Written by: Natalia Kosk
The music speaks truth, the message is clear and the images represented on screen leave viewers questioning ‘what did I get myself into?’ The “Hard: Life of a Bondservant” musical Web series leaves little room for interpretation and challenges the traditional lay of the land of Christian hip hop. A genre once dominated by the Kirk Franklin’s, Mary Mary’s and DC Talk’s of the world, Christian hip hop is now infused with a new medium for spreading God’s message in a way that has never been done before.
“New media” continues to revolutionize the ways in which global awareness on all fronts is spread. Powerhouse platforms such as DaSouth.com, West Coast Fiya and Rapzilla.com are unifying to showcase such artists who continue to pave the way of Christian hip hop as Lecrae, Transparent, Da T.R.U.T.H, 2TONE and other musical camps including Walk by Faith Music. Web series and YouTube serve as an avenue to present an immediate message to the world. People are reading the word of the Lord on their iPads, cell phones and Kindle Fire eReaders.
And it goes without saying that one has to adapt to keep up with the times and not get left behind.
“The soap box doesn’t work anymore,” confirmed Reign Shaw, executive producer, director and co-writer of the “Hard: Life of a Bondservant” series. “You can’t just stand on it and preach to people anymore. If you want to change with the times you have to be able to affect and innovate, regardless of the medium.”
Yet, the approach to sharing God’s message has to be more than just the music and the media. It comes down to a unified movement in praising and serving God.
“It’s going to take a collective effort for us to fulfill the real mission here—and that is to go out into the world and save souls and make disciples,” said Aziz Peregrino-Brimah (Zee), Co-owner, DaSouth.com. “The music and media are good but we need to walk together instead of trying to build our own little kingdoms because that just creates more separatism. If we can focus on what the mission is and know that this is all for the Lord, we can get a whole lot more done instead of trying to do it all on our own.”
Movement in motion
First aired on December 25, 2011, the “Hard” series [produced by Least of All (LOA), Reign Shaw and newcomer Chris Ruffin (of Hi-Hat Productions)] introduced the world to an unconventional way in understanding the Christian faith. And viewers—comprised of believers and nonbelievers—took notice as episode one accumulated over 11,000 views within the first three hours.
“This series shares the gospel in a visual way that has never been done before,” noted Pdub, program director of West Coast Fiya. “I’ve seen other similar things but nothing to the professionalism of this series. Once the first episode dropped it went viral and I think it really shocked all of us. The whole series has just been done very smart. Getting 11,000 views on a video in Christian hip hop is phenomenal.”
And what started out as a music video quickly transitioned into a platform for the movement and the ministry. With featured tracks from Walk By Faith Music—including Not by Sight’s LOA, Nova Miller and Dan Wallace—and 5 Seven Productions, the series shows the struggle of one man (Least of All) as he pushes past his own doubts to find faith in the true meaning of God’s word.
“Media is one of the huge ways that the Lord is going to expand his kingdom,” confirmed Peregrino-Brimah. “When I saw the first episode of the series, I saw a clear-cut vision of excellence to glorify the Lord and I was thoroughly impressed with the quality of the video, the music, the story line and the actors involved. It would’ve been a shame for something of this great quality to go unnoticed. Too many times in Christian urban media, these types of things get overlooked and I didn’t want that to happen to this—I wanted to know how I could be involved.”
The series unifies media entities and artists to present the gospel message in a different way, with featured cameos from Nathin Butler (“General Hospital”); Giovanni Watson (“Tropic Thunder,” “LXD: Season 2”); LOA, Nova Miller, Dan Wallace and Valiant (Not by Sight); O.G. Preach; Transparent (“Journey of the LIFER”); Ashley “R.E.I.G.N.” Williams (“True Perfection”); and Shane Sparks (“America’s Best Dance Crew,” “You Got Served,”and “So You Think You Can Dance”). And while it may be met with resistance—as anything in society can be that is unconventional or new or misunderstood—there is little that will dissuade its focus from the purpose of educating the masses.
“I think a lot of people want to be involved in situations like this,” said Sparks. “But I think a lot of them are turned away because of the content, or because they are afraid of the way other people will look at them or that their image will be destroyed. It’s easy to do something that will generate a negative point of view. But when you do something positive, people tend to look down on you and judge you much faster. And it doesn’t make any sense. But I think a lot of people right now are coming into themselves and this series will change people’s minds and their lives.”
