by Tracy Darlington
always encourage people to find out who Jesus is for themselves.
Don’t base your relationship on a pre-conceived notion of what
church is or what your parents teach you."
Five albums of material as a hip-hop artist is a feat in and of itself in an age that has been characterized by many as the dead era of this genre. Three of his four titles have scanned over 100,000--the only Christian hip-hop artist in history to do so. KJ-52 has become one of the most trusted names in music as a songwriter, producer, minister, and comic poet, in spite of many seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Let’s not forget: He is an unabashed follower of Christ, he is white, and he is a rapper.
Tracy: How did the segmentation of Christian rap happen?
KJ: A lot of it has to do with the fact that because it comes from an urban context, if you meet people in the “hood” of Atlanta, GA vs. someone in the “hood” in Seattle, their tastes are going to be very different because of where they’re from. So you have very segmented styles. But that really just has to do with rap’s growth. As rap grows, each region, area, culture, even country adopts it in their own way and puts their own flavor to it. I would say that a lot of those rigid borders have changed over the years. We’re not in the mid-nineties where an East Coast artist goes to California and gets shot, ya know what I mean? We’re not at that point anymore. Rap goes through cycles; the south is big right now, but that could change. I celebrate it. I think it’s great. You can reach all kinds of people. I know what role I play, and I’m content with that role. TobyMac does his thing, and he does it well. Grits does their thing, and they do it well. Hopefully I do what I do well. I still need to grow. I’m not there yet.
A lot of parents and pastors feel that rap/hip hop as a whole is of the world and inherently non-Christian. What would you say to them?
I wouldn’t say anything to ‘em. If that’s how you feel, I’m not gonna change your mind. I have to focus on what God has called me to do. If you are approaching it with the attitude of “maybe I’m wrong” I would say our opinions should really be based on the Scripture. If you think rap is of the world, why do you think that? “Well, their pants are sagging.” OK, tell them to pull their pants up. (Laughs.) That’s not a Biblical reason. I mean, it’s the same thing they said about Christian rock back in the 80's. And now Christian rock dominates everything. We’re just taking baby steps still. I wouldn’t say anything. I wouldn’t worry about it. I just do what I do and leave it at that.
As a former youth pastor, you had the ability to relate to youth on a very personal level. Now that you’re into music, do you find it hard to reach them?
No, actually I don’t. A lot of what I did as a youth pastor I still do with my music. People ask “Why do you have the silly stuff in your music along with the serious stuff?” Because honestly, that’s exactly how I used to build my youth group ministry. My kids were all housing project kids. No church backgrounds whatsoever. If I had gone in there and gone, “Alright, it’s time to worship.” You just can’t do that. So a lot of what I did was a lot of fun stuff at the beginning of my service to bring them to the point of being able to listen to me. People would walk in and go, “I can’t believe you have a hundred project kids dead quiet for fifteen minutes.” They can’t sit still in their class, but I wore them out; that’s why. I do that a little with my music. All of that kind of ties together and becomes the framework of what I do. I feel just as connected with youth, if not more.
Tell us about The Yearbook Project - the balance between your reminiscencing and your goal to encourage young people right now?
I always look at a yearbook as a capsule of that time period. You can look back at the year you graduated like “Oh man, I can’t believe I wore that!” So much of this record was a time capsule of last year. There were certain songs on the record that I just did for me. I wrote a song to my son. I just wanted to write a song to my son. Maybe some people would get into that, but for the most part, I just wanted to write a song to my son. That would be a kind of self indulgent song. Whereas a song like “Fanmail” was written with the fans in mind. I get letters from cutters, from kids who don’t know Christ. I get letters from that semi-Christian kid who goes to church every once in a while - this particular one was addicted to pornography. Then I get a letter from a church girl who writes and says “I’ve fooled everybody. They all think my life is great, but really I’m just living like all the rest of my friends.” This is the idea; this needs to be dealt with. I think it’s about balance. The Yearbook to me was kind of a way of going “Here it is. You just saw my last year, everything I went through.” That’s what a yearbook should represent - everything you went through that year.
If you weren’t a musician, what would you be doing?
(Laughs.) I’d probably be homeless right now! No, I would probably be in some kind of youth ministry. Maybe I’d be a youth speaker. I felt the call of the ministry right after I got saved, when I was sixteen. I don’t think I’d be happy doing much of anything else. Honestly, I’ve thought about that, like “How long can I do this?” Then again, Toby is like.... ya know! (Laughs.) And he’s killin’ it! So, there’s hope!
Five Two Productions. Where is that exactly, and what do you plan on doing with it?
Part of that was a combination of things. It’s me looking beyond this music and realizing I’m not gonna rap forever. I had a burden to produce. That’s where I really find my joy right now is producing, making tracks. For me Five Two Productions was a way of going “OK, how can I help out other emcees or artists who are in the same spot I was in back in the day?” And I know for me to go beyond what I do now, to go beyond just being KJ the artist but KJ the producer, I have to find other people to work with. I really wrestled with this, because there is very little money in Christian hip hop. There’s pretty much no money in Christian hip hop. So I thought that if I was in the mainstream, like if I was in Miami, that’s really the Mecca of hip hop right now . . . So I thought “Man, I could go over there and just start shopping the beats around and make a lot more money. God really checked me on it, like “What are you really doing this for?” so I’ve been able to offer high quality production at a very affordable rate to artists who I see God’s hand on and who have the talent. I want to start executing that in the next few months. It’s a combination. I’ve started a radio show called Five Two Radio, I want to start Five Two Television and Five Two Productions. I teach a class after church called Five Two Academy. It’s my way of teaching young kids how to write songs, how to make beats, how to perform on stage, and how to be a man of God.
If you could say one thing to this generation, what would you say?
I always encourage people to find out who Jesus is for themselves. Don’t base your relationship on a pre-conceived notion of what church is or what your parents teach you. A relationship built on your own personal relationship with Christ lasts way longer than dogmatic rules, regulations or even doctrine of a particular denomination. Not that there’s anything wrong with those things. They have their place and are important. All I know is for me I didn’t really grow up in the church so finding out who Jesus was at fifteen helped me kinda go further than the “youth group kids” who just coasted by. So discover the Jesus of the Bible, not the Jesus of American Christianity or whatever we paint him as. Pick up the Bible and go talk to God. It doesn’t get more un-complex than that. And get some people to help you too. Those answers that you’re looking for, they’re found in Him.
Tracy Darlington is a freelance writer, and her work has appeared in Brio, Breakaway, YS, CCM Magazine, Insight, Susie Magazine, and other publications. She has interviewed countless Christian musicians including Rebecca St. James, Delirious, Newsboys, Leigh Nash, Barlowgirl, Krystal Meyers, Joy Williams, Pillar, Michelle Tumes, and many others. In her spare time she can be found riding horses or listening to music and sipping a Venti 3-shot sugar-free vanilla latte. Visit her online at her blog where she talks about Music, God, dogs and coffee. You can also look her up at Twitter and Facebook.