My Life as The Christian Rap Guy – Part V

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, and Part III showed how my faith and fandom changed after being exposed to new Christian communities. Part IV covered the fracture between CHH and Evangelicalism. In this, the finale, I become a hipster on the left coast.

Looking from Marys Peak to the Pacific Ocean

Two of the pillars of this series, and especially of this part, have been the power of live music and collectives. There are a number of these star-aligning live moments I can’t weave into the narrative of this part, so as a prelude I want to mention a few of the truly remarkable team-ups I’ve seen in concert that haven’t been covered yet in this series. This will also serve as a brief introduction to some of the characters who will get a mention when we get into the post proper.

At Legacy 2016, a special honor was given to The Cross Movement, a legendary CHH group, headed by The Ambassador, known for their lyrical theology. After they were recognized, they performed – most of them still wearing the button-ups they had put on for the ceremony. Here they were, middle-aged men stepping back in time to their rapping primes, serving up theology through holy hip-hop. Most of them don’t rap anymore – they serve God in other ways – but seeing them get to run it back was pretty cool.

For a short time, Swoope, Dre Murray, Alex Faith, and Christon Gray came together to form WLAK (We Live As Kings). Swoope’s album Wake Up had recently become an instant classic, Dre was an established presence, and Alex and Christon were on the rise. The group (minus Dre) performed at Legacy 2014, highlighted by a performance of “Long Way Down.” Christon Gray has one of the the sexiest voices out there. He could sing some killer slow jams if he was in that world. At Legacy Fest that weekend, Swoope and Alex teamed up with others to perform “#SameTeam,” Swoope’s forthcoming posse cut calling for unity in CHH. It’s one of the most loaded feature lists in CHH history. One of the featured artists was a tall, thin man with a thick beard and big, warm eyes named Jeremiah Givens, aka JGivens.

Humble as a mumble in the jungles of shouts and screams
Diggin’ tunnels under a stampede, beast!
Okay-kay keep prayin’ for the grace
We stay cold but never freeze
Like water at four-four blap-blap degrees fahrenheit
Where was I, dare if I share a terabyte, we don’t care if you verified
Your lil’ branch is just a fraction in the middle of a grain of sand
Or the hand of a master crafter of sand castles with the passion
Imagine, decapitatin’ dragons
We are just a vapor on paper on another vapor of a microcosm
Of a remnant of minions runnin’ like Kenyans like Obama
In repentance to the Father
Better warn the town the beast is loose
And you on the same team if the dreams from the same king
If it floats from the same stream
If it don’t then it’s gangrene (chop)

I turned to my dad. “That guy can spit!”

I had heard of JGivens, who had recently joined Humble Beast Records, but had never listened to his work. This was my introduction, and I was blown away. I had never heard someone rap quite like this, carefully crafted syllables on top of an expansive array of rhymes, all delivered live with precision. I knew I was going to be a fan.

WLAK only ever released one album, with each artist having gone their separate ways. They were, for a short time, one of the most exciting developments in CHH.

Around the same time WLAK came together, three men aligned to form the Dream Junkies. Ruslan, who emigrated with his parents from Azerbaijan as the Soviet Union collapsed, joined forces with Beleaf and Beleaf’s brother-in-law, the young John Givez. They announced themselves with NREM Edition, and it was immediately clear that lyrically, sonically, and stylistically, they were setting some sort of bar. Each was an excellent writer and rapper, and John brought a rich singing voice as well. I was fortunate enough to see them perform at Legacy, including a stirring rendition of their jaw-dropping take on Hillsong United’s peerless “Oceans.”

Dream Junkies would go on to do one more excellent album, and then the group would go their separate ways. John Givez doesn’t exactly qualify as CHH anymore. Beleaf is more engaged in being a dad and raising up other dads. Ruslan has continued the hustle as an artist and a versatile entrepreneur.

Here’s where it gets wild, though. John Givez and JGivens are cousins.

