FLAME: St. Louis, Missouri… It's a lot of urban culture, very diverse, and definitely city life. I grew up in the inner-city, the hood, or whatever you want to call it; so I was heavily influenced by hip-hop culture. The things that were seen as cool and things that you actually aspired for in my generation were the gang culture and drug culture. Those things were highlighted and paraded, so you had ambitions towards those things. I was conflicted because, socially, that's what I wanted -- I wanted to be cool and fit in, but my family was pushing me towards Christ and Christianity. So I was torn between those two worlds. Eventually, I got into a lot of trouble at my high school, and that led up to an accident and my grandmother passed away. Those things back to back is really what God kinda used to get me asking the big questions. Even in the midst of a city that was pushing me away from Christ, the Lord was drawing me to Him.
FLAME: Yeah. Yeah, it was so normal. There was nothing taboo about it. It wasn't socially unacceptable. It was the norm, so that is just what you aspired to become. As a young man, you look up to the older guys and you see the flashy lifestyles and the materialism and the respect that they have, and as a man those things are attractive. They're misplaced, but nevertheless, you feel like, "I want that in my life."
FLAME: Yeah. Absolutely! My grandmother was the strongest member in my family, concerning Christianity, and she was devout. She really made Christianity seem attractive. She would share with me, not only Bible stories, but personal experiences where God had been faithful and protected her and provided for her. So I always looked at God and Jesus in a good light -- in a positive light -- and I wanted to be on God's good side because she made it seem so rewarding. But, while being young and trying to fit in, I didn't have, internally, what I needed to make that hard decision. I think that's why God pressed me into making that decision. When I got kicked out of my high school, I had to transfer to this new school. On the way home from the orientation is when I got hit three times by this 18-wheeler carrying fuel. [JFH (Michael): Oh, wow!] It wrecked the left side of my body and I had to do physical therapy for maybe a year or so. I went to my grandmother after the accident and I asked her, "Why did God let this happen?" She just said, "I don't know why, but you need to repent and you need to turn from your sins." Shortly after that conversation, she died from her fifth heart attack. [JFH (Michael): Wow!] She was only 55 years old, so that's relatively young. So those two events really just shattered my dreams and my hopes; my grandmother was my best friend. I was invited to church after that and I was upset with God so I kept saying "no." Then maybe after 6 months of this one person just persisting to invite me, I eventually said, "Ok, I'll go." I heard the gospel. I heard things about God's love and talking about His grace and forgiveness. It reminded me of the things my grandmother would say and, at 16 years old, I gave my life to the Lord.
FLAME: Yep. Absolutely, yep.
FLAME: Yes, indeed. The name FLAME was my nickname from before I was a Christian, so all of my past friends and family members all know me as FLAME. When I became a Christian, I was reading through the book of Jeremiah and noticed that he had the responsibility of saying hard things to people who didn't want to hear it and it got him into a lot of trouble; a lot of persecution. He says, "You know what, God? I don't want to make mention of Your name anymore because it keeps getting me in trouble." But then he says, "But Your Word is like a fire shot up in my bones." I thought that described my personality as a new Christian being in this urban context and having to say hard things to people even though they didn't want to hear it. They could become violent or upset, but, nevertheless, feeling compelled to still say those things with love, with gentleness, and with respect. But, nevertheless, making sure they were said. I really embraced Jeremiah's story and I took that definition onto the name FLAME.
FLAME: Yep. Definitely.
FLAME: *laughing* Not at all, man. It's so funny because I started off doing Christian rap just as a private devotional; a private time between God and myself. I would literally write raps and say them to God before I read my Bible. I had no plans of developing a career or ministry out of it; it was just between God and me. Then, I actually saw a group at my local church doing it publicly. I didn't know you could use it as a ministry or an outreach tool. When I saw that display of it I thought, "Man, that's pretty cool. That's what I do, but just not on that scale." I developed a friendship with those guys and they encouraged me to take what I was doing behind the scenes public. They gave me an opportunity to do so and I really enjoyed the response. I enjoyed being able to communicate the Bible to people who were influenced by rap culture. I said, "Man, I think I'm gonna try this out," and one thing led to another. I started doing things in my youth group, other youth events, juvenile detention centers, and prisons. And in my local city, I was just known for bringing that element of Christianity mixed with hip-hop. People really resonated with it.
