Sir the Baptist stopped in to chat with Heed magazine on the heels of his recent controversial performance in Chicago at Lollapalooza, where he performed with a coffin on stage. He just joined the line up for a concert that will be on September 25 in Chicago to include The Roots and Common. During his interview, Sir the Baptist gave us an inside look into the ways in which he presses the boundaries of religion and shines a light on the issues that the people in his hometown of Chicago face.
Interview: Alisha Jones • Photography: Tayo Ola • Styling: Latasha Henderson-Robinson
Alisha Jones (AJ): Thank you for taking the time to talk with us today. I was thinking about your name Sir the Baptist, entering into a context with these new works coming out that reference a messiah figure such as D’angelo’s Black Messiah album. It is interesting that you would choose a name like Sir the Baptist as a way of identifying yourself in the industry. As I listen to your music, I wonder if you are presenting yourself as someone who empowers people like John the Baptist. How might we understand the significance of your name.
Sir the Baptist (STB): You know what I think that I should just let you talk and then I just say, “yes.” (AJ laughs) You are absolutely right. I have no intentions on being Hova or Jehovah. I have no intentions on being Yeezus, Jesus or the trap Jesus. I only hope to speak to something greater that is behind me. What you said is perfect. I am not trying to prostitute the sound or the words or the beauty of religion. I am actually hear to tear some shit up.
AJ: I noticed that you use the word “prostitute” a lot to distance yourself from manipulating people using the musical tools and hooks that you know will reel them in. You are aware of the tricks of the trade, especially being a fellow PK (preacher’s kid) and a musician, you kind of know the musical elements and the rhetorical elements that get people excited. What has happened that has made you so conscious of not prostituting these elements and skills?
STB: Because at the end of the day they mean so much to us… If I just take this style and put music to it, add the growl in my voice and don’t give you something to hold on to, then I haven’t done it justice. And I won’t make it into history books and know that I will be around after this is over with… So what do we do when it is no longer have a religious scaffolding or a building to go to? You give them the music of Sir the Baptist and they might have something to hold on to. I am always trying to give them pieces of something to hold on to.
AJ: This is an interesting year for Black music in general, and especially for the musicians emerging from the Chicago music scene. I am puzzled that people are surprised that there are so many musicians blending the sacred and the secular. What are the connections that you see between preaching and rapping?
STB: I was looking at a documentary the other day that explored the ways that rapping got its cadence from preaching. The documentary is not really far off. The only difference for me is that I say things that preachers and musicians would say when they go home.
AJ: Right. EXACTLY!
STB: It is exactly the way we talk as PKs when we go home. It is not really blurring the lines. It is just being open with it because they are not usually open.
AJ: Well, you know I am from DC. The religious scene and the music scene are different from the scenes in Chicago. So, I want to focus in on this Chicago moment. I am aware of that religious culture on the Southside Rev. Dr. Wright, Father Pfleger, Rev. Clay Evans, The Honorable Minister Farrakhan, Gil Scott Heron, Common, you have all of these brilliant minds who are excellent at oration and delivering sermons… So, I’m wondering what is it about Chicago culture that the music industry is taking notice of in the rapping style today?
STB: Listen, we don’t have any common sense (AJ laughs) in Chicago… And so we don’t know when to cut off, when to be politically correct. We just know how to be ourselves. So, we are gonna say whatever.
I was listening to Sick Master the other day and he was really trying to drill some thing through. Chance’s music is very cultural, not very political, and I appreciate that… It is a lot of artists coming out of Chicago… Chicago has always been producing that sound, that intelligence. I mean, look at Common. I was just talking to the executive director of Donda’s House (Kanye West’s foundation) Donnie Smith who encouraged me to turn my album into a curriculum. Its like we have always been intellectual, but so “out of order.” You look at these preachers and all the Black Panthers that came out of Chicago and the transitions and strides that we had — Harold Washington and even the first Black president were from Chicago. [President Obama] spent most of his time community organizing in Chicago. We’ve got a lot.
