Christian Rapper Lecrae on Hip-Hop's 'Inconsistency' and Ferguson

Lecrae, 2014.
Chris Stanford

Lecrae photographed by Chris Stanford on August 28, 2014 at Reach Records in Atlanta, Georgia.

And on the eighth day, God created air conditioning.

Biblically speaking this may not be true, but on this sweltering late-August morning in Atlanta, any cool breeze feels heaven-sent. Out in the heat, 34-year-old rapper Lecrae and a six-person video crew are filming a music video for "All I Need Is You," the third single from Lecrae's new album, Anomaly.

You would hardly know it from the indie-sized shoot, but Lecrae is a superstar -- in Christian music, at least. His last album, Gravity, debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200, sold nearly 300,000 copies (according to Nielsen SoundScan) and won a Grammy for best gospel album in January. He also counts professional athletes -- dozens of them, from Tim Tebow to Andrew McCutchen -- among his fans.

The question now: Can Lecrae, who rhymes about walking through "valleys in the shadows of death" the way many rappers rhyme about the concrete jungle, be the first Christian rapper to break into the mainstream? If he does, it won't be because Anomaly downplays his faith or features top-dollar producers and famous guests. He's counting on his perseverance and steady growth as an artist (albeit one now distributed by Sony's RED). "I'll put it to you like this: You can only go as mainstream as people will let you go," he says. "I'm not going to change my heartbeat or my passion, but I'll go where the people will let me go."

See Lecrae's Billboard Photo Shoot

Lecrae really went there on Aug. 19. Responding to the outpouring of anger and anguish from rappers and multitudes of others in the wake of the Michael Brown killing in Ferguson, Mo., he tweeted, and later deleted, this message to his 900,000 followers: "Dear Hip Hop, we can't scream 'murder, misogyny, lawlessness' in our music & then turn around and ask for equality & justice." That declaration drew responses from all angles online, with commenters both praising and condemning Lecrae's viewpoint.

"I'm not saying that if you do rap about lawlessness, you're not qualified to ask for justice," he explains. "I think that's how people took it. What I'm saying is, that kind of inconsistency, when the majority of your songs talk about killing people, and then you are screaming for justice, that inconsistency in people's minds creates apathy and says, ''Why should I care about what you're saying, because I just heard 10 songs about why you don't respect the law, and now you want the law to work on your behalf?'"

Clearly, Lecrae enjoys a deft command of nuance, a blessing that probably derives from his straddling of sacred and secular worlds. But it's also something of a curse: As his buddy Propaganda, a like-minded rapper from California, says about Lecrae's gospel Grammy win: "It's funny because it's like, 'We recognize your movement; we just don't know what to call you.'"

"A lot of times," says Lecrae, "you’re the afterthought. Like, 'We’re going to do this panel on Ferguson; we need to get some voices from the music community. J. Cole, [KRS-One], Kendrick [Lamar], Talib [Kweli] ...' It's like, 'Yo, what about Lecrae?' 'Nah, what would he say? He's probably going to walk us through the Bible.' Those stigmas are frustrating at times, but it's the cross we bear." And then, he adds quietly: "I'm not complaining."

Ferguson Protest Songs Impact Real-Time Charts

One exclusive club that seems glad to have him: professional sports. Jeremy Lin, Stephen Curry and Raiders defensive end Justin Tuck tweeted support for Anomaly when Lecrae revealed the album art. Dozens of Major League Baseball players use Lecrae’s music as their theme songs for each at bat. Dwyane Wade teamed up with Lecrae to support a national "This Is Fatherhood" challenge.

Lecrae, a 6-foot, 4-inch tall University of North Texas graduate, looks and moves like an athlete. But he only played sports recreationally. Musing on his appeal to jocks, he says, "A lot of them just want to be proud of the music that’s pumping them up for a game, but still have it connect with who they are or who they want to be." Lin explains it this way: "For whatever reason, the sports industry and entertainment industry have a lot of overlap, in terms of mutual respect. You see Floyd [Mayweather] and [Justin] Bieber, and Drake and a million basketball players, and I think there’s a connection because it's like, 'Wow, they're doing what we can't do, and we're doing what they can't do.' There's always a parallel. And also, it's what he stands for, in an industry that is somewhat dark and sinful."

"With some guys, [the friendships are] touch and go," elaborates Lecrae. "With Stephen Curry, [we talk] if we're in the same city. Some guys it's every other day. Some guys it's 'I need some advice' every blue moon, because their lives are just as crazy as mine -- like [Dwight] Howard. But Jeremy, the moments when we've hung, they’re always rich. He's kind of like me -- introverted -- so we just get to it. Always rich moments, deep moments.”

