Guest Post by Robert Sagers

Is Christian rap an oxymoron? In what ways can—and does—the Lord use it? How does one even become a “hip-hopper” for Christ?

These are some of the questions covered a few weeks ago when I was able to sit down for an interview with one of my favorite musical artists, Marcus Gray (aka FLAME). Marcus has been rapping for over 15 years—but not always rapping for Jesus. (We covered that, as well.) The Grammy-nominated artist has released four albums, with a fifth set to release at Christmas (and on a new label, which he and his wife just launched).

The entire interview, edited in such a way as to maintain something of the conversational feel, is below—along with several streamed songs sprinkled throughout.

If there is anything that you are hoping to ask Marcus personally, please post your questions in the comments section. Marcus has graciously agreed to drop in throughout the day to try to answer them!

RES: Marcus, might you be able to tell the Between Two Worlds readers a bit about yourself—where you’re from, your family, and how you came to Christ?

FLAME: My name is Marcus Gray, also known as FLAME. I am from St. Louis, Missouri, and a recent graduate of Boyce College here in Louisville, Kentucky. I’m married, my wife’s name is Crystal Gray—we’ve been married for a little over two years now—and we are currently worshiping and serving at Immanuel Baptist Church here in Louisville. So we’re just enjoying the ride, enjoying the process.

I grew up always influenced by Christianity. My parents were professing believers; however, my grandmother was the strongest pillar of the faith in our family, she always made Jesus seem so attractive—she would share testimonies and stuff like that, what the Lord has done in her life—and, long story short, she passed away when I was 16 years old. Prior to that I was in a really bad car accident, and I went to her and asked her, “Why did God let this happen? I prayed, I said, ‘In Jesus’ name’”—which is supposed to be the magic words for prayer—and she told me I needed to repent, that I needed to turn to Christ. She didn’t know why he allowed me to get in an accident. And then a week and a half after that she passed away.

So, those two events back to back are what the Lord used to draw me in. I was invited to church, heard the gospel, broke down crying like a baby, and came running to Jesus. He’s been keeping me ever since.

RES: When I requested suggested queries for this interview, one person asked whether “Flame” was your first or your middle name. I assured him it was neither, but did want to ask you how you got your stage name, and how artists typically go about getting such monikers.

FLAME: It’s funny, it varies because some artists, they’ll have their name from a nickname that they attained as a child, some artists might have a certain style of dress or interest in life, people kind of identify that with a certain nickname based off that.

But for me, FLAME came from doing a study of the Book of Jeremiah. I saw that basically he had the responsibility of saying hard things to people that didn’t want to hear it. It got him in a lot of trouble, and he got to the point where he was like, “You know what God? I’m not going to make mention of your name anymore”—he was tired of the persecution—but he got to the point where he said, “But, it’s like a fire shot up in my bones” (Jer 20:9). He had the commitment to the Lord and the drive to continue to communicate God’s heart. So I just looked into his character and the role he played and thought it was similar to my personality, just wanting to herald the truth through music and being passionate about the gospel. So I said, “Hmm. Maybe I’ll call myself FLAME.” So it kind of came from that, the “fire shot up in my bones.”

RES: Is that your favorite genre of biblical literature, the prophets and in particular Jeremiah?

FLAME: I do enjoy the prophets. It’s just so rich. It’s definitely one of my favorites.

RES: One person also wanted to know about the creative process behind your writing and making of music. How did you first get into hip-hop? Is there anything in particular that inspires you to write?

FLAME: I got into hip-hop in general growing up in St. Louis in the inner city, and just the predominant youth culture—everyone’s a part of the hip-hop culture, listening to rap music. So I was just brought up in it, I was bred to be a hip-hopper.

