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

My Life as The Christian Rap Guy – Part IV

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. In this part, CHH and I start to distance ourselves from evangelicalism, and our relationship is never quite the same.

(All photos in this series courtesy of Cory Dahl (my dad) who is quite a fine photographer)

In the fall of 2014, Lecrae was on the Anomaly Tour, named for his album that had hit number one on the Billboard. My dad and I, still in our concert-going prime, would catch him in Milwaukee. It was primed to be a must-see concert, given that Lecrae was reaching heights no Christian rapper had achieved, Anomaly had a bevvy of concert-ready bangers, and he was touring with Andy Mineo who was, by then, his primary wingman. To me, this was the CHH version of Kanye and Jay-Z’s Watch the Throne Tour. On that tour, Yeezy and Hove had wowed city after city by doing “N—s in Paris” as an encore five, six, even seven times. It was almost certain that Lecrae and Andy would do “Say I Won’t” as the encore, and I was, going into the Riverside Theatre, considering trying to organize the crowd to be so raucous at the end of the show to demand they do it over and over.

I’m glad I didn’t try that, because it wouldn’t have worked.

There was a lot that was great about the show. Lecrae and Andy are both excellent performers, and there were several moments that rewarded us for being down in front: screaming You Can’t Stop Me” with Andy,”; the beat dropping on “Dirty Water“; and, most especially, Lecrae’s performance of “Fear,” the best song on the album, which gives chances to shout “I ain’t never scared! Never scared, never scared!” and “JesusJesusJesusJesusJesus!” Thrilling stuff. The concert production was also tremendous, with an array of practical and digital effects.

But it wasn’t quite right.

Two years before, in Chicago, Lecrae had the entire Congress Theatre at his command. From the front to the back, people shouted and sang and gave the high hands. That night in Milwaukee, the group of us up front were separated by a fair distance from the rest of the crowd who were standing by their assigned seat. There were no chairs on the floor of the Congress, but I guarantee you if there were the crowd would have pressed up to the front. To make matters worse, the group at the front – there because we bought the early access tickets – was not necessarily cliqued up 40 deep all saved all serious. There were a lot of kids, and even the adults in the room were a little less into it than one would expect. The most telling moment was when, during a break in the show, DJ Promote was spinning some tracks and he played “Don’t Waste Your Life,” and, as is common at these things, he would cut the sound on certain lines and let the crowd carry it forward, rapping in unison.

We failed. Miserably. And this is “Don’t Waste Your Life,” at that time maybe the most recognizable CHH song ever written.

At the end of the show, Lecrae and Andy only came out to do “Say I Won’t” because artists just schedule encores; we didn’t do nearly enough shouting to make them come back out. The crowd in the Congress Theatre would have called for another until security shut it down.

Really, against all odds, Anomaly in Milwaukee is not even one of my top 5 CHH concert experiences (probably slot it at number 8 or 9 tbh). It was awesome, of course – if nothing else had happened but Lecrae doing “Fear,” it would still have been awesome. But it wasn’t what it could, what it should, have been.

It was the same Lecrae (and the same Andy), but there was something different in the crowd. There was a youth group vibe, a mainstream vibe, that didn’t used to be there. This is not to say that youth group kids can’t know all the words to Lecrae or sing loud at a concert, and it’s not a rejection of entering the mainstream, but I believe those factors in some way contributed to this environment where Lecrae was not connecting with his audience in the way he had before.

The Anomaly Tour is not a perfect microcosm for what was happening for Lecrae and for CHH at large, and the reasons for that show’s shortcomings are not the same reasons for what would develop, but it is appropriately symbolic.

If this part of the series is brief, it is because it demands too much to do justice here, and because I started to write this series for fun, and this is the part that is most painful.

