"Make some noise if you wanna go to heaven.”
When Chance the Rapper uttered this phrase about halfway through his set at Boston Calling, no one skipped a beat, the crowd roaring for everyone’s favorite friendly rapper. Pyrotechnics and massive screens began to roll as he transitioned into yet another immensely catchy and soulful song from his hit-studded repertoire. In front of the stage, beach balls flew and a sea of arms glistening with wristbands bobbed slightly off beat. All eyes focused on Chance. As he ran and jumped across the stage, it was hard not to revel at his fervor and knack for crowd engagement. But if college has taught me anything, it is to immediately transform my natural revelry into analytical impetus. And as a Religious Studies major, I couldn’t help but take a step back to look at the precedent and undertones of Chance’s massive performance.
Wickedly clever lyrics, a distinctive cross between rapping and singing, and one of the most memorable ad-libs to date (Ahh) have brought the independent recording artist Chancelor Bennett into the public eye. First breaking through with his mixtape “Acid Rap,” Chance has built an organic following and a unique sound, culminating in his most recent mixtape, “Coloring Book,” which, in 2016, became the first streaming-only album to ever win a Grammy. With titles such as “Angels,” and “Blessings,” this album is laden with Black church influences, most obviously the gospel choir that is featured on nearly every song and album credits to gospel legend Kirk Franklin. At Boston Calling it became clear that Chance was continuing to draw from these influences in his live performances--again backed by a choir and a live band of former church musicians--a very rare occurrence in a rap world dominated by DJs. In between each song, there were church-like interludes where he would speak on themes of spiritual fulfillment, personal growth, and even the afterlife. (see first quote)
Once I started to notice these religious themes in Chance’s performance, they became hard to avoid. His raspy half-rap/half-singing voice became reminiscent of a preacher’s growl, his lyrical content seemed intentionally broad and uplifting, the imagery projected on screens behind him taking on an iconic quality. And by far the most popular item at the entire festival (even more than the seemingly endless $8 Miller Lite cans) was Chance’s signature “3” hat. It could be spotted on festival-goers at every setting from the Mumford & Sons crowd to the press tent. With an extremely simple design--the number 3 in white on a dark background--the hat almost felt like a mark of membership to the “church” of Chance--the wearer immediately identifiable as hip to Chance’s style and message.
It seems to be a stretch to call Chance a Christian rapper since he has achieved so much success beyond Christian people and communities. But taking his recent musical choices into account--both in his last album and megachurch-inspired performances--perhaps we should reconsider this categorization. I hesitate to use the word “appropriative” to describe Chance’s act since he himself is a Christian, but the fact that I and countless other Chance fans, religious or otherwise, continue to sing along to his catchy tunes without really processing its deeply Christian content and style is something to think about.