“I’m not trying to be embraced by religious people,” says Chicago-bred, L.A.-based singer Sir the Baptist, his sincerity tangible even through the phone. “It’s not necessarily what the religious people want to hear from me, but it’s like, this is what the story is. How can we focus on better things?”
You might think this is odd to hear from a singer called Sir the Baptist. The 27-year-old vocalist, who grew up with the nickname Sir, also grew up in church: His father was a Baptist pastor and activist, and the reason why Sir’s debut album — slated for an August release — is called Preacher’s Kid.
Sir — born William James Stokes — grew up in Bronzeville, a historic Chicago neighborhood that has been home to many notable jazz, blues and R&B musicians, including Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke, Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole. From the 1910s to 1930s, Bronzeville became a nexus for the Great Migration, in which millions of African-Americans moved out of the South to other parts of the country. Sir’s father, born in 1924, came to the city during that time and eventually started his own church in Bronzeville.
Indeed, both religion and jazz are deeply embedded in Sir’s background and have fostered his musical inclinations. He sang in the church choir and also played piano in church because, as a preacher’s kid, he kind of had to. But as he grew older, those abilities transformed into other talents, such as writing film scores and commercial jingles. After attending Columbia College in Chicago for “15 minutes,” Sir did a 180 and took on a full-time job with Chicago-based advertising firm Leo Burnett, where he worked on music in the digital marketing sector for McDonald’s.
“[Those jobs] just showed up and pushed me in the direction where I could monetize something that I was taught in church, and some of the culture that’s here in Bronzeville,” he says.
After finding success with Leo Burnett, Sir decided it was time to leave and take a stab at a music career. “That helped me figure out my own thing, that I had a piece of me that people needed to hear, that I had a story that people needed to hear.”
Initially, Sir’s music might be alienating for some, coming off as too rooted in religion. What might sound to others like rapping he calls “hooping,” or preaching. By the same token, he publicizes himself as an "urban hymnist," and his music contains powerful gospel undertones. His debut Preacher’s Kid is conceptually driven by the fact that he’s the son of a pastor.
And the meaning behind his name is twofold, an ode to both religion and his city. “Everybody called Chicago Chiraq and I felt like I wanted to be a voice of reason — John the Baptist in the Bible is known for being the voice in the wilderness. And so I was like, in this wilderness, I wanna be that voice. I’m not Jesus, but I wanna be that voice that brings forth something that’s important, so I took John the Baptist’s name.”
But despite all that, Sir’s music doesn’t force religion on his listener. While his music is tinged with his faith, it’s not church music. “I was talking to ... a guy who’s totally not [religious]. And he was just like, I love your music because it does acknowledge the moral compass but it doesn’t force religion on you. It feels like religion when I’m listening to it, but it feels like religious freedom to me.”
And in many ways, his music is almost adversarial toward his faith. “The grittiness behind my music comes from those old hymns, and this is just an urban version of it,” he says, describing an urban hymn as a song in which “I pretty much say what [religious people] wouldn’t say."
"Like I don’t have to have a religion," he continues. "I can have this moral compass without people forcing their rules down my throat, which is why I break a lot of the rules with the church. And I’m like, I’m a fucking human being. I don’t care. ... This is just who I am.”
In this vein, the video for his album’s lead single “Raise Hell” is a visual blitz on America’s racially divided state, cutting between imagery of Sir singing in a church setting and protests that have taken place across the country in response to police killings of black men. The song is a call for social change not just for black people but for all minorities.
For Sir, there was a specific moment that spurred him to create the song: the widely broadcast scene, shown in the "Raise Hell" video, of a mother pulling her son out of the protests in Baltimore.
"I saw that [mom] and I was like, that’s my mom. My mom would definitely have done that. But she knows I wouldn’t have torn up my community, but I would have raised hell."
Sir's next single, “Almighty Dollar,” also takes a bold stance, acting as commentary on the fact that we let money control us. That's just a taste of what’s to come with Preacher’s Kid, a project both steeped in the traditions of his Baptist background and saturated with Sir’s outspoken attitude, which doesn’t exactly fall in line with a conventional church perspective.
“[The album] is going to be very uncomfortable for religious people. I’m not sure they’re necessarily going to embrace [me] after this at all. But it’s something that our culture [and] the world, I feel like, needs to hear.”
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Sir the Baptist will perform at Busby's East (5364 Wilshire Blvd., Miracle Mile) on Sunday, July 26. Tickets and more info.