But when I became a believer I wanted to submit everything I did to the lordship of Jesus Christ, so that’s where I felt like the Lord was redeeming even my musical preference—rap music. So for me, I just started with thinking about the people I grew up around, thinking about the themes that were common in my community and my neighborhood, and I said, “I want to give God’s take on the very things that I’m used to seeing, the very words and speech I’m used to hearing, I want to give God’s perspective on the ills of our society.” It came from looking out the windows of the culture and seeing that, man, God has something to say about this.

But I remember one song in particular by an artist named Ja Rule; he did a song asking, basically, what if God was one of us? So the whole song he’s going through these different scenarios, saying that if God was like us, he wouldn’t be able to handle growing up in the hood. He wouldn’t be able to relate to what it’s like being in the community where there’s hatred, and there’s crime. And I thought about that, and I thought, “Jesus, the God-man, came to this world, he dealt with the Pharisees who wanted to kill him—he was always under threat, and his community was looked down upon—people couldn’t see anything good that could come from Nazareth. So I thought it’d be great to write a song communicating that, “You’re wrong, Ja Rule.” And I did a song called “The God Man.”

[audio:http://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/justintaylor/files/2010/08/FLAME_God-Man.mp3|titles=FLAME_God Man]
(Listen to God Man, above)

So basically stuff like that—I hear things, and I’ll say, “Man, the Bible speaks about all of this.”

RES: So did you simply think to yourself, one day, “Hey, I like to put words to rhyme,” or how was it that you came about saying, “I really enjoy doing this”?  Did somebody notice a particular gifting in you, or were you just doing it, and then you got noticed?

FLAME: I started rapping in general in the fifth grade. So I was always a rap artist. I remember we did a “Cool School” video in the eighth grade and my school won this big contest. So I just started rapping about regular stuff—school, and having fun. But as I got older, I included all the other craziness—drugs, gang culture, and stuff like that.

But when I became a Christian there was a smooth transition. I thought, “I rap; that’s what I do. So I’m going to continue to rap, but I’m going to write about the Lord.” But I didn’t even plan on actually doing an album. I didn’t plan on being an artist at all. I just wrote raps to the Lord as a devotional. So I would write raps, say them to God before I would read my Bible, and go on about life.

So I was doing Christian rap music and looking for other Christian rap artists that I could enjoy and learn from. I went to the Christian bookstore and I heard about Cross Movement. I listened to the music in the store, and I’m really excited. I was there with one of my friends, whose name was J.R. He was across the room in another part of the store. So I’m listening to the songs, and I’m just like, “Man, this is tight! Hey, J.R., come listen to this song!” And people in the store are saying, “Sir, could you quiet down, please!” I’m really excited because they were teaching so much biblical truth that I had never really been exposed to before. So I became a die-hard fan of theirs, and I followed them for about two and a half years.

I found out that they were going to be in Chicago, which is four hours from St. Louis, my hometown, and maybe four or five of my friends and I, we just decided to drive up to Chicago. We went to the concert, and got a chance to meet them afterward. And my friends convinced me to give them a CD that I had produced by that time. And I was like, “Nah, I don’t want to give them a CD, they probably get CDs every day, they’ll probably play Frisbee with it and throw it out the window or something.” And they said, “Nah, we think they’ll listen to it.” So I thought, “All right, cool.”

I gave them the CD, and they called me back about a week later and said, “We heard the CD, we enjoyed it, it was good music, the message was strong, and we just want to build with you.” So we just established a relationship for about a year and a half over the phone—Bible studies, prayer—and eventually they said, “Hey, we’re putting together this tour called ‘The Platinum Souls Tour,’ and we would love for you guys to be a part of it.” That’s really when this started—I went on a tour with them, and they were pumping us with sound theology. And we were like, “Wow, what is this?”

RES: While talking once with a pastor, he said that his daughter knew the lyrics to all kinds of Christian rap songs. He said that it suddenly dawned on him that the Christian hip-hop to which his daughter was having a sort of catechizing effect on her. Your song, “The Godhead” is sound doctrine on the Trinity—put to rap! That’s not a typical rap song, not at all. How much do you try to teach through your music, and why?