Together, they are known as Cousin Neighbor. They’ve collaborated several times, but have only released one single as a duo, the mesmerizing “LM2FY,” and they performed it after the Dream Junkies set. I don’t know, but I’m guessing one can count the number of times they’ve done that song live on one hand. And, when they performed it, one could make the argument that they were the two most talented rappers in CHH. They’re both that good.

And, at that same concert, J and Jackie Hill Perry, the preeminent woman emcee in CHH, teamed up with Natalie Lauren for “Better.” Incredible.

By 2015, JGivens and the Dream Junkies had become some of my favorites, not just because they were, objectively, some of the best in the game, but because their West Coast sounds were becoming my preferred style. Hype music didn’t work on me the way it used to, and the trap and Dirty South sound that dominated so much of the rest of CHH wasn’t my speed. West Coast was becoming much more my thing, and I was drawn to the laid back vibes, instrument-heavy beats, and clever sampling of producers like Anthony Cruz and Daniel Steele.

But this really all began with the most important rap collective in my life as The Christian Rap Guy, Beautiful Eulogy.

I explained in Part III how I came to be a fan of the Portland trio after seeing them at Legacy 2013. At the time, I was still fully into, shall we say, “mainstream” CHH, but Beautiful Eulogy was my go-to change of pace. I loved the instrumental, acoustic sound combined with their complex writing style and unconventional vocal features like Catalina Bellizi, Josh Garrels, and Marz Ferrer. The formation and rise of Beautiful Eulogy coincided with a gradual shift in my own interests and affectation. I was, in my way, starting to become a stereotypical English Major and a sort of budding hipster. I would have rejected those labels at the time, but it was starting to happen. And the Holy City of that world is is Portland, OR. It was the spring of 2014, before I had ever heard of the Dream Junkies or JGivens, that I first searched the internet for universities with English graduate programs near Portland, and I discovered that Oregon State University was just a short drive away. Put. A. Pin. In. That.

Beautiful Eulogy introduced me to the Christian indie folk artist Josh Garrels (also based in Portland at the time). I didn’t pursue his work for a long while, until a friend of mine played his music in the car on the way back from the Christian leadership camp mentioned in Part III. I became a big fan very quickly, and while in Chicago for Legacy 2015, my dad and I went to see him at The House of Blues. My dad walked in knowing next to nothing about Josh; he left in love. We would go on to see him in concert the following winter in Milwaukee (with the friends who properly acquainted me with him) and again the next summer in remote Baileys Harbor, WI (with those friends and my father’s associate pastor, who also went in blind and left a fan (Josh and his band are so good live)). Josh Garrels, brought to me by way of CHH, was my gateway drug to that broad category of music we might call indie folk.

But, earlier in the week before seeing Josh in Chicago, my dad and I went to see Beautiful Eulogy in concert. They were going to be at Legacy, but the Wednesday night before the conference they were playing at a hipster bar called Township. They had done something similar the year before, but it was 21+ and I was 20. But good things sometimes come to those who wait, and this time the opening acts would be Alert 312 and none other than JGivens.

We opted again to pay a few extra dollars for a pre-show Q&A. It was important for Beautiful Eulogy to offer things like this, because they, like all artists on Humble Beast, gave away their music for free (this was an even bigger deal then because CDs were still a thing). I was too shy to ask any questions, but my Dad loves to make a connection (I don’t mean that as a criticism, Dad!), and he asked a few questions, one of them being, considering our church was eager to partner with various ministries, would Humble Beast take charitable contributions separate from buying music/merch/tickets? The three men kind of shared a look, and then Courtland Urbano nodded, stroked his curly hipster moustache, and said “Yeah, definitely.” It was another one of those moments that was a reminder of how the stars in CHH always had been – and still were – regular people, even if I still got starstruck around them.

