The “Rise” of Rapper and Pastor Trip Lee

A Q&A with Trip Lee on pastoring, porn, and John Piper.

Trip Lee is a 27-year-old rapper, husband, and father of two. He’s also planting a church in Atlanta — yes, he’s a pastor — and late last year he released his fifth studio album, Rise, which quickly hit #1 on the iTunes charts. And he’s just published his second book.

Rise: Get Up and Live in God’s Great Story, the companion book to his latest album, comes out today, January 27. I caught up with Trip to talk about Millennials leaving the church, his relationship with John Piper, and why he felt like he had to write about sex, lust, and porn.

You released an album by the same name late last year — how are the two connected? Do the two serve distinct purposes?

I thought of the concept for the book first because when I was thinking about doing a project I thought about what I wanted to communicate to the people that I have influence with, and one of the things I really wanted to communicate was the need for us to not wait until later to take our lives seriously.

With the album, what I wanted to do was introduce those things, and then with the book, that’s where I really wanted to dive deeply. A song captures emotions in unique ways, and a song helps you to celebrate things in unique ways, but at the same time, you only get three or four minutes, so you can only communicate so much. So I wanted to use the songs to do the celebrating, to connect emotionally, to really get people excited about those things, and then use the book to go really deep into those things and help people think about it further.

TripLee_GreenWhat’s do you think people will find most surprising about Rise?

One of the surprises is that a rapper wrote a book. I think a lot of people don’t expect rappers to try to communicate viewpoints and think deeply about things. Music allows me to have the ears of lots of people, so I’ve tried to rap about life and stuff that matters and God instead of just rapping about chains, money, girls — typical hip-hop things.

This is something I’m very passionate about, because books have been huge in my life. I love reading and books help me to think about the world better, expose me to different ways to think about things, help me to grow with my faith. I hope people are surprised that I’m somebody who really loves writing — this isn’t just me trying to expand my brand.

Who has inspired you as a rapper, pastor, and author?

In terms of music, I would say probably the most influential on the way I approach the art form is Jay Z. He’s a guy who is arguably the best rapper of all time. The way he uses metaphors and double entendres and the way he’s able to connect with an audience — he’s just really good at what he does. But, obviously, I do it differently than him, because I have a different worldview. I would disagree with some of the things he says, but really respect him as an artist.

In terms of as a pastor and preaching, John Piper is a pastor in Minnesota who I heard a lot of his sermons early on that really inspired me to really want to continue to preach and proclaim God’s word.

As an author, that’s really hard. I would say one: C.S. Lewis. He’s a guy whose writing doesn’t read like sermons, but they’re so engaging and he answers questions before you even ask them and he argues so well and he understands culture well and understands scripture well. He’s a guy who’s influenced me a lot as an author.

How have you been able to blend, as John Piper writes in the introduction, reverence and relevance? The two can seem almost oxymoronic.

I think the main way I do that is just by trying to be myself. So, one thing I could’ve done is I could’ve read John Piper books and I thought, “Man I need to write like him. I need to preach like him.” That’s not me. He’s a white dude in his sixties and I’m a young black dude, a rapper, in my twenties.

I think it does Christianity a disservice if we feel like, “Hey, if I’m going to be serious about my faith, I have to look like this and dress like this and talk like this,” as opposed to, “Hey, when I put my faith in Jesus, he changes me from the inside, so that who I am culturally can stay the same, but I can still talk about deep things.”

Though God is going to call us to grow and change, it’s not going to be change like you have to wear suits now and you have to speak in King James language. No, no. You can still be yourself and be young and be cool, all those things — some people ain’t cool to start with, so you don’t get cool — but God can take you where you are, you can be yourself and you can be changed in a way that matters.

Speaking of, there’s this unique relationship between veteran Reformed guys like Piper and Mark Dever and younger rappers like yourself. Can you talk about that?

I do think it’s unexpected. I think what we’re seeing there is that even though we don’t have a lot in common culturally or age-wise — and maybe these are guys I never would’ve even known or had any kind of relationship with — what we do have in common is that we believe in the same Jesus and that makes us passionate to see the same things happen in the world.

And those are guys who I think get it in a way that they want to pour into people who have influence in different realms. For instance, John Piper, he’s always been incredibly kind, he sought to understand what we do, and then he’s gone out of his way to be really kind to us and love on us.

I think that’s powerful even as we think about some of the racial issues going on. I want people to see that there can be unity, and I’ve seen that unity come in Jesus. We believe in the same Lord — there are a lot of different things that are different about us, but we believe in the same Jesus and that’s what brings us together.

