Jesus and the Gospel Rap Movement
Guest Post by Robert Sagers
Last year around this time, I was grateful to post an interview with Marcus Gray—FLAME—on this site. Today, thanks in part to Marcus’ (kind) assistance, I’m happy to post an interview with some others associated with the gospel rap movement, as well. I’m thankful for these artists—Tedashii, Shai Linne, Thi’sl, V. Rose, and FLAME—and for the way they are employing their God-given gifts, and their life experiences, to serve Christ.
Robert Sagers: Perhaps you could tell us a little about yourself—where you’re from, your family, how you came to know Christ?
Tedashii: Of course. I was born and raised in southeast Texas with my mom and sister, and a stepfather for a time. Life was simple and we didn’t have much, but somehow it worked. My mother was a very family-oriented woman, so we were always together and visiting relatives nearby. Besides school, a part-time job, and sports, family life was it. I was the typical “good kid” from Texas with a truck—no horse—but I did play football. I lived and breathed the sport of football. I dreamed since the age of four to play in college and then the NFL. I idolized the sport, players, and even the coaches. I graduated high school and headed off to college, receiving a partial academic scholarship. I walked on to the track and football team to try and cover the rest. Everything was going my way. I was a “good kid” and good things were happening for me.
That same semester my freshman year another student came up and shared the gospel with me. I was offended. How dare he tell me I’m not the “good kid” everyone said I was. How dare he tell me I was born in sin, or that I needed a Savior, or even that I may go to hell. Needless to say, I was offended by the gospel. I walked away upset, but I was bothered more by him saying I wasn’t good enough. That truth pierced my soul.
A couple of weeks later I was injured working out and it ended my football career and removed the idol in my life I had had for so many years. With a clear focus, I met the same student again, and he shared the gospel another time. This time, I heard him. Two days later I surrendered my life, by faith, to God through Jesus Christ. That same man was my first discipleship leader, was the best man at my wedding, and is a great friend to this day. And speaking of wedding, I am now married, almost five years in, and we have a beautiful son who will be two years old this fall. God has been gracious to me in so many ways and that grace drives me daily.
Shai Linne: I was born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I have a background in the arts. I attended The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where I studied theater. I’ve been heavily involved in hip-hop culture since my youth. I didn’t grow up in a Christian home. When I was in high school, my mother came back to the faith that she had grown up believing, but had strayed away from. She began to tell me about the Lord and invite me to church. I was hostile towards Christianity and it became a source of conflict for us. After a while, she stopped arguing with me and prayed for me. For eleven years, she prayed and saw no fruit in my life.
Long story short, I was abruptly converted as an adult. While I was intoxicated at a party, out of nowhere I began to consider things my mother had told me years before. When I told her what was going on, she encouraged me to read the Gospel of John. As I read, I was struck by the authority with which Jesus spoke. His claims to deity were both surprising and compelling to me. By God’s grace, I believed the gospel while reading, and crossed over from death to life in 1999. I’m married to an amazing woman named Blair and we live in Washington, D.C., where we’re members at Capitol Hill Baptist Church.
Thi’sl: They call me Thi’sl (thizil). I was born in Greenwood, Mississippi, and moved to St. Louis when I was two years old. I grew on the westside of St. Louis in a single parent home—and the parent that was in the home, my mom, struggled with drugs most of my life. I lived in a neighborhood that was highly affected by poverty, drugs, and gangs. When I was twelve years old I started selling drugs and running with the blood gang that was from my neighborhood. My teenage years were the same: friends getting killed, life disappointments, locked up for petty stuff, facing death on the regular. In 1999 my best friend in the world—my cousin, Tank—was murdered by one of my friends. The Lord used this to rock me and draw me to himself. After this happened a church came to my neighborhood to evangelize and I met FLAME, who the Lord used to help me grow in my faith.