[audio:http://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/justintaylor/files/2010/08/FLAME_The-Godhead.mp3|titles=FLAME_The Godhead]
(Listen to The Godhead, above)

FLAME: Basically I grew up in a Christian culture that is probably known as “Word of Faith,” or prosperity gospel. And there were good things that I gained from being in that community—I learned the basic essentials of the faith being in that community. But then it was being exposed to the other stuff that came along with it that I began to suffer from, really, and I had a crisis moment in my faith and the Lord brought me back through sound teaching. And my heart was broken; I was like, “Man, I’ve been in this stuff for five plus years, I feel deceived, I feel hurt by the church, I feel like I’ve been tricked.” There were parts of Christianity I didn’t know what to do with. I was afraid to read my Bible. I was like, “I don’t even know how to interpret this book any more without reading my old ideas back into the Scriptures.” So I pretty much did away with Christianity for a season.

But it was through going back and revisiting some of the sound teaching that I had been exposed to through a group named “Cross Movement.” They just began to recommend books and sermons and I revisited those things. Then during a chapel service at the school I was at at the time a guy named Paul Washer came, preached an unadulterated gospel message, and I just stayed after the chapel service, weeping for about 30 minutes—on my knees confessing individual sins, asking God to forgive me and cleanse me. After that, I was like, “Man, I want to give people and expose people to these sound truths that I’m gaining, expose people to preachers and books and Web sites and articles and blogs that the Lord has used to rock me.” So in my music I’ve always sought to bring the classroom to the album.

RES: You’re about to begin a Master’s degree in biblical counseling. It struck me when listening to your song, “Desires in Conflict,” that you’re modeling for your listeners a compassionate and biblically faithful response to those struggling with same-sex attraction. How do you think you’re able to “Disciple from a Distance” through your work?

(Listen to Desires in Conflict, above)

FLAME: I guess I borrowed the motto from my experience—I felt through Cross Movement’s music I was being discipled in one sense. They were influencing my discipleship process, at least. So, the things they were putting in their songs—it was more than a song, it was like, “I need these songs”—it wasn’t just enjoyment. Back in the day they say Christians used to have their Bible and Pilgrim’s Progress. That’s how it was for me—I had my Bible and a Cross Movement record. So I thought, to carry on that same motto—I wanted to say the things that I feel like people would need.

It started that way, and then thinking about biblical counseling—the topic, “Desires in Conflict,” also came from personal experience. I’ve never struggled with that particular sin, but I’ve always grown up around people who struggle with that particular sin, and I just developed a heart for that community because I had friends and associates that really struggled with that, and I felt like, “Man, I want to speak their heart. I want to communicate accurately what they may experience internally.” But I didn’t just want to do that; I wanted to show compassion but also bring a biblical worldview to that issue in the hope that even people who may listen to FLAME who are in that lifestyle, struggling with that lifestyle, or not struggling with it, that they’d be confronted with a compassionate take on it that I thought was consistent with how Christ may deal with it. Of course, he would deal with it in an infinitely better way, but I wanted to give just a glimpse of what that may look like. I think it came out well.

So I’m just trying to use the arts to bring to bear God’s truths and hopefully see the Lord encourage hearts and sway people toward Christ.

RES: Perhaps you could tell us about some of the accountability strictures you’ve put into place to keep you from falling prey to temptation, particularly as you tour around the globe.

FLAME: One of the main things that the Lord has done is he’s given me a best friend in a wife, Crystal, who travels with me to every concert. It’s in the contract—no FLAME if you don’t bring Mrs. FLAME! So she travels with me to every concert, and that’s just good companionship. We get to build as husband and wife but it’s also good accountability. She enjoys it, it’s not a burden for her, she feels like this is part of her role as a wife. She loves serving me and Christ in that way, and I appreciate that—and I love serving her as well in that way.

