Taking Hip-Hop Higher

Grammy nominated hip-hop artist Flame (whose given name is Marcus Gray) opened for Will Graham and Newsboys at the Jersey Shore Will Graham Celebration at the Great Auditorium on May 21. Urban Faith News & Religion Editor Christine A. Scheller spoke to him before his set. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

URBAN FAITH: People don’t necessarily connect hip-hop with graduate education, but you’re studying for a master’s degree in counseling.

FLAME: Hip-hop is an urban expression. It grew out of, I won’t say a rebellious spirit, but it was very outspoken and typically on a street level. It was expressive of social issues and things of that nature, but eventually I think guys realized a better way to impact people with their worldview is through education. Even from my perspective as a Christian artist wanting to forward a Christian message to the world, I thought it would be great to marry education with hip-hop ministry. That way it could be more potent.

 What does that look like in practical terms?

It’s so crazy because music, I believe, really under-girds the counseling. If you can do songs centered around the things you hear in a private sessions concerning identity in Christ, concerning deep-seated issues, the repetitive nature of music, hip hop in particular, is like sermonettes over music, so it reinforces what you hear and hopefully it becomes repetitious.

Do you incorporate what you’ve learned in school into your songs?

Absolutely. That’s my goal. There is a song titled “Tonight” and it’s like prayer requests, but it’s the heart of the believer to be closer to our God. It’s very specific in the things we should turn away from and things we should turn to, as a result of putting off sin and putting on righteousness. That’s one of the songs that stands out to me.

How do you study and travel?

The cool thing is [I take] week intensive classes, so we pack a semester into a short period of time. Those are very convenient for my lifestyle right now. It’s rotisserie style for me in the Master’s degree. I’m enjoying it though. I have two more years, then a Master’s thesis and all that fun stuff.

What are the challenges of being on the road and how do you deal with them?

It’s been a great thing to travel with my wife. The friendship. The accountability. She’s my best friend. We’re business partners as well. One of the challenges is knowing when to check out, in the sense of we’re so in front of people and always doing things concerning the music ministry, so it kind of gets intertwined. It’s like: where do we cut this thing off and just be a couple? That’s probably one of the biggest challenges, but we try to take a vacation every year and celebrate our anniversary and make sure we’re very intentional. We also have accountability from our church home. Brothers and sisters who are praying for us, asking us hard questions, and making sure we’re prioritizing the right things.