The line-up for Rock the Bells in Los Angeles read like a who's who in hip-hop past, present, and future: Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, Wu-Tang Clan, Common, Kid Cudi, Kendrick Lamar in Black Hippy … and Christian rapper Lecrae.
Lecrae Moore's come a long way since he first enteredor some would say createdthe Christian hip-hop scene "ridin' with my top down listenin' to that Jesus music."
At the time, he was ignored by both Christian radio and the mainstream hip-hop community for his musical style and content, respectively, and built a fan base by touring and maintaining a heavy online presence. In 2004, he started Reach Records, which has gone on to sign Christian rappers like Trip Lee, Andy Mineo, Tedashii, and KB. But back then, his music wasn't sold in stores, and he wasn't invited to radio interviews or TV interviews.
"We lived online," Moore said.
Now, the 34-year-old rapper is in high demand.
It took seven years for mainstream hip-hop to take notice, first in 2011 with a stellar performance at the BET Hip Hop Award's freestyle cypher, then his Church Clothes mixtape release, then his Grammy win for Best Gospel Album.
"They didn't expect much out of me," Moore said of BET cypher. So when they heard him rap, "they were like, 'Wow, this guy is really rapping. Aside from his belief, he really does appreciate the craft of hip-hop.' They took notice, even if they didn't agree with the messaging."
The themes of hope and redemption in his music haven't changed. At Rock the Bells' cypher, Moore quipped, "I got a Grammy in my closet but I trade it for the Hope / of the people because these days evil / if you ain't met Jesus you don't want to see the sequel." The difference now is that his message is sandwiched between songs objectifying women and glorifying the thug life, and reaching a new audience: Young people in the hip-hop culture who wouldn't be caught dead listening to Christian radio.
Moore said the vision for his music has changed since he first started. Back then, as he traveled from city to city performing at sports camps and churches, his main goal was to create quality hip-hop for Christians. He found a whole group of people like him who grew up in the hip-hop culture, came to Christ, and now "wanted to hear music that expressed [their] new-found faith in a familiar art form." If non-Christians listened to his music, he only wanted them to hear the gospel, not a Christian worldview or good music.
But now, Moore has developed a more comprehensive vision. Rather than just providing non-believers with the gospel, he wants to be a friend, hear their stories, and share his own. Often he's found that people have preconceived notions about faith and Jesus, and he takes the time to correct those wrong ideas and explain what Christianity actually entails.
"The vision is just being honest and transparent on a variety of issues," Moore said. "Sometime I talk to the church; sometimes I don't. It's more of an expansion than a transition."
For some of his fans, this new direction is hard to take. Some take Moore to task for his association and collaboration with rappers who are known for their vulgar and offensive songs. But in doing songs with rappers with a different worldview, Moore finds areas they have in commonthoughts in the face of death, their life experiences growing up, or beating the odds. He doesn't want guest rappers to pretend they are Christians, and he's found that most of them respect him and what he's doing: "There's not many artists tapping into the wholeness of who we are outside the club party atmosphere, that's where I find my place."
While Moore is facing unprecedented attention from mainstream hip-hop, he said being in the industry so long has prepared him for the temptations fame and fortune bring. While artists who peak in their late teens or early 20s will find their identity in their celebrity status or their work, "when things started shifting, I was already secure in who I was," Moore said. He keeps grounded by remembering "who He made me to be and where I stand in the thing: He's the star, I'm the extra … in the grand scheme of eternity your head only pops up for a second."