With my local church I have elders who are interested in what I do as a believer as well as an artist, and then I have a small group leader with whom I devised a plan—we meet every Wednesday. We hook up at 10 in the morning, and just say, “Hey, what’s going on?” We have a list of about 20 things that we go through with each other and we check off and circle the range of how we’ve done in a particular area and we pray for one another, we rebuke one another, and we incorporate other behavioristic elements into it if need be. It’s an intense accountability process so it’s not just this fly-by-night thing where it’s just like, “Hey FLAME, how’re you doing, I love your music, bye.” It’s a good way to care for each other’s souls.

RES: Your album “Our World Redeemed”—the companion to “Our World Fallen”—was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2009. (That was the album that included your single, “Joyful Noise,” the music video for which readers can watch, below.) One person wanted to know what that process was like.

FLAME: It’s funny because “Our World Redeemed”—even before I put the album out—I wasn’t sure the response I would get from it because I tried a lot of new things, so number one I was just nervous to put the album out, but then for it to be nominated for a Grammy, I was like, “Wow, this is pretty ironic.” But I was completely shocked—I don’t even know how to process words; I don’t even have the knowledge on how to enter the category to even get nominated. So it was just a complete shock. My wife and I were just watching TV, I got a text message from my manager, saying, “Hey, pick up the phone”—I had been ignoring her calls because I wanted to watch TV with my wife!—and then she calls me and says, “Hey, you’ve been nominated for a Grammy.” “Oh, yeah, right!” So she tried to persuade me: “Trust me, you have! It’s so exciting!” So I’m like, “Man, this is crazy.”

We were pretty intentional, though. We said, “We do want to go to the Grammy event.” I know some people would probably opt not to go, but we thought it would be a good experience, but also we thought it would be a good opportunity to be a light in the midst of darkness. And indeed it was a dark place—the stage, the lights, the camera, the action was tight, but there was some craziness there. So we had tracts and got to share the gospel with some artists. We were just trying to be a light in the midst of the craziness.

RES: Who are your favorite artists, and the ones who you think really “get it”?

FLAME: On the Christian contemporary side, my favorite artists are Casting Crowns. Them dudes speak heart language—I love the way they write. I do appreciate sound theology and weighty truth, but I love when it’s coupled with practicality and helps people connect the dots—they don’t have to connect the dots on their own, they can just play the music and it’s like, “Oh, I get that text now!” So I enjoy them for that reason.

But on the Christian rap side, I enjoy Lecrae—he’s one of my favorites because I love his style. He’s passionate—he’s always calling people to something, whether it’s missions, or not being ashamed of the gospel and sharing your faith. I love him for that reason. I also love Shai Linne. He’s just very articulate—he says things in ways where I’m thinking, “Man, I wish I would’ve thought of that.” He’s very keen—he crosses all the t’s, he dots all the i’s. I’m always encouraged by him.

And there’s another guy by the name of This’l—he’s from St. Louis, and he’s a guy who I had a chance to see his whole conversion. He was running the whole west side of our city, a big-time drug dealer, and the Lord allowed me to be able to share the gospel with him and I just saw the whole struggle from coming from being so deep in the streets to being impressed by Jesus to turning away from it all, and his music—he does a good job with articulating the heartbeat of the gang culture, the hood culture as far as drugs. But he doesn’t let that overshadow the gospel. A lot of people can’t do that well. They’ll do so much of telling the story and testimony and you leave more impressed with them than with Christ. So he does well with that. So those are probably my top three right now that are just killing it for the Lord.

RES: What is your involvement in your local church? What role does the church play in your music?

FLAME: Immanuel is a great community for what I do. It’s in probably one of the worst parts of Louisville. So I love the community.

Recently we put on a huge outreach concert where I did songs and ministered the gospel and the goal of it was to launch an outreach Bible study. We were just letting the community know, “Hey, we’re here, we have something that’s culturally relevant to what you can relate to, but it’s Bible-saturated. And if you want more of it, come to this Bible study.” So every Tuesday night at 7 o’clock I lead a Bible study, it’s only an hour long, and we’re just walking through the Book of John. I think it’s a great book for both believers and nonbelievers. I think even John had those two audiences in mind as he wrote. So I thought it would be just a good book to walk through and prove to people that Jesus is God, and that he’s done everything that we’d believe and have life (John 20:30-31). So that’s one of main roles.

