I HAVE FLIRTED with Christianity at times in my past. I was baptized Presbyterian. My family took me to church as a kid. That said, at age 25 I've grown into a certified spiritually confused person. Like most people with no deep religious conviction, I go through life shrugging my shoulders at the big metaphysical puzzles—I don't just think they're beyond me, I think they're beyond all of us. That attitude begins to explain my problem with fervent believers: the presumption of understanding it all somehow better than I do. So, when Portland MC Braille—on his new CD IV—un-ironically utters the phrase "Jesus Christ is the remedy," it makes me pause. I mean, I like good hiphop, and Braille makes good hiphop, but do I like it enough to listen even when its message runs perpendicular to my entire (lack of a) belief system?
After listening to IV several times, I'm still not sure. Braille is definitely one of Portland's dopest emcees and has been since the mid-'90s. He's sold thousands of CDs the world over, toured with the late, great James Brown, and been covered by some of the biggest publications in the music industry—all because his style is slick, his beats on point, and his presence intense. That said, his religious belief is deep, and the bluntness with which he occasionally speaks can knock you out of your chair. "No matter what I say on my records, there's going to be some people turned off by it," he admits.
In contrast with Braille is another one of Portland's great emcees, Vursatyl of the Lifesavas. Brought up in a religious family, Vursatyl is a deeply spiritual person but seldom mentions God in his music. "I try not to use music as a platform for my spirituality," he says. "Lifesavas is not a religious group. Each member of the group has different perspectives on spirituality. Our name often confuses people." Vursatyl's father—a minister as well as a singer and keyboard player—clearly influences the music and life of his son. Or as his son, Vursatyl, puts it, "He's the coolest man on the planet."
Neither Vursatyl nor Braille are ashamed of their spirituality. Still, it's obvious that neither wants to be pigeonholed into a restrictive label simply because of his faith. "If the record store had separate sections for every religion in every music section, that would be crazy," says Braille. "I'm a follower of Christ. That's the genre of person I am, but the genre of music I make is hiphop." And the hiphop he and Vursatyl create is excellent. Isn't that what's most important?
"Hiphop has always had artists with strong spiritual convictions," says Vursatyl. "Groups like Brand Nubian, Rakim, X-Clan, and others were all students of Islam and/or the Five Percent Nation. At the end of the day, they made classic material. That's what matters."
I happen to share that opinion. Although I am not a religious person and never really have been, what I like is great music. Just because a guy is echoing my thoughts and feelings in his music doesn't mean I'm going to listen to him, and if it's wack? It goes out the window at high speed. The reverse is also true. If I hear an emcee talking about God in his rhymes it won't make me stop the CD. It might, however, make me pause and, possibly, think.