In the wake of the killings of Mike Brown and Tamir Rice (and Akai Gurley (and John Crawford (and Freddie Gray (etc. (etc.))))), many Christian rappers became vocal about police violence and other racial issues. And they were immediately lambasted for it. Sho Baraka was the first high profile artist to take this turn, earning his banishment in 2013 with the release of Talented 10th, but after Ferguson, many more would follow. Without fail, any tweet or Facebook post or song lyric about racism was met with the Evangelical party line of “stick to the Gospel.” And this has not stopped since, with one of the most visible recent examples being that [redacted for explicit language] Charlie Kirk saying that Lecrae should never be allowed to perform at churches because of his support of Raphael Warnock (that’s now SENATOR Warnock thank you Atlantaaaaa). Fans have left Lecrae and others in droves, and now CHH – once co-signed by John Freaking Piper – is absolutely estranged from Evangelicalism.

And, well, so am I.

I went through a big transformation in late 2014 and early 2015, adopting progressive views pretty much across the board but, first and foremost, on race. And I watched in horror as the Evangelical world not only remained ignorant on so many fronts, but eventually came to throw its full support behind that [redacted for explicit language] who became the 45th POTUS, not once but twice.

And so, for a time, CHH was one of the few places where I was finding what I believed to be a just and compassionate Gospel being preached. It was a haven for me in a Christian world I no longer recognized. Now I could listen to my favorite artists rap not only about God, but about the applications of Christian faith in an unjust world. The unmatched achievement is Sho Baraka’s The Narrative in 2016, but the flow of socially-conscious CHH has persisted. Swoope’s verse on Propaganda’s “We No Entiende” from just a few weeks ago is…man. MAN. I was able to feel this new community each summer at Legacy Conference, as bold cries for justice, like Propaganda’s jaw-dropping “20 Years,” were met with approval, not criticism. Christian Rap was still my favorite type of music, and I was still finding content and community in that world that was a great blessing to my soul – something that still seemed, at times, almost too good to be true.

But I wasn’t really The Christian Rap Guy anymore. My sense of Christian identity and my love of this Rap music were no longer in harmony. The faith I found in CHH, the faith that led me to write my Master’s thesis on Black Jesus after years thinking about Bonhoeffer in Harlem, wasn’t something I found reflected in the Christian communities I had grown up in.

This fission also set the stage for the next significant in my development, which was a waning interest in the music itself. In the last five years or so, the sound of much of CHH has mirrored mainstream rap in adopting trap-influenced sounds. Lecrae even released a mixtape called Let the Trap Say Amen. And I just don’t like this type of music as much, even if I’m down with the lyrics. Maybe 18-year-old me, feening for a game of pickup basketball, would have loved all this music, but as I got older, my musical tastes started to evolve and slow down. I was still finding CHH I liked, but not as easily as I had in the Golden Age.

And so – what? – is this the end of the story? Estranged from Evangelicalism and falling out of love with contemporary rap, I went from being The Christian Rap Guy to a guy who occasionally listens to Christian Rap?

Well, considering Christian Rap may or may not have made me move to Oregon, I’d say no. No, the story’s not over yet.

In the fifth and final part, I find a new niche.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

-Peter

My Life as The Christian Rap Guy – Part III

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.

Jimmy and Me

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.”

Yes, he’s in his pajamas. Yes, I’m wearing cargo shorts.

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

-Peter

My Life as The Christian Rap Guy – Part II

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. In this part, I introduce you to some of the main characters in this story through one unforgettable night in Chicago.

“Have you heard of Lecrae?”

No. I hadn’t.

“He’s supposed to be the best Christian rapper.”

So, as a CHH noob, I searched him on YouTube, and found a song called “Don’t Waste Your Life.” That was a title I was familiar with, but as the name of a book by John Piper, and the shorthand title for one of his most famous sermons.

Piper requires a sidebar. For those of you who don’t know Pastor John, he’s like the Steven Spielberg of American Protestant pastors – long career with a staggering output of work. Can captivate the masses but leave the thinking person with more than enough to ponder. A force of nature who couldn’t possibly have ever done anything else with their life. Wild hair. A pillar of their industry with legions of students and imitators. Personally, Piper has had a major influence on my own theology, though we have some significant disagreements, and I find some of his beliefs extremely problematic. But find me one single thought leader in any school of thought who doesn’t have any problematic beliefs. I’ll save you the time and let you know there isn’t one, except Jesus, but that’s a little unfair what with being God and everything. Point is, Piper is a big deal, and a name almost beyond reproach in the Christian circles I ran in.

