Grammy Award winner and hip hop artist Lecrae tells his story of artistic success, battle with addiction and depression, and being restored in this fascinating new book. Lecrae is vulnerable and open about his background, mistakes he made and how his restored faith in Christ is making a difference in his life going forward. Join Scott and Sean for this conversation with Lecrae.
About our Guest
Scott Rae: Welcome to the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. I'm your host, Scott Rae, Dean of faculty and professor of Christian ethics here at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Sean McDowell: And I'm your cohost, Sean McDowell, professor of apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Scott Rae: We're here today with a very special guest. We don't often get to interview Grammy award-winning artists, but we're here with Grammy award-winning hip hop artist Lecrae, also a New York Times bestselling author, who has a brand new book out, terrific new book called I am Restored, subtitled, How I Lost My Religion but Found My Faith.
Scott Rae: Lecrae, thank you so much for coming on with us and for your book. It's this incredibly vulnerable and transparent story of some of the things you've been through in your life. And, we so appreciate the chance to expose our listeners to your book and to your story. So, very appreciative for you coming on with us.
Lecrae: Appreciate that as well. Thank you.
Scott Rae: Yeah. Now, you don't get very far into the book before you realize that it's a very vulnerable account of some of the things you've been through. And, you could easily have justified, basically, keeping your private life private, saying, "This is just stuff I just don't want to be public," but what motivated you to write the book and make this incredibly vulnerable story a matter of public knowledge?
Lecrae: That's a good question. I was taught, years ago, that leaders lead in vulnerability, and I wanted to be vulnerable for a multitude of different reasons. I think, one, it was personal because I knew that, if I could be vulnerable in this way, it would allow me to continue to live in the light, to continue to not have to mask what was going on internally.
Lecrae: And then, two, I wanted to be vulnerable for others to be able to find healing through this process. Maybe there's other people who... As I've struggled with different things, I know I was greatly helped by those who were willing to be vulnerable about their struggles.
Lecrae: And then, I think, lastly, for those who may knowingly or unknowingly create pain and turmoil in the lives of others, because they don't recognize how their vitriol creates these types of lasting effects on people, to, maybe, think twice before they act, comment, or maneuver.
Sean McDowell: We're going to get into some of the particulars of the book and your story. But, could we start with just sharing with us your journey to Christ, to becoming a Christian?
Lecrae: Yeah, absolutely. I was not raised in the church, per se. My grandmother was a very devout Christian and, as I would spend summers with her three to four months out of the year, she would have us regularly attending church, but when I was home the other nine months of the year, my mother did not, she had a very strong distaste for church just because of the legalistic environment that she was raised in.
Lecrae: So, I was raised to be a free thinker, to read various different perspectives and views. And I was fine with that until about 17 years old. 17, I had a friend confront me, and he was an atheist. And, he said that he was confident that there was no God, and it was just us. And though he said that in confidence, it really gave me a strong sense of anxiety because I knew I could barely drive a car, let alone control my life.
Lecrae: And so, that drove me to really start investigating who God was and, in my investigative process, which was about two years of just studying different world religions. I was introduced to some Christians who invited me to an event where I heard a very clear gospel presentation, and it was as if the light bulb came on, and the scales fell off my eyes.
Scott Rae: Now, Lecrae, I mean, you've had a very successful career as a hip hop artist, but, as you describe in the book, it wasn't particularly easy to get there. You describe a lot about your upbringing, your childhood, adolescence, coming from a pretty tough upbringing. So, tell us just a little bit about how you grew up, some of the things that marked you during your childhood and adolescence that is part of this vulnerable story that you're telling.
Lecrae: Yeah. Well, yeah, I was raised, primarily, in low-income environments where gang violence was pretty prevalent and normal, I mean, just drugs, gangs, all the different types of circumstances and issues, poor education systems, and a different set of values and ethics revolved in a way that I was raised. And so, certain things were just normalized.
Lecrae: So, abuse was normalized in some sense, physical abuse. Becoming a part of a violent gang was normalized. And so, these were things that were just around me consistently. And, I both fell to the vices and became a victim of them as well. I've experienced physical, sexual abuse, experienced police brutality, and also gang violence. And so, all of those were the gumbo of my upbringing.
Scott Rae: Well, that's a good way to put it, describing it as the soup that you lived in growing up. You also say in the book that hip hop saved your life. Describe to us how that happened.