V. Rose: I am from Sacramento, California. I have kind of a big family—six brothers, I’m the only girl. I have a real supportive family—mom, dad, step-mom. I grew up in church my whole life, singing in the choir. My mom was real supportive of my music, always teaching me to not be afraid to sing, just teaching me to be brave—she’d call me out and have me come sing in front of the church, on the spot, just trying to make me brave. She taught me to sing for Christ. When I was 16, I was in the service, and I just remember God changed my heart; the Holy Spirit touched me, and I remember it was just different in my heart. I no longer felt separated from God, but I felt like I knew God. My heart just changed—I really wanted to minister to people. And I knew that’s when I got saved. It wasn’t like somebody necessarily told me, because I had lived in church, but God did it, God saved me. It was something that I wanted, so I knew that God pursued me.
FLAME: I’m from St. Louis, Missouri. I grew up in a family that was professing Christ. And I was always impressed with Jesus; I liked the idea of going to heaven, forgiveness of sin—those things were attractive to me, but I wasn’t walking with the Lord. I read my Bible, I told people about Jesus, and one probably would have thought I was saved at a younger age. But my teen years proved that I wasn’t a Christian, and the way the Lord saved me was through a series of events getting my attention. I was in a tragic accident—got hit three times by an 18-wheeler gas truck; I had to do physical therapy for about almost a year, half a year. Shortly after that, my grandmother passed away. And I was invited to church at that point. One of my close friends, his father had just gotten life in prison, so my friends and I would just hang out over at his house and just waste our lives, doing crazy stuff. And eventually I was invited to church, and I went, heard the gospel the first time there, wept like a baby, and the Lord drew me and I committed myself to him. The Lord took most of my vices away immediately, instantaneously. (He left a few for me to grow in sanctification, obviously—of course.) And that’s what the Lord used to save me.
RES: How would you describe your calling, your ministry?
Tedashii: My life is bent on living out being a Christ follower. What I do musically, vocationally, or even in ministry was birthed, and became a huge burden, from simply following Christ. God gave me many passions and desires yet only one door kept opening, and that was art. Whether it was public speaking or rapping, God allowed the arts to be a consistent outlet of ministry. So besides serving at my local fellowship and discipleship, music has become a major platform for how I serve and follow Christ.
Shai Linne: I use music as a means to highlight the character of God and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, primarily for the building up and encouragement of the church. I’m passionate about the gospel, the supremacy of Christ in all things, sound theology that leads to the joyful, vibrant worship of God. I also enjoy teaching the Word, writing and expressing the beauty of God through the arts.
Thi’sl: I’m a teacher and a missionary. No matter what context, what part of the city, whether it’s county or hood, I love people. My heart beats heavy after the inner city, though—because that’s where I came from and I know the hurt that goes on there, and my heart beats for them to know Christ. The main tool God has given me to do it is hip-hop. Hip-hop is the soundtrack to urban life and quickly growing to be the soundtrack of American life. It speaks to people and pumps them like few other musical genres ever have. That’s why we are attempting to rewrite the urban soundtrack, while infusing Christ-centered lyrics into the culture, hoping to see people changed.
V. Rose: I’m definitely called to minister to girls my own age—and not just girls, guys too, but people my own age—my peers. I do pop, Christian pop—so it’s fun, it’s engaging music with a Christian message. And it’s about stuff that I’ve lived through growing up as a teenager—peer pressure, and dealing with parents, and all kinds of stuff like that. So my ministry is just to reach out to people my own age. I’m doing pop music, not necessarily how you hear Christian pop music today, but pop music that is just as cool and just as modern as today’s secular pop music. Pop music is really huge right now, and is bigger than even hip-hop, so that’s what my music is doing. When you hear it, you’ll kind of understand that it’s not like anything that’s in Christian music right now. It’s Christian pop, but it’s going to redefine Christian pop.
FLAME: Really, I just want to be a voice of reason; I want to speak heart language. I love saying things that touch the deeper layers of our hearts—I like to peel back the layers from just the surface things to thinking deeper about our attitudes, our motivations, our desires and affections. And I like to say the things that would cause people to contemplate deeper about their relationship with God, or their lack of a relationship with God. With my degree in biblical counseling, my hope is to speak the type of theology and heart language that would really serve to cause people to see themselves, see their sin, see their need for the Lord, see hope in Christ, and deal with some of the complexities of our human experience—why we do what we do, the way we tick, how can we overcome habits and habitual practices, and come to trust in God in a deeper way. That’s what I like to think my music does.
