know I’ve done wrong, I know I sing the same ole song / But truly I seek a righteous way, that’ll lead me to be strong / In spirit and mind, body and soul” –The Lady of Rage, “Confessions”
In his 2007 song “Fighters,” Lupe Fiasco wants us to see forgiveness as a new beginning. On the song’s chorus, singer-songwriter Matthew Santos interrogates Lupe about the subject matter of his raps. Santos asks Lupe what he’ll value when hope is lost, when violence prevails. In the third verse, Lupe replies, “I hope that God forgive us, all of us sinners / Turn us back into beginners, put us up where the winners go / Holy apartments in the gardens in which the rivers flow.” Lupe prays for a new start, not just for him, but for all sinners. He prays for forgiveness to bring heaven to Earth. After all, what fear can death invoke when we’ve accounted for every debt?
The Rapper’s Prayer for forgiveness is based on the belief that a new beginning is always attainable, that the past can’t wholly define a person, that everyone has an opportunity to grow. As rappers confess their transgressions, they hope to receive a new start both from God and the people. They hope for freedom. Freedom to embrace life, embrace people, embrace change. To not hold grudges or have grudges held against them. To confess and discard any missteps. To consider life’s consequences and not be afraid. It takes immense courage to be vulnerable, to share these hopes and prayers. All we’re asked to do is listen.
So the next time a rapper enters the confession booth, may we listen with forgiving ears.