In this series, I’m recounting the years of my life when I identified with a Christian subculture, just as that culture’s music was taking off into a new phase in its history. For a time, Christian Rap (CHH) was not just my favorite music; I was The Christian Rap Guy. Part I covered my origin story. Part II introduced the main characters in an unforgettable concert experience. In this part, I take you to the Legacy Conference in Chicago and explain who CHH made me.
The Unashamed Tour in Chicago put me in a space with other people who had not only heard of my favorite artists, but listened to them and bought their merch. It was a meaningful communal moment, but I was still a fan out of context in life outside the Congress Theatre. In high school, I had run into people who had some knowledge of CHH – one kid recognized my Lecrae sweater, another was a voracious consumer of rap and was familiar with Trip Lee’s discography – but in these settings CHH still operated mainly as my own little hobby no one would know about unless they asked what music I was into. In college, it started to reveal itself a little more plainly, as I was the guy who was always in his room playing CHH on his speaker. My next-door neighbor was a strident atheist but still asked me to send him a list of artists to listen to because he liked a lot of the music he heard coming from my room.
CHH was, even as it remained a fairly discreet hobby to the uninitiated, shaping my identity. I started wearing a thin silver cross necklace before my senior year of high school, and still wear it every day. I bought snapbacks and wore shirts that were too big. I wore basketball jerseys and sneakers. I tried not to talk like a square or do basic white people things. I got my first tattoo. None of these things were necessarily because of Christian rap, and might have had as much to do with my obsession with basketball, but the rap part of CHH was certainly making a noticeable impact on the way I carried myself. To continue my metamorphosis, I would need the world of rap music and my Christian community to come more explicitly into contact.
Enter the Legacy Conference.
My father’s church had, for a number of years, supported Vision Nehemiah, a youth ministry based in Chicago, and its founder, Brian Dye. One of the programs that grew out of Vision Nehemiah was the Legacy Conference, an event in Chicago each summer focused on teaching, training, and encouraging young Christians, especially the laity of inner city churches. It attracts high profile rappers, pastors, and teachers, and features multiple concerts as part of its draw. My dad had never gone, and I hadn’t been interested. But in the summer of 2013 we found the concert lineups to be absolutely loaded, and the keynote speaker was none other than John freaking Piper. So, yeah. We were going.
There isn’t the space here to do full justice to the experience of the Legacy Conference, let alone the entire trip to Chicago that became a highlight for me and my dad four consecutive summers. In the old, now-destroyed archives of the SneakyGoodSportsBlog, I wrote about the 2014 conference, and I did write a little about travelling to Chicago here. This is just to say that these trips with my dad were very meaningful to me, and will not receive nearly enough words in this treatment.
The first thing I felt was different, as in, I recognized that my father and I stood out. The attendees of the conference are overwhelmingly Black (and very, very few are my father’s age). Legacy was (and is) by far the most Black environment I have ever been in, and it was the first time I was ever in a place where I was so obvious a minority (not counting a mission trip to Tijuana but that’s different because there you’re running around in these pods of white people). I was, for a good long while, uncomfortable. It’s exhausting to feel like everyone is looking at you, and I had never experienced that before. Everyone looked cool and at ease, unbothered by the loud music or the buzzing voices. I even wondered if I made a mistake coming.
But these feelings began to fade in the face of sameness, recognition, and community. People all around me were wearing CHH merch, but it went well beyond that, as during Brian Dye’s opening message, I go my first experience of Black worship. “Come one now.” “Mhm.” “Say it.” “Yes, Lord.” This was as much enthusiasm as I’d ever heard for preaching – and my dad is a pastor. I admit I was mainly drawn to Legacy by my interest in the concerts on Thursday and Friday night, but here I was seeing that hundreds of people were here for the Jesus of it all.
The first workshop my dad and I went to was led by Derek Minor (again, I was picking workshops primarily based on who was leading it, rather than the content of the workshop). Derek walked into the room with his laptop like he was just some guy. I had only limited experience at that point seeing recognizable people outside their workspace – I met Tony Dungy in a hotel lobby when I was a child, and on the way out of a U2 concert Adam Clayton’s Town Car passed about ten yards in front of me and we made eye contact and no one can tell me we didn’t – and so seeing this rapper struggle to connect his laptop to a projector in a classroom in Moody Bible Institute was a little surreal.
