The paparazzi’s cameras were flashing, but their lenses were all pointed at someone else. I was at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California, attending the 2015 Grammy Award ceremony. I’d been nominated for “Best Rap Performance,” and was competing against the likes 2 Unashamed of Eminem, Drake, and Kendrick Lamar. I had already won two Grammys, but this was different. Many people don’t know that all Grammy awards are not created equal. An unspoken hierarchy exists in many circles, and some categories are more respected than others. Within the music world, if you tell someone you won a Grammy, the first follow-up question is “Which category?” Though I’m grateful for my wins for “Best Gospel Album” and “Best Contemporary Christian Music Performance,” as you might guess, some consider those closer to the bottom of the list than the top. But this nomination for “Best Rap Performance” had a different kind of significance. It told the world that an alternative voice with an alternative message was being considered among the biggest artists of our time. It said that the industry had finally recognized a new way of making hip-hop. That’s why I was so mad at myself when I arrived late to the red carpet after promising I’d get there early. It was a rookie mistake. The biggest stars show up just before show time, so all the younger and lesser known artists know to arrive early to avoid competing with Katy Perry for interviews. Even a few minutes can make a difference between landing a blurb in Rolling Stone and hearing crickets.
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When I stepped out of the car, I thought to myself, You are at the Grammys, man. I tried to just be in the moment and not to look at the stands where fans were sitting and pointing and criticizing every fold and shade of fabric. There I was taking a coveted walk and rubbing shoulders with John Legend, Kanye West, Chris Brown, and Meghan Trainor. It was difficult to believe that after all of the writing and rapping and refining and recording and touring and promoting and praying, I stood there. But as it turned out, walking the red carpet at the 2015 Grammys was a more complicated affair than I had imagined. People kept passing on interviews and some were painfully attempting to not even make eye contact with me. 3 00 — RED CARPET TREATMENT Hey, that reporter looks like they are trying to get my attention, I thought. Wait . . . no. . . . they are waving at Questlove. When I reached the end of the carpet—you know, the place where artists stand in front of the Grammys backdrop and a crowd of photographers takes their picture—a security guard lowered his hand and asked me to wait. He waved Iggy Azalea around me. She smiled, and the cameras went crazy. When she finished, I started to proceed and the security guard stopped me again. He waved Rick Ross through. This happened so many times I lost count. Wiz Khalifa and then Taylor Swift and then Keith Urban and then Ziggy Marley.
Somewhere in the process my wife threw up her hands and left me to go sit down. For 45 minutes I waited until the security guard finally raised his arm and waved me through. I walked in front of the backdrop in my crisp tuxedo and shiny shoes, standing tall and proud as a nominee in a respected category. I gave them the best smile I had. And . . . almost every journalist lowered their camera. Maybe five of the forty photographers took my picture, and I’m pretty sure those were snapped out of pity. Some people say the red carpet is the best litmus test for how famous you are or how famous you’re not. For how accepted you are or aren’t. If this is true, the message was clear: I am not one of “them.” I started to get that feeling earlier in the day at Jay-Z and Beyonce’s “Roc Nation” party on a lawn tucked behind a Beverly Hills mansion. I’m kind of a people-watcher and also an introvert, so I made up my mind before arriving that I was going to sink back and mind my business. The event was a whirlwind of hype and hustle.
The smell of cigars and fancy French perfume filled the air while bartenders poured bottle after bottle of “Ace of Spades” champagne. Everyone was draped in borrowed jewelry and clothes made by designers that most people can’t pronounce. Italian shoes, thousand-dollar jeans, tiny but noticeable logos on pockets and lapels. (Fashion is 4 Unashamed something of an art for musicians, so everyone tries to strike a balance between the brand being obvious, but downplayed.) It quickly became clear that there were two classes of people. In the center of yard was the first class: epic stars—Jay-Z and Kanye and Nicki Minaj and Rihanna. They were sitting on couches under a gazebo with security surrounding them. And around the gazebo was the second class: everyone else. These were people from the famous, to the famous-ish, to the hopeto-be-famous. They were all talented and successful, but not part of the pantheon who exist in the stratosphere of super-celebrities. Many of them were hovering around the couches, pretending not to be mesmerized and hoping to get noticed.