From left: Odd Thomas, Braille, Courtland Urbano

With the exception of the outdoor stage at Legacy Fest, all the rap concerts I had been to to that point had been in theatres and the large chapel at Moody Bible Institute. Each had fairly high levels of production, from sound to lights to videos. Township was not that. It was a small, dingy dance floor behind the bar, with a stage about as big as my cubicle at work. And let me tell you something, Balto: that is how you’re supposed to see a rap concert.

After Alert 312’s nice drum-heavy set, JGivens took the stage. He played the hits from his ingeniously titled album El v. Envy and the singles he had released so far while part of Humble Beast. J is a natural, charismatic performer, easily shifting between elegant and emphatic. One song is enough to know you’re watching someone special.

At the time of the concert, Beautiful Eulogy had released two albums, and they played almost every single song from their discography during their set. It was a delirious ride, encompassing their range of styles and sounds. One of the joys of seeing an artist do an extended set in a small venue is there’s plenty of time and space for audience interaction. Odd Thomas taught us how to sing Catalina Bellizi’s part on “Take it Easy.” Part of the audience fell flat on the first attempt, drawing a “BOOO” from Braille. At the end of the song, Braille, breathing heavy (rapping a Braille verse takes the masticatory toll of a bad New York strip), said “That was good. I had to boo you one time, but after that…” he pounded his chest in appreciation.

The set was not without its mistakes, which are prone to happen when you’re working with a sound person not your own. They still utilized the light bulb show that they had invented years earlier, and the show was supposed to begin with the lights coming up to reveal them on stage as they began “Cello from Portland.” It didn’t quite work. Later, when they did “Release Me From This Snare,” Braille came in at the wrong part, and asked to start over. When they did, he started on the wrong line. “Let’s maybe move on from this one,” he said, but then a woman behind me shouted out, “Uh-uh, you better rap that song, boy.” Can’t argue with that. They did. It was great.

After the show, I met JGivens. He smiled big and shook my hand, introducing himself as Jeremiah. We took a picture together and he gave me bunny ears. Then I asked if we could take picture using his signature pose (one hand over the mouth). “Now that I will do,” he said, and now I was feeling myself, so after the picture I admitted to him that I had a bit of a mancrush on him.

“I don’t know how I feel about that,” he said, with a roguish side eye.

“It’s not like that,” I said.

“It’s cool, it’s cool, I love it. Hashtag MCM.”

So, okay, I maybe could have left it without telling him that I had a mancrush on him. But this interaction took on a very different meaning a couple years later when JGivens came out as gay. There isn’t the time here for a proper sidebar, but you can see a fascinating interview with him here and what I wrote about him a couple years ago here. Suffice to say, here, is I wonder how I made him feel that day. I still think about that.

Coming out of that week in 2015, Beautiful Eulogy and Humble Beast (which included JGivens, Propaganda, Jackie Hill Perry, among others) had replaced Reach Records as my favorite music collective. That, along with my love of the Dream Junkies and Josh Garrels, had me starting to wear flannels (sleeves out, two pockets, buttoned to the top, you rubes) and training my fingers to make a proper W.

The following summer, my dad and I went to one last Legacy, and, for good measure, we were able to see Beautiful Eulogy and JGivens there again. J now had all of his masterpiece Fly Exam to play from, including “10, 2 Get In,” which he did with Odd Thomas, and “Super Lowkey,” which is him at his very West Coast best.

Time for a curtain call for my dad, who could very well write a series called My Life as The Christian Rap Dad.

He was always at least a little self-conscious about being the old white guy at these things, and I so appreciate that he not only was a good sport about it, but he actually enjoyed himself, too. And, even though he stood out, the young people at concerts and at Legacy always made him feel welcomed. One time during a workshop, the speaker was trying to remember the exact passage of scripture he was referencing, and my dad raised his hand and made the connection for him. Somewhere in the classroom a young woman said “Mmm, yes, say that preacher man.” To be clear, there was nothing obvious that would indicate my dad was a preacher.

At that last Legacy, my dad and I split up during one of the workshop times. He went to a session led by Odd Thomas. As my dad would later tell me, my dad had become quite involved in the session, helping Thomas find something he was looking for when Thomas’ computer quit working. After the session, a young woman (like, high school age), came up to my dad and said, “You are just so great. Can I give you a hug?”