RES: How, if at all, does your background affect the way you minister through your music today?
Tedashii: My background plays a monumental role in how I minister through music. I grew up in hip-hop. I was raised to be family-oriented, and I loved to be vocal about what I believe. That is all from how my mom raised me to how my spiritual father trained me. I love those in the hip-hop culture—so much so, I want to devote my life to reaching as many as I can. I love my family, and now that means those who do the will of my Father. And I am vocal about the God I love, the salvation He provides through Jesus, and life as a devoted Christ follower. It’s huge!
(Get the song, Finally)
Shai Linne: I’ve always been a lover of language. One of the things that makes rap an ideal medium to communicate biblical truth is it allows for fitting many words into a short amount of musical space. It’s both a challenge and a joy for me to seek to exalt the Lord through poetic devices like multisyllabic rhyme schemes, wordplay, and storytelling. My background in the independent, or “underground” hip-hop scene has definitely helped to shape my particular lyrical aesthetic. As far as my approach to ministry, that is very much influenced by the great truths of reformed theology.
(Get the song, The Glory of God, free)
Thi’sl: The way I grew up gives me a certain authenticity when speaking to hood dudes because they hear certain stuff I say and know that I had to have gone through it to know about that part of it. There is some stuff you can’t talk about with conviction unless you been through it. I pour my heart out in songs; my emotion is usually on ten because I know the connection music has had on me all my life. When I’m doing music and talking about certain things, I’m praying that if a person going through it hears it that God would rock his or her life with it. It’s almost like going back and making songs that would have spoken to me when I was in those situations, if that makes sense. It gives me insight into certain places and things that happen that you only know about if you live in that environment.
(Get the song, Beautiful Monster—and/or listen to it, above and below)
V. Rose: I think growing up in church has a lot to do with me being humble and knowing the Word. But I sort of grew up going to two different types of churches—my mom’s house and my dad’s house. My dad’s was a more traditional church, they focused a lot on worshiping God. The other church sort of focused a lot on praising God. So I think it was cool that I got two different churches, and it just taught me to be really grounded, and to worship from my heart—to worship God, and not for it to be fake, but for it to be real. And I think that plays one of the biggest parts in my ministry today, and the way I minister today—definitely, my church background has a lot to do with that.
(Listen to the song, Not So Average, above)
(Get the song, Surrender)
FLAME: I think my background has everything to do with it. Growing up in the inner-city, my father was in and out of the house, my mom was in and out of the hospital, and it just kind of made me an emotionally unstable child, some would say. I grew up living with multiple people in my family: grandparents, great-grandparents, aunties, uncles. I’ve always seen the world differently, I’ve always been very conscious of myself—my thoughts, behavior patterns. And I’ve always really just kind of had a heart for issues—and deep-seated issues, and why we respond the way we respond, and “why am I the way I am?”, and “why do I feel the way I feel?”, and “why do I think the way I think?”
When I think about those things as a part of my background, it affects the way I write, it affects the way I think. It makes me want to walk slowly with people, and be patient with them as they are trying to understand themselves, and understand life, and understand God. And I want to present the gospel and explain our Lord Jesus Christ in such a way where people see his relevance, and the relevance of his Word, and how patient he was, and how kind he was. I think about Jesus and the woman at the well—how he just patiently drew her, and was kind, and nevertheless he still confronted her about her sin, but he lovingly called her to repentance. I want to be the type of person that can think that way and speak that way so that people can see hope in Christ, but can still see truth that there’s judgment for sin, there’s judgment for responding sinfully to events in your life that brought trouble. I want to help people think through the difficulties in their lives, and how to properly respond to that, and some of the things God may have been up to with allowing some of those things to happen—although I can never completely answer those questions, but I at least want to provide a tactful and a gentle and kind, truthful response to our human experience.
