Dec 13, 2007 - 1:21 AM
Seay, who raps under the alias Chief Holyfire, a name he gave himself in 2002 to represent his leadership, faith and ability, works on it for about two and a half hours, typing and deleting constantly on the keyboard. Often he shakes his head from side to side, finger pointing in the air trying to find a good rhythm to the song. After looking his rhymes over, he hits the print button, grabs the sheet, and looks at his lyrics with a smile, pleased with his work. His music, as he describes it, is “revolutionary” and “inspirational”—different from a lot of hip-hop currently in the market.
Seay’s music is dissimilar from the “me” focused, misogynistic, ice wearin’, bling-bling reppin’, 24-inch rim ridin’, pop-lock and drop it hip-hop record on the radio and television. He is a religious person and a lot of his music is God-oriented. But you wouldn’t know that unless you knew him or studied his lyrics. Seay doesn’t blatantly come out and proclaim to be a religious artist. He says he doesn’t want to be labeled a “Christian rapper,” fearing he will be boxed into the religious music category, making it difficult to have a larger fan base, or make it into mainstream hip-hop consciousness.
To mask his words, Seay uses metaphors for God and Bible passages. In the seventh bar of "A Beautiful Hell," Seay raps: “Only given to those who chose to trust wisdom,” from Jeremiah 29:13-14. The Bible passage reads: "You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and will bring you back from captivity.” Throughout the song, he metaphorically refers to scriptures from Luke, the Romans, and Matthew.
Seay is like many hip-hop artists struggling to gain notoriety in the music business while talking about God. Many lyricists steer far away from rapping about the savior and go directly to what makes money: cars, diamonds, sexy girls, goin’ dumb and “lean wit' it rock wit it” content. Artists fear that talking about religion won’t get them success in the rap game. Kanye West acknowledges this in his 2004 smash record, “Jesus Walks”: “They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus/ That means guns, sex, lies, video tapes / But if I talk about God my record won't get played. Huh?"
West is not the only one who feels this sentiment. Sean “P-Diddy” Combs of Bad Boy Records says in a 2004 interview with MTV.com that people are intimidated when God or Jesus is mentioned, so it's rarely discussed.
Rappers have good reasons for not spitting rhymes about God. Traditionally, pop audiences don’t accept religious overtones. Ask any hip-hop consumer if they can name two Christian rappers. Even if they can, rarely do artists of that nature get major radio play, video rotation or commercial success.
Adisa Banjoko, a journalist and author of the book Lyrical Swords: Hip-Hop Politics in the Mix, claims radio stations and record labels frown on religious raps, so it doesn't receive proper air play. Banjoko says this scares rappers from showing themselves spiritually.
"Mainstream America has never been able to sit well with Afrocentric God concepts," says Banjoko. "So it made it easier for the mainstream to think that all these rappers talk about is violence, partying, wild’n out."
However, Stacy Cunningham, program director at 106 KMEL, a popular Bay Area radio station, says KMEL will play any record as long as it is hot and in demand, regardless if it’s religious or not. Cunningham adds, “A hot record is a hot record, period.”
As of November 20th, 2007, there weren't any songs on the playlist with religious nuances.
“Callers don’t request spiritual orientated tracks,” says Cunningham. “Most requests we get are from the younger demographic … The older demographics don’t normally call in to requests songs.”
A majority of the music is the Fat Joe “Make It Rain” image of hip-hop where money is thrown around like garbage, rappers consume alcohol like water and scantily clad girls flock around boys to get attention. However, Seay, CEO of One Life Records, wants to make music that is different and that everyone can relate to, from children to adults. He hopes that his songs will change people’s lives.
“I want the entire world to hear my music and hopefully seek a real relationship with their creator,” explains Seay. “I just want to see people free from guilt and be able to focus on a life that is eternal versus one so temporary.”
Seay devotes his weekends to teaching youth about the Bible. One weekend in April at Windemere Ranch Middle School in San Ramon, Calif., 24 teens form a circle in the center of the large classroom that overlooks the San Ramon hills. These junior high kids sit quietly as Seay flips through his Bible, searching for the day’s lesson. Seay, decked out in stone wash jeans and a grey fleece pullover, clears his throat and begins to say: “The things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man unclean. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.” Uncertain how to respond, these 18 boys and six girls say nothing and wait for Seay to explain the moral of the passage. He tells the silent class, “When you communicate, you can open up your feelings.”
And that’s a good lesson, especially from a man who has good faith and a good outlook on life. But it wasn’t always like this.
