First Look Friday: Sir the Baptist Soothes Society's Ills With Urban Hymns
For audiophiles who know their music, there is quite a scene growing out of Chicago, Illinois. A one-of-a-kind, true-blue sound that will consume earholes sooner than later — all stemming from America's Second City. From Jelly Roll Morton to Earl Hines, the culture of Chicago has bred superstars and innovators who have all had one common thread: God.
Many of music's greatest voices have been disciples of gospel who've gone on to secular success. Not too many attempt to embrace the spiritual and the sinner in equal measure, but again, not too many are like this week's First Look Friday subject, Sir the Baptist. Sir — born Sir William James Stokes — a native of Bronzeville, a historic Chicago neighborhood to a pastoral father, has a talented well of predecessors rooted in his bloodstream.
Sam Cooke, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Muddy Waters all migrated to Bronzeville during the early-to-mid 1900s. With controversial, yet conversational lyrics and songs such as "Creflo (Almighty) Dollar" and "Raise Hell," Sir attempts to bridge the gap between his preacher's kid background and his current status as a budding R&B star. Proven to be on a mission to reveal the deeply embedded hypocrisies that fuel the artist and enrich the musical sound, Stokes proudly adorns his halo amongst the seediest environments without adhering to any specific dogma.
With appearances on fellow Chicagoans tracks like Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment ("Familiar") — Sir the Baptist has given listeners nothing that sounds alike, which might be confusing if you're looking for some DJ Mustard-esque tracks. Sir the Baptist offers some complex, multifaceted songs that might be rooted in a classic style, yet has a contemporary vibe that is unlike anything you'll hear on the radio. In light of all that has been said above, we're proud to introduce Sir the Baptist to the Okayplayer audience. Sit back, relax, and witness the real as this Chicago singer-songwriter talks about his artistic narrative, what elements will be better than a gimmick and explains why he's the sinner's advocate.
Okayplayer: To music snobs the world over, you are making an impact all over Chicago. What is it that the Windy City is seeing and hearing that the world has yet to discover?
Sir the Baptist: Chuch. Ghetto Gospel. Last time we had something similar to this in the market was with Reverend Run of Run-DMC. So many kids grew up with religion or spirituality of some sort, but commercial success told us that we had to be cool. The world isn't shallow. Those who have an agenda for the masses use shallowness to distract the buyer, not knowing the reason why their sales everywhere are low is because there's no counter-investment in the listener's soul.
OKP: For those who have a passion for music, they hone their skills and practice their craft. Who are your most cherished influences in music and why?
STB: The most essential piece that would dismantle my sound completely, if removed, is the old time, foot-stomping, Great Migration, bluesy, ragtime, negro spiritual grit. It's like listening to a realistic sermon on a wooden pew at my father's church. Remove this and I'm useless.
OKP: A song like “Raise Hell,” which is fueled by some religious lyricism and is paired with some controversial content, has placed you on the radar of music snobs who have a heavy presence in the industry. Can you talk about how life was for you while developing as an artist in the Second City? How did you react to your first bits of press?
STB: I love Chicago and growing up the son of a Baptist preacher meant the ability to perform every Sunday. It’s a great city, but it is also a very blue city too stricken with a lot of violence. I was able to stay in my family circle nicely until my father passed away when I was a child. Yet, I still was able to grow up to have a great steady job at Leo Burnett, the advertising agency, while writing music the whole time. The ad world just wasn’t my calling. After a trip to Los Angeles to meet with some industry types, I came back to Chicago and quit the advertising gig. Did I sleep in my car and was homeless for a period of time? Yes. But this was the struggle to get to something great. Once I really launched myself as a recording artist, as Sir the Baptist, the intial press just let me know that I was on the path to my universal calling.
OKP: Can you also talk about the importance of the music industry scene in Chicago and where you see it evolving in the next five years?
STB: I hope that artists will become more honest. It seems like we are heading in that direction towards more honesty. I hope to be the one, through my movement of ChuchPeople artists, to release Chicago artists that are just regular people. Common people with legendary stories.
OKP: Songs like “Creflo Almighty Dollar” and “Wake Up” are opposite sides of the same coin in a way, so how do they fit into your artistic narrative? What has been the best experience so far as a recording artist?
STB: Songs like “Creflo” and “Wake Up” are both a part of the same story that is Sir the Baptist. "Creflo" exposes the greed and injustice that exists in the church through prosperity preachers, which are those who take from the poor to buy themselves a private jet. That is not the message that Jesus conveyed to the masses. And “Wake Up” is an anti-violence song to rally Chicago towards a better future. Both of these are really a part of my story from a very young age.
The best experience so far has been meeting my idols and seeing them go crazy about what I and ChuchPeople are doing and just be amazed by our work.
Find out when Sir the Baptist lost his songwriting virginity on Pg. 2...