My wife and I also love to serve in a sort of helps ministry where we sign up to bring families food if someone’s sick or if there’s someone that’s pregnant—we love to cook and take them some food.

RES: One person asked about what you would say to someone who said that Christian rap or hip-hop—which, by the way, which word should I use in reference to you: rap, or hip-hop?

FLAME: It doesn’t really—some people make a big deal out of it. Hip-hop is the actual culture, so it includes a whole bunch of stuff, and then rap is the music.

RES: Okay. One person had asked what you would say to someone who said that Christian hip-hop, or Christian rap, is an oxymoron.

FLAME: First of all, I would understand that school of thought because if you look at secular hip-hop, it’s definitely, I believe, demonically influenced with an anti-Christ message. A lot of times people are anti-Christian even. They promote worldliness, debauchery, so I definitely understand that school of thought. But I would like for them to think through, number one, if Satan has the power to create? Number two, I would just hope that they would see that Satan doesn’t create anything—he’s a creature himself. Yes, he can influence people to start a movement, but I think hip-hop—rap—in and of itself can be redeemed just like anything else. God isn’t a wasteful God. He didn’t create us to say, “Oh, they’re sinners now because of Adam, I’m just going to cast them all to hell and start over.” He’s not a wasteful God; he chose to redeem people from sin.

And I think in that same light, the Lord is allowing people that came from the hip-hop culture, who have been redeemed and changed by Christ and now are seeking to go back into that culture, to minister the gospel to them. So it’s a mission field. It’s what any missionary would do—they would learn the language, they would learn the culture, what things are taboo to say, to do. I think it’s just a platform to do that, and I hope that people would see that and see hip-hop as a people group. It’s a people group that thinks a certain way, they act a certain way, they respond to the ills of society in one way. Every person is a responder and is responding in one way or the other. And there’s a culture of people called “hip-hop” that have responded one particular way, and that’s all I think it is.

RES: Have you heard stories of people who have come to Christ because of music they’ve heard?

FLAME: Countless stories. Countless stories. Like I said, my friend This’l is one among many. I remember even Lecrae, when he first put his last CD out, “Rebel,” he got a message from a guy who was like, “Hey, I was an atheist. I found your CD on iTunes, and I don’t even know why I clicked on it, and I listened to it.” And you think, you know, Lecrae’s not D. A. Carson—he’s not presenting these ridiculously lofty apologetic songs against evolutionary theory in particular—he’s just communicating the gospel, right? But the Lord used that in this guy’s life, and he ended up stopping rebelling against the Lord through God’s grace and he got saved. So there’s just so many stories like that.

And some people might say, “Well, that’s pragmatic—just because it works doesn’t mean it’s right.” But my argument is that I don’t think it’s an offense to God if it’s done right and Jesus is the head of it, and we’re communicating the Bible clearly, trying to remove as many distractions as possible. So sometimes there may be slang words, there may be something that’s a normal phrase in the hip-hop culture, but if it’s a distraction, we remove it. If there’s a certain style of dress in hip-hop culture but it’s a distraction, then we remove it. So we just try to remove as many distractions as possible without forsaking culture and then watch the Lord use it and do work with it.

RES: But not everyone who listens to your music is coming out of, or is related to, the hip-hop culture. As you’re writing, and you’re performing, are you thinking about the group you’re trying to communicate to?

