I had never cried off of hip hop before–then Lecrae.  The 33-year-old rap star had just gotten hype at the McDonald’s Inspiration Celebration concert in Maryland, performing his Christian-message hits, jumping higher than any Que Dawg, and getting the crowd dancing like it was Friday night (instead of a Thursday evening). But for his final song, “Just Like You,” Lecrae cut the music. We stopped dancing. We just listened. He started rapping about a drug-addled father who was never there and the Father who always was, who changed him, and whom he now lives to be “just like.” And we started worshipping. 

Teens, young adults, even older attendees who had only come to see Tamela Mann and veteran gospel artists John P. Kee, Vickie Winans and Smokie Norful, were on their feet, hands in the air, thanking God. As the spirit in this song filled me up, gratitude spilled out of me, too, for the obvious gift God had given to this artist to speak words that touched us all in different ways and for different reasons, but ended with the same result: total praise. Lecrae is a man on fire, unashamed and on a mission.

Just before he blew us all away, I caught up with the married, father of three—with six albums to his name–backstage to talk about the message behind the music, those persistent Jay-Z rumors, and the pressure of fame and faith.

EBONY.comFirst, loved your latest album, especially the title track, “Gravity.”  You’re rapping about “a place where there’s no gravity” – I take that to mean a place free from sin. But what does that mean to you?

Lecrae: “Gravity” really represents the falleness of this world and the weight and heaviness of it all. And no matter how much power, pleasure, or possession you can acquire, there’s still that weight. You can be the richest person in the world, it’s not going to stop your mother from passing away. Pleasure is just this endless chase. [I’m] just saying that we all want to be free from the gravity, everyone is looking for that and [with this album] I just tried to give some dialogue about what it looks like, to be free from the weight of this world.

EBONY.com: On your song “Co-sign,” it sounds like you’re saying you don’t necessarily want to be considered a Christian rapper anymore but just a rapper who’s a Christian. When did that change come about? Do you see it as a change?

Lecrae: Yeah, you know, as I’ve gotten a little more acknowledgement in mainstream music, one of the things I’ve noticed is that there are so many stigmas attached to names. And I think my music comes with a message that I want everybody to hear and I don’t want a stigma to keep a person from hearing the message. I will obviously never deny being a Christian, that’s my faith, my identity. But I don’t want my music to be categorized with a presupposition. So sometimes people hear a term and they say, “Aw. I don’t like it.” Before they even give the music a chance. My big thing is just getting rid of all of the presuppositions so people can just sit with the music and allow it to speak to them.

EBONY.com: It can seem for Christians who are not new  to the faith that everyone’s goal, whether it’s musicians, artists, preachers, it’s to reach out to those outside the faith and find ways to do that that won’t turn people outside the faith off and those who are a little farther along can sometimes be left out of that. Do you consider your main goal  to reach new people and bring them to the faith?

Lecrae: No, no, no. If you’re swimming in the deep end of the spiritual pool, so to speak, you’re farther along in your faith, I think the music is still very rich. There are a lot of parables in there, a lot of depth that you would have to come through to really grasp the message.  [You may hear] cliché terms like, “Don’t live for this world.” They’re cliché terms but when you  start unpacking that and what that looks like in song and story, I think that really helps a more mature believer say, “Man, that’s deep. That’s enriching and fulfilling.”

EBONY.com: There was a little bit of controversy surrounding your “Confessions of a Millionaire” video. People were saying they saw Illuminati signs in the video. Were you aware of that? What’s your response when people say things like that?

Lecrae: It gets to a point where, anything that is not just blatant, if there’s any kind of symbolism, it just gets equated as negative or it’s demonized. The Bible uses plenty of symbols so I think symbolism is not bad. There are symbols all throughout the video. There’s a wolf, which symbolizes the predatory nature of us (humans), we just want and want and want and hunger. There’s color schemes where one young lady is wearing green to show the pursuit of wealth and there’s a deer head in there because it’s a wealthy party because if you go to any wealthy person’s house, they’re showing off their accomplishments. So it’s really just a lot of that kind of symbolism. None of it was intended for evil.

EBONY.com: So how do you deal with that, when you’re trying to be in a positive space and you have people – even Christians—who are coming and attacking you for stuff like that or just for doing hip hop, in general, how do you stay grounded in your faith and stay above that fray?

Lecrae: I try to pay more attention more to the positive aspects of what the music is doing. There’ve been some professional athletes who have publicly spoken about how that song has inspired and challenged them and so those type of things encourage me. And then on top of that, I know that people don’t really know me so all they can do is kind of assume my motive and assume what’s happening, so I don’t take it to heart. They don’t really know me so I can’t get that flustered and hopefully if they got to sit down and have a conversation with me they’d say, “Oh, O.K. I get it.” And then we’d move on.

EBONY.com: There’s also a rumor that Jay-Z is trying to sign you. Is that true?

Lecrae: [Laughs] At this point in time, no. Essentially, he was looking for some conscious artists and my name was thrown into a pool of other artists and that’s as far as it went.

EBONY.com: Is that something that you would consider?

Lecrae: Nah. For multiple reasons, but one majorly, I’m an independent artist, I’m a label owner. I love my independence. I love being able to create the story. And I want to do in many ways what Jay-Z is doing for the mainstream. He’s inspiring a lot of people to think they can do something on their own. I want to inspire people that they can do it on their own and not compromise their faith and beliefs, as well. So, that’s what I stand for.

EBONY.com: Before joining the faith, you had a lot of hardships—a near-arrest, a terrible car accident, some near-death moments—that literally brought you to your come-to-Jesus moment. Since becoming a Christian, have you faced anything else that made you reconsider your decision to follow Christ?

Lecrae: I can’t think of one single event, but I do know that the Christian faith is one that has to be tried and tested consistently. The Bible talks about making your “calling and election sure.” And so I think you just have to ask those questions: Do I really believe this? Am I really serious about this? To prod and probe to see where you really stand. Hopefully you always end up with that firm foundation. So I think that’s healthy. I’ve had some circumstances and experiences that have been tough, but those trials and those tests on the other side of them have always produced a stronger faith.

The most recent [hardship] I can think of is criticism. You influence 10 people, you’ve got one critic; you influence 100 people, you’ve got 10 critics, and so on and so forth. And so that comes with a lot of assumptions, a lot of rumors, a lot of people involved in aspects of your life and you’re just like “What? This has nothing to do with my music.” And so in those circumstances you wonder, “Man, is it really worth it? What’s the point? But when you have good community like I have, close people who encourage you to keep going so that when you make it to the other side of that [hardship] and get a sober perspective, you say, “It’s worth it.” And, “God is real. He’s here for me.”

Catch Lecrae on the McDonald’s Inspiration Celebration Tour in a city near you through July and look out for his mixtape, ‘Church Clothes 2,’ dropping this summer.