A hectic day marred by of gray skies and rainy weather in the Big Apple handling press runs would not stop rapper Lecrae from saying he felt blessed. When I ask about his black t-shirt with an orange slash printed across it, he says it symbolizes the idea of not being a "robot" and going against the grain of societal ideals. As an artist currently at the forefront of bridging a gap between the hip-hop and Christian world, Lecrae knows all about being different, and it's working for him.
Not only was he featured in a BET Hip Hop Awards Cipher last October, but his latest mixtape Church Clothes has been downloaded over 200,000 times (over 100,000 times in 48 hours). The project is hosted by DJ Don Cannon, who has produced for a wide-range of notable hip-hop acts including 50 Cent, Ludacris, and Busta Rhymes. With poise and high-paced energy, Church Clothes isn't preachy or holier-than-thou. However, he isn't shy about rapping how he believes God has transformed him from a sinner to a saint.
A Houston native, Lecrae wasn't raised in the church. Early in his life he struggled with identify, being raised by a single mother, and seeking male role models in the streets.
After attending a Bible study with a friend in college, he eventually became saved at 19-years-old. This inspired him to use hip-hop to spread his faith and co-found Reach Records, which has a full roster of artists rooted in Christian values, and he released his first album Real Talk in 2004. Currently, Lecrae is rising in a musical genre defined by materialism and egotistical boasting. He's faced some skepticism from both the hip-hop and Christian worlds, who claim the two could never mix; yet he believes otherwise. He sat down with EBONY.com to explain why pulling these worlds together is a worthwhile challenge.
EBONY: So what has been the overall feedback of Church Clothes thus far?
Lecrae: Over 200,000 downloads, which has been phenomenal. I think it has really resonated with people. The biggest thing of all, people have appreciated the quality of the music and the hope in the music as well. The inspiration, the message, the truth, and I think that's what's been really encouraging. And I think people who are not typical Lecrae fans are hearing it now and that's really good.
EBONY: What's behind the name?
Lecrae: I named it "Church Clothes" because I wanted to address the very issue that people think they have to put on in order to come to God. If you want to put on a suit and come to church, fine. But it's a problem when you make people feel like, if you don't do this, you're not going to be accepted and God doesn't look at that. God says, "there's nothing you can do to be accepted, trust me and and let me change you." And at the end of the day, acceptance isn't about what I do, or what I don't do. Acceptance is about me trusting God to take me exactly as I am and take me to something different. And I think that's what we should have for people. It's about saying, hip hop, this is church. Church, this is hip-hop. Y'all need to meet. I know you have some misconceptions about them, I know you have some misconceptions about them. Let's work through this because there's a lot of false perspective.
EBONY: In the title track you stated, "Al and Jesse don't speak for me." Were you speaking from your perspective or a younger person's perspective?
Lecrae: I was speaking for a lot of young urbanites. Young people within hip-hop who are just like you know 'Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, they are not my representatives who speak on my behalf. And I know you want me to resonate (with) and believe in their message and what they have to offer, but I don't even trust those dudes if you really want to be honest and if you survey the territory, it's like I don't even trust them, they're pastors? C'mon now.' That's the perception.
EBONY: On your track "Sacrifice" you stated, "Folks wanna call this gospel rap/Nah, homeboy, this sacrifice." Explain this.
Lecrae: You know any listener would say, this doesn't sound like gospel music. You know, I think a hip-hop listener probably isn't a regular gospel music listener. So for you to say something is gospel to a hip-hop audience, says 'that's something I'm probably not going to be interested in.' Also what I was trying to articulate was, this is me sacrificing everything people think I should be chasing to bring hope and to bring inspiration. And some people would say o he's just trying to make those gospel moves. But for me, it's really not. I'm really just trying to bring hope to people and I'll sacrifice all the multiple things that come with the stigma.
EBONY:You reference mainstream artists such as Kanye West, Jay-Z, and J. Cole in your music. What would you say to people who would think it's hypocritical to listen to mainstream rap, in your position?
