Historically, rappers representing themselves as Jesus Christ fall back on two famously identifiable stories: the story of the crucifixion and a replication of “The Last Supper.” Here is a brief history of rappers portraying themselves as Jesus.
A $3 million diamond-encrusted crown of twisted nettles rests atop the untwisted dreadlocks of Kendrick Lamar. Following the release of his fifth studio album, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, the crown has gone hand-in-hand with the MC’s return to the mic.
He completed the imagery with a loosely worn white gown at his weekend-capping headline set for Glastonbury Festival last month. The unblemished white of the gown became steadily stained with a crimson, blood-like liquid flowing from the crown, down his face, and splashing into the fabric as Lamar protested, “I am not your savior.” The lyrical mantra of “Savior” seemed to contradict the metaphor employed through his attire — representing himself through the crucifixion of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the Christian messiah.
Though Kendrick’s introspective work has often paralleled Christian mythos (the Dissect podcast has two whole seasons about it), his personal embodiment of the messiah — and his seemingly contradictory declaration of “I am not your savior” — beg the kind of overanalysis the aloof MC will likely never settle in an official capacity. But prior to Kendrick, a host of rappers have symbolically placed themselves in the position of the messiah with just as much intention and, whether with words or context, a bit more clarity.
Historically, rappers representing themselves as Christ reliably fall back on two closely related and famously identifiable stories. The first (and most popular) is the story of the crucifixion and resurrection, where Jesus was executed on a Roman cross before rising from his tomb and ascending to heaven. The naturally provocative imagery of the cross, the crown of thorns, and even the stigmata (the wounds from nails driven through his hands and feet) are easily recognizable, and an accessible metaphor for a rapper who feels they’ve been made a martyr. Like the biblical story, it’s usually implied that this sacrifice has been or will be followed by some form of rebirth.
The second set of imagery replicated is “The Last Supper.” This recreation almost always resembles the painting by Leonardo da Vinci, which depicts the moment Christ reveals to his 12 apostles that one of them would betray him. The scene, as imagined by da Vinci, captures a flurry of motion as the apostles on either side are caught up in conversations, accusations and dismay. In hip-hop, the recreation is similarly used to represent the duality of being surrounded by the ride-or-dies, but also an omnipresent sense of foreboding or betrayal.
By examining these other instances where rappers have metaphorically stepped into the sandals and sacrament of Christ, we can gain perspective on the intention behind such provocative imagery.
Here is a brief history of rappers portraying themselves as Jesus.
2Pac on the cover of The 7 Day Theory (1996)
Tupac Shakur hangs from a cross on his first posthumous album. Although he never lived to see the release of The 7 Day Theory, he did commission the cover art, requesting Death Row digital artist Riskie Forever to draw him on a cross. Riskie spoke about the first time he showed 2Pac the artwork in an interview with This is 50.
“At that time, I had only drawn him on the cross, but I actually didn’t draw the cross in yet,” Riskie said. “He was like, ‘Yo, I want you to put a roadmap on the inside leading from East to West and I want you to name all these cities off.’”
Wearing only a bandana and barbed wire and hanging directly below the prescribed roadmap, all American cities with a high Black population, points to who he believed to be the benefactor of his metaphorical martyrdom. He couldn’t have known he would die shortly after recording the album, but he certainly felt that he had been “crucified” in other ways.
At the time of recording The 7 Day Theory, Shakur had just been released from prison after an 11 month sentence for a sexual assault conviction, a conviction that was handed down on the same day that the rapper had been shot five times at Quad Recording Studios.
“I feel like we get crucified… The Bible was telling us all these people did this because they suffered this much, that’s what makes them special people,” he said in a 1996 interview with Vibe Magazine. “I got shot five times… and I got crucified to the media you know what I mean… So I’m not saying I’m Jesus but I’m saying that we go through that type of thing every day. We don’t part the Red Sea but we walk through the hood without getting shot.”
Nas in the “Hate Me Now” video (1999)
The discography of Nasir Jones is overflowing with visual and lyrical metaphors comparing the Queens MC to the son of God. None more on the nose than his 2002 album titled God’s Son. In 2004, he also recreated the scene of da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” seated in the middle of a long table surrounded by friends on the cover of Street’s Disciple. The direct visual metaphor goes at least as far back as the 1999 music video for “Hate Me Now,” where he depicted himself in a crown of thorns, dragging a cross through the sand while onlookers jeered and pelted him with rocks.