FLAME: I am. I love to get to a venue early, before the concert starts. I like to peek out before it’s my time to go up, before my set starts, and just kind of get a feel. I ask questions at the venue: “Who’s here? Is it more nonbelievers? Is it more believers?” So I’m always trying to figure out my audience. And I’m doing the same songs for the most part, but then sometimes I’ll change my set or I’ll just cater my spiels in between the songs to a particular audience. So if I’m at a juvenile detention center or a prison, I’ll be saying different things than if I’m at a youth night or at a conference on the inerrancy of Scripture. And I think that’s what makes it relevant.

Back in St. Louis I used to work for a company that I think has since gone out of business. There was a girl there who said that her grandfather was probably one of the most extreme racists that she’d ever met. But he loved Nat King Cole. So he’s extremely racist, but he couldn’t get enough of Nat King Cole. I think music goes under the radar, so we’re just using rap music kind of like the Roman roads—we take it wherever it leads all over the known world, and we go under the radar and say the kind of things that some people are probably afraid to say on a public platform.

We want to pump as much biblical truth and Bible into these songs, and as we ride the waves of providence all over the world we’re confronting cultures with the gospel—even cultures that are closed off to the gospel. I get emails from Iran and all kinds of places. One of my cousins is in Iraq right now, and he’s sharing my music right now with people in Iraq, and they love it—and they’re confronted with the gospel. I probably couldn’t do that unless the Lord opened up some kind of door. The music is there, and they’re hearing the gospel, and then they’re going back to the Web sites, and they go back to the blogs.

So the Lord is saving his people through many different means, and I think this is one of them.

RES: More recently, you’ve felt the Lord leading you in something of a new direction. What’s next for you, and what are you hoping to accomplish from this new platform?

FLAME: My wife and I have started our own record label called Clear Sight Music. We’re really excited about it. It seems like the Lord began to bring a lot of people together who encouraged us to go that way. We were kind of thinking about it but weren’t 100 per cent sure. Through talking to some elders at my church and even a few professors here at the seminary and Boyce College and talking to friends, they said, “That’d be great.” So we tried to seek wise counsel on it, talk to other label heads, and a lot of people thought it would be a good move.

We thought that this would be a great way to provide opportunities for new artists who don’t have the opportunity to be with a label—because there are only a few, and those few already have a long roster of artists. So we thought it would be a great way to serve the body in that way. We also are excited about doing good Christian business. We want to educate artists on the music industry, and that’s one of our goals—to help people think through royalties and publishing and copyrights and things of that nature. So we’ll school them on the business side, but it’ll also create the opportunity to disciple other young men and women in how to communicate the gospel and how to use their faith in a public square by doing it with the arts. So the other element would be making good music—how do you put together a project? How do you put together good sounding music that’s not corny, but has good content in it, as well?

I’ll be the first artist on the label. We’re looking to put my fifth album—but the first album on Clear Sight Music—out around December 28, right after Christmas. I’m working on the album now—it’s based off the Book of John. So I’m just diving into the Book of John, and it’s rocking me.

RES: Since you’re teaching through the Book of John at a Bible study on Tuesday nights, how much of the music for this new album is going to be out of that experience?

FLAME: It’s all about that. It’s the questions that pop up from the Book of John. It’s the confusing parts that people have questions about in the Book of John. It’s the themes that are in the Book of John. I love one of the main themes in the Book of John: knowing God and Jesus’ desire for us to be with him (as he prays to the Father in John 17:24). I just want to communicate, basically, “Give me God, I want God.” I’m trying to drive that theme home, and the Book of John is rocking me right now.

So people can check out the new Web site, www.clearsightmusic.com. Go, explore, see, read the mission statement, check out the blogs that we have up, and spread the news. Also follow us on Twitter at twitter.com/clearsightmusic. Pray for us as we endeavor to spark a new label. It’s definitely an act of faith and we’re just hoping that God would be pleased to give us favor with him and with man, that we can travel the world and communicate his heart through rap music.

(Photo at top courtesy of Devin Maddox)

Don’t forget: If there is anything that you are hoping to ask Marcus personally, please post your questions in the comments section. Marcus has graciously agreed to drop in throughout the day to try to answer them!