Seay, born in Vallejo, Calif., had a typical childhood. He was active in sports and aspired to be a big-league ballplayer for his favorite team, the Oakland Athletics. Like many shy, curious and impressionable teens looking for a way to fit in, he buckled under peer pressure and began smoking weed as a freshman in high school. Later, he transferred to a high school in San Ramon, Calif. where his popularity increased—girls wanted him and dudes wanted to be like him, and this made him feel like a god.
After he received his driver’s license, he spent weekends going out drinking, smoking and sneaking into clubs to meet girls and have sex. The more he partied, the more his personality shifted. His GPA fell below 2.0; he argued with teachers and principals, cut class and grew defiant of his father. He was heading down the wrong path until a trip home from basketball practice changed his entire world.
In February 2000 around 7:30 pm, Seay is heading westbound on the I-205 freeway near Tracy, Calif. He’s driving home to Danville after basketball practice. Fatigued, Seay falls asleep at the wheel and his 1995 Dodge Stratus runs into a nearby ditch. Luckily, he leaves the crash with no major injuries and a new perspective on life.
Soon after, he confesses to his older brother, James Seay Jr., that he’s “empty” and “tired” of trying so hard to be someone he’s not.
“Following God’s will and responding to his son’s death is what motivated me to live this life,” says Seay.
Hip-hop culture is made up of four components: rapping, deejaying, break dancing and graffiti. But some believe there is a fifth element that rarely gets mentioned: religion.
Religion, philosophy and theological concepts are woven into the fabric of hip-hop, says Adisa Banjoko. Throughout hip-hop history, rappers always acknowledge the higher power. In the early 1990’s, Run-DMC experienced a rebirth that led Run to become a reverend. A modern day slang poet, Nas always references God, naming his 1996 album It Was Written and later God’s Son in 2001. Even the money-hungry 50 Cent didn’t forget to praise in his 2003 hit album, Get Rich or Die Trying, which includes a track titled “Gotta make it to Heaven.”
Tupac Shakur, who many consider one of the hardest of all time, never failed to broach God in his music. He made records like “Only God Can Judge Me,” “Thugz Mansion” and “I Wonder If Heaven Got A Ghetto.” The relationship of spirituality and rap has always been there but now it’s receiving more love from mainstream audiences.
So, why is God getting props from mainstream listeners now? Because the radio needs this, raps Kanye West in his song “Jesus Walks” off his 2004 album The College Dropout. The South Bronx-originated culture is under fire and criticism for its misogynistic and material driven music. Advocates say that this brand of music does nothing more than deplete the soul.
“It’s plantation music, it’s like a modern day minstrel show,” says Pastor Efrem Smith, the senior pastor at the Sanctuary Covenant Church in Minneapolis. “What you are being fed is not real hip-hop. Hip-hop should be knowledge of self.”
Billboard charts indicate that rap and hip-hop album sales are down 40 percent since 2000 and down 21 percent since 2005. Black Youth Project, a research project that examines the attitudes, resources and culture of African American youth, indicates that 59 percent of youth say that there is too much sex and violence in rap music.
But rap is slowly giving mad props to God, and vice versa. Hip-hop is being used more in the church. Smith uses hip-hop as a vehicle to inform the youth about the lord. During his services, Smith has Christian rappers perform, deejays hit up the ones and twos and graffiti artists show off their artistic talents on a blank canvas behind the pastor. This is a way for the youth to check out the church. And it’s working says Smith. His services are full of enthusiastic youth enjoying the sounds of hip-hop with the scriptures.
Seay has temptations to go back to his old ways, but reads the Bible to put himself in check. Surely his faith in God makes him a Christian, but does it matter whether or not Seay is defined as a Christian or religious rapper? That’s a hard question to answer. Labeling him a religious lyricist only limits himself as a musician, he says.
“I don’t want to feel like I can’t reach a certain group of people. That’s not true,” articulates Seay. “I make music for everybody. People can tell I’m a spiritual guy through my music—I don’t want people thinking they can’t relate to me if they don’t read the Bible.”
Seay sits for a moment and adds: “Don’t get me wrong, I am trying to make money, too.”
Visit Chief Holyfire on MySpace at www.myspace.com/chiefholyfire
Len Vinas is a senior at San Francisco State University where he writes for [X]press Magazine. He also interns at XBox Magazine and dances to Justin Timberlake songs in the dark. People know him as "Mr. This Is Why I'm Hot."
John Coyne is just a Jersey cat doing that photography thing in the Bay Area. He's got a love for the grit and grime of the city and he's out to capture the beauty of the streets to the best of his ability. See more of his work at: http://flickr.com/photos/jjcphotography/