The Lives of Others

When creeping on your neighbors becomes an existential moment.

In his short life, my kitten, Hei Bai, never showed any interest in looking out the window. Some terrible infection in his infancy had left his retinas scarred and cloudy, and I could never quite tell how much this affected his vision. In retrospect, I think the windows must have been uninteresting to him because he couldn’t see the birds and squirrels in the nearby trees.

My kitten now, Oslo, certainly can see out the windows. It’s one of his favorite things to do. And when a bird or squirrel gets close enough he drops into a crouch and makes a little chirping sound at it, the same one he makes when a bug is in the house and he wants to kill it.

I, like my son, also like to look out the window at birds and squirrels and dogs, but I also like to look at the people. This hardly makes me unique among humans. Last summer a variety of emergency personnel showed up at my parents’ neighbor’s house and my mom and sister spent the entire morning trying to figure out what was going on (someone had died). Jimmy Stewart and Alfred Hitchcock made an entire movie about a guy who is a big ole creep with binoculars.

My last two residences were hardly panopticons. My apartment in graduate school was on the first floor of a complex populated mostly by undergrads. The front window looked out on the parking lot, where I would make awkward eye contact with the people walking past as I sat at my desk. The back window looked out onto the pool. I’d be lying if I said I never stole a glance at a woman in a swimsuit, but I almost always avoided it. So, front and back, I didn’t have much to look at. I did, however, get a small glimpse into the life of the young people who lived beside me. The young man and woman were both shockingly good-looking and hella fit (for my numerous UK readers, those are not one and the same). They had a cat who would sit in the window and stare at me with wide eyes. The young man and his perfect jawline and bulging arms disappeared for many weeks. I wondered if he was studying abroad or maybe he was a Guardsman and had been called up. Shortly after he reappeared, I saw them standing beside his car talking one afternoon. When he got into the car and drove away, the young woman walked back to the apartment, tears streaming down her face. I never saw him again.

After graduate school I lived in a townhouse with my brother. Most of our windows looked out on the townhouses across from us belonging to retirees. They weren’t outside often. The window looking across the street gave little vantage onto anything save the fronts of other associated homes. Not much to look at. We had to get out of the house to see anything really interesting, like one night when our neighbor was up on the roof shoveling snow. (Hands down the best neighbor I’ve had. Mr. Rodgers and Totoro territory).

Not so in my current residence, an apartment in a part of town that sheltered Wisconsin kids think is the ghetto because there are *gasp* Black people. I’m on the second floor of a dumpy little building converted into a few different units, and since I’m as close to the alley as I am to the street, I have a view into the backyards of a dozen different homes.

This has opened up new possibilities for my voyeurism. I smell a grill and scan the neighborhood to see where it’s coming from. I see with my own eyes the incredibly loud dog that I have considered murdering more than once. I spot an old man retrieving the Sunday paper in his pajamas. I watch the cat go down the alleyway back to the house I know is his. I see the loud neighbor kids playing in the yard and getting older and older. I see the other loud neighbor kids playing with what looks like a very real knife and a very real gun and saying “fuck” a lot for being that age. I see two burly men burning a bunch of stuff in a firepit that is definitely not supposed to be burned in a firepit. I see a fat shirtless man and a skinny clothed man revving up a minibike again and again, for whatever reason not satisfied with the result. I see with my own eyes the other incredibly loud dog that I have also considered murdering more than once (sorry for all the casual murder talk I just watched Thoroughbreds last night).

These are fun little things, obviously. The small talk of being a neighbor, the most harmless form of gossip. But it has also brought something a little more serious.

There’s an aspirational aspect to my voyeurism. I had some twinges of this in my first apartment, living alone with no cat, seeing these two smoking hot people living together with their furry friend. I was jealous, but not in the green eyed monster sort of way. I was jealous in the wistful, wouldn’t that be nice sort of way. What they had seemed great, and I wanted it to work out for them. Maybe it would work out for me. My heart broke just a little bit as that car pulled away and the neighbor woman wept.

There’s one couple in particular in my neighborhood. They’re older than me, but still young. I’ve only ever been so close to them, but they’re attractive and seem pleasant. Their house is well-maintained, their yard is perfectly manicured, they’re growing a variety of things in the garden, and they have a giant schnauzer that is not so loud as to make we want to send it the way of Wellington. On pleasant evenings, they’ll sometimes sit on their porch next to a little fireplace, grilling meats and drinking beer.

