I have already been retired for a long time, but have gotten away with it, until now.
Recently, several Augustinians were asking during an International Augustinian Youth Encounter in Prague, immediately preceding World Youth Day in Krakow. Previously, I had a hip hop presentation. Although, on the planning commission this year, I did not put my name forward. The easiest thing to say is that I am retired. The harder thing to say is that this gift and passion just doesn’t seem to be relevant. This is one thing that I have had to discern and pray about, and it is a sobering conclusion.
Before describing this conclusion, it is important to note: I have no shortage of meaningful ministry in people’s lives. As a campus minister, without using any hip hop music, I make an impact on young people’s lives and connect them to the love of God. I know that I am doing a lot of good.
Is Hip Hop relevant to young people? Not really.
The brand of Hip Hop culture that set me on a positive path in life, is not something that kids connect to today. 33 years ago, I was born during Hip Hop’s first decade, an unstoppable pop culture phenomenon for the first half of my life. Hip Hop music is still cherished among adults my age and older. Adolescents listen to a sort of Rap derived from this, that sometimes seems like something else entirely. I know nothing about that.
When adolescents see a full grown adult immersed in adolescent pop culture, they scratch their heads, perhaps they get creeped out. It is why I refuse to do Snapchat or Vine. Adults that try too hard just don’t connect. Hip Hop and Rap are very wide and diverse things, it is a bit simpleminded to associate the music of a 33 year old priest with that of a 20 year old popular rap artist.
I came to this conclusion after reflecting on how it worked out form me between 2011 & 2014. I believe that the irrelevancy of Hip Hop may help one understand why it just didn’t work.
Before I joined the Order, I really wanted to rap exclusively at secular venues to the unchurched. Between 2001-2004, I found myself increasingly unwelcome. This did help me look in the right direction for my vocation to Religious Life.
Although I only rapped in my bedroom, I requested to give a demonstration to my community of Friars. This was 2008, I was a Theology student in Chicago. I included a brief history of Hip Hop Culture. In 2010, I was asked to give this presentation at an Augustinian Youth Encounter in London. During my next year in ministry as a Student Friar, I was asked to give this presentation in high school and elementary classrooms.
I was influenced by positive Hip Hop music that was not suitable for children. This had nothing to do with vulgarities, or inappropriate content. It had to do with mature subject matter, much the same way that the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquianas is not on your kindergarten teacher’s shelf. My music was not suitable for children, but they clapped and danced a long with it.
Over the course of these presentations, I developed a few songs to educate young people on what Hip Hop was about. I found that I needed to make two albums; Revolution of the Heart would collect all the songs that I had written since entering Religious Life. Thematically, these songs were more spiritually focused. Along Babylon’s Streets collected several songs dealing with Hip Hop culture in general.
Little fan followup
In 2012 I released Revolution of the Heart, and a year later I released Along Babylon’s Streets. These two albums were available online. The music seemed to connect with people as I performed and they claimed to want to listen. I tracked the listens on SoundCloud & Bandcamp, I tracked the follows on Twitter & Facebook. Over the next few years, ~10% of people who listened to my music would follow up.
So I have to do a measurement. During the school year, I minister to 700+ young people. I am there to guide them, mentor them, listen to them. Maybe 50 of them would have gone online to listen to and download. I really have to wonder what kind of impact this music is doing? I was clearly motivated to write this music to deal with life. It was for me. It did not seem to make a difference in people’s lives? This kind of thing is hard to measure. But when I spend this much time working on music, the payoff is not worth it.
Friends don’t ask me about my Hip Hop Music
The exception being the Augustinians or perhaps two friends who contributed to my album (either by rapping or by artwork). It should be made clear, at no time has any Augustinian ever told me I need to give up rapping. That has never happened. At no time, has any authority in the Church, ever challenged the fact that I rapped.
I cannot recall any conversation with a friend that indicated that they listened to my music. Perhaps they thought one song or other sounded cool or catchy. It is clear that I have friends that care about me, or have been there for me. Whether I rap or not goes by unnoticed. I should say, that a handful of generous friends have paid money for my music, knowing that I have something to show the brothers. It would be even more powerful if I heard someone tell my community that my music changed their lives.