Lecrae: Yeah. So, it wasn't as if there was access to different career paths or different interests. I mean, obviously, you could become an athlete, which, I dabbled in sports, but they didn't just grab my attention. And so, for me, where the broader path was just to get into trouble and just go with the flow, there were a couple of narrow paths that one could take. And, hip hop became one of those narrow paths that just piqued my interest. And I found myself falling in love with the art form, the craft, the music, and all I wanted to do all day was write songs and listen to songs.
Lecrae: And, a lot of that kept me out of trouble because I was too busy engrossed in making music or writing songs that I didn't do a lot of the things that some other kids may have been doing. But then, also, where I could have fallen a victim to some bullying or some violence, just being really gifted at hip hop music made people see that there was something more to me, and it allowed folks to look out for me. And, it highlighted my abilities and my talents to where opportunities came forward.
Sean McDowell: Your journey through the church was pretty complicated, as you describe in the book. You say, initially, when you became a Christian, you had disdain for the black church. I'm curious. Why is that? And, what other church experiences did you have since then in your faith, and how did it, maybe, even affect your music through that?
Lecrae: Yeah, that's a great question. I was saved, or came to faith, in an African-American ministry that was a para-church of a bigger, more conservative evangelical ministry. And so, the African-Americans, we would go to different types of churches, Missionary Baptist, charismatic, Pentecostal, Word of Faith churches. And, I think those were places where a lot of my foundational understanding of who God was thrived.
Lecrae: But, as I began to explore... I've always been a seeker of information and wanting to know the intellectual aspects of things. And, I thought that Christianity was merely just a faith and an emotional connection to God. And once some more different traditions, primarily, the reform tradition, introduced me to the systems of thinking about the faith, I fell in love because it allowed me to process my faith in a more intellectual way.
Lecrae: And, the black church did not provide that for me, in my experience. And so, I began to be frustrated and think that I was better than them, and think that they were just worse off instead of realizing that we're all a body, and we all have different giftings and collectively need to learn how to walk with one another. So, I was very hearty, and knowledge puffs up. And, I really looked down on the black church for their lack of what I believe, theological prowess. And, it became a problem.
Scott Rae: Lecrae, you also describe, in your book, that you suffered from what you called, "Church hurt," as your popularity expanded, as you began to get exposed, your music became exposed in more and more churches, what do you mean by the term, "Church hurt?" And, how did you experience that?
Lecrae: Yeah. I guess, simplistically, I would say church hurt is where the people of God, that you have these expectations to flesh out the fruit of spirit, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, were doing the exact opposite in respects to me. And so, initially, I just didn't understand it, and I was confused by it because I thought we were all one big family. And, every time I challenged the church on some public level through song, like, "We need to do more missions," or, "We need to work in the inner cities," it was always met with repentance or gratefulness or gratitude.
Lecrae: And, when I began to, initially, I began to challenge the church on a sacred-secular vantage point, "Why are we looking at the world through these bifocals?" And, going through Andy Crouch's, Culture Makers, and Nancy Pearcey's book, Total Truth, really challenged me. And, when I brought those things up, I was attacked pretty viciously. And so, that put me in a dark place, and I wasn't prepared for that. And then, when I started to bring up some of the social issues, especially, as it pertained to black Americans, I was very viciously attacked. And so, that created a deep pain because I just didn't understand. I did not get it.
Lecrae: And, what developed in me, a wound that man had caused, became, for me, a wound that God had caused. And, I was, in some senses, blaming God for the fallibility of his people. And that just took me spiraling down because, if I couldn't trust God, then who could I trust? And that was a very, very dark time in my life.
Scott Rae: That makes me incredibly sad to hear that you took such grief for rejecting the sacred-secular dichotomy. And, I think a lot of our churches sometimes forget that the reformers actually gave their lives to abolish that dichotomy four or 500 years ago. And, particularly, as you were able to speak to a lot of the churches that you were performing in about things that we needed to hear about, racial reconciliation, it just makes me very sad to hear that.
Scott Rae: How did that criticism impact you? You say that... You describe in your book that the white church turned its back on you. That had to be incredibly painful.
Lecrae: It was. It was a little disorienting at first. What I began to notice was that it was, by and large, and this is mostly social media, of course, because that's where people are, are very visceral in their commentary, but, by and large, the commentary was from white people. And, I was like, "Wait, why is that? What is this divide that's happening here? Why can't my white fans see where I'm coming from, but yet my black fans can? This is a really strange occurrence."
Lecrae: And, I didn't realize, just the historical issues were at play. I had just come into Christianity with this, "Kumbaya, we're all together. There's no historical implications here," and I just really hadn't thought through any of those things. So, I was extremely disoriented. And, when it turned to certain pastors and leaders of different Christian organizations, I really felt betrayed. And, just seeing people say, "I'm not listening to your music anymore," and it wasn't as if I was...
