Midway through an interview with Greydon Square, I sneeze. "Bless you," the 31-year-old rapper born Eddie Collins says instinctively. He catches himself. "I know, an atheist that says, 'Bless you.' Habits, man."
Greydon Square is the atheist rapper. In hip-hop, a genre in which where rappers thank God on albums full of songs calling women hoes and bragging about their big guns, he is an anomaly. (See: 50 Cent's "Gotta Make It to Heaven," which includes the lyric, "You send a bitch at me I send the bitch back cut up.")
"Why are black people 85 percent Christian? We've been programmed to see certain things," he says.
Square, who today is 6'4" and dressed in jeans and Clippers gear, sits with his back to the street on a bench outside Syrup Desserts. A police siren squeals, pounding techno music blares from a parked car nearby and trucks barrel through downtown's cramped streets honking. Skateboarders whiz by and a steady stream of people stroll past walking dogs.
A former soldier who delivered supplies to the front lines in Iraq, he's used to such distracting environments.
"When I was in the military, they created a stressful environment so that when we were in one, we reacted with training and muscle memory," he says. "I don't think about where exits are or how to identify threats, I just do."
He's been conditioned by stressful situations since birth. Born to a 14-year-old drug addict while she was in custody, he grew up in nine different group homes around L.A. His father, a 22-year-old gang banger, was never in the picture. "I was basically watched, not raised," he says.
He began banging himself in the Tragniew Park Compton Crips (which once claimed MC Eiht as a member) and by 17, was found guilty of a weapons charge and sent to Sylmar Detention Center. When he got out, he asked his probation officer what his options were, and was told Conservation Corps or the Army. He signed up for the Army at age 19.
"I started thinking I couldn't do anything legal and live. The military industrial complex eats poor young minorities up for breakfast. The army was one big group home! Three hots and a cot; you went on field trips. And everybody basically goes there when they run out of options. And I had run out of options."
When he returned from Iraq, he looked for ways to deal with the trauma. "You see things you wish you could un-see," he continues. When he was nine, one of the group homes he'd stayed in had a piano, and he had begun to play by ear. At 18, he'd written his first rhyme. Now, music seemed the best way to deal with his time at war.
Meanwhile, he was studying physics at Arizona State University, and started thinking about God, or the lack thereof. "I thought, 'Wow, there's not someone watching me all the time? That's a wonderful freedom!' So I shed that." In other words, he became an atheist. He began using his music as a vehicle to express his disdain. In 2007, at the end of one of his Youtube videos, he replied to a commenter who'd asked him to rap about science.
The next day, he found the clip had 20,000 views. "Turns out, the commenter was a moderator on [the website of] Richard Dawkins, one of the most prominent atheists in the world," he says.
Now known as the atheist rapper, he makes a living performing at conferences and conventions espousing his belief in the separation of church and state. His lyrics are incisive: Speaking on the Biblical fall of man, he raps, "I'm dreaming of world without a religion that tells me ... that I need to pay for a piece of fruit that I never ate."
"I don't care what you believe in, just consider the questions I'm asking," he says. "Think for yourself. Your life and destiny are in your hands." Coming from someone who did just that, it's pretty convincing.
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