After he got his hug and left, I met up with him, and he was walking with Odd Thomas. Given the Q&A the year before and their recent workshop, I assume he felt they were basically friends at this point. He mentioned to Thomas that I was moving the next month for grad school at Oregon State.

“Pacific Northwest is about to change your life, brother,” said Thomas.

“He’ll be looking for a church,” said my dad. “I suppose Trinity (where Thomas was on staff) is a little too far away, though.”

“Oh, I know maaad churches,” said Thomas. “Hit me up if you’re looking.”

Sure, no big deal, just one of the most important artists in my life offering to help me find a church when I move halfway across the country.

And move halfway across the country I did. I’m not saying I went to OSU because of Beautiful Eulogy, but I can’t say that, had I never heard of Beautiful Eulogy, I would have still ended up at OSU.

However, as I’ve written before, my time in Oregon didn’t go the way I wanted it to. But while I was there, I had a special day that will bring this narrative to its close.

Once again, a concert of interest was lining up with my birthday. Beautiful Eulogy would be playing in Portland as part of their tour for their third and final album, Worthy. I made a day of it; one day in Portland on my own. I went to a tattoo shop for a consultation, drank a lot of really good coffee, went to a creperie food cart, walked around some lovely little neighborhoods, went to Voodoo Donuts, and ended up in the Portland Greyhound Station after dark, which, word to the wise, do not do.

The venue was a little café and theater called The Analog. The concert was in a delightfully dark and dingy area on the second floor above the café. It was, of course, a fantastic show. They played what seemed like an impossible number of songs, including the entire Worthy album. It was a good crowd, albeit slightly unschooled in some of the customs of hip-hop concerts, struggling with the high hands so much on one song that a man near me actually said out loud to the white youths around us “No, on the beat.”

Many of the attendees were part of Trinity Church, which added to the hometown atmosphere of the show. At Trinity, they sing the same doxology that I grew up singing.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow
Praise Him all creatures here below
Praise Him above ye heavenly host
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost

Beautiful Eulogy turned this into the hook for their song “Doxology,” and their live performance was thrilling. It has a perfect beat for high hands, and the audience sang the hook with gusto. It was, as much as anything I’d experienced, one of those authentic moments of Christian communion at a rap concert. It was a hypostatic union of rap concert and worship service.

Near where I was in the crowd, there was a middle-aged man and his two teenage sons. He reminded me of my dad, and reminded me that this was the first rap concert I had been to without him. Five years earlier, he had agreed to drive me down to Chicago to listen to my loud, wordy music, and thus opened the door to my new identity. Now, here I was without him, and it was an experience representative of my new identity. I was an actual adult now – not a college student. I spoke my Westward journey into existence, and I got myself to the Holy City of Christian hipsters to see my patron saints. I wasn’t the wide-eyed youth group kid blasting “Don’t Waste Your Life” in the car anymore. I had aged, I had changed, and now I was an adult, a coffee-drinking, cigarette-smoking-and-quitting, indie-movie watching, Bon Iver-listening, critical race theory-reading, blue candidate-voting, grace-seeking adult. But I was still coming back to CHH.

It’s been three and a half years since I’ve been to a Christian Rap concert. These days I listen mostly to sad indie music, Classical Italian music, traditional Chinese music, and lofi hip hop instrumentals. My life as The Christian Rap Guy is long passed. But it is forever a part of me, and I can’t see anytime soon when I won’t keep tabs on what my old friends are doing, or when I won’t enjoy playing some of my favorites again.

Music, as much as any other art we consume, entwines itself with our identity. Perhaps that’s not the case for me anymore, but, during some of my most formative years, I knew what it was like to see faith and music working together in a way that augmented the spiritual elements of both. And I will always be drawn to that.

1-1-Six to the death, my homies.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

-Peter

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