Lecrae: And, as I go back and process it all, I was really just being honest about my pain, and a lot of people were just saying, "We're not interested in hearing this. Get back to the gospel. You're caught up in an agenda. It's not true." And, I was trying to articulate that, "Well, it is, because I'm experiencing it. I've seen it in my own life."
Lecrae: So, that was very painful. And, the end result, for me, was that I had put so much trust and so much stock in the views of these leaders and thinkers and people that I just didn't believe God was real because they were my only vantage point of God. And then, so, I just thought, "Well, there can't be a God because, if these are the people that I've learned about God from, and they're saying this, I don't have any other way to reconcile what I'm seeing here."
Sean McDowell: Lecrae, you described this pain, just really raw and real in the book. And, I think, as a piece of this, you described how people stopped buying your music. And, I think it was within one day if I got it right, 30,000 followers on Twitter, which some people might say, "Well, that's just social media," but that's 30,000 people saying, "We're not going to follow you anymore. We're not interested anymore." That's a very personal hurt. I get that.
Sean McDowell: Through some of this pain with a white church, were there some individuals who you think did it right, and listened to you, treated you well, and are a model for how we could do this better? And, you can name them or not. But, what are some things people did well in your life during this hurtful period?
Lecrae: Yeah. That's a very good question. And, that's where, probably, some of the hardiness that I had toward different denominations, in both white and black, started to dissipate because, I began to see that a lot of the agie and charismatic churches, specifically, some of the white leaders and pastors, really rallied around me and sought to care for my soul and my wellbeing. And, it was very interesting because, I had spent so much time with this disdain for what they were communicating, and yet they were being so gracious and loving.
Lecrae: And I remember some pastors from Hillsong Church who came to me and said, "Hey, listen, I'm not really big into the whole John Piper stuff, and I just don't get it, but, man, I just want you to know, I love you, and I care about you." And, it was, for them, what they were communicating is that, "I don't really agree with these reformed leaders that you follow, but I do love you." And, I mean, to some degree, I guess they were saying I love them as well, even though I don't agree with their standpoints. And, it was the opposite of what I had experienced in the circles that I was running in.
Lecrae: And so, there were people who did that. Now, I do think, simply, because, probably, in the reformed tradition, I mean, people are thinkers and processors. So, as people were thinking and processing, they began to come around. They didn't initially just come to my aid. There were some, and John Piper was actually one of them who came immediately, but there were some who took time to process, to think through stuff. Another was Paul Tripp, who's just been phenomenal, and Tim Keller as well, just great leaders who've been phenomenal, and even consistently. And so, I'm very grateful for the way that they navigated that time period and those issues.
Scott Rae: Lecrae, a big part of the book describes what was happening in your personal and family life as the popularity of your music increased. Can you, I don't want you to share any more than you're comfortable with, but can you tell us a little bit about what was going on behind the scenes and more personally, and at home, as the popularity of your music seemed to be going off the charts?
Lecrae: Sure. Yeah. Well, what began to happen is that, there were some songs that were making headway in more mainstream areas and not particularly in the Christian spaces, and I had to spend a lot more time in those mainstream circles where there was not a moral compass oftentimes. And so-
Scott Rae: That people weren't praying for you, in those contexts?
Lecrae: No. They, absolutely, we're not. They were preying on me is a better way to think of it. So, in those environments, I think I was vulnerable and I was insecure and craving to belong because I had just felt so rejected. And, that false sense of care and affirmation was like a drug. And so, in those circles, what began to happen is I began to be heralded for my abilities, my gifting, my popularity, and I was eating it up just internally. I didn't really know what to do with my faith at that point in time, anyway, so I just went with the flow. And, going with the flow led to me numbing a lot of the pain that I would feel internally, and numbing the pain was through a lot of drinking, and just excessively drinking, excessive taking engagements that I didn't have to take because I just didn't want to be present.
Lecrae: I didn't want to do... I told my wife that I wasn't interested in doing devotionals with the family because I just didn't know what I felt about God. And, I didn't want to deal with that guilt either, so I'd stay on the road. And, in staying on the road, you're drinking, and then you're dealing with the anxiety of the stress that you're internally dealing with. And, I remember talking to doctors about that, and them prescribing pills, and now that's this combination of alcohol and pills and parties and engagements where I'm performing in front of an audience that doesn't have a moral compass.