Lecrae: I would say, seriously for Christians who have a problem with that, maybe it's something you shouldn't do. I know for me as an artist, I think I do myself and my listeners a disservice, if I don't listen to some of the best music out there. If I was an architect or a carpenter, I'm going to want to study the best architects and carpenters and I'm going to appreciate their work, because they're going to inspire me to do well. And I just look at them as great architects and I just appreciate the gift that God gave them.
EBONY: In your recent blog post you wrote, "Most professing Christians have no idea how to direct their careers with biblical lenses, but instead of praying for and offering solutions, we usually just shake our heads and dismiss 'these sellouts and compromisers.'" Can you speak more about this?
Lecrae: We traditionally haven't done a great job of having representation in various aspects of culture. When it comes to salvation, we have something to say about that. When it comes to church, yes we have something to say about that. When it comes to fashion, I don't know. When it comes to television, huh, I don't know. Instead of trying to be involved, I think what we tend to do is try to create our own little niche. A lot of times, it's poor in quality; instead of trying to learn, get involved, and be apart of. And I think you see that in so many people and groups. Just how so many African-Americans have integrated culture and said, we're going to have representation in the world at large. So the President didn't say "I only want to be the President of Black people," he said "I want to be the President of the United States and have something to say about the United States and my perspective and my lens is going to affect my judgment on everything" and that's the way a Christian should be. I'm going to invade culture and my lens and perspective is going to influence culture just as much as anyone else's.
EBONY: Speaking of President Obama, he's a Christian and he's been receiving backlash for supporting gay marriage. So do you think this is an example of a disconnect between some in the church, and people who are in the forefront who have to represent everyone?
Lecrae: Oh it's tough. Anytime you're dealing with moral issues, in a government position, you're dealing with some sticky stuff because everybody's morality is different. So you may be a Christian and say "my morality is based on the Bible." But if it doesn't line up with the way they think it should line up, now you got a problem with them. And then you can say, "I'm more in line with the Bible," but you don't care about the Bible, so they are like 'why are you imposing these difficult rules on me? I don't even believe in that.' So you just have an interesting and sticky situation. And then at the end of the day, my hat goes off to anybody trying to run for president, or trying to be president, because you're never going to please everybody, it's not possible.
EBONY: Lately, I've noticed a media fascination with famous people who aren't traditionally shown as leading a Christ-filled life such as Tim Tebow, and Jeremy Lin.
Lecrae: I don't know, maybe the consistency of it all happening at once maybe have something to do with it. I'm not sure. But one thing I will say is that there will be no one paying attention to Tim Tebow or Jeremy Lin, if they weren't good athletes. There would be nobody paying attention to Lecrae if he couldn't rap. So I think that's part of it and that's what's important for people, especially for believers and Christians to understand is that you got to do well at your craft ultimately, especially if you know that people are observing you and watching you and you don't want to get out there and produce subpar work. Because that's how people look at it. They don't just look at you as an athlete, they look at it as o you're an athlete and you're a Christian, what's happening now?
EBONY:In the past other Christian artists in the genre of gospel have been able to make the crossover to R&B like the Clark Sisters, Kirk Franklin, and Mary Mary. You don't have anyone to look up to on the hip-hop side of things and you're kind of on the front of that. How does that feel?
Lecrae: I don't feel pressure, but I feel encouraged. But I want to be the bridge. I embrace it. I don't mind being a leader. I don't mind opening the doors. I guess my prayer is that there will be other leaders behind me who will come in and do more than what I've done, and more than what I can do and that this serves as an opportunity to level the playing field in hip-hop. I just want to be able to say "Hey, there's way more going on in life than the club."
Lecrae: The next album is called Gravity. It's coming out in the fall 2012. I'm excited about it. You know I push the envelope. I like creative things.
EBONY: How will it be different from Church Clothes?
Lecrae: It's going to be Church Clothes on steroids. It'll more polished, obviously and bigger songs, that have a little bit more robust production but yeah I think if you enjoy Church Clothes, you'll really enjoy that.