Nas gravitated toward the imagery of the crucifixion as a metaphor for being ostracized for going against the grain of a society with a hive-mind mentality. In a 2007 interview with Rolling Stone, he said he was inspired to pick up the cross and crown of thorns by the negative backlash he saw directed at a rendition of the “Passion” play that starred a Black actor as Christ.
“I think, even the mayor at the time, [Rudy] Giuliani, was against it,” Nas said. “So my thing was I wanted to be crucified like Jesus in the video to get back at all those people that don’t want to see a black man doing his thing.”
Kanye West on the cover of Rolling Stone (2006)
Kanye West has employed religious imagery in his music since his College Dropout hit “Jesus Walks,” where he rapped about how Jesus walks with drug dealers, murderers and prostitutes, just as He walks with the self-righteous and holy. Nearly a decade later, he would even bring a white-robed, long-haired messiah figure to performances on the Yeezus tour. But only on this 2006 Rolling Stone cover was the imagery applied to West directly.
At the time of the cover, West was the subject of controversy over recent comments he made live on an NBC telethon fundraiser for victims of Hurricane Katrina. (“George Bush doesn’t care about Black people” is the memorable one-liner from his outburst.) But in the Rolling Stone cover story, West reminded the writer, Lola Ogunnaike, that his criticism was equally directed at the media for its unbalanced portrayal of Black victims of the disaster and himself for feeling initially desensitized from their plight.
While praised for his courage in speaking out on NBC, West expressed that he felt speaking out against homophobia in hip-hop during a 2005 MTV interview was actually a bigger risk. “Everybody in hip-hop discriminates against gay people,” he said. “I really wanna say this to America. I wanted to just come on TV and just tell my rappers, just tell my friends, ‘Yo, stop it fam.’”
Ma$e on the cover of Crucified 4 the Hood (2006)
In the spring of 1999, Ma$e called Hot 97 and told DJ Funkmaster Flex he was retiring from music.
“A lot of people gonna say I’m crazy, I’m leaving money behind and a lot of things but it’s just how I feel in my heart,” he told Flex at the time. “Once God puts something in your heart — you know, God talks to everyone different.”
The news was unexpected. The “Feel So Good”-MC had just dropped his second album and had a few No. 1 hits on the Billboard Rap Chart. Despite this, Ma$e not only retired from rap but became an ordained minister, leading two Churches in Atlanta and Phoenix. When he returned to rap in 2004, he declared himself “a bad boy gone clean” on the title track of his comeback album, Welcome Back. But he wouldn’t stay clean for long.
In 2006, now working closely with 50 Cent and G-Unit Records, he dropped the mixtape Crucified 4 the Hood: 10 Years of Hate, where the former minister depicted himself as the crucified Christ with the staple crown of thorns, and a bloodied white towel draped around his neck. The tape was also a return to his early “Murda Ma$e” style of rapping, in step with his G-Unit labelmates.
The mixtape title and cover describe the MC as having suffered “10 years of hate”: five during his tenure as a minister, and the five before that as a rapper. Despite the more aggressive style of his unofficial G-Unit collab, Ma$e was still full of proselytizing bars about his faith and journey with Christ. It was his perspective on how to preach that had changed during the decade he spent grappling with hate and faith, and the contradiction between his desire to evangelize from both the pulpit and the mic.
Remy Ma in the “Shesus Khryst” video (2007)
On the other end of a grainy shaky cam and behind an onslaught of Gothic fonts, Remy Ma dons a crown of thorns and spits from her position tied to a wooden cross: “If JAY-Z is J-Hova / And Nas is God’s son / And I was spitting crack to the people and die son / And then I came back like I never left nice / Then I’m the BX Savior, Shesus Khryst.”
The music video for the title track of Remy’s 2007 mixtape, Shesus Khryst, opens with those bars. Her staple attitude makes her representation of the messiah a commentary on the arrogance of male figures in hip-hop identifying themselves with God while Remy could so easily one-up them.