Lecrae: And, my ideals were just really becoming warped at that point in time. And, I remember, during that point in time, I was thinking to myself, "Well, if there's no God, what does matter? Does anything matter?" And, "What is marriage?" And, "I mean, my wife and I aren't seeing eye to eye," or, "Should we even really be together? I don't think so."
Lecrae: And so, these are all things that I'm internally wrestling with and just going, spiraling downward. And, by the grace of God, he allowed for me to suffer through a clinical depression where it was so crippling that I couldn't enjoy those things, I couldn't partake in that lifestyle. And, I didn't know where to go other than to God.
Sean McDowell: Could you describe for us what, maybe, brought you out of it? Was it an experience? Was it God's grace and infusing you? Was it being grounded in theology or apologetics or relationship? What are some things that brought you out of that hurt and, really, depression period you just described?
Lecrae: Yeah. I love... I could not read the book of Job when I was in that place. I did read the book of Jonah, and Jonah's story was so inspiring to me because he just rejected God in the same way that I did and tried to run away from God, and he ended up saying, "I don't even want to live anymore." And God was just gracious enough to pick him up even at his lowest place and still use him. And so, I think that story gave me a picture of hope, a picture that God will still use you if you're willing.
Lecrae: And, I think, I brought up Job, initially, because my friend, I had a couple of friends who were a picture of what I think Job was trying to articulate to us, is that you shouldn't try to come around your friends who are in pain and give them criticisms and your expert advice, but you should just be present. And, I think that's what I learned from them, is that their consistency and their presence was helping to heal me.
Lecrae: And, the biggest thing, I'd have to say, is that once I was willing... The first thing I did, I'll be honest with you, is I went to therapy because I didn't trust God, initially. So, I trusted therapy, and I went to therapy. And, God was gracious enough to put me with a Christian therapist who would push me to see things from the lens of the scripture in that entire process. And so, he was just working behind the scenes in so many amazing ways.
Sean McDowell: That's great. I'm three years older than you are, but I grew up in the church. And, I remember, in the early nineties, when I heard Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith on the radio, it was like, "Oh, we are in. We have crossed into the mainstream, they're playing Christian music," and we thought that was awesome. What's interesting in your story is you've gotten criticism for broadening your music's appeal outside Christian circles, rejecting the sacred-secular split. That doesn't make any sense to me. I don't get it. But, why do you think you got that criticism? What did you learn from it?
Lecrae: Yeah. I think there are many different reasons. On one hand, I'd be remiss if I didn't just honestly say that ethnicity has a lot to do with that. If you... Whether people want to admit that or not, I do think there is a lens by which America sees or has seen black people through. And, rap music, in many ways, amplifies that lens, gangsterism, thugs, gang members, drug dealers. And so, when you see an individual who is, in some senses, redeeming hip hop and not using it for all those negative ways, now connecting with the very people that you just had a terrible outlook on from the onset, your thought is, "Look at him, he's going back into that place." And, it's almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Sean McDowell: Got you.
Lecrae: So, I think there's a lot of that. And, I think we wouldn't say it's race or ethnicity, but it just so happens that the cultures that we struggle with, typically, belong to a particular race or ethnicity. And so, if you struggle with hip hop as a culture, well, I mean, it's pretty much a black culture. If you struggle with those particular things, then you would struggle with some of my decisions to move in that direction.
Lecrae: And so, yeah, I think... I also think, another thing I think now is that there was just not an expectation, and I've heard it many times. I mean, many pastors have said it. I don't think they knew what they were saying was insulting, but many have said, "I did not expect you to be this intelligent. I did not expect you to be this well-spoken." And so, just hearing those types of statements were a reflection of what the expectation was of me.
Sean McDowell: Gosh, that's painful, right?
Scott Rae: That's brutal.
Sean McDowell: I really appreciate you being vulnerable enough to share that. Let me ask you one more question, and I am going to throw it back to you, Scott, is, you talk a lot in the book about fatherlessness and how that affected and shaped you. And, the different times that I've heard you speak, Lecrae, I feel like you're trying to meet a balance in the middle. It's the sense that I get.
Sean McDowell: So, you're recognizing that fatherlessness is a real issue. Your dad had agency and could make a choice, but there's so much more going on in the black community than fatherlessness, and many times when people minimize it to that, they miss certain key components that are going on. So, can you give just your perspective, maybe, how that affected you personally and how you see that as a whole in culture today?