My music updates on Facebook and Tumblr did not show up on people’s news feeds because I didn’t pay to advertise.
I released two albums, posted frequently on Social Network feeds, and most of the people I knew never even saw the posts. These were people who willingly subscribed to my public Facebook page. After doing a little research, I realized that Facebook expected independent musicians to pay.
As Facebook and tumblr started using the algorithmic newsfeed, this helped personalize your newsfeed. It put your preferred interesting items at the top. However, this also removed all of the public pages from your newsfeed, unless you paid a price. Considering that I was making so little money in donations, I couldn’t feasibly sustain paying regularly for advertisements.
No practical support from other Catholic Hip Hop artists.
I rapped on stage with Righteous B (a Catholic Rapper), who passively snuffed me on stage at a Steubenville San Diego after I rapped.
Phatmass attempted to gather Catholic Hip Hop artists. Despite giving my music to a few of the artists, I never heard any positive (or negative) feedback. After a thanks for sharing a link or a download, I was completely ignored. Despite follows on Twitter or Facebook from other Catholic Hip Hop artists, It was not clear that they listened or supported. Despite posting links to the albums and songs of other Catholic Hip Hop artists, I never once received any sort of promo from any other artist ever.
I thought that, maybe, some of these artists in Southern California, would see a Catholic seminarian, and support. They had better recording and production equipment. Maybe they would give someone with a vow of poverty some instrumentals to rap over, or some studio time.. My attempts to connect were typically ignored.
I was basically in this Hip Hop thing completely by myself with no practical support from other Hip Hop artists. It was just not the way to go.
Add to the list, Catholic Underground LA, and other Catholic venues which were not interested in providing me an opportunity.
Advancing Technology and my life
The production software that I used was limited, and was amateurish. I purchased professional quality software after my ordination in 2013. The software, and accompanying hardware were difficult to learn. I spent several hours with minimal results. I had just finished and released my album, Along Babylon’s Streets, and creatively needed plenty of time to work before the next one.
I was in my first year of ministry. That took up a lot of time. I was looking forward to my second year of ministry, where I might have more time to develop and learn how to make music with this new software. Within that first month of the school year, my dad got West Nile Virus, It completely and irrevocably turned my entire family’s life upside down. This required so much attention from me for the next 18+ months. School, and ministry were not waiting for me to help my dad get better.
When it comes down to looking at all the things in my life that matter, Hip Hop was only a parlor trick to the kids. They said, Fr Mark rap for us! As if I was doing a quick 10 second card trick. They were impressed for a full 30 seconds, then quickly moved on. I may have poured my blood, sweat, and tears into a song, I may have spent 7-12 months crafting the lyrics and the sound of a specific song, it did not seem worth the effort. My dad had been suffering. Many times, the kids I was ministering to were suffering. Rap didn’t help them or inspire them. Considering how much life needed my attention, Things may have been very different if I had practical support (I am not talking about donations) from the Catholic community. There was none. All that was left was Fr Mark rap for us! Come here monkey and dance!
Having written it all out here, makes it sound sadder than it has felt in actuality. I get annoyed that people want me to rap, but don’t open their minds to the music. It has often felt like a burden. The music that I have made has not made an impact in people’s lives. I have been dealing with that reality for 10+ years. It made an impact in my life, and perhaps that was enough for God to give me a reason to create music.
In a few months, another school year will start. I am going to help this senior class cope with life. I am looking forward to it. My campus ministry team has also changed, and I am going to be working with a much younger group, a group more interested in offering practical support in my campus ministry. I am looking forward to working with them. I am going to be helping our prior with the formation of several student Augustinians this next year, and I am also looking forward to that. I might be doing more for my community this next year to help support our student Friars.
Even if the music or songs that I make have not done much for people’s lives, the fact that a young aspiring Hip Hop artist felt a call to the priesthood has impacted people’s lives. I could go the rest of my life without ever creating another song, and the reality of my vocation is still more impactful. Perhaps it is enough that this positive driving passion in my life was nothing compared to the love that God has shown me.