By: Tom Westerholm
It was hot and sunny outside at Lifelight Festival in Worthing, South Dakota. Across the expansive fields, an enormous main stage loomed, the stage for Christian pop artists like Peter Furler and 10th Avenue North. The Souled Out Stage, home to many of the alternative artists, from hip hop to metal, was directly to my right. But, seemingly in opposition to the alternative music playing mere yards away, I was seated next to Kevin Burgess, better known by his hip-hop moniker KB, talking about Katy Perry.
“I gotta be honest, man” he said, laughing. “I really like Katy Perry.”
Pop artists who married messy-looking British celebrities aside, KB defended his taste in secular music, specifically rappers.
“I deeply admire the way certain people can communicate,” he said. “They understand language and they can talk about the most secret and deepest feelings. That’s a gift, and Satan didn’t do that. God did.”
Burgess was quick clarify. “I do it all with a helmet. But that’s life in general. We throw out the bones when we can’t eat any more, we say “Ah, this isn’t good for me,” and back away from the table. That’s just how we live our lives as believers.”
Christian rap has been and remains somewhat of a controversial topic, with three very split, very distinct groups. There are the supporters. There are the people (mostly members of the older generation) who believe that hip-hop doesn’t have a place in Christian culture (‘”Have you seen BET?'” KB asked, satirically. “‘And you are going to put a Christian in front of that?'”). And there are the hip-hop purists, who don’t believe that a Christian message could mix with the violent, negative roots of rap music. And, to a certain degree, KB sees where they are coming from.
“It’s not like we invented this,” KB said, with a smile. “This was a culture, they were doing it before we got here, before I was born. But I would challenge you: evaluate. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Don’t just throw something out because you have a bad perception. What we do is technically excellent, what we do is genuinely hip hop, so there’s no other term for it but ‘real hip hop’.”
KB’s live performance was indeed technically excellent. Afternoon crowds at music festivals are notoriously difficult to entertain, particularly on the second day. By 5 pm, most attendees are tired of watching artists they don’t know, waiting for Skillet or Five Iron Frenzy to take the stage. But KB’s beats cut through the afternoon malaise, and as he bounded across the stage, his energy was contagious. The crowd, infected by the movement, bounced with him, arms in the air, clapping their hands above their heads and cheering as his hit single “Church Clap” pumped through the speakers. Christian or secular, rap or not, a skeptic would have found it difficult to deny that his show was infectious.
“I would agree with you that there are some Christian rappers who shouldn’t call themselves rappers at all,” he said. “But for the most part, I’ve been met with respect from a lot of guys, from dope boys to urbanites, so that provides a great bridge. But we’re aware that if they are going to accept the Gospel, our God is going to have to work with them. It’s not a musical thing, it’s a supernatural thing.”
For Burgess himself, Christian rap proved to be exactly the bridge he needed to turn his life around. His father was a military man, and his parents divorced when he was young. He and his mother moved to St. Petersburg, Florida, one of the toughest cities in the state.
“I went from being protected to always being in fear,” he said. “I went from not having to lock my doors to not being able to leave the house without a weapon.”
“I went from being protected to always being in fear. I went from not having to lock my doors to not being able to leave the house without a weapon.”
As so often happens in such difficult circumstances, these tensions created problems.
“It led to a lot of depression, anger, drugs, fighting, womanizing, you name it, that was my life,” Burgess said. “That was the climate of my progression as a man.”
But after a friend introduced him to Christian rap, KB found God, as well as his future calling. His catchy beats and smooth flowing lyrics have brought him to the forefront of the Christian rap scene, as well as his association with the popular 118 Clique, a group which includes heavyweights like Lecrae. KB will be sharing a stage with Lecrae on his upcoming tour across the US.
But despite his successes, KB remains very much in touch with his roots. Whether or not other people believe in the compatibility of his genre and his message, his own story is proof that witnessing through hip-hop can be a powerful way to spread the Gospel, and he is determined to do so.
“I have first-hand witness of the brokenness of this world,” he said. “I’m a professional sinner myself. Being around an urban context, which is the demographic we are going after, I’m not oblivious to the struggle. So when I make my music, I make it with that in mind. That’s who I am, that’s where I came from. I consider myself an indigenous missionary.”