Lecrae: Yeah, absolutely. I think fatherlessness, for me, was absolutely detrimental, and it was a terror in my life, and it's detrimental. It has been detrimental in the black community. The numbers have actually changed dramatically since I was a kid. I think, now, more than 60% of African-American fathers are in the home. Things have changed, but I don't think people ask why black fathers weren't in the homes. And, there's so many issues at hand that created an environment for, one, the fathers to not be present and for, two, for the black community to still have tons of different struggles that fatherlessness cannot be held responsible for.
Lecrae: So, as you begin to look at the war on drugs in the eighties, that took a lot of fathers out of their communities, whether that was prison or death, it removed a lot of fathers.
Lecrae: Now, you'd have to do some reverse engineering to understand how that whole war on drugs happened. Were the people who sold them culpable for their actions? Absolutely. That's not a point of debate. However, I think about my own family who, my father was a very intelligent man, but he wasn't presented with those opportunities. My mother actually went on to go to college, but there were no job opportunities being offered to her in the seventies that would highlight her intelligence and her skillset. So, they had to settle for working at UPS. My mother worked at a grocery store, worked at a halfway house.
Lecrae: And so, there was just circumstances and glass ceilings that also created problems for individuals to thrive. Without my father in my life, sure, it had a host of problems, but then you have to realize, if I did have him, him and my mother would have been working overtime and would've still been at home by myself for hours on end, which would have contributed to so many problems. So, there's just a host of different issues that contribute to what happens in our community.
Scott Rae: Lecrae, I appreciate the complexity that you're drawing our attention to in this because I think it is not uncommon to reduce the issues for the black community into just the lack of fathers in the home. And, that's helpful, I think, for everybody involved, to appreciate that it's just a more complicated story than that, and it's just not accurate to reduce it like it's often done.
Scott Rae: Let me ask... Can I ask one final question? I'm interested, you mentioned throughout the book, so, you lost your religion, but reconstructed your faith. Can you just summarize, where are you? I'm just curious. I think our listeners would be curious. Now, just where are you in terms of that reconstructed faith?
Lecrae: That's a great question.
Scott Rae: Because, we all know that that's a process, that can take a long time, but where are you just in that process?
Lecrae: That's great. I think, more than anything these days, I am extremely interested in critiquing the lenses from which I see the scriptures through, realizing that I'm a westerner, realizing that I have a limited vantage point of understanding God's word. I'm always critiquing my lens. And so, it's not to say I'm ecumenical because, that's not the case, but I am of the belief that I can learn from my Anglican, my reformed, my Charismatic, my Pentecostal brothers and sisters, and I don't have to embrace everything that they bring my way, but I can measure that against the scriptures and try to wrestle with it.
Lecrae: I'm probably more of a Berean than I've ever been, I guess, if that makes sense, and very much interested in understanding the Eastern lens that scripture was written in intentionally.
Lecrae: And so, yeah, I think I'm far more open-handed than I once was to ideas and things coming my way, where, prior to that, I was very closed off and there's certain people that I would never even listen to, "I know this person is a heretic, and I don't hear anything they have to say," whereas, now, I'm saying, "Well, what are people hearing when they listen to this person? Let me hear what they hear." And, "I don't agree with that, but I do like this, actually, and that does make a lot of sense," and just trying to build my foundation on Christ alone and not on a system that I think we have built to make sure that we feel comfortable about a supernatural God that has revealed himself through scripture. And, that's who we should be trusting and where our trust should be.
Scott Rae: Yeah. And, I think that's a great set of observations. And, I think our relationship to God, I think, was never intended to make us comfortable but to keep us there. There's an uncomfortable part of the demands to take up our cross, to deny ourselves, and to follow Christ, which I think you've brought out really insightfully here, in your book.
Scott Rae: I want to commend to our listeners again, Lecrae, your book entitled, I Am Restored: How I Lost My Religion but Found My Faith. It's an incredibly moving, vulnerable, transparent story of how you've wrestled with your background, your success, your spiritual battles and how you've come out of this, I think, much stronger, much more insightful, but it's just a very powerful message. And so, I just want to commend the book to all of our listeners.
Scott Rae: This is a must-read by Lecrae, a Grammy award-winning artist. So thankful for you coming on with us, so appreciate your insight and just for being vulnerable with us and our listeners as well as you have been in your book.
Lecrae: Thank you. I appreciate it. Thank you for the opportunity.
Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. To learn more about us and today's guest, Lecrae, and his book, I Am Restored, and to find more episodes, go to biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you enjoyed our conversation today, give us a rating on your podcast app, and feel to share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening, and remember, think biblically about everything.