“Oh, big baller status,” said Derek, when an IT guy came and helped him get the projector working.
And then he started leading discussion on how to be an effective discipler, speaking often on the theme of salt and light (while my dad wore a Salt and Light polo). Partway through the workshop, we broke into small groups, which was intimidating what with being a white introvert. As we talked with our group, I met Jimmy from Fort Wayne, who was, like me at the time, a fan of the Indianapolis Colts. When we returned to the full group and were asked to share our responses, Jimmy offered up what I had shared. Then, at the end of the session Q&A, my dad asked one of his standard questions for Christian teachers. “What authors have you been reading to help deepen your faith?” One of the first names out of Derek’s mouth was Tim Keller, who, if John Piper is the Steven Spielberg of American protestant pastors, is, I dunno, Akira Kurosawa. My dad was impressed.
In short, we had just been through a theologically-sound, friendly, down-to-earth workshop on Biblical discipleship. Led by a rapper.
I met Derek afterwards, opting for a simple fist bump rather than chance it with a dap. We got a picture, and as my dad snapped the photo I heard a voice say “I want a picture with Peter!” It was Jimmy. And he got what he wanted.
Legacy was a time filled learning and experiencing new things, but it came in tandem with so much that was so familiar, and the result was that I, even while remaining self-conscious because of my appearance, was finding a new community. These were the people I wanted to be like. I wanted to wear cool clothes and know all the words to every Lecrae song and go to Bible study and get hyped when someone preached the Gospel. There were stars of CHH among us, but there was no mistake that Jesus was that guy.
This was a type of Christianity I could get excited about. The kind where the main speaker on Thursday was Trip Lee (yessuh) and the main speaker on Friday was John Piper (amen). It was a place where, rather than getting a concert from Lecrae, we got a workshop, where he was breaking down the original Aramaic in his Biblical teaching.
Oh, but, yeah – the concerts were dope, too.
The first night began with Skrip, who is a fine rapper but also a reminder that there are a lot of Christian rappers and they are not created equal. He was followed by this group called Beautiful Eulogy *airhorns*
Narrator voice: Beautiful Eulogy, consisting of three white men, Braille and Odd Thomas (not their real names) on the mic and Courtland Urbano on the instruments (actually his real name). I had heard about the trio from Portland making coffee shop rap before, but only after I had become a fan of the Reach Records crew and was thus defensive if I heard about someone else in CHH being really good. I hadn’t bothered to check out their music. I mean, come on; they’re white.
And then they did their set. The trio do not wear the usual trappings of a hip-hop group. They look like, well, baristas. Before their set, they placed several poles with bare light bulbs around the stage, and these would light up in sync with their songs, a neat trick I’d not seen before or since (save at future BE shows). Braille and Odd Thomas impressed me with their complex and precise rapping style, arranging multisyllabic rhymes into theological dialectics. They did songs from their recent debut (as a collective), including “Beautiful Eulogy” and “Anchor,” two of the most achingly beautiful rap songs in existence. “Anchor,” in particular, changed my life. It is, still, one of my 5ish favorite songs, it sealed the deal that I was going to become a Beautiful Eulogy fan, and it introduced me to another artist who will play their part in this story, Josh Garrels.
Propaganda followed his labelmates, joining them on stage to welcome their newest signee, Eshon Burgundy. This solidified for me that Humble Beast was, in fact, a real factor in the CHH landscape.
The night closed with Derek Minor and then Tedashii, and the flowin’ Samoan was absolutely in his bag. He played hit after hit and barreled right through his allotted time to the delight of the crowd. At one point he turned to DJ Wade-O (the CHH Sway Calloway) and asked what song they should do next, and the crowd started screaming something unintelligible. And I knew, I knew, they were asking for “Riot.” “Y’all sound like y’all wanna start a riot” said Wade-O, and T-Dot obliged.
