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Lecrae raps about Jesus and Christianity on his new mixtape 'Church Clothes 4'

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Hip-hop artist Lecrae raps about Jesus and Christianity on his new mixtape, "Church Clothes 4." This music compilation that's looser and freer than a studio album explores racism, problems in the church, police brutality and abortion. I spoke with Lecrae earlier about when he became a Christian.

LECRAE: I was 17. I had a pregnancy scare. I had gotten in some trouble with the law.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIRT")

LECRAE: (Rapping) I got arrested, was immature.

Being a rebellious, kind of mischievous kid, didn't grow up with his father and started asking some questions about purpose, about life. And that led me down a religious journey. And that's where I heard the message of Christ and was - you know, had a spiritual transformation.

MARTÍNEZ: So how did hearing the message of Christ lead you into hip-hop?

LECRAE: That's a funny story. My uncles were big into hip-hop. You know, they were kind of kids in the '80s, and hip-hop was this phenomenon. You know, my mother worked at a halfway house, and some of the guys who would get out of prison, they were listening to hip-hop. And they would give me mixtapes. So by the time I'm 19 years old, which is when I had my spiritual transformation, I was already, like, a product of the culture of hip-hop. It was just now, like, how to articulate this newfound worldview that I had and these new values with the same kind of skill set and form of expression that I had grown up with?

MARTÍNEZ: Because I think most people don't automatically associate hip-hop and Christianity.

LECRAE: No (laughter). Yeah, they're legitimately two different worlds. Hip-hop is, you know, this kind of anti-establishment movement that was formed by these rebellious kids. And so oftentimes, Christianity in America looks like establishment. It looks political. It looks, you know, like restrictions.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STILL IN AMERICA")

LECRAE: (Rapping) I'm still in America, where church is a Broadway production for relevance. We traded the kingdom to build an empire. So people don't trust us, apparently. We worship economy. We'll kill our own babies to keep our autonomy. You mess with our Second Amendment, we're probably going to riot, but take out the probably.

And so they don't really mesh well together. And hip-hop speaks to the social issues, whereas Christianity hasn't really done much of that since the civil rights movement.

MARTÍNEZ: So when your first album, "Real Talk," came out in 2004, who was that audience that really latched on to it?

LECRAE: So initially, I mean, it was this very small niche of kids within hip-hop who had become Christians. Similar to mainstream hip-hop, the suburbs got a hold of it. And so you've now got these suburban kind of evangelical kids who are, like, we found something that our parents will let us listen to.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE ME UP")

LECRAE: (Rapping) And we pray, and we pray, and we pray, every day, every day, every day, and we pray, and we pray, and we pray, take me up.

MARTÍNEZ: Was there ever a time when things maybe got slightly uncomfortable, when, say, maybe you started speaking out on things that Christians might not be too keen on listening to, say, racial justice?

LECRAE: I had that innate sense that I was here for the needs of the marginalized and disenfranchised. And so to see a Michael Brown get killed, regardless of his background, for me was traumatizing and devastating. And I thought that, you know, I could just share that with my Christian brothers and sisters, regardless of their ethnicity, via social media, the pain that I was experiencing. And I was met with such, like, criticism and blowback. I was confused.

MARTÍNEZ: What were people most critical of?

LECRAE: They began to think I was a marxist or some kind of apostate who was veering from the faith and a heretic caring more about ethnicity and race than faith.

MARTÍNEZ: So, Lecrae, I used to be very, very involved in the Christian church for a long time into my early 20s. And one of the things I remember about it the most is that when you finally give your life to Jesus Christ, you kind of - everything about you melts away, and you're no longer who you were before. Now you're a follower of Christ. So it doesn't matter if you're, like me, brown or if you're you, Black. That goes away. And now you become a different kind of being. Was that something that you heard or is that something that you kind of came up against?

LECRAE: Yeah. I think that was implied - right? - because people would say things like, we don't see color. You know, we're all covered by the blood of Jesus. And so it was kind of this idea that we're all unified, which is very utopian, but it's not reality. You know, the reality is people do see my color. They do see - they do have biases once they see us. I can't explain the 400 years of chattel slavery in America. Maybe God did that so that we could know Jesus. And, you know, you just start kind of washing away any kinds of thoughts that would have some cultural or ethnic implications. But it did begin to create a lot of internal strife for me.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, OK, so this brings us to "Church Clothes 4." It's the fourth volume in a series of mixtapes that started in the summer of 2012. The first song of "Church Clothes 4" opens up...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CC4")

LECRAE: (Rapping) RIP Breonna Taylor. RIP to George Floyd. I ain't trying to hate on my own kind, but Warnock ain't my only choice and Herschel either. I love believers. But some of these folks don't rep the kingdom.

MARTÍNEZ: You mention Breonna Taylor. You mention George Floyd. When Christians hear that, do they embrace the message that you're trying to put out? Or is this one thing that makes them kind of, like, cringe a little bit in their seat?

LECRAE: Oh, they definitely cringe. You know, if you're from the more conservative evangelical ilk, you're cringing at that because there's a whole kind of campaign against bringing up any type of ethnic trauma. It's wokeness. It's CRT. I'm not lionizing them. I'm humanizing them and making sure that we can see them.

MARTÍNEZ: So "Church Clothes 4" is the fourth in a series of mixtapes that you've put out over the years. Is this some kind of end of the road or end of the race?

LECRAE: I think, obviously, like you said, it's a series. It doesn't mean I won't make music anymore. It just means this particular series has come to an end. It's kind of like, hey, let me kind of close out this series speaking to some of the things that need to be addressed within the church and to the outside world.

MARTÍNEZ: And when you say, Lord, help me kill all my demons...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPREAD THE OPPS")

LECRAE: (Rapping) Lord, help me kill all my demons. I look in the mirror. I seen them. I had a BM. I forced her to get an abortion. I pray when I die, I can meet him.

MARTÍNEZ: ...Are you talking about demons in the past, present and the ones you might face in the future? Because I think, no matter what, whether you're a believer or not, you're going to have demons.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPREAD THE OPPS")

LECRAE: (Rapping) They won't catch me lackin'.

Yeah, you absolutely nailed it. This is an admittance of my imperfection. And I'm not a Christian because I'm the model citizen. I'm a Christian because I know the depth of my kind of depravity and the thoughts and the things that go on with me. And I do need consistent help. I do need a savior. So, yeah, it's saying I realize I'm going to be dealing with trouble. I'm going to deal with issues for the rest of my life.

MARTÍNEZ: That's rapper Lecrae. His new mixtape is called "Church Clothes 4." Lecrae, thanks a lot.

LECRAE: Thank you. I appreciate it.

MARTÍNEZ: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm A Martínez. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.