(Get the song, Move—and/or listen to it, above)
(Get the song, Joyful Noise)
RES: Last year on this site someone asked FLAME, “who are the writers and theologians who have influenced you the most?” I’d like to expand that out a bit, for each of you: who have been the biggest influences on your life and music, and why?
Tedashii: My spiritual father, Keynon Akers, has to be mentioned on this list. Aside from him there have been many people God allowed into my life as leaders, guides, mentors, and friends. I would say Tommy Nelson at Denton Bible Church is one. Theologians, scholars, or writers would be Francis Schaeffer, Spurgeon, Pastor Piper, Robert S. McGee, the Puritan writings (the few I’ve read), and as of late, D. A. Carson.
Shai Linne: My historical hero is John Newton. The Lord gave Newton that rare combination of head and heart, light and heat, theology and doxology that the Bible calls all Christians to, but usually escapes us. In many ways, I see him as a model for ministry. He was a theologian, a pastor and a poet—all things that I aspire to be. In terms of personal influences, there are many. But I’ve learned the most about what it means to be a godly man and a shepherd of God’s flock by watching the example and lives of Mark Dever and the other elders at CHBC. Their humility, intentionality, carefulness with Scripture, availability, and the openness of their lives is a constant encouragement and challenge to me. Lyrically, I’m heavily influenced by Timothy Brindle and Stephen the Levite, who are both phenomenal lyricists. I’m honored to be on the same record label with them.
Thi’sl: R. C. Sproul was the first theologian that really had an impact on me. When I heard his teaching, I was fresh out the street and I was thirsty for God and God used R. C. Sproul in a major way in my life. I bought books from his site—one that rocked me, The Character of an Upright Man by Richard Steele, it rocked me. I listened to him everyday on Bott Radio and ordered tapes. FLAME had a huge effect on me in my life; he was a friend for me when I really needed it, and at times didn’t even want it. My grandma was a huge influence on me; she always was a light for me when I lived in darkness. She was one of the main people that God used to give me his Word. My constant motivation, though, is my city: St. Louis. Everyday I see people with no hope that need to see Jesus.
V. Rose: I’m not really inspired by people, or I guess I haven’t been yet, but the things that inspired me—especially in this album—is just my life experiences that I’ve been through. I feel like I’ve been through so many drastic experiences—it could be little, or big—just stuff that people go through. When you hear my music, you’ll hear the stuff that I’ve gone through, but that’s what has inspired me to write from my heart, so that people can relate to my music—stuff that I really have gone through. When you hear me sing about it, it’s not just something I’m singing about, but it’s stuff that I’ve gone through. And that’s what has influenced me to write.
FLAME: I think for me, honestly, there are three people that come to mind right now. The first person is my grandmother, hands-down. In a colossal way the Lord has used her to dramatically change my life. Unfortunately, but fortunately, it was her death that was the culmination of how he used her. But when she was on the earth, her life, her example for the Lord, her contentment in Christ with having little—my grandmother was in the inner-city, some would consider her poor, or less fortunate, whatever you want to call it, that was her external situation, but her faith was deep. She was a spiritual sage. She was one who trusted the Lord, and was wise—she was the epitome of the Proverbs 31 woman. And she trusted in God in ways that a lot of people would probably buckle in their faith. And she made Jesus and Christianity so attractive to me that when she died, I wanted that same Jesus. Her life was so vibrant, and so bright, that I wanted the Jesus that she had. So she’s the first person that comes to mind.
The second person that comes to mind is my wife. Since my grandmother passed I never had that same type of powerful experience with any human being. And when I met my wife, and our relationship and the things that we went through, she dramatically changed my life as well. Everything about her, the Lord has used her to draw me closer to himself. He’s taught me how to love again; I had never loved as deeply since my grandmother’s death, and the Lord just really used my wife to open my heart, and to cause me to trust God and to love in ways that I just had never really explored since my grandmother had passed. So my wife is the second person.