Most concerts include moments where the artist(s) speak to the crowd, sometimes at length, and CHH concerts are no exception. Often these speeches serve as a means of sharing a personal testimony or preaching the Gospel. On that night, Braille concluded the BE set saying “All of our confidence, all of our hope, all of our trust rests in the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross, our Lord and Savior, who lived and died in our place, our resurrected Lord who reigns forever, and we long to be with Him because He has saved us, He has changed our hearts, we’ve been reconciled to God through the cross. Hallelujah.” And the crowd was cheering like he was Bernie Sanders at the 2016 DNC Convention. I emphasize this again because you must understand that I was at a concert of my favorite music and the people I was there with were praising my God. This is a feeling of community on 10. “If Christ is dead, this is dumb,” said Tedashii, in his short sermon. “But if he’s not dead…” It’s the kind of moment that gives you chills.
The concert on night two was delayed because John Piper spit so much fire in his sermon. jk. But srsly.
It began with The Ambassador, one of the most respected old heads in CHH, and one blessed with crowd-commanding aura. Shai Linne followed, a man marked by his theologically complex rhymes and Philly accent. Our friend Thi’sl was next, and this was the first time that I got to see one of his favorite moves, which is to invite an audience member on stage to rap an absent artist’s verse. In this case, a young man, tossed to the stage by his peers, rapped Lecrae’s verses on “Fakin'” and did it with aplomb.
KB came in hot with the HGA crew, and the night finished with Flame, a legend in CHH, accompanied by V. Rose, who was just coming into her own as a coveted featured vocalist.
I returned to college for my sophomore year ready to be a more complete version of The Christian Rap Guy. The Christian part was getting loud, as I became much more involved in Cru (formerly Campus Crusade), attending the weekly meetings and bible studies, going to the fall retreat and the winter conference in the Twin Cities, and participating in a week long leadership camp the following summer. Being a Christian in college was becoming the most central aspect of my identity. This was ultimately, I believe, God at work, but my involvement was definitely spurred on by my experience at Legacy. And, because of that, I brought my own brand of college Christian to my new community. That’s not to say that I was the only one there who knew who Lecrae was – not at all! – but I was the one with all the 1-1-Six shirts.
CHH was clearly no longer just a thing I was into; it was, along with pickup basketball and Xbox, what defined who I was. Post-Legacy, Christian and Rap were working in perfect harmony, the one augmenting my love of and identification with the other.
At the above-mentioned leadership camp, I met Cru students from another nearby school, and CHH was a point of connection for me. I eventually started dating one of the girls I met, and so now I was The Christian Rap Guy in a Christian relationship, and I was The Christian Rap Guy in a broader circle of college Christians.
Later that summer, I went to my second Legacy Conference, which was another fantastic experience, but this time my dad and I went to the outreach on the Saturday morning/afternoon after the conference. I admit we mainly went for the additional concert, which isn’t really the spirit of the thing for conference attendees. We were rewarded with another great series of sets, and while rap is meant for small indoor venues, there was something affecting about this being outside. It ended with a powerhouse from Thi’sl (I was serious when I said I’d lost count of how many times I’ve seen him) that included his testimony (let’s just say Thi’sl is about that life) and a presentation of the Gospel.
After the concert, I asked Thi’sl for a mean picture. This was the result.
I also got a picture with Swoope. He is one of the rappers I’ve met who sized me up and spared me the humiliation of a failed dap and proceeded to give me a regular old handshake. This was a great relief to me.
I did not get a picture with KB because there were a bunch of young women who wanted to get a picture (he’s cute) and he was super, super sweaty (a set of his is the cardio equivalent of running uphill for three hours).
That fall, Lecrae released his album Anomaly, which debuted at NUMBER 1 on the Billboard charts, which was huge for everyone in CHH. We’d won. We weren’t a lame subgenre anymore. Lecrae and others were starting to make it mainstream and were going to share the Gospel with a bigger and bigger audience.
I got a 1-1-Six tattoo. And I went to see Lecrae in Milwaukee where I got to meet him again. He said he liked my shirt this time (a Legacy shirt) and I probably mumbled something like “thank you.”
I was The Christian Rap Guy on top of the world.
But things were starting to change. It’s much too complicated to point to single moments, but two stand out that set up the next phase in this story.
I was talking to Sho Baraka after he led a Legacy workshop, and mentioned my interest in the Harlem Renaissance. He made a passing reference to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. That’s number one.
Number two is something that happened in Thi’sl’s backyard.
They killed Mike Brown.
In Part IV, the redefinition of a Christian rap guy.
Forth now, and fear no darkness.
Soli Deo Gloria