Sir the Baptist, a.k.a. William Stokes, hip-hop artist, Atlantic Records, Bronzeville native, Leo High School grad, son of a Pentecostal preacher, new album out soon.
Grew up in Bronzeville, the Near South Side neighborhood with a rich African-American history that was a hotbed of jazz and other music for decades.
“That’s where my dad started a church and shared streets with Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, the Sunset Café.”
The church, Bright Star Church of God in Christ, is still there, on East 44th Street.
“We service maybe 5,000 people in the community as far as feeding and teaching and education and development.
“I grew up in a church so you had to learn instruments . . . play the piano, organ, drums . . . or, at least, be good at sweeping the floor. . . . You had to learn a little bit of everything because you’re technically running a family business.”
He learned his first instrument by 4 or 5 and was in the choir by 7. Now, he’s 29 and the father of two.
“I had a speech problem, so the choir director taught me how to smile in order to communicate.
“By the time I was ready to do my own music, I knew that I’d want to sort of put gospel into my music in some sort of way, I knew I wanted to use my music for a better cause, I knew that I would have to say something and use my raps as scriptures, as almost a sermon.
“I believe gospel music is almost dead. I feel like hip-hop is almost dead.”
His aim is “to save both of them” by reconnecting “the hip-hop world to spirituality” and “spirituality to common sense.”
Among his songs: “Wake Up,” with lyrics that include:
If everybody aim
And everybody shoot
Then who would live to tell it
I mean who could you tell it to?
Cuz everybody had the guts to aim and shoot
But who would be the martyr?
Let someone wake up to the truth
“Sometimes, you can be so spiritually minded that you’re no earthly good, so caught up in here, the cerebral, spiritual things, that you don’t know how to focus on economy . . . protesting . . . drugs, you don’t want to talk about sexuality.”
He wanted to be a preacher when he was a kid.
“They would put a milk crate in front of the pulpit, and I would stand on it in order to reach the people and see the people. And I would even sometimes go out and lay hands on people, and they would shout, and we would shout together.”
His dad was Baptist and then Pentecostal — with speaking in tongues, exorcising demons sometimes on display at services.
And there was testimony, where congregants spoke to the flock about their “ills or whatever they’re dealing with,” asking for prayers.
“Testimony service was never appropriate — ‘My husband cheated on me, pray I don’t kill him.’ . . . That’s the type of stuff that influenced my music, the honesty.
“A sinner is only a saint looking for restoration.
“God is in the gray area where you really need a transition or help or hope between dark places and light places.”
His mom is a missionary, “traveling, giving, making sure people have what they need, even if it takes taking a sweater off your son’s back . . . catering to the world, almost like Mother Teresa.
“I loved being close to my dad. My dad was my superhero growing up.”
Sir was 11 when his father died. He remembers being at Mercy Hospital. “Honestly, I stood at the window . . . and said, ‘Do I want to jump?’ . . . But I also thought that my dad wouldn’t want me to.
“He would pick me up from school, we would go get White Castles together and dip our burgers in the ice cream and eat ’em, just the craziest things that we shared that would make me think it’s impossible to live without him. But when he died, I guess he sort of became a piece of my spirit and my consciousness to where I literally carry him wherever I go.”
How did Sir juggle the streets and the church world?
“When you have 22 brothers and sisters, a few of them have made mistakes already, so you could either go out on the street and make another mistake, or your brother and sisters do whatever they can to keep you out of trouble.”
He’s the third-youngest.
“Gangs these days want to involve kids. Back in the day when I was growing up, they would beat you up if you didn’t go to school because they’re saying, ‘Hey, you don’t want to end up like me, we’re hoping you survive this, so you have to go to school.’ . . . I spent most of time in my childhood in a room, working on music.
“Once or twice maybe, I got shot at for wearing hand-me-downs” that had belonged to a brother who Sir was mistaken for. “The worst time to be poor, right? . . . I laugh about it now.”
He went to Leo High School, an all-boys parochial school on the South Side, where the principal “taught me how to look at people and communicate what I felt.”
About organized religion, he says, “Till this day, I don’t like it.”
Too corporate, too much opportunity for manipulation.
“It’s all that and more, the rules . . . it doesn’t even align itself with the Bible sometimes.”
The world might be better with fewer churches, with bringing church “back into the home.
“My peers don’t trust churches any more, and it’s kind of hard to trust churches when they bring their mayors in to get votes. . . . Politics should never be in the church.
“I go to church every now and then . . . I go to church like Jesus [went] to church.
“I’m a huge God fan, a huge Jesus fan.”
Jesus turned over the tables in the temple. What should be turned over today?
“Judgment is one, and condemning people is another.
“God looks amazing, man, obviously he lives in the intangible, but I see him in everyday people.”
When Sir is writing music, “I’m mostly in a spiritual realm.
“I’ve heard a lot of terrible sermons in my lifetime,” some involving pastors telling women how to behave at home.
Violence and poverty are seemingly never-ending in Chicago, but “there’s not hopelessness, there’s purpose.
“I just want to be an example. I’m not worried about the rapper money . . . I want to be the first hip-hop chaplain.”
Face to Faith appears Sundays in the Chicago Sun-Times, with an accompanying audio podcast, with additional content, at chicago.suntimes.com.