Culture

'You’re just losing privilege, that’s not that bad'

Outspoken artist Propaganda speaks truth to the church’s power

Propaganda says it’s time for the American church to “face some cold hard facts”.

“You’re complicit in racial and systemic injustices. You’ve perpetuated it,” according to the hip hop artist, performance poet, podcaster and academic.

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“You’ve sold your church to a political party,” continues Propaganda. “You’ve married yourself to the empire. Just do what the Bible calls it and repent about it. Face that reality. Swallow the pill. You did it. We did it.”

Born Jason Petty, Propaganda is a passionate guy who uses words intentionally and forcefully across any medium he can. He’s also a member of the ‘Humble Beast’ family of creatives – “a group of pastors, writers, theologians, and musicians, who leverage their talents” and “create a hub of Gospel-saturated resources”.

Headline performer at SPARC’s National Gathering in Sydney last week, Propaganda’s recent output delivers an outspoken smackdown of the church in his homeland.

Prop (as his friends call him) is quick to groan when Eternity asked him what is the biggest challenge facing the American church today. “I gotta rank them?” he says with a laugh, before replying “We’ve got a lot.”

Firstly, he hopes American Christians can “learn to listen to each other”. Secondly, he highlights the problem of perspective. “I just find their world is small,” he says.

“You think you’re being persecuted? Get out of America for a second. You want to talk about persecution? Let’s go to one of these border towns. You know? The island off the side of your country [Nauru]. You know what I’m saying? You want to talk about persecution, let’s go there.

“You’re just losing privilege. That’s not that bad, you know?” – Propaganda

If the America church does not “reconcile these gross contradictions”, he fears that Christians will lose their voice and influence in society. But Prop thinks that some hallmarks of public Christianity are worth losing.

“You’ve gotta stop conflating the loss of privilege with persecution, because it’s not the same. You’re just losing privilege. That’s not that bad, you know?”

Propaganda is well-studied, well-considered and has proven himself well-able to speak these kinds of truths in whatever setting he finds himself – be that his music, the media, on tour internationally as a solo artist, or on stage at a conference. And his voice is pretty different to the typical ‘American Christian’ one that currently is heard in mainstream media.

“The story of the American church is the tale of multiple cities,” he says, noting that he didn’t grow up in the Bible-belt, deep southern or middle American church that’s known for being “remarkably conservative” and “votes along party lines.” Instead, he grew up in a pretty violent Mexican neighbourhood in LA, as the son of a Black Panther father.

Equipped by his own intercultural studies, and the ongoing conversation with his Mexican wife, university professor Dr. Alma Zaragoza-Petty (who has a PhD in education policy and social context) Propaganda has become an expert at guiding a discussion back to what he calls “the higher question”.

For example, he’s concerned about “right wing” and “left wing” Christian echo chamber, which he considers spaces where people “sit in their circles and kinda huff about the other circle”, asking their friends “Can you believe..?” and generally “riling themselves up”.

“We’re complex people who see things nuanced. We’re more than the categories.” – Propaganda

In fact, he thinks even the binary categories of “right and left wing” need to be challenged, because accepting them is equivalent to conceding to “a way of organising the world … handed to us with its talking points”. And it doesn’t have to be that way, he stresses.

“I don’t have to accept that these [left wing and right wing categories] are my only choices to organise our societal strands. And the problems are, you sit in these echo chambers, and the echo chambers mean that you’ve accepted that these are our only categories. And I just refuse to accept that. There’s so many other ways to organise society.”

Prop is outraged by the “talking points” that we’re given when we accept left and right wing societal categories, and calls them “preposterous”.

“Just because you would hold to small government and fiscal responsibility means you don’t care about the globe or climate changing? And just because you care about climate change it means you spend money frivolously? We’re complex people who see things nuanced. We’re more than the categories. I think that we’ve gotta not accept that these are our only categories.”

“’Who’s coming to dinner after?’ is the better question …” – Propaganda

He takes a similar approach to the question of racial diversity in our churches, noting that the goal is for churches to reflect their communities, and that churches diversity also applies to gender, orientation, financial strata and the like.

“Be aware of your area and purposeful in whatever ways your community can have multiple voices because that’s ultimately going to help you really understand the image of God better… because that person that’s different than you is an image bearer, and is reflecting and seeing the world in a lens that you actually need.”

The higher question, he notes, is how diverse our friendship networks are, because that will flow over into churches.

“’Who’s coming to dinner after?’ is the better question than who you’re going to church with,” he says.

It’s a pretty rational, academic take on the world for someone who’s best known for writing and performing hip hop music that’s particularly intense – emotionally, sonically and lyrically. And in contrast again, what’s most striking about Prop on his podcast – Red Couch, where he and his wife sit on a literal red couch and have “candid conversations and interviews covering everything from pop culture to important social issues” – is how often he dissolves into a fit of laughter.

So which is the ‘real’ Prop? Is he thoughtful and academic, serious and intense, or a guy who laughs a lot? Of course, the answer is ‘all of the above’, though he appreciates the observation.

“When you’re a fully developed person… a full personality, the multiple expressions of that are going to come out, depending on the environment and the concept.”

“In a lot of ways, nations are just kids, functioning as an institution …” – Propaganda

What he enjoys is much wider than the serious matter that inspires him to “write best” and he loves to laugh with his wife and friends. He even reckons “in another universe” he “would have attempted to do comedy, to be a stand-up comedian”. Unfortunately, in this one, he says he “can’t write a joke to save his life.”

Many would disagree. Especially if they’ve tuned in to the regular Red Couch Podcast segment known as “Hood Politics”.

“I have this belief that if you understand grade-school playground dynamics – or just inner-city street life – if you know those rules, you understand geopolitics. Because in a lot of ways, nations are just kids, functioning as an institution, trying to bully each other and play of the king of the hill. So if you understand those rules you can understand politics.”

So is he best described as a rapper or a hip-hop artist or a spoken word poet or a podcaster? Or a Christian one of those? He doesn’t really care, to be honest. Again, the labels all fall a bit short for him.

“A lot of times you hear people say ‘Hey this my tool or utility, the means that I’m getting the message out.’ I think that’s problematic too. Like electricity. I have no emotional tie to electricity. My emotional tie is to what I’m plugging it into.”

Prop just doesn’t see art that way, explaining that he’s “emotionally invested in hip hop” and that “the art itself means something” to him which makes it more than just a utility. He has a passion for the music itself, along with “the culture and all that hip-hop is”.

“I was making much of Jesus before rap, and I better be making much of him after.” – Propaganda

when it comes to ministry, that’s something he sees all Christians sharing in common because “we’re all called to the same thing”. The next logical step to someone saying that their art or their vocation is their ministry, is that when they’re done with that vocation, they’re not in ministry any more, he explains. And that’s just not consistent with his view of the Christian life.

“Am I off the hook about Jesus once I stop rapping? That’s ridiculous! I still have to make much of him,” he protests.

The call to ministry, in Propaganda’s eyes, transcends art and simply comes with being a member of the body of Christ.

“I was making much of Jesus before rap, and I better be making much of him after. So yeah, I don’t like saying it’s my ministry. I enjoy hip-hop because I enjoy hip-hop. I do it because I like it. But I’m going to make much of Jesus no matter what I’m doing.”

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