After about twenty minutes of people watching, I snapped out of my daze and realized something: nobody had initiated a conversation with me. No one, that is, except for record executives who thought I could make them some money. I stood on the outside, barely part of the second group. While everyone else was congregating and hi-fiving, I was just taking up space. People who’ve only seen me perform might assume that I’m confident and that being ignored wouldn’t bother me—but it does. There was actually a fight inside of me. Sure, I was turned off by the way it all felt a little like high school, with everyone trying to be one of the cool kids or at least friends with the cool kids. The only difference is that this is all happening with adults who know better. Everyone goes to the bathroom and gets nervous and has family drama. Everyone is no more or less human than anyone else. So the whole thing felt a little trivial and silly. And yet, another part of me wanted to be there. To be a part of the in-crowd. To be liked and respected and noticed. Who doesn’t want to be accepted? But I’m not—at least not in the same way. You might assume I was an outsider because I’m the “new kid” and people just didn’t know who I was. But as record executives started introducing me to others, I discovered this was not true. 5 00 — RED CARPET TREATMENT “I want you to meet Lecrae,” the record executive would often say. “He’s a Christian rapper.” “I know who you are,” they would respond with a patronizing smile. “I’m familiar with your music.” The awkwardness would grow, and I could almost hear their thoughts: Can I cuss around him? He is about to preach at me, or judge me if I drink this whole bottle of Cristal and stumble out of here? Maybe they don’t know if they can be fully themselves around me. Or perhaps they don’t think they would like the content of my music or the assumptions behind my music or the worldview I hold. Regardless, they don’t want to know more. From that point on, it felt awkward. It was like I was marked. This isn’t the first time I’ve felt shunned me because of people’s preconceptions.
A few years ago, for example, I was invited to attend a Sacramento Kings basketball team practice. I brought a bunch of my newly released “Church Clothes” mixtapes to give away to any who was interested. When I was introduced, the person said, “Hey, y’all. We’ve got a Gospel Rapper here who has some music if you want it.” No one picked up an album. After getting into a conversation with one of the players, I asked him if he wanted some music. “Nah, man,” he said, “I don’t do Gospel rap. I don’t want all those Bible verses and preaching.” I tried to tell him my album wasn’t like that—it addressed issues like fatherlessness and insecurity, things that nonreligious people can relate to—but it didn’t matter. He wouldn’t touch it because of the way I was introduced. Being an outspoken Christian in the music industry means always feeling out of place. It’s like whatever you have accomplished is less credible because of your faith. You’re in the circle, but you’re not really in the circle. You fit in, but you don’t really fit in. When you’re standing next to people or sitting beside people, it’s as if you’re not really there. 6 Unashamed This is one of the reasons I don’t fully embrace the “Christian rapper” label. It isn’t that I’m ashamed of being a Christian. I’m not. If someone asked me to renounce my faith or take a bullet in the brain, I’m dying that day. But labeling the music that way creates hurdles and is loaded down with baggage. Plus, it just isn’t a true expression of the music I’m making. I try to produce music that is life-giving and inspires people to hope, but it isn’t just for the super-religious. I want to address themes that people who aren’t Christian can appreciate. There was a time when I was making music that appealed only to those inside the church. But that day of exclusivity is long gone.
My albums will always have my DNA in them, and I will always be a Christian, but I’m trying to do something different now. But for many who aren’t familiar with me, this doesn’t matter. I’m already marked as an Christian rapper, and maybe I always will be. As a result, whether I’m walking the red carpet or at a party or talking to professional athletes or even having a conversation at the barber shop, I’ll always feel tension. I’ll always be an outsider. In nearly every interview I do with the media, people struggle to talk about my actual music. Instead, they want to know if I smoke or drink or cuss. They ask if I feel weird around non-Christians. They want to know if I’m trying to evangelize people. I’m like a caged animal that people want to observe, but aren’t sure how close they can get. Once I was visiting a mainstream radio station in North Carolina while on tour, and a station operator informed me that they wouldn’t air my music: “We really love your sound, but we just don’t play Gospel here.” “It’s not, Gospel; It’s hip-hop,” I protested. “It’s just that I am a Christian.” The guy couldn’t wrap his head around it. He said they had a sister station that played Gospel but they weren’t interested in my music either because “church moms don’t want to hear rap.”