This included my father, a Baptist minister who is personal friends with John Piper. Put a pin in that.

I wondered if the title of the song was a coincidence, and, if it was on purpose, whether this was a token nod to the theological school with which I rocked or the music was truly steeped in it. I kept exploring Lecrae’s discography, especially the recently released Rehab and Rehab: The Overdose as well as the instant-classic, Rebel. And what I found in banger after banger was that Lecrae was weaving theology that spoke to the head and heart in his music. “Don’t Waste Your Life,” was, indeed, named after Piper’s book, and, as I would find, Lecrae was not the only artist influenced by Piper. It turned out he was, in a sense, the patron saint of CHH, and the respect went both ways. This was an unbelievable discovery.

So, who else was there? Who were these other artists that were appearing on the recommended albums on iTunes? The names that kept coming up were Trip Lee, Tedashii, Sho Baraka, and Pro. I made my way into their discographies, too, and again, I was thrilled to find more artists making quality music and preaching the Gospel. If that wasn’t enough, their connection was not arbitrary – they were all signed to Lecrae’s record label, Reach Records, making them a part of the collective the 1-1-Six Clique, which is a reference to Romans 1:16: “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God to salvation for all who believe.”

Understand – rap was my favorite genre of music, John Piper was my second-favorite preacher, and here are these guys making rap music I loved giving Glory to the God I loved. I don’t even know what the comp is. Like, imagine your favorite team in your favorite sport signed the best player and hired the best coach.1 Or, you favorite director made a movie written by your favorite screenwriter in your favorite genre with your favorite actor.2

My dad also took note of this remarkable alignment, and he started – for the first time – to check out the music I was into. I grew up taking after my dad in many of my interests. I read The Lord of the Rings because he read it. He introduced me to sports. I loved U2 because he was a serious fan.3 As I got older and started to develop some of my own interests, the roles would sometimes reverse, which is why he’s a fan of Everton Football Club and enjoys Wes Anderson films. The first notable example is CHH. He started listening a little, intrigued (and relieved) that his son was listening to music that was for our good and God’s glory. And he, to my great surprise, rather liked a lot of what he found. He also encouraged my listening, buying me CDs and t-shirts if ever I hinted about one (and even when I wouldn’t).

I wasn’t the kind of teenager who wanted to like things precisely because my parents didn’t, so this new bond was exciting for me. I like having someone in my family to share it with, especially because my younger brother, who was a fan of Kanye like me, hated CHH. To this day I don’t know if it was a legitimate dislike of the music, a desire to be different from, a jealousy of the thing I had with my dad, or revenge for the fact that I hated the music he loved – country. But, that rivalry aside, I was in an ideal place, with a bevy of talented artists all making music that I enjoyed and made me feel spiritually nourished, music that my dad liked but I could also blast on the way to baseball practice without feeling like a dork. And the music these artists were making was such that they weren’t just my favorite rappers – they were people I could look up to. They were my heroes. They were cool, and they were good people who loved God.

The logical next step in this head-over-heels fandom was, of course, to go to a concert.

The 1-1-Six Clique would sometimes go on tour together, calling it the Unashamed Tour. In the fall of 2012, my first year of college, they were on one such tour, and they would be coming to Chicago in October on a long weekend not too far from my birthday. My dad took no convincing – he even bought the tickets that would give us early entrance and a chance to meet the artists.

So here we were – a skinny white kid and his gray-haired father going to the Congress Theatre (which isn’t exactly on the Gold Coast) for our first rap concert. I was very excited, but also nervous. I’m introverted, and I was a stand-still-and-listen type of concert goer, so going meeting my favorite rappers and going to a concert that I assumed looked like the final scene in 8 Mile was intimidating. I don’t know precisely what my dad was feeling, but I know he was self-conscious about probably being the oldest one there. And I know he brought ear plugs in case it was too loud.

The meet-and-greet with the artists involved those who had bought the special tickets filing through a line where they could say hello and get an autograph.

