The unmistakable sound of the Black church double clap is the part that will draw you in to the music of emerging artist, Sir the Baptist. You know, that quick slap plus foot tap rhythm so intrinsically connected to our houses of worship that it seems no one but us can do it or even knows what it’s all about.
Sir, the son of a Pentecostal preacher, uses this beat to great effect in his song “Raise Hell.” But you might be remiss if you put him into the category of a traditional gospel artist. Traditional he ain’t. He’s pushing far too many spiritual buttons for that.
“I think I’m the [new] Nat Turner,” says the 28-year-old Chicago-born vocalist, whose album releases later this year. “People remember the MLK dream speech but won’t talk about the ‘I’ve seen the mountain top’ speech. I’m a minister with a gun in my hand and a knife in my mind saying ‘we’re coming back to take back our community.’ Pardon me if I don’t sound as politically religious as the other people.
He goes on.
“If I had to put a category there, it would be two parts: ghetto gospel. I’m the side that people normally don’t speak about. You got Jesus that turned the tables over in the church. At this point, he’s raising hell. That’s why the [album] artwork is a Jesus mugshot. It’s just a different vibe.”
True that. Sir, who was born William James Stokes, grew up in a strict household and has 22 brothers and sisters. Twenty-two. (Says Sir: “I think my oldest brother is 60-something and I’m 28. And my dad was a preacher. Put that together.“) He’s from the Bronzeville neighborhood in Chicago, an area known for its jazz, blues and gospel greats. In fact, gospel is said to have been born in Bronzeville. Sir, the child of “Christian Apologist Dr. James Benton and Mission Ambassador Patricia Ann,” draws from that legacy in his writing.
His music is not preachy. In fact, he questions authority and raises social action issues in his work. He’s got a cut, “(Creflo) Almighty Dollar,” with an assist from Twista that will make some churchgoers chuckle as he references Georgia’s mega church prosperity pastor who, for better or worse, literally has the word “money” in his name. (Here’s a smidge of that song: “He only out here for the dolla…”) And of the sound? It’s a bit difficult to describe unless you are familiar with old-school, knee-slapping, granddaddy quarter-singing, pre-Kirk Franklin gospel. You really need to hear it in order to understand how he infuses the old-school sounds with jazzy gospel, R&B and a strong hip-hop beat. On some levels, you might say his music references the sound of Chance the Rapper and other newer school, non-trap artists from the Windy City.
“I’m not doing the Gospel Fest in Chicago,” says Sir. “I’m not allowed to. My calling is sending me to Lollapalooza. There, I get to reach people that are just in the state of how I receive God. When I really received God myself I was smoking in a Honda. And suddenly I realized, ‘you know what? I need to stop this. I need to focus.’”
Clearly. That worked.
Sir is signed to Atlantic Records and touring the country with his own take on the gospel. He will play at Bonnaroo, the Afro-Punk Festival and Sasquatch, bringing his “Chuchpeople” choir with him at each stop. He squeezes in volunteer work between stops. That’s his giveback given that some of his music might make traditionalists twitch.
“You got lost into this monetization of spirituality,” says Sir, in a criticism of the churches that cash in on the message of God. “When the Pope came on a plane it wasn’t eight people. He brought this whole country. Mission work ain’t just about you and your pilot…. This album is almost like a sermon album for people to take with their life. There’s songs about sex before marriage, making a woman your first lady and songs about being sick. There are songs about a little bit of everything. This first album? I really have to use it as a mission call.”