This is the seventh entry in our micro-series, The Rapper’s Prayer. To read the previous six entries in the series, click here.
“Deliver us from evil.”
Fittingly, the Rapper’s Prayer ends with a line that brings together every aspect of the prayer we’ve discussed so far.
The prayer for God’s deliverance underlies The Roots’ hope for God’s will to be done on “Dear God 2.0,” Talib Kweli’s hope for daily bread on “Eat To Live,” The Lady of Rage’s desire for forgiveness on “Confessions,” and Kendrick Lamar’s struggle against temptation from throughout his trilogy of albums. All these prayers hope for deliverance, for an end to suffering, conflict, and evil. However, the conclusion of the Rapper’s Prayer reminds us that prayer is also a battle cry. When oppression or injustice rages around us, the Rapper’s Prayer provides the anthemic march of resistance.
“We at war. We at war with terrorism, racism. But most of all, we at war with ourselves.” –Kanye West, “Jesus Walks”
In these opening remarks, Kanye spoke to the need for deliverance on three fronts. Just one year after the American invasion of Iraq, Kanye reminded us of the real, physical war happening, a war that is still affecting us 16 years later. He then told us that terrorism wasn’t rooted solely in the Middle East. It was (and is) happening every day in his hometown of Chicago and across America. Finally, Kanye reminded us of the spiritual and emotional war raging within us.
At each point, Kanye recognizes his need for God’s deliverance. He prays, “God, show me the way because the devil’s tryna break me down.” He sees the devil’s work in an oppressive justice system, where “they be askin’ us questions, harass and arrest us / sayin’ ‘We eat pieces of shit like you for breakfast.’” He sees this cyclical evil continue, as oppression leads to “victims of welfare, feel we livin’ in hell here.” The evils in Kanye’s world burden his shoulders with unmanageable weight. You can hear him striving, trying to take another step, on the brink of collapse.
The Rapper’s Prayer offers Kanye strength, that surge to fight another day and seek God’s deliverance for the world. But while Kanye has hope for the burdened people around him, he has little concern for his salvation. Amid his prayer, he admits, “And I don’t think there’s nothin’ I can do now to right my wrongs.”
Here, Kanye doesn’t know how to begin the Rapper’s Prayer of forgiveness, as we discussed before. Instead, he sees this song as a type of penance, an act of ethical behavior that will minimize his punishment and, as he says, “take away from my sins.” This viewpoint becomes even more apparent in the 2011 song “Otis” when he raps, “I made ‘Jesus Walks,’ I’m never going to hell.” Remember, deliverance is not something to attain. There’s no heavenly ledger recording rights and wrongs. There’s no naughty and nice list. Deliverance, like forgiveness, is offered through relationship, and prayer is the call to action.
The freedom of deliverance is something the church (and other religious institutions) often over-complicates. While many would agree that deliverance from evil is available to all willing to pray and embrace a relationship with God, a doctrine of moralism (sometimes well-intentioned, sometimes not) has caused many like Kanye to question their opportunity for salvation.
It’s the root of Kendrick Lamar’s fear of being spiritually wicked rather than humanly weak. It’s why 2Pac dejectedly resolves on 1995’s “So Many Tears,” “I know my destiny is Hell, where did I fail? / My life is in denial and when I die / Baptized in eternal fire, shed so many tears.”
Teachings of moralism, to make matters worse, have been coupled with hypocrisy from church leaders, leading many to question their authority. On his 2015 song “Holy Ghost,” A$AP Rocky condemns the church for its greed and materialism:
“The pastor had a thing for designer glasses / Yeah, I’m talkin’ fancy plates and diamond glasses /The ushers keep skimmin’ the collection baskets / And they tryna dine us with some damn wine and crackers.” –A$AP Rocky, “Holy Ghost”
Rocky sees the same church which offers messages of deliverance from the world’s evils—greed, oppression, and inequality—perpetuate those very same evils.
Examples of this are far too common in America. In January, Rev. Clarence J. Smith Jr. of Lawndale, Illinois, was indicted for stealing over $800,000 intended for impoverished children so he could splurge on Bentleys and Jordans. Televangelists guilt-trip and manipulate viewers into giving money daily so they can buy private fleets of jets, multi-million dollar mansions, and 50-foot yachts. “They ask me why I don’t go to church no more,” Rocky says. But what are we to expect when the institutions which offer messages of deliverance prey on the vulnerable?
Of course, these examples are a small percentage when considering the vastness of the American church. Many faith communities have led the charge in overcoming injustice and inequality, but these high profile scandals still war against people questioning their faith. They create distance between the praying rapper and the source of deliverance. They distort the very definition of this deliverance. The praying rapper who’s filled with doubt stops praying. We come full circle to Kendrick’s plea, “Ain’t nobody praying for me.”
The desire for deliverance through prayer doesn’t dissipate, though. The Rapper’s Prayer longs to again shrink the distance between heaven and Earth. It wants to fight back against the oppressive and surrounding darkness, despite the evils of institutional power.
“I wanna talk to God but I‘m afraid ‘cause we ain’t spoke in so long,” Kanye raps on “Jesus Walks.” Kanye faces a dilemma—wanting to find deliverance, but not knowing whether it’s achievable for him. I’ve known this place. I’ve longed to reach out in faith but felt inadequate, unworthy. Like Kanye, I’ve not known where to start. However, the Rapper’s Prayer believes deliverance from evil—whether systemic or personal—is impartial.
There’s not a right or wrong thing to say or the right way to say it. As we’ve seen, prayer is often a wrestling match with God. It allows us to vent our frustrations and seek peace where there is none. It humbly asks for provision and forgiveness, even when it’s undeserved. It will enable us to consider our identity as a human, one of the billions, who hopes for a better future and an end to suffering. The Rapper’s Prayer creates space for all of this. There’s no need to be afraid, no matter how long it’s been since the last time.
Deliverance is available, the Rapper’s Prayer believes. It only requires someone to begin the conversation.
You may not yet be convinced prayer is necessary or even helpful. That’s okay. I understand. I’ve seen so many people hurt by religion, and it breaks my heart. But I hope that by exploring the Rapper’s Prayer, you’ve at least come to have a better understanding of it. I hope you understand the longing that so many in the hip-hop community have for something transcendent to deliver them from evil circumstances. I hope you hear the desire for perseverance and personal growth when someone says, “the devil’s tryna break me down.” I hope you know expressing doubt and grief through prayer can heal wounds. I hope you see the Rapper’s Prayer break down walls and connect heaven to Earth. Lastly, I hope you understand that praying for each other builds community.
The fear of believing “Ain’t nobody praying for me” is isolating, crippling. May no one I know ever feel that fear. May guilt and doubt never prohibit me from coming to “Our Father in heaven.” Even as this series concludes, may I continue to pursue the Rapper’s Prayer.