My sophomore year at Wheaton College, I survived off of J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar. As I slipped past the majority-white masses in the halls and peeled blonde hairs off my legs in the shower, I was buoyed up by the lyrics coming through my speakers. Hip-hop music, which is rooted in Black artists and urban settings, seemed like the perfect contrast to my upper-class, suburban, predominantly white environment.
By my junior year, I stopped looking around for other Black faces in the classroom. I already knew that I would be the only one, sticking out like a brown leaf in the snow on Blanchard lawn. But one day as we waited for class to begin, I heard two non-Black students discussing their favorite music artists. My head shot up as I heard the name “Kendrick Lamar” and the two men started debating whether “DAMN” or “To Pimp a Butterfly” was a more cohesive album. I didn’t join the conversation, too shocked at hearing the name of one of the artists that made me feel at home. Most Christians around me seemed aware — but mainly critical — of rappers within the hip-hop genre, but these young men sounded like true fans, and I started wondering: is there really such a contrast between my favorite music genre and my college setting?
In response to that question, I began to investigate. I wanted to know what hip-hop meant to my classmates, and how their faith figured into the mix. I wondered whether the popularity of hip-hop had manifested into a scene on campus. Who were the best MCs at Wheaton? Who did student rappers look to for inspiration?
My first interview was with Josh Erickson, a sophomore applied physics major with a minor in urban studies from the city of Milwaukee. He is currently part of the Storytelling Project, a student-led creative team that creates artwork reflecting on cultural themes from a faith-based perspective. Erickson told me he loves being at Wheaton because he can meet and collaborate with like-minded artists.
Erickson got his start in music “just messing around” on Garageband, a music creation app, with his two brothers. At first, he took inspiration from EDM (electronic dance music), but then the influences of Milwaukee’s urban setting and Christian rappers such as Andy Mineo directed Erickson towards the hip-hop scene. “Music connects with young people in a really cool way and hip-hop overlaps with pop a lot right now,” he said.
As a freshman in high school, Erickson started recording rap songs and uploading them to Soundcloud, a music sharing website. Although he didn’t grow up in a predominately Black or urban setting, he felt more and more drawn to express himself through rap lyrics, comparing it to a journal.
Erickson’s faith seeps into every aspect of his music, both purpose and lyrics. “[Songwriting is] a place to be very honest, wrestling with things but bringing it back to God in the end,” Erickson said. He releases his works under the moniker “Jpk,” which stands for Joshua Paul the Kid. To him, the name represents that he’s “not a kid anymore, but constantly growing.” His electronic sound blends autotune, quick rhymes and strong beats that still echo with his beginnings in EDM. Erickson describes his music as “melodic” and more like “pop-rap.”
Erickson likes to have his hand in every stage of the creative process. He writes, produces and engineers his own music in a bedroom studio at home in Milwaukee, complete with microphone, audio interface, quality speakers and soundshield. He even creates his own photography for album artwork. It’s a professional look, he hopes, but an independent one. As he shakes his head of thick brunette hair chopped into a bob, Erickson confesses to me that he is a perfectionist who struggles with “feeling like I fall short.”
“It’s hard, because a creative process is never really done,” he said. He keeps a folder on his computer titled ‘the back burner.’ Maybe someday he’ll get to those beats, but maybe he won’t. Erickson said, “That’s just how my creative process is.”
David Nemetz, a Wheaton sophomore who has gained recognition on campus for his rap music, has a surprisingly soft voice. He told me that his music journey started when he was a kid, “singing for himself behind closed doors.” When he looks back at the music he made at the beginning of high school, he said, “I was dang-near whispering into the mic. Now it’s so much better.” Through church competitions and small parts in school plays (he played the part of the tornado in the Wizard of Oz), he increased his confidence on stage.
As freshmen in high school, Nemetz and his artist friends Adam, Matt, Michael and David started producing songs together on Soundcloud, “singing about money and cars we didn’t have.” One day, a family friend took the boys to a makeshift studio and told them to dive deeper and improve the quality of their music by rapping about “real stuff and stuff that can encourage them.”
Today, Nemetz takes inspiration from experiences in his own life, as well as Christian hip-hop artists like NF, Lecrae, KB and Andy Mineo. He wants his music to promote a message of hope and restoration. While faith is not always the focus of every lyric, it is the foundation. “Jesus is big enough to relate to every issue in our lives,” he said.
Nemetz remains aware of the recent controversies surrounding the stylistic choices of Christian hip-hop artists, including Lecrae’s change to a less explicitly Christian style, Christian rapper Foggieraw’s choice to use explicit language, and, of course, Kanye’s controversial redemption. He’s noticed a “temptation to switch up the message and go explicit,” especially since “Christian hip-hop can be a box you can’t leave.”
Personally, Nemetz chooses to stay clean. “Some people can look down on swearing, it can be a red flag,” he said. “There’s a stigma that comes with being an explicit rapper.”
