MONTEREY, Calif. Christian reggae artist Dominic Balli is unfazed by concerns about the perceived connection between the genre and drug use.
"I'm totally fine being one of the ambassadors that helps remove that stigma within Christian music. Even in the mainstream market," he said during a telephone interview.
"There's a lot of believers who use rock 'n' roll to communicate truth, you know, both in the Christian community and people who are doing it more in the mainstream," he said, noting the impact of Switchfoot and P.O.D.
Balli will do his own communicating Aug. 6 when he performs at Spirit West Coast Monterey. At the center of his message is Jesus Christ, a stark and redeeming contrast to the genre's early roots. Jamaican Bob Marley tops most all-time lists as the most influential reggae artist. Marley was a Rastafarian, a religious movement birthed in the 20th century that promoted the use of cannabis for spiritual enlightenment.
"God made music and we get to choose what we use it for, whether that's good or bad or neutral. There's this little reggae dude somewhere in me that's trying to get out, even though I'm just an Italian-Greek kid from Southern California. It's not that I identify with the culture of reggae, Rastafarianism, and marijuana. I identify with the music, I love the music, it's in my bones and it makes me move."
Balli is a third-generation ordained Calvary Chapel pastor, following the example of his father and grandfather. Last November he left a staff position at Reach in Carpinteria, Calif., to focus on music full-time.
The Calvary Bible College graduate's worship pastor experience reassures Christian leaders who might be unnerved by his long dreadlocks. He is a regular guest performer at churches.
Music was an unlikely calling for Balli as a child.
"I started playing guitar when I was 13, but I couldn't hear pitch at all," the musician said. "I was totally tone deaf, I couldn't tell when my guitar was out of tune (or) find the right note to sing." I would sing and everybody around me would be like 'Man, the music sounds cool but your voice is like, in the wrong key or something!'"
His life radically changed at age 16.
"Literally the week I put my faith in Christ and fell in love with Jesus, my ears opened up," he said.
Balli discovered the healing after a youth pastor encouraged him to lead worship for his youth group.
"I was like, 'No way, dude, I can't sing.' He said, 'Well at least try.' So I went home and started practicing worship songs. As soon as I started doing that, I could hear pitch for the first time in my life. "It's not like I had an amazing voice all of a sudden, but my ears were healed."
Balli's music is what he terms 'CaliRockReggae.' The term 'Cali' references a Southern California culture.
"You move to California and it's so laid back, yet aggressive, too, in the sense that people are busy," the pastor-musician said. "My music is like that; it goes from being kickback to being intense, in your face, semantically."
"My stuff isn't totally rootsy reggae and it's not totally rock or pop, it's just kind of a hybrid. If I were to describe it (further) I would say it is reggae-infused pop rock music."
It has been three years since his last album, Public Announcement. His follow-up album, American Dream, is due July 26. Red Song Music, a label started by Balli, co-produced it with Lion of Zion Entertainment. "LoZ" is a gospel reggae label whose mission statement is "Reaching the World through World Music."
Collaborating in song
Balli and rapper Sonny Sandoval, the lead singer for P.O.D., wrote the title song of the new album.
"I met him at Spirit West Coast last year," he said. "He's just one of the most humble guys in the world."
Another significant collaboration is with Brazilian roots artist Nengo Vieira, whom he met during a Brazilian tour. Balli wrote a song about favelas, Brazilian shantytowns. He recruited Nengo to incorporate Portuguese into the song "Favela."
For more information about Spirit West Coast, visit www.spiritwestcoast.org.