Below is an interview I conducted with Curtis Allen (aka Voice) (biographical sketch here)--rapper and pastoral intern at Covenant Life Church.
First you were “Mc Finesse.” Then you became “Intrigue Garcia.” Now you’re “Voice.” Why Voice?
When I first decided to do Christian Rap I really struggled with a name. Primarily because names in rap (secular) can typically highlight the individual or some element of pride they want to be known for. It was a struggle because I wanted a name that drew less attention to myself, and more on the content of what I would say on “Progression.” So I was reading the Gospel of Matthew and came across a description of John the Baptist as “The voice of one crying in the wilderness.” I thought to myself that is what I hope to a voice crying out to a generation of the church to love the cross of Christ and live humbly in light of the orthodoxy we have been given.
I wonder if we could start with some definitions. What, for example, is the difference between rap and hip-hop?
Good question. Hip-hop is a culture that consists of a style of dress, a language and art forms such as tagging, which are graffiti, break dancing, DJing and rapping. Rap is an art form that comes out of the culture of hip-hop. Similar to salsa music coming out of the Latin culture, yet there is more to Latin Culture than just Salsa as there is more to hip-hop than rap music.
When Joshua Harris asked you to perform at the New Attitude Conference in 2004, was that the first Christian rapping that you had done since your conversion?
Yes it was. It was then that I realized Christian “Reformed” rap could and does glorify God. To this day I am so grateful for New Attitude 2004.
It seems to me that Eminem’s move 8 Mile gave us a peek into the personal dimension of the world of rap. If you saw the movie, did you see a lot of similarities between your journey and Eminem’s?
I would see some similarities in terms of desire. I really wanted to make it in the rap industry before being a believer. I saw this drive in Eminem and could relate. The other similarity I saw was the freestyle. When I grew up freestyle, which means to make up your rap as you go along in the moment, was how you proved you were a real MC (old school name for rappers).
Why do you think so many white kids are attracted to hip-hop these days? I noticed that in “All Rap Is” you say that Emimem “gave white people something to relate to that couldn’t claim the streets.”
Yeah, well this is bit of a deep issue but I will try to succinctly answer this. I think our generation is very much removed from the civil rights generation. The more time that goes by, racism between blacks and whites will matter even less. Having said that, I think because of that racist history our generation feels an obligation to embrace that which our parents have said was wrong in the past. Because of the acknowledged wrongs of racism by our previous generation, our generation has wanted to distance itself from that. This transcends far beyond music but nowadays it has primarily parked itself at black culture. In society today, among Caucasians it is trendy to accept and want to be black. It has become the in thing to identify with struggle, and rap represents that struggle in the most influential form created, music. That’s why 80% of Secular rap consumers are white. I could go a lot deeper on this but I hope this makes sense.
Is the scene changing? One of the lines in “All Rap Is” says: “But lately I don’t know if you noticed but to me rap is low key saying Jesus save me.” What does that mean and what do you think is going on?
Well there seems to be an intellectual agreement of salvation through Jesus, which is being communicated more and more. Not that people are being saved but you can identify with faith in Christ without being booed. "Jesus Walks" was a song by Kanye West that was the number one song in the country last year. I think the harvest is ripe right now.
For this next question I’m thinking about increasingly smaller circles. In the first circle you have all the musicians in the world. Within that circle is a much smaller one that holds all the rappers in the world. Within that is a smaller one yet of guys trying to live a fairly clean, moral lifestyle. Within that you have Christian rappers. And finally, you have perhaps the smallest segment of all—Reformed Christian rappers. But you’re not the only one, are you? Who are some of the other Reformed brothers out there doing hip hop and rap?
Right now the guys I listen to are Christcentric (Christcentric.net) Shai Linne and Timothy Brindle (Lampmode.com). These guys, groups influence me the most and the ones I like to listen to. There are more but I don’t listen to them as much.
Do you regard Ligon and John Duncan as two of your biggest rap competitors—or do you all get along okay?
After seeing them at Together [for the Gospel] I was thinking that the Lord was revealing to me that these are the men he has called to use rap to glorify himself. I thought I should no longer be doing rap but then I realized it wasn’t the voice of the Lord after hearing them. Seriously I thought that was hilarious! People were looking at me wondering if I would be offended but I was dying laughing. I think it helped Christian rap in that people see that these guys not only are aware of it but in some sense enjoy it. Al Mohler and Ligon Duncan wanted and got CD’s of Progression after the conference.