Ab-Soul in the “Stigmata” video (2014)
The music video for “Stigmata,” off Ab-Soul’s 2014 album These Days…, sees the MC dragging a cross through the sand and wearing a crown of thorns. Even the album’s cover art similarly depicted a bloodied Ab-Soul sitting in front of the cross under the washed-out glow of a desert sun. Soul’s recreation is also of the crucifixion and resurrection. But his intentions are found in the focus on the wounds that Christ experienced on the cross, and their significance in the Christian mythos as the stigmata.
After Christ’s disappearance from the tomb, even some of the apostles had reservations about his resurrection. Famously, Apostle Thomas refused to believe that he had appeared to the other apostles until he could feel the wounds of the crucifixion for himself. For this reason, the stigmata have been considered concrete proof of the suffering that the messiah endured for humanity. Some notable saints throughout history have even borne the stigmata themselves, as evidence of their desire to associate with the messiah’s suffering.
On the song, Ab-Soul raps, “I’m more than a man, I’ve been died and rose again / left these holes in my hands so you know who I am,” alongside a chorus that pays homage to the chorus of “The Cross” from Nas’ God’s Son. That’s just one of a plethora of references to the music of contemporary and preceding peers across the project that gave the album its name, These Days... (You can catch snippets and samples from Schoolboy Q’s “Collard Greens,” Kendrick Lamar’s “The Heart Pt. 1,” Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” and more.)
Stormzy on the cover of Gang Signs & Prayer (2017)
Stormzy’s 2017 sophomore album, Gang Signs & Prayer, showed the UK drill rapper in a recreation of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” Surrounded by friends, Stormzy stands isolated and unmasked in the middle. The religious imagery shows his proximity to faith, but the foreboding sense of his surroundings and the betrayal at the heart of “The Last Supper,” show that the influence of those closest to you can make you feel as if you don’t control your own destination.
“Stormzy’s faith is obviously important to him and that, coupled with the album title, meant that most of his touchpoints came from religion,” Mark Farrow, who was in charge of the art direction for the album, said in an interview with NME. “The last supper idea came out of seeing him interacting with his mates during an earlier photo session.”
Presenting sharp vignettes of the duality of religion and gang violence, Gang Signs & Prayer grappled with the contradictions of spiritual and physical well-being in such an environment. In a 16-minute short film for the album, a local gang leader recognizes the film’s young protagonist from church and tells him, “You can’t always go to church though. God didn’t give you two hands just to sit around praying.” Later, the same man makes a request of the now adolescent protagonist to “take care of” some rivals. The request prompts a narrated monologue where Stormzy grapples with the ability to control his own fate.
“Young youths like myself who grow up in the hood, we often don’t know that we are actually the masters of our destiny,” Stormzy narrates while the protagonist catches his breath on a city rooftop. “There are so many things that steer us in the wrong direction. However, we decide what happens in our own lives. It’s you and God.”
Kendrick Lamar performing at the 2022 Glastonbury Festival (2022)
“This next record I want to perform is my favorite record of that album. It’s the reason. The true reason, the true meaning of imperfection. And that’s beautiful. No matter what you’re going through, imperfection is beautiful,” Kendrick Lamar told the crowd at Glastonbury Festival before going into set-closer “Savior.” “They judge you, they judged Christ. I wear this as a representation so you’ll never forget one of the greatest prophets that ever walked the Earth. They judge you, they judged Christ.”
The correlation he draws between Christ and imperfection is a curious one. It’s precisely the purity of the messiah being unstained by sin that made his sacrifice a suitable payment for the sins of the world. In his own perfection, Christ’s sacrifice was atonement so that the world might live in imperfection. When Kendrick repeats his mantra, “They judge you, they judged Christ,” he draws attention to the persecution of Christ in spite of his unattainable perfection.
When Kendrick calls out “I am not your savior,” his predicament is arguably the inverse of the prophet he admires. Where Christ was a perfect, willing and unacknowledged savior in his life, Kendrick is a human, forced onto a pedestal he’s hesitant to be on.
Many expected his latest album to address (or perhaps substitute for) his relative silence during the surge of civil rights activism of the last few years. What he delivered instead was an honest and vulnerable outburst of his own imperfection and inner turmoil. Though imperfection is beautiful, as he claimed during his performance, he is not a savior in the way that public consciousness expected him to be.