Lecrae vs. Jhene Aiko for No. 1 on Next Week's Billboard 200

Lecrae Moore was born in Houston in 1979. His father abandoned the family early on, so he grew up with his mother, moving from place to place: Houston, Dallas, Denver, San Diego. He was always the new kid, attending three middle schools and four high schools. Credit that itinerant adolescence for teaching him how to float among different cultures and situations. He says it also honed the skills he needed to eventually survive in the music industry.

"When you're part of hip-hop culture but you're a Christian," he says, "people want you to be either-or. Or they'll create a category for you, like, 'Oh, gospel rap!' I'm just devout in my beliefs."

Lecrae wasn't raised in the church. He became a Christian at age 19 after attending a youth conference. Not long after, at a Bible study, he befriended a fellow Christian guy named Ben Washer. The two became tight, volunteering together at a juvenile detention center, where they saw the kids respond to Lecrae's rapping and decided to start a label. "I always liked the content of a Common, but the commercial viability of a Lil Jon," says Lecrae, who along with Washer (the two had no formal business background) launched Reach Records in Dallas in 2004. "And I would say, 'Why don’t those worlds ever come together?' So for me it was like, 'Let’s do that.'"

As the video shoot breaks for lunch, Lecrae swings by the Reach offices, where about a dozen employees share an industrial office space inside a massive converted warehouse in southeast Atlanta, where the label relocated in 2009. (The company supports ReachLife Ministries, a community organization.) Reach currently has four artists besides Lecrae: Andy Mineo, Tedashii, KB and Trip Lee. Together they're known as the 116 Clique, a nod to Romans 1:16, which begins, "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes."

Lecrae and Washer built the company into one of the industry’s leading Christian hip-hop labels, selling (according to the label) a total of 1.8 million albums to date. Anomaly is Lecrae’s first album since Reach partnered earlier this year with Sony’s RED Distribution, which should give Lecrae a chance at reaching his largest audience yet. Christian rap doesn’t have a natural home on radio, but three of the new album's first four singles debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's Christian Digital Songs chart ("Fear" came in at No. 2), and "All I Need Is You" debuted at No. 1 on the iTunes singles chart, making him the first Christian rapper to hit that mark.

The 116 Clique has "done a great job," says Alan Becker, RED senior vp product development. "All we're doing is taking what they do and putting it on a bigger stage. The work they're doing is now turning into commercial success."

It's nearing the end of the day, and the video shoot has moved to Lecrae's house, a multiple-story brick home not far from the Reach offices, nestled snug against similarly sized houses in a mixed-use development. It is here that Lecrae lives with his wife, Darragh, and their three young children. While the crew films a close-up of Propaganda driving (the cameraman puts on Rollerblades and skates alongside the car), Lecrae, wearing a 116 T-shirt, tapered jeans and a pair of Jordan VIs, plops down at the kitchen table and fiddles with a snapback hat that reads "FRGVN."

"I just want to be able to die saying I gave it my all in terms of being a voice," says Lecrae. "All this stuff is nice to me -- being seen and heard and all that stuff -- and I'm sure that's the dream for a lot of people. But for me, they're hammers and nails. So it's like, the Grammy is a hammer, but what am I going to build with it?"

Lecrae is well aware that the fans who have carried him this far -- from the Christian music community to the stadium locker rooms -- may worry that he will leave the inspirational message behind as he eyes the mainstream. "Some people assume that you're now going to be talking about whatever appeals to culture," says Lecrae. "Like, 'Now you're going to be talking about drugs and sex.' I'm not going to do that. But I will be talking about things that both people in the church and out of the church are concerned with and think about. Love. This whole video shoot is about love and being in love, and everybody can relate to that."

As if on cue, Darragh enters the kitchen carrying their son, who has just been woken up from his afternoon nap. The little boy is not happy about this, aggressively rubbing his eyes and fighting consciousness.

"Hey, champ!" whispers Lecrae. "I love you!" Darragh hands the toddler to Lecrae, and the child nuzzles his head into his father's chest and seems to relax. "Consistency, man; integrity, character — [I'm just] representing those aspects that are not, for whatever reason, within hip-hop culture," he continues. "It's almost like people can't even believe that they can coexist. That's a win for me, for people to be able to say, 'Faith, fatherhood, monogamy exists in hip-hop.' Yes, we're here."

This story originally appeared in the Sept. 20 issue of Billboard.