FLAME: Thank you, brother.
FLAME: Man… Fast-forward to my seventh album and just thinking through, "What else can I say? What angle can I come from?" I've said so much throughout the years. I'm approaching 10 years now; my first record came out in '04. I said, "Man, how can I communicate some of the same ideas, but in a creative way?" I was reading through 2 Peter chapter 1. Verse 3 just says, "His divine power has given us all things that pertain to life and Godliness." That was just further persuading my soul that He's equipped me with everything I need, as one of the Christian Generals, to lead a holy, successful Christian life. So I'm meditating on that while at the same time one of my cousins is just talking about the game of poker; he's a dealer at a casino. I'm not a gambler so I'm not really invested, but I was interested because I love him; he's my cousin. He started telling me about the royal flush and it being the highest hand; the winning hand. You dominate the game. People only get dealt one maybe once every three years. I was like, "Man, that's kinda interesting." It sounded like the idea of 2 Peter 1:3; being dealt the highest hand -- the winning hand. I said, "You know what? That's what Christ has done for us. He's given us the royal flush," and those two things came together.
FLAME: We haven't worked together musically, but we've been friends for a while. It finally came full circle when we both had the time. Our schedules permitted all three of us to create, so that worked out really well. The producer, his name is Tyshane, is Papa San's son, so he had that Caribbean contribution that we really enjoyed. It worked out. It's definitely a fun record. I haven't performed it with them yet, but it's definitely something I'm looking forward to doing.
FLAME: Yeah, man. When I think about the places I end up -- I'm always around a lot of non-Christians, new Christians, struggling Christians, and even mature believers; the full gambit -- and I want to show how the gospel message is relevant to every phase. It's relevant to the non-Christian, the new Christian, the struggling Christian, and the mature one. That message, "Start Over," is just hammering away at the idea that God has devised this plan that works from start to finish; top to bottom. So no matter where you find yourself in life, you can start over in Christ. I wanted to unpack that, not just have a cool song to say it, but I wanted to unpack those ideas from the Bible. There's a lot of Bible verses in the song and a lot of scripture in the song and I wanted the emotion to match the subject matter. It pulls on your heartstrings and it's been amazing to see the response and the stories that have come from that particular song.
FLAME: Yeah, that's what I was going to say, "A shout out to NF, man." In the creative process, I was just looking for feature artists and wanted to highlight new artists on this album and established artists and put them before my audience. I feel like we're co-laborers together and I want to expose new talent and established talent in my platform and show people that this thing is bigger than one entity. There are brothers out here that love the Lord and do the same thing just as well, or even better. You don't have to fixate on one particular brand, but know that God is doing this all over the place. When I connected with NF and heard the record I said, "This is a perfect match; let's run with it."
FLAME: Yeah! Man, kudos to Ryan Fullerton. He was my pastor for 4-5 years when I was in Louisville, Kentucky finishing up school at Boyce College in the Southern Seminary. Just sitting under his preaching for that long -- in my opinion, he's probably one of the best preachers Christianity has ever had -- when I hear his sermons they are very clear and very practical, but they're intense and they're powerful. I said, "Man, I want to expose him as a local pastor, minus all the glitz and glam. I want to expose him as being one of the best preachers." Also, his exposition of 2 Peter 1:3 helped me personally, so I wanted to bring his ideas and interpretations of that to the forefront. People have been commenting on his interludes just like they have been on the songs. It was a great match up for the record.
FLAME: Yeah, I agree, bro. Yeah, well said.
FLAME: Yeah, absolutely. My undergrad degree is in Biblical Counselling and I was at Boyce College in Louisville, Kentucky. Then I started my Master's degree, which is also in Biblical Counselling. I'm completing my Master's degree now. What I'm trying to do is further develop the muscle of counselling from the Bible. I want to show how these lofty, ancient ideas are practical for our time and our generation and connect those dots. I hope that shows up in my music; I hope that shows up in my life. Eventually, I want to serve in my local church as a counselling elder and just walk with people. Discipleship relationships, crisis moments, preventative measures and further developing that skillset in a practical level on the local church front. My wife also has her degree, her PhD, in psychology. It's something that we really care about and I think that makes our record label, Clear Sight Music, unique in that way.