We have to be careful though because some of this can be rappaganda. Everybody wants to talk about the politics of what is going on in the world. We have to find the answers and not just narrate the stories that have been funded by the media.
AJ: Some of the people that you have mentioned I would refer to as provocateurs. In many ways, provocateurs are necessary for religious and cultural vitality. So, I am curious… because you seem like you still got a little churchiness in you.
STB: Ah, Hell yeah! (AJ laughs) Aye yo, at Lollapalooza we hit the bump and I was like shouting, yo. Like I don’t care. I was in the club the other day and just hit a shout. Yes, I got a lot of church in me. And I look up to a lot of intellectuals too! I read a lot of T.S. Lewis and I pay attention to TD Jakes. Yes, I am still churchy.
AJ: When I think about the move that you made a Lollapalooza with the coffin during your performance, I wonder if you have had any push back from religious folk about your performance style and methods? Have you found a social distancing?
STB: Yes, I was performing for Northalsted Market Days. Market days in up north (in Chicago) on Halstead. I was performing on Halstead and a lot of people were like none of the rappers would do it. None of the gospel people would do it, just because it was so many gay people there, but I was like come on let’s do it. My brother was gay. I don’t care. We ended up doing the performance of “Raise Hell”. A chaplain [from a local university] came and said I don’t know if you know this but your performance had religious breakthroughs. One woman started to speak in tongues on the front row… He said, “We would love to have you talk about ‘Raise Hell.’” I didn’t believe that it happened until multiple people told that story…I have never told that story. You are the first to hear it.
AJ: Awww, I feel special. This is great!
STB: I do these interviews and they ask me the same questions, over and over again. And I don’t know how to give them new answers. You are asking the right questions.
AJ: Thank you, thank you so much. Just a couple more questions… I wonder why people associate your music so strongly with gospel music. Musically, you don’t do the traditional forms that we expect from gospel music, but you do use sounds that we recognize from church settings. How intentional are you about breaking up the monotony that we are finding in gospel music?
STB: You know what? I think that is my whole mission. I am tapping into something that people like. [For gospel artists that I know], I think there is some depression because they are stuck and are too busy trying to stay within the politics of religion. You know the song, (sings) “Is my living in vain?”
AJ: Yes, of course, from The Clark Sisters.
STB: Well, if they had said something transparent like, “I’m sick of coming home and you are sitting on that damn couch. I am wondering. I am praying, but is my praying in vain because you ain’t getting no damn better.”
AJ: (laughs) Well, Twinkie did get close to saying it now. She sang about playing all over the town for the churches.
STB: I’m just stating that all of that transparency consistently on the record would’ve helped my sister and my brother. We are freed through our testimonies. You know this. We have to be extremely blunt…Tell me what you mean, fam! They be lying.
I am intentional. I have intentions to turn over the table like Jesus and John the Baptist.
AJ: I’ll switch gears just a little bit. People have been talking about shows like Greenleaf and the Preachers reality television shows and the transparency among preachers that they are trying to model in this moment. In terms of your campaign to do away with condemnation and to provide a space for people to see a reflection of themselves, how important is it for the royalty of the church, the preachers and the PKs to be transparent or is it still important?
STB: I think it is important because then you get a chance to look over your life and see whether you are reflecting what you preach. Because preachers are able to live their life in the dark, they are able to do whatever they want to. And then they take a selfie, holding their penis, and you know… But if they had these ways of being more open then they wouldn’t have to hide.
AJ: Who would your dream collaborators be? What’s next?
STB: I would love to work with Kendrick Lamar… I would want him to go real church though…I would love to work with people like Carmen and then Aretha and Patti Labelle. Those great people who should be in the history books. You know Aretha is a PK too!
AJ: Yes! She is. Well, I am looking forward to your concert on September 25 in Chicago!!
STB: Yeah, I am doing AAHH Fest with Common and The Roots. I am going to bring out a gospel choir with robes.
AJ: Stop it.
STB: I am not lying. You know I am going to start a digital church, where folks just check in. They can hit me up and be like, “I am doing good, fam.” Or “Pray for me, fam.” Yeah, I want to create a space where they can feel comfortable too.