With bold, prophetic fire, Los Angeles–based rapper Propaganda starts his new album, Crooked, with a daring claim: “Some heroes unsung and some monsters get monuments built for ’em / But ain’t we all a little bit a monster? We crooked!”
In these two lines, Propaganda masterfully signals the tension which pervades the album, denouncing corporate sin while also being self-aware of his own sinfulness. Crooked is a self-reflective dance between the theological strands of redemption and justice—themes that are a continuation of his work as a Tunnel Rats battle rapper, Humble Beast co-founder, spoken word poet, co-host of The Red Couch Podcast (with his wife, Alma Zaragoza-Petty), poet-theologian rapper, and social activist. As he explained on the inaugural episode of the Chasing Justice podcast, “You don’t see your work in the redemptive narrative any different than from work in the social justice narrative because they sit in the same story arc.”
But such narratives rarely cut a straight and uncluttered path. In the spacey indie rock and obstinate march of album-opener “Crooked Way,” for instance, Propaganda floats, tumbles, and tussles between the crookedness of self and the crookedness of systems of oppression within the greater story arc of redemption and social justice. While the album explores topics ranging from marriage to Prop’s love of hip-hop, the central focus on Crooked is his striving as a “crooked champion” in the fight against systemic injustice and racism.
Propaganda provocatively entered the dialogue on race and the American church with the furiously flaming arpeggios and chain-gang stomp of “Precious Puritans” from 2012’s Excellent. Here, he addresses pastors who quote Puritans because “they theology was good” but overlook the Puritans’ participation in race-based slavery. As is typical with Propaganda, though, he then reflects inwardly on how he too has a mismatch between his own rhymes and actions. Crooked follows this same strain, coupling prophetic truth-telling about the American church and culture on race with reflections on being an imperfect vessel for such a message.
Take the album’s fourth track, “Cynical”: Propaganda and Sho Baraka’s brash deliveries and the over-anxious shuffling guitar express the hurt, pain, and frustration that many black Christians feel over the silence and indifference of white Christians on racial justice. But then, Propaganda reflects back on his own inadequacies in standing up for justice and his failure to hope in God in the face of injustice, rapping in an internal monologue, “But you don’t care to fix it, you prefer to write a song.”
The balance that Propaganda is trying to achieve is delicate, since his mostlywhite evangelical fanbase, while apt to listen to his reflections on sin, doubt, and grace, might bristle at an album-length treatise on racism and American Christianity. Where this balance works best is in a trio of songs near the album’s end: “Darkie,” “It’s Not Working (The Truth),” and “Andrew Mandela.” On these tracks, Propaganda splits the difference between communicating his desires to eradicate caricatures of blackness, educate on systemic racism, eliminate the idols of racism, and his willingness to examine his own sinfulness and doubt.
On “Darkie,” fellow poet-in-arms Micah Bourne’s vocal fry blues hook lists the numerous racialized insults thrown at black people. Then, in their verses, Propaganda and Jackie Hill-Perry journey through the emotional and mental turmoil these caricatures of blackness create. Underneath their rhymes, the backwards-running siphoned synths reflect Propaganda and Hill-Perry’s attempts to invert their own thinking to see black skin as beautiful—but as both express, the struggle to fight the internalization of racism is fraught with difficulty, even when one begins to love one’s blackness.