You call out a lot of people — kind of the lukewarm Christians, especially — in the book. Were you nervous about that or do you think it just needed to be done?

I think one of our core values as a culture right now is not ever making any comment on anything anybody else does. The only scripture passage that a lot of people know is that Jesus says, “Don’t judge lest ye be judged,” though of course we know from the context of that passage and other passages, he’s not saying never make any judgment. Scripture commands us to help each other along. I don’t think it does anybody any good if we are afraid to help each other grow.

That’s part of what it means to be a Christian, is to let other people in your life in such a way that you can help each other to grow. I think the problem comes when we’re very self-righteous about it. What in the book I always try to be very open about the fact that, even from the introduction, I do not have it all together. I have issues. I am a Christian not because I have it all together but because I need Jesus desperately.

You write about sex and porn and lust — you don’t really hold back. Were there parts you struggled to write or that were particularly uncomfortable?

Yeah, I mean, I know I’m going to get some emails this week saying, “Hey this may have been a little too real for my teenager,” but these are issues that, especially when you begin to talk about porn, plague us as a culture. It is very rare for me to meet a young man, Christian or not, who hasn’t at some point or is presently looking at porn regularly. And I thought, if I’m writing a book for young people, I cannot not address this particular issue because it’s such an epidemic for us, and something that so many of us struggle with, something that I struggled with in the past.

And then thinking of sex and temptation, I mean that’s such a huge thing for us while we’re young, even more than when we get older. So I just didn’t see a way that I could write an honest book that tried to speak to the unique challenges of following Jesus while we’re young without touching on those topics. And I think, because we don’t have a lot of honest discussion about those things, I think those will end up being some of the chapters that help people the most, because we try to ignore it like it doesn’t exist sometimes, and I don’t think that’s a helpful way to move forward.

I saw you perform at BET Music Matters in New York. What’s it like when a guy on stage before you is rapping about strip clubs and then you come on and rap about Jesus?

I love that stuff, man, I love that. I love when I get to do at a church and everybody there’s a professing Christian, but I love doing stuff like BET Music Matters because it’s an opportunity for people who normally wouldn’t be exposed to it. I love that, because one, their brain explodes for a second. Because they think Christians could not possibly be good rappers. They’re assuming that I’m about to come up there in choir robes and my rap name is going to be Kanye Blessed and it’s going to be something real corny.

Then I love the fact that they’re getting exposed to something different even if they weren’t expecting it. It’s an opportunity for me to be a light in places where there’s often not a lot of light.

There’s much written about Millennials leaving the church. Why do you think that is — and what do you think the church can do there?

There is one chapter where I talk about this very briefly in the book. It’s a chapter about going deep with God. I think one of the reasons so many people leave is because they’ve only been given really shallow ideas of the faith. When the only thing you know is “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so,” and when you’re only around people who also believe that, it’s not really challenged. But then people go off to college and then they’re getting challenged in class and they’re being exposed to other things, and because no one’s ever helped them to dive deep into scripture, they’re not firmly rooted. Some don’t really even understand what the gospel is, so it’s very easy to be knocked over. It’s nice to give folks pizza and high fives, but that’s not going to be enough if we want to give them the kind of faith that will be sustained.

We’re also just at a time in culture where it’s not respectable as much to be a serious Christian anymore. So, I think what it’s going to take is just the regular thing that God calls Christians to do in the Word: to love people and to tell them the good news about Jesus.

Can you talk about the Christian rapper label?

It’s so funny to me this has become such a huge conversation because normally this is almost always a question that we’re asked, not that we bring up most of the time. I want people to see me as a rapper. It’s very clear I’m a Christian from the way that I live my life and the music that I do — you hear it in my music. I just don’t want people to think of Christian hip-hop as its own genre, like there’s regular hip-hop and then there’s this hip-hop over here for church people.

Instead, I want people to say, ok, here’s a rapper. Is his music dope? Ok, I’ll check it out. And he’s coming from a particular perspective in his worldview. I just don’t want people to put it in a corner somewhere like it’s its own genre. I do hip-hop. I’m a Christian man. So that’s going to be clear in my music. So I think it gives people an idea about the music that’s not true. That’s why I don’t prefer it.

Rappers don’t know what to make of you guys and some Christians don’t know what to make of you guys. You’re kind of stuck in the middle.

Exactly. I think it’s ok to be kind of stuck in the middle. That means we get to carve out our own trail, which in some ways is cool, because there’s nobody who does it quite like we have.

Lead image courtesy of Thomas Nelson.

Corrie Mitchell
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