On paper, that sounds pretty nice to me. I don’t know them, but what I know of them seems desirable. So I’m a little jealous of them, but I also aspire to be at least a little like them. I wouldn’t mind living in a pleasant house in a decent neighborhood with a dog and a yard and the capacity to sip beer and grill burgers in the yard with the person I love.

My life is fine. I’m not going to complain about drinking tea and cooking Sichuanese food and watching arty films with my cat. I’m a tried and true introvert who likes having his space. I don’t want anyone’s pity. But these people definitely have some things I wish I had. I don’t know what they do for work, but they leave in the morning dressed well and come home at reasonable hours and make enough to own a nice enough house. And they have each other. It seems like they’ve figured out some things that I haven’t quite gotten to yet. Without knowing the details of their life, it’s easy for me to look on with longing.

That was until I saw the young woman in the yard sitting and reading and her head was shaved.

Maybe she likes the Furiosa look. Maybe she shaved it in solidarity with someone else going through it. But in American culture, the safest guess when a woman shaves her head is, of course, cancer.

Now I feel when I see the man in the yard or walking the dog that there’s something he’s carrying, some awful burden. There’s something there in his face, or maybe not there, something I never would have picked up on had I still thought he was living my dream.

I’ve been working on trying not to compare myself to other people so much. That’s no way to judge what I’ve done, what I’m doing, or what I hope to do. By extension, I’m learning not to compare other people to each other so much: old friends and new friends, old love and new love, old kittens and new kittens. They can’t be compared. They’re their own thing. My neighbors may be feeling an agony that I have ever known. It’s also possible that, through this, perhaps their life is on the up and up. Maybe they’re headed for their very best times because of this. I can’t know. We’re on our own paths. I don’t believe God has pre-determined every single thing I will ever do, but I do think God has a plan for me and a plan for them. And I pray their plan has a healthy and happy future.

My seemingly harmless voyeurism was also giving space for another habit I’m trying to quit, which is the feeling that my life would be better if I could just have this one thing (or maybe two things). If this one thing about my health was fixed, or I got this one job, or saved this one relationship, then everything would be great.

“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.'”

I can’t, of course, know that things would be better, let alone perfect, if I got what I want. It was wrong to look at my neighbors and think, now, if things could just be a little more like what they have, then I’d be happier.

What I’ve learned – or think I’ve learned – about my neighbors is a bit of a burden. I want to meet them and try to encourage them. I’d like to help them. But what am I supposed to do? Ring the doorbell and say “yes I noticed your head is shaved do you have the cancer?” We don’t know each other. It’s given me a new motivation to actually get to know the people I live around. What good is it seeing the neighbor lady cry if you can’t take her some cookies and ask if she wants to talk about it? Why spy on your neighbor and learn a horrible truth if you can’t offer to drive them to chemo? If you have to introduce yourself right before you say “my condolences,” maybe you’ve already messed up.

Since this is already a light, cheery post, let me close by telling you about my grandpa who has been pretty sick.

A couple months ago, his health looked like it was taking a turn for the worst. I got a FaceTime call one evening from my dad, who was in the hospital with him. He said that grandpa wanted to say hi. But Grandpa didn’t really say hello; instead, he informed me rather plainly that he might be on the way out. He said it like he was telling me where he was going to eat lunch tomorrow. He was perfectly at ease.

The next day, my dad sent an email to the church prayer chain letting them know his dad’s situation. Part of the email read: “There is a strong possibility that he will enter ‘hospice care’ at a nursing facility. He is at peace with the prospect of being very close to the end of his race, by all appearances. He does not have pain, but he is very weak and frail. He does not fear death.”

As it turned out, the doctors were wrong. He recovered and is doing fine for now. But that doesn’t make the way he faced the end any less meaningful to me.

About a year earlier, I got a call from Grandpa out of the blue. I mentioned that I was unsure about why some of the things in my life were going the way they were.

“But God has his reasons, and I’m just waiting to learn what they are,” I said.

“Yes, well,” he said, in his slow way of beginning a sentence that builds momentum for his carefully crafted phrase, “Sometimes we never do.”

Sometimes we never do. Evidently that’s enough for him. I’m trying to make it enough for me.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria


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


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


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