And except for the power of God really grounding a person and changing them from the inside out, people who don’t agree with the series can’t believe anyway, Least of All added.
“There’s nothing you can do about people that don’t believe,” said Least of All. “We just want to be a part of what God is doing. If people are so spiritually inclined and affected by God in that way, they are going to absorb the series and take to it. If they’re not, they’re going to reject it. And there’s not much we can really do except line up with God’s will and his expressed word so that we can be a part of what he is doing.”
Media, music, literature, TV—every outlet is pushing something. And sometimes, all it takes is people taking a step back to look at the overall picture and understand the message that is.
“The people and the artists that are involved in this series—all we’re doing is pushing a message that we believe in, just like a mainstream artist might be pushing sex or drugs,” explained Transparent. “Everybody is pushing a message but people just need to take the time and realize, ‘ok, this is their view and let’s take it for what it is.’”
Not for interpretation
Based on true events, while the overall message of the series is centered around God, the music engages listeners with raw emotion and tells the story of one’s tribulations on the journey of becoming a bondservant and accepting God in life. Featured songs “Faith-Works=0” (from Nova Miller’s “From Faith To Faith” album); and “Hard,” “Operation Truth” and “Know God,” from LOA’s “Bondservant” album make up the first dimension to the series and serve as the backdrop for the story that unfolds throughout the remaining seven chapters.
“There was something about Not by Sight’s music that drew me in,” recalled Shaw. “I grew up on Gospel music and old southern Baptist hymns but the way that LOA was melodically flowing when I first heard him, it reminded me of a different way of spittin’—and I could understand it.”
“As a filmmaker, I never want to dupe anybody—I want people to know what they are getting themselves into,” Shaw continued. “The song ‘Know God’, although it’s super catchy, it’s one of the most controversial songs on the album and in the series because we are making a stance in that moment.”
While Christian hip hop is still considered by some an underground movement, its music has come a long way in sharing gospel beyond the sounds of the organ or of a choir.
As is written in The Book of Psalms (Psalm 149), “Sing unto the Lord a new song, and his praise in the congregation of saints.”
“Let everything that hath breath praise ye the Lord. Praise him with the sound of the trumpet; praise him with the psaltery and harp. Praise him with the timbrel and dance. Praise him upon the loud cymbals; praise him upon the loud sounding cymbals.” (Psalm 150).
Suffice to say, today’s genre has taken notice and pays heed to the Lord’s word.
“One of the differences between people like Transparent and LOA and those in the past is that we better understand the mission today,” said Peregrino-Brimah. “That our mission is not to just reach those that already pray but to go outside the four walls of the church and impact the marketplace. And as people begin to learn and grow and understand the kingdom, it affects our mission—and that is why there has been such a drastic change.”
And as the music helps tell the story of each character in the series, so too do the actors involved tell a story through the characters they play and the challenges that they are faced with.
Sparks, who went through a recent battle of his own with accusations that were made against him, relates to his character (John Cartel) who is put on trial for actions that he didn’t commit in episode two.
“Whenever you go through something, you always want to get your point across—to make sure your side of the story is told,” continued Sparks. “I’m not denying what I did—I admitted to it. And no matter what you go through, if you’re doing the right thing—if you’re telling the truth—everything will be ok. The truth will always prevail.”
The pursuit of excellence
While Christian hip hop continues to face its battles, its movement and ministry continues to be spread through believers who share its message. And as music moves forward with it, inspiration through daily struggles will continue to be one of the driving forces that propels the movement and ministry ahead.
“The struggle is never going to stop,” said Least of All. “We’re always going to have victory and we’re always going to have great joy in Christ. But the struggle that it takes to be inspired and to make songs that people can identify with—I don’t ever want that to go away.”
And with conquered struggle comes continued excellence, especially for those that do share God’s message with the rest of the world.
“Like Transparent says, you have to be ‘Dominating On Purpose Everyday’ (D.O.P.E.),” confirmed Shaw. “Why would you put out something that is not of excellence if you yourself are preaching the word of God? If I myself as a director dare step my foot into the arena of the Christian world with this project, then it has to be done in excellence. It’s all about raising the bar. There’s so much more that has to be done—ministry still has to happen—and this series is just one of the platforms to reach the youth, save souls and give back,” Shaw concluded.