When it comes to style, Nemetz — which is also the name he releases music under — relies on fast beats, rich instrumentals, impressive enunciation and unapologetically spiritual lyrics. “I’m lost, I need someone to help me / Just find the way / The best way to battle / Fall on your knees and pray,” he raps over an electronica-piano beat in “Ponder the Path,” the title track from his 2021 album.
Nemetz sees his music as “kinda like my testimony.” In Nemetz’s mind, there seems to be an important distinction between Christian hip-hop and wider secular hip-hop. Christian rappers have a choice to make: “You can be seen as cool by the world, or by the people in the church.”
When I asked around for rappers at Wheaton, especially people of color, Nemetz’s name came up often. “He’s Latino!” a friend told me. Nemetz later told me he is 75% German and 25% Mexican. “What does it mean for me, as a mostly white man, to make rap music?” he pondered in our interview. Perhaps the answer lies in his humble posture, his focus on honest lyrics. The inspiration for his music lies in his life events.
Maggie Kamphausen, a senior studio art and urban studies major and team chair of the Storytelling Project, had thoughts about what limits hip-hop from holding a larger platform at Wheaton. A missionary kid who grew up in Thailand, she believes white Evangelicals need to learn to ask questions of the art that makes them uncomfortable. Hip-hop in particular provides “room for lament and growth in the same place,” an area where Evangelicals need to learn from “the other.” According to Kamphausen, if Evangelical Christians ignore the truth of hip-hop in favor of spiritual or linguistic comfort, they miss the meaning.
Alberto “Tito” Rapley (‘21) attended Wheaton as an undergraduate, earning a B.A. in Communication with a minor in Studio Art. He is currently the graduate advisor for the Storytelling Project as he continues his Wheaton education pursuing an M.A. in Higher Education and Student Development. Rapley grew up with old school hip-hop like Tupac and Biggie, but discovered Christian hip-hop at the age of twelve. At the time, the attitude in his church was that “hip-hop is the devil,” so spoken word, which was “more accessible for the white people in [his] church,” became Rapley’s initial medium.
Rapley grew up in a predominantly white Salvation Army church where he felt he was a “token Black person.” The church’s connection to larger groups and events got him doing spoken word or rapping onstage, and he quickly developed a platform among church members. “You have a chance to use [being a token] to bring about your own mission,” he said, explaining that he was already rapping about race and justice at the time.
After high school, however, his time at Wheaton College is really when his creativity grew. Rapley is the creator of the Storytelling Project’s 16 Bars Challenge, which is an annual competition open to all Wheaton students who are invited to perform original rap music, in addition to spoken word and poetry pieces. In Rapley’s mission to turn Wheaton into a creative hub, he loves seeing “a few individuals on campus who take hip-hop seriously.”
Rapley, who through his work with the 16 Bars Challenge has more knowledge of Wheaton’s hip-hop scene than anyone on campus, says most of the school’s serious rappers are Asian. “I don’t know if that’s because of newer music, like in K-pop?” Rapley speculated, alluding to the far-reaching influence of hip-hop in pop music across the globe.
The three winners of the fall semester’s 16 Bars Challenge were two Asian rappers and one white poet. Most of the contestants are rapping about Christ, too. Winner Joshua Pak’s 16 bars begins with the line: “My name is Joshua Pak / You don’t need to know that / The only thing I need you to know is the Lord I be servin.’”
Christian hip-hop often involves Black artists with white fanbases. Because of this dynamic, Rapley definitively sees “issues of race within Christian-hip-hop.” Rapley said that Evangelicals need to grow in their discomfort with the Black lament deeply embedded in hip-hop. Whether Christian or secular, hip-hop “will always include the struggles of Black people,” Rapley said.
One of the current conversations among Black Christian hip-hop artists is whether to use the n-word. “As Black people we always say it in our daily life, so why are we catering to a white fanbase?” Rapley asked. “We shouldn’t be afraid to be uncomfortable.”
For Rapley, the question of message and audience is ultimately answered with “being honest with myself.” It’s possible to rap about God “with no substance,” he said. He draws from his own experience to create more depth in his lyrics, in contrast to earlier points in his rapping career where he was attempting to merely imitate other artists by “spitting straight Scripture.”
Rapley, who now releases music under the name tiiito raplee, displays a sense of creativity and self-exploration in his recent work. His older rap style was “very high energy, I was trying to be Lecrae,” but now, he says, “I’m in a place where I’m learning about myself, so [my music] is more reflective.” Although Rapley has released music with a quick flow and hard-hitting beats, he currently produces gentler Christian lo-fi tracks. His 2020 album, Morning Dreadhead, features exclusively instrumental lo-fi beats.
Rapley reflected on the ways that rappers can promote Christianity, pointing toward the success of the two rappers that encouraged me as examples. “You know, Kendrick and Cole, they are Christian rappers,” Rapley told me. “That’s still the gospel.”
Even as artists such as Kendrick and Cole carve out a larger palace for Christianity within the rap genre, student rappers at Wheaton are doing their part to promote the music in Christian environments. Like me, they walk through Wheaton with an awareness of unbelonging. Like me, they keep making art through the discomfort.