First in line was Lecrae. I don’t remember much of that moment, except that I horribly botched the dap, a moment which has made me self-conscious about doing this to this day (this will come up again). After that, I just said hello to each artist and handed them my ticket to sign. As I handed my ticket to Tedashii, Lecrae pointed at my dad, who was wearing a Don’t Waste Your Life shirt – not a Lecrae shirt, but a Piper shirt – and said “I like your shirt,” and my dad, without missing a beat, said “I know you do,” meaning “I know you know this is a John Piper shirt and that’s why I like you.” And I thought I have that shirt too – why didn’t I wear that! My dad said something else complimentary, and Lecrae steepled his hands and bowed. I went on down the line and greeted Trip Lee, Derek Minor, and KB. Andy Mineo was wearing a fake mustache, and he asked me, “Hey man, would you like a beer or something?” and being in the flustered state I was, I said, in total seriousness, “Oh, no, no thank you.” He laughed and said he was just kidding. Of course he was just kidding.

I was star-struck. I was absolutely buzzing, embarrassing as it all was.

Since we got early access, we could get about as close to the stage as we wanted, but my dad thought we should head up for the balcony, in those seats that extend down around the sides until they’re almost right above the stage. He wanted to do that in part because there were chairs where he could sit down (there were no chairs on the floor), and since I, like him, was a little uncertain about the mosh pit aspect, agreed to go to the balcony.

Before the six Reach Records artists did their sets, there would be two opening acts.

First up, Propaganda.

Prop is the human incarnation of the West Coast. I didn’t know anything about him, except that he had done a spoken word piece called “The Gospel in Four Minutes / G.O.S.P.E.L.” that had recently gone viral. What I didn’t know as he rapped a couple songs while waving his dreadlocks, was that he was on the ground level of a record label called Humble Beast, a collective who will, in time, play a major part in this story.

Next up, I was introduced to Thi’sl, a big man with a gritty St. Louis accent. He walked from one end of the stage to the other with small, purposeful steps, and used basic hand gestures to accompany his driving, snarling, methodical flow. And he had the crowd on a string. He debuted, at that very concert, a song called “Snap Off,” which I would later see him perform many times. I’ve actually lost track now how many times I’ve seen Thi’sl perform.

The Reach artists performed in an order somewhat equivalent to their notoriety, which meant the first artist would be Andy Mineo, now using his real name instead of his previous stage name, C-Lite. I knew him best for singing the hook on Lecrae’s soaring “Background,” and not at all as a rapper. I wasn’t alone, as he had to that point only released one mixtape. Andy was the one white artist performing, and he seemed a little goofy to me, not just because he offered me a beer when I met him, but because he hopped around and rapped in a nasally voice very different from the first two performers. At one point he rode a skateboard around. He made too many shout-outs to Chi-Town. But then he rapped a song called “In My City,” and the crowd – nearing capacity – was roaring the hook.

Within a few years, Andy Mineo would be – arguably – the face of Christian rap.

KB followed, the other young up-and-comer on the Reach team. His debut album had just released a few months prior, and one of the songs he performed was “Zone Out,” a livewire that would go on to be one of his signature concert songs, one that allows him to perform in his energetic style. KB is as physically active on stage as anyone, and he pours sweat. He treats rapping more like boxing than singing.

The artist formerly known as Pro performed next. Realizing that it’s impossible for someone to find him through Google by searching “Pro,” he changed his name to Derek Minor. At this stage in his career, Derek was still mainly producing big, bold tracks and utilizing his growling drawl. But big things were on the way for Derek. In a few years, he would leave Reach Records, having grown to the place as an artist, businessman, and leader to start his own record label. His sound and style would evolve too, until he became one of the most consistent and versatile artists in CHH.

This left Lecrae and his two deadliest lieutenants – Tedashii and Trip Lee.

Tedashii is a big Samoan man with a deep, deep voice. He entered the dark stage wearing a custom jacket with neon lettering after the style of the cover of his most recent album, Blacklight. The crowd roared, and that was just the beginning. His hype music is as fierce as any, with his anthem “Make War,” about taking the roof off and his frenzied “Riot,” just about starting an actual riot in the middle of the floor. His Houston-influenced “26’s” started, but he stopped the song and signaled for the DJ to spin the remix version.

