His stage name stands for ‘disciple for Christ’, and he’s one of a growing number of artists spreading the Gospel with an urban flavour. He spoke to 20Twenty’s Neil Johnson about working in a genre where secular artists trade in shock value, how church doors are starting to open to Christian rappers, and how his latest single became a surprise hit. Read on, or listen to the podcast of their conversation below.
Rhys Solomon is a misfit in the hip hop crowd. But as his stage name and most of his raps prove, he’s not ashamed of his faith. In Misfit, the song that doubles as his mission statement, he sings ‘yeah I’m a Christian, and what’, daring people to challenge him. ‘It’s just who I am. It’s how it is.’
He has supported mainstream hip hop artists, playing in nightclubs for intoxicated crowds. One night, after opening for the rapper Kid Ink, he received some unexpected praise. ‘They came up to me, like, that was awesome man. That was real life music. We need more of this, and not this stuff that’s up on the stage right now. It was kind of cool to get the insight from non-Christian people that actually enjoyed what I was doing.’
Solomon finds a lot of modern hip hop hard to listen to. When he was growing up, rappers talked about being drug dealers, but now he says they talk about being addicts. ‘They kind of got infatuated with drugs,’ he explained, ‘and ended up taking it, and now it’s cool to take drugs.’
He knows artists who don’t follow that lifestyle personally, but write about it for money and popularity. ‘They’re kind of just following the cool scene, but they’re pulling people down at the same time.’
He is working to gather other like-minded artists, through collectives like the Commission and the label he founded, 413 Records. ‘The guys that I do songs with, we’re in that old-school mentality I guess, where lyrics are the end all of what you should be doing with music.’
These days, it’s like they’ll chuck a swear word wherever they can fit a syllable.
‘To me, it’s a loss of creativity I guess, but it’s becoming the normal. Even just people talking out in the street, you hear it a million times. It’s becoming normal. So trying to change that, I guess, is the main purpose.’
When Neil Johnson first met Solomon, he noted that his stage-name sounded a lot like divorcee. It turns out that this was an important part of his testimony. At 21, he was told that he couldn’t be a father, but he and his new wife were determined to fall pregnant. They kept trying for years without success.
‘That got the better of my wife at the time, and four years into the marriage, we split, because she ran off with another guy.’
‘At that time, that really damaged me as a person. I’ve been a Christian my whole life, never had anything happen to me that was wrong, or made me feel depressed.’
Around the same time, his dream to become a professional basketball player was destroyed when he tore his ACL. ‘And so there was two things in this one moment that just tore me down, and then music was the only thing I had to fall back on.’
I cried out to God, then I just wrote a rap, put it on YouTube, and the rest is history.
‘I did blame God for a long time,’ he admitted. ‘And I told him that he had to show himself, and that I’d had enough. If this is how me as a Christian is getting treated, I can’t handle this.’
‘The next day, I received three different texts from old friends that I used to go to church with. They didn’t know what was going on in my life at the time, but I got three different texts from people saying hey, I’m thinking about you, got you in my prayers, and sent me Bible verses as well.’
The last person to text Solomon invited him to an Islander Night at their church. He felt like the Preacher there was speaking directly to him. ‘I pretty much just rededicated myself on the spot,’ he said.’
‘Even though I hadn’t gone anywhere, I think I took it for granted as a Christian, because I’d grown up in that kind of environment, and hadn’t had anything wrong go on in my life. And then because I had all this happen, I was like yeah God, I know you’re real, and I give everything to you.’
Solomon’s faith, of course, has been rewarded. He is now remarried, and despite what the Doctors told him, has two young children. And after a decade of hard work, his dedication to his music also seems to be paying off. On good Friday this year, he released a song called El Shaddai, which talks about the sacrifice Christ makes for us.
Soon after the song was released, he got a message from a friend insisting that he ‘go check iTunes charts’! ‘I’ve never thought about charting, because it’s never been anything I’d really worried about, and it was number 88 in the top hundred in the inspirational charts. I was like what? This is insane!’
When he checked again that afternoon after a performance in Fortitude Valley, the song was at 57. ‘On the Sunday morning of Easter, I was number 7. That day I was performing at Easter United on the Gold Coast in front of a couple of thousand people. I just got up on stage, and I’m like yeah, this song just went number 7! Help me beat Hillsong!’
Hip hop, by reputation, is music for teenagers. But in fact its history goes back many decades. Solomon, at 35, was a hip hop fan in his teenage years, and now he tries to cater both to the youth groups and to an audience of people his age, who are often just as in need of guidance and leadership as young adults.
They played El Shaddai on Vision, and it touched a whole variety of listeners. Melanie, from Springhurst, Victoria, called to tell how her three children, all under eight, were delighted by the song. Frank, in his 50s, listened in because his son was a hip hop fan, and said the music was growing on him.
‘I’m not really into hip hop,’ said Liz, 55, from Brisbane, ‘but I loved that song. I loved the lyrics. And I get that when the Word of God is sung, no matter what genre it is, it will go out, it will affect whoever God is opening up their hearts to receive that, and it’s across the ages.’
‘Actually the whole reason that I wrote the song was for God to use it, in a way, to inspire anybody. So it’s good that it’s inspiring a lot of people, no matter what their demographic or age.’
One of hip hop’s defining features is its focus on lyrics. Most rappers chronicle their personal struggle, their victories and defeats, to a backbeat. And in the same way, Christian rappers deliver their testimony in song.
Rap has given Solomon the freedom to tell his story.
I’m better at rapping than I am at talking,
Struggling with a stutter as a child, he was always frightened to speak in public. ‘But now the stage is my comfort zone.’
Though El Shaddai has brought him into the spotlight, his rise to fame has at times been an uphill battle. ‘For a while,’ he said, ‘Hip-hop wasn’t really what churches were looking for, for youth events or anything like that. But it’s kind of changing, especially with Lecrae, all those guys, growing in popularity as well.’
Solomon is eager to support up-and-coming artists, and has promoted many of them through his record label. He says some haven’t been able to continue, because it has been difficult to make a living as a Christian rapper. He finances his music with a full-time job, but he has never lost his determination, because he knows this ministry is much bigger than him.
‘I can’t step away from doing this. This is what I love, it’s what I enjoy, and it’s what I actually believe I’m called for.’
D4C’s Misfit EP, and his new single El Shaddai, are out now. His new album, Next Chapter, is coming later in 2018. To buy his music, or book him for an event at your church or youth group, visit his record label’s site, at 413records.com.