OKP: What are some elements that you’ve learned about yourself that comes out in the music?
STB: It would have to be that what your parents think of you is important. Your family really knows what you’re all about and can give great guidance and advice because of this greater understanding. Also, to not be afraid to confront the injustices in the world.
Personal, mental and psychological growth is essential to music. A holistic and real approach will always be better than a gimmic.
OKP: When did you lose your songwriting virginity? Can you talk about the first song you wrote and what it was about?
STB: [Laughs] I was probably like 8 or 9-years-old. It was a song about water and fountains as I walked around a park not far from my father’s church, which was actually by this place called Louis Armstrong Park.
OKP: How can your music speak truth to power in an age where people are so quickly digesting sounds and disposing of artists in a nanosecond?
STB: That goes back to my first answer from earlier. It's all about the people's souls. It’s easy to throw away an artist because artists aren’t building up people and making a real connection to the listener. I don’t make music, I build up people.
OKP: Collaboration is uniquely a key to the success of certain creative individuals who wish to change the game. Who would you want to work with in the new year and why?
STB:Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder, Tony Bennett, Paul Simon, Jay Z, Kanye West, Nas, Andre 3000, Kendrick Lamar, Musiq Soulchild, the Tupac Shakur estate, Anthony Hamilton and Lalah Hathaway. All of these people that I’ve listed have been essential in me listening to music growing up.
OKP: Your generational class of peers like Nico Segal, Eryn Allen Kane and others in Chicago are very communal and collaborative. What is it about people like Jamila Woods, yourself, ChuchPeople and others that make such an impact within the artistic community?
STB: Collaboration in Chicago is Chicago’s way of hiding that we still don’t support each other. We can collaborate on a trillion things, but if I don’t have your support we’re only masking the problem for individual agendas. With that being said, I have no desire to collaborate with anyone in Chicago without a tight brother and/or sister relationship. I’m always into building relationships. Hopefully this answer can encourage more artists to build a relationship with each other instead of using each other for personal gain. I don’t need someone’s verse. I have enough of those. I prefer brotherhood and sisterhood. Let’s be family.
Find out what Sir the Baptist's overall musical message to the masses is on Pg. 3...
OKP: What is the overall message that Sir the Baptist is trying to present in his music?
STB: I’m the sinner's advocate. I want to represent everyday people and remind them that we can’t do enough to deserve grace. Grace comes with the confession. Confession is being honest. Religion and spirituality have lost a lot of people because they are not being honest.
OKP: Can you break down the inspiration behind “Wake Up” with ChuchPeople? Speak about the inspiration behind the creation, production and song lyrics.
STB: “Wake Up” is a very personal song for me and about the problems that plague my city. As many people know, Chicago has a tremendous problem with the violence in many communities across the city. I have people in my own family who have taken to the streets as community organizers. And some have taken to the street life. “Wake Up” is a call to give the kids of Chicago a new positive face and a voice for the future. A message to ensure that these issues stays in the forefront of people’s minds. And the song represents a call for a better future. I made the song while sitting in my apartment in Chicago and then brought in ChuchPeople to add what they do best.
OKP: How do you see yourself changing the music industry for the better versus all the bad stuff that goes on within it?
STB: I want to remind the industry that we all draw inspiration from thin air. Where we all draw these creative lines and creative ideas from is something that isn’t tangible. These ideas come from an intangible source, whether that’s religious or spirituality. So I would like to reconnect them in a more substantial way to that source. Let me further explain by saying that most of the greatest artists ever (Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, Whitney Houston, etc) were inspired and possibly got their first time to perform in a church. The first person that most rappers thank is God. I just want to show the industry how to be a holistic person and to not separate God from the track. He’s everywhere, so take Him with you. This will take years to perfect and a lifetime to implement. However, soon enough you’ll see.
OKP: Can you share any interesting stories that might’ve happened during the creation of “Familiar” from Surf with us and the Okayplayer audience?
STB: I remember very little about the session because I was jet lagged from label meetings and tour dates. My manager, Jeremy Cohen, had me on a strict schedule. But here is what I do remember...I went into CRC (Chicago Recording Company) studios in Chicago and went into the booth a few times to hum a few melodies. I had a flight to catch to Los Angeles, so I had to leave the studio right after. But when I heard the record later when it came out, it was a good look and I appreciate the credit.
OKP: If the reader’s learned one thing from this First Look Friday chat with Sir the Baptist — what would it be and in what octave would it sound like?
STB: Know yourself. And to know yourself isn’t what you came across, it’s what created you. The problem with music isn’t creation. Everybody is creating, or should I say duplicating with their own spin. Creating is only a piece of the puzzle. Answer to your universal calling and you will find your true voice.
Watch what it is like to live in the day of a life of a sinner's advocate in this video below!
And be sure to check out more from Sir the Baptist (and us!) by following @SirTheBaptist on Twitter!