This drew my attention to Nelson Chu, aka DJ Official, an unassuming figure at the back of the stage on an elevated turntable. DJ Official is the DJ of CHH. Or was. Nelson passed away in 2016 due to complications with a double lung transplant. He was just 39.

Working with DJ Official on the other side of the stage was Nate Robinson, the BeatBreaker, operating a drum set where he drummed all the beats for all the artists. I didn’t know that was something someone could do. One could be forgiven for thinking that music was being made by a machine.

Tedashii’s set perfectly encapsulated who he was as an artist in so many ways, and was a testament to his ascension in the industry. His next album would be a very different thing, a project born out of the pain of losing his only son to SIDS just a couple years later. His career, like his life, would not be the same.

Trip Lee was next, the opposite of Tedashii in so many ways – short, slender, with a nasally Dallas drawl. Trip was, more or less, Lecrae’s first disciple and protégé, and at the time he was the undisputed Westbrook to Lecrae’s Durant (that analogy worked at the time). As much as any performer, Trip makes rapping look so effortless while also maintaining high levels of energy. Slight as he was, he stood tall on stage.

Not long after this concert, Trip would enter semi-retirement to pursue other ministry opportunities, and his touring days were all but over due to chronic fatigue.

And then there was Lecrae.

Lecrae was introduced through a video on the big screen – worth mentioning that the production of this concert was fairly impressive – and the audience screamed when he first appeared on the video.

Oh, I thought to myself. This is something else entirely.

From where we were sitting, we were able to see the area where the artists would stand just before coming out on stage. As the video played, I could see the silhouette of Lecrae, and he was shadowboxing. Not like a light, playful thing, but like he was actually exchanging blows with the champ. He knew what was coming. I didn’t.

Lecrae is a physically imposing person. He’s at least 6’3, with broad shoulders, chiseled arms, and an elegant swagger. He’s handsome, with big eyes and a mouth as ready to smile as it is to mean mug. His voice ranges from a deep drawl to whinier inflections in the way that some of the most dynamic rappers are able to manipulate their voice as an instrument. He’s lived all over, and so it’s tough to pin down his dirty south accent.

Lecrae’s set was a rapturous run of hit after hit after hit. Everyone knew all the words to all his songs, including all the songs from his new album, Gravity, which would go on to win a Grammy a few months later. Other artists joined him on stage for some of his notable collabs, and it just went on and on. This wasn’t just a concert. This was something spiritual, something holy. It was the height of live music.

The concert ended with all the artists returning to the stage to do a few more songs together, including Derek Minor’s “116,” the de facto anthem of the entire collective. It slaps. And it features a refrain of “Ooooone, ooooone six,” that is absolutely perfect for a call and response with the audience. They could have probably done that for an hour without anyone getting bored.

When my dad and I left the concert and returned to the car, we looked at each other and both said something to the extent of “That was awesome.” It was more than either of us could have imagined. I had had the most validating experience for my fandom, and – if there was any doubt left – my dad was now fully in on CHH.

We drove home from Chicago late that night, reliving some of our favorite moments from the concert, neither of knowing that this would be the first of many such adventures. And, though we didn’t know it, we had caught this group of artists at a major inflection point. All of their careers were about to go in major new directions, and a coming together like this was going to be exceedingly rare in the future.

I was The Christian Rap Guy, and I had just been to a concert with a few thousand other major fans. This was no longer just the music I loved. This was me. And it was still only the beginning.

In Part III: The Legacy Concerts expand my horizons, and I become The Christian Rap Guy in campus ministry.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

-Peter

Notes

1. I experienced some version of this over the past year when Everton hired Carlo Ancelotti and signed James Rodriguez. It’s pretty great. 2. I spent way too long thinking about what this would be for me. Maybe a family drama written by Hirokazu Kore-eda, directed by Wes Anderson, starring Oscar Isaac and Kiera Knightley, or a societal parable written by the Coens, directed by Jia Zhang-Ke, starring Tsao Tao and Adam Driver 3. I haven’t held onto all the things my father taught me, but he did teach me to enjoy my coffee black, chocolate dark, and whiskey neat, and that’s pretty important.