FLAME: *laughing* Right. Yep, I agree. It's a game changer, man, and that's why I want to definitely take that seriously. The cool thing is now, even at my local church in St. Louis, "The Gate," I have the opportunity to teach a systematic theology class that's part of the manhood track. I just sit here and roll with young dudes and we're just walking through the deity of Christ -- the humanity of Christ. It's an honor to serve in that way.
FLAME: Yes, indeed! 2014, I'm very excited about that. The dean of students of Boyce College, where I did my undergrad, completed a book entitled Jesus or Nothing. It's a short read, but it's a very thorough and very well-written easy read. It's a story. It's about this young guy, college age. He's struggling with Christianity and atheism. It's arguing that Christianity is the best way to understand this world and has the best answers up against the nothingness. Nihilism: An old school idea that there's no meaning or purpose to life. We're just a cosmic accident heading in no direction and life is just meaningless. So, there's a book coming out and then Clear Sight Music, we'll release the soundtrack for the book. I'm really excited about that. Colleges are going to be using it, high schools are going to be using it as curriculum and small groups. We're plowing away at that project. We also have an artist, her name is V. Rose. She's working on her second album that will be releasing in 2014 as well. We're going to be traveling all over the place to support both of those projects and it's going to be fun. 2014 is going to be great.
FLAME: Yeah, yeah. We just did the math; we have 10 songs together. [JFH (Michael): Oh, wow!] *laughing* It's funny because it doesn't feel like it. So, for this record I was like, "I want to preserve some of your creative juices for your album." [JFH (Michael): *laughs*] I just needed one record and then I just let her run loose with this new release. It's going to be crazy. The stuff I'm hearing already is ridiculous, man. I actually get inspired by V. Rose. She's young and cutting edge. She knows what's cool and what's hip and she's a great writer. She's an amazing talent and she loves the Lord. That's such a great combo.
FLAME: Nice! Nice!
FLAME: Yeah, man. I think I laid it all out in this album. One of the things I'm noticing in the culture--American culture or hip-hop culture--is that it's a weird time where there's this interesting Christianity, but not necessarily the version you find in the New Testament. As we approach a strange time in American culture, and hip-hop culture, where people are trivializing Christianity and wanting to take the good elements out of it and do away with the offensive parts. I think on this Royal Flush album I wanted to say, "In Christ, he's given us everything we need that pertains to life and Godliness. We don't have to look for satisfaction. Any of those elements that the world tries to sell us, we don't have to look outside of Christ to get those things. Satisfaction, joy, peace, forgiveness, hope… That's found in Christ. Even now, people have some type of interest in the faith, but not the real faith. Let's return to New Testament Christianity and get excited about that and share that message and see people fall in love with the real Jesus; not the one of the culture."
FLAME: Yep. You know what I'm saying, bro. I agree.
FLAME: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. I always say that the gospel is offensive, but we don't have to add to the offense. I don't have to be mean and I don't have to be weird, socially awkward, or aggressive unnecessarily. I can just be loving, kindly communicating the truth and let the Holy Spirit do what He's going to do from that point. He's going to save people. That's what He's doing; that's one of His roles. We can still passionately proclaim the truth when it's uncomfortable and not popular and rest in the fact that God's going to do the rest of the work. We don't have to remove the offense in order to get people to like us. It's unnecessary and unhelpful.
FLAME: Man, thank you for the interview. I just want to let people know that Royal Flush is available. A lot of non-Christians are resonating with this album. I just talked to a young man in prison. He had a phone call and a visitor and he actually called me. One of his visitors actually got us on the phone together. He's really enjoying this album behind bars. A lot of mainstream media have taken a liking to the album, so it seems like God is using it. If you purchased the album, give it away to non-Christians. Perhaps God will be pleased and save souls and draw people to Himself. A lot of Christians are being encouraged through this process, so wherever you find yourself in your faith, get the album and listen to it. Sit with it and soak it up and let the Lord encourage you through 2 Peter 1:3.
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