Tell me about your first CD, Progression.
Progression is an album that I wanted to make that I considered to be a “Very Human” album. Sometimes Christian music can lack the everyday struggle of the Christian or can easily gloss over the problem and go right to the solution, but that is not always the case in real life situations. Sometimes we doubt God’s Sovereignty, and I wanted to capture that on the album. It has 14 songs, and the album progresses. So it starts off with faith in Christ and excitement in being like him in the world. Then after a few songs you get to a bit of unbelief and complaints about the very thing you were celebrating in the first few songs. Then in "Contemporary Job," like the book of Job, God addresses those complaints with His perspective. After that the Christian is refreshed and is ready to again fight sin in "Divide and Conquer" and so forth. So I see Progression as the Christian life in many ways. We all face doubts and encouragement and I wanted to have that element on Progression.
If I can just add a personal note here—the song I enjoyed the most on your album was “Why Should I Care,” where you recount a conversation he had with a hurting single mom who needed to hear the gospel.
Thank you. Very tough situation that was, but God gives grace in those moments to speak truth and be sensitive to what people are going through
Do you have any more albums in the pipeline?
Yeah I am working on an album called “The Crucible” that will be available early September.
When we think of racial harmony in the church today, most of us think about whites not welcoming blacks. But your experience seems to show the flip side of that: a white guy inviting you to a predominantly white church, but you feeling that their whiteness was an obstacle for you. Tell me about that. Why was it an obstacle, and how did God work to overcome that in your heart?
Well prior to coming to Covenant Life I had only had segregated experiences in the church. I am from the “Hood” so when I came to CLC it was just too many white people to me. I focused more on the cultural differences, like music clothes and lingo, too much. But I went to New Attitude 2000 and God revealed to me that I was proud to be uncomfortable around my white brothers and sisters in the Lord. Through the word he helped me see that I was Christian first and a black man second and that in heaven we will all be there together worshipping Him. So I see going to Covenant Life Church, a predominantly white church/ministry, as preparation for Heaven.
Where do you hope to be five years from now?
I hope to be a pastor in Sovereign Grace Ministries.
Are you doing concerts these days? If so, what are you trying to accomplish through your concerts, and what sort of impact do you think it’s had so far?
I am. Josh Harris (my senior pastor) and Eric Simmons (my boss), along with myself, have felt that God is opening doors in music. I have been able to do some concerts and bring the gift that God has given me in rap to edify the body of Christ. I have been received well, and by His grace I have been able to get some pretty significant concerts. It’s hard to measure impact, but I hope to use this because of rap’s influence on the next generation and ours. I want to make music that glorifies God and points others to do the same.
Just out of curiosity, what kind of audiences are you usually performing in front of these days? Black, white, etc. Do you have a sense of the average breakdown?
Justin, this is the wildest thing to me. I do shows and 99% of the time the crowd is white. As a matter of fact, I have only done one show so far where the crowd was more black and Latino. It is the white pastors who bring me to their churches to influence their youth and singles groups. Although, I recently opened for Matt Redman at a JAMA conference and that was a crowd of 2300 Koreans. The people who are the most supportive of the ministry are white people, and I praise God for that. I have had many people that are not rap-oriented or even liked it prior to hearing Progression have encouraged me and are wanting to bring me to their churches. Very humbling and I am very grateful.
If someone reading this wanted to bring you to their church or event for a concert, how do they do that?
Well they could go to my website IHearVoice.com and go to the booking page and fill out the info. It sends an email directly to me. That is how most of my requests come in. Either that or by word of mouth from people who have brought me out and have enjoyed the ministry.
Voice, thanks very much for taking the time to talk about these things. I really appreciate your time, and the way you are using your gifts to glorify the Savior and to edify the church! Folks who want more info on Voice can go to IHearVoice.com.
Thank you, Justin! I know that this kind of interview on your blog isn’t what people read it for. Thank you for taking the time to listen to Progression and actually enjoy it enough to do this! I hope others know that if God works in Mysterious ways, rap is one of them. FYI, I did a really cool interview with Matt Redman on Monday, July 3rd. The podcast will be on Newattitude.org in a few days and the video will be on my site on Friday. He had some very interesting things to say about Worship. When you go to my site IHearVoice.com go to the Media star and you will see it on your left--click and watch. Justin, I hope to do a concert near you buddy! Maybe we can freestyle together or something, haha!