And lastly—I’m almost afraid to say this, because people throw John Piper’s name around just because he’s popular, like a fad, but I was listening to Piper back in 2002, 2003, before a lot of people were making mention of him in popular music today. And I only say that because no preacher—outside of the pastor that preached when I first became a believer—no preacher has really impacted my life like John Piper. A lot of times I feel like God has called him to the ministry just for me—that’s how serious his message impacts my life. And I know that’s not true, because he’s a gift to the body, but just experientially, God puts the things in his heart that always ring true for me, and he helps me think about my heart issues in ways that a lot of people really can’t do from the pulpit. So those are the three most influential people that come to mind that have really impacted my life.
RES: What are your hopes for the way in which the Lord will use the Christian rap movement?
Tedashii: So many things. Honestly I sincerely want to see God save many. I have desires of how this should be stewarded, or sonically what it could and should be, and even that all of the labor won’t be in vain and it just become another genre, but for me I simply pray for the salvation of many. I do enough events and meet so many who need the gospel more than another favorite rapper. So I pray for substance in this thing and that God will use it to provide just that, to his glory.
Shai Linne: My hope for the Christian hip-hop movement is that at the end of the day, we would have more to show for this era than a just a few good CDs. My prayer is that God would use the truth communicated in the music to awaken those who listen to the value and beauty of Christ in such a way that they would not only aspire to be rappers, but pastors, teachers, preachers, elders, urban missionaries, etc. I pray that the Lord would give this movement a deep passion for the local church so that the coming generations would continue to echo God’s glory long after hip-hop is gone.
Thi’sl: I hope God uses the Christian rap movement to pump the believers that listen to it to go hard for him, and for God to show himself to the people that love hip-hop that don’t know him, who he is.
V. Rose: (I’m going to say Christian pop movement.) My hope is definitely to influence young people, all people—that you can be a Christian, it can be cool to be saved, it is cool—and the importance of being saved. And just to draw people with the style, and with the gifts that God has given me. My hope is definitely to just reach people that are not being reached right now, and to take over.
FLAME: Really I think about spiritual warfare. Honestly. The way God has used music, it’s always been a way to lift the spirit towards God, it’s always been a way to communicate weighty messages, and I just want people to hear this music, and I want the Lord to use it in battle, spiritually. So I want people to hear words and concepts and themes that would prick thoughts, and that the Holy Spirit could use those lyrics to penetrate the heart, to come from an angle where most people are guarded through raw intellectualism. But through music, through the arts, we can kind of come through the backdoor and sneak up on them with some of the things they’re trying to avoid. So I just want our music to really do spiritual warfare internally in peoples’ hearts.
Of course I want people to like it, and have fun, and to have an alternative to the secular garbage, but mostly I want people to fall deeper in love with the Lord through the music, and I want them to be challenged to find ways to love God, find ways to share God’s love, and I want it to ultimately lift peoples’ spirits and encourage them towards godliness and good works. That may sound like a simple statement, but that’s powerful. Changing somebody’s mood, changing somebody’s mind, changing somebody’s ideas—that’s a powerful thing when it takes place. And only God can change your heart. So if God uses our music to do that, that’s an honor, and that’s not to be taken lightly. So I just see us as doing spiritual warfare through music. And I want to hear stories about people getting saved from false religions. I want to hear stories about people getting saved from false doctrine. I want to hear people talk about the atheist experience, and hearing a song, and being converted to Christianity under the weight and the heaviness of the gospel that penetrated through the song. That’s the stuff I want to hear from people. And I would love to hear God say, “Job well done—that’s what you accomplished through my grace in your music.”
(Image credits: Tedashii, V. Rose; other photos submitted by the artists. All photos save Shai Linne’s were edited for site formatting. Song credits: Move and Not So Average; Beautiful Monster submitted by the artist.)
Thanks to Tedashii, Shai Linne, Thi’sl, V. Rose, and FLAME for taking the time to answer these questions. Pray for them, for their respective ministries.