(Photo: Pure Publicity)
When Christian hip hop artist William Lee Barefield III, better known as "Trip Lee," began composing lyrics as a 12-year-old boy, he dreamed of becoming a celebrity. When he gave his life to Jesus Christ as a 14-year-old, however, his worldview began changing, and he eventually decided to use his talents to glorify God instead of himself. In his recently released debut book, The Good Life, Lee shares how living "the good life" isn't dependent on money, sex, or fame, but rather on a right relationship with our Creator.
CP: When people think of "the good life" they often think of living in luxury, what is your definition of the good life?
Lee: I think if you were to ask me when I was much younger what my definition of the good life was, I think it would have sounded a lot like what most people would say – a life with all the things you want and everything you think you need to make you happy, and these sorts of things. But the way I've tried to redefine the good life in my book is, instead of it being all about what you have or all about the things you achieve, I think the good life is living by faith in a good God. And what I mean by that is, instead of living by faith in whatever lies we've been told about what the good life is, instead of that we believe God. And when we follow God, then He's going to lead us to the good life.
CP: Obviously you already have a fan-following from your rap career, and the book is written in a way that is simple, but it's very theological. There are a lot of foundational truths that you address, so who is this book written for? What was your target audience?
Lee: I wanted to write a book specifically aimed toward young people. I wanted to write a book that anybody can read and enjoy, but I did want to aim it at young people and, even more specifically, urban young people...Also, I think there's a need for even young people to grasp and get truth, so I wanted to take time and kind of point to that.
And I want people who don't read a lot to enjoy it, so that's why I tried to write it in a simple and engaging way, for a lot of people who don't read a lot or who don't really like reading. And so that's been probably one of my favorite feedbacks that I've gotten from people: "I never read, I don't like to read, but I read your book and it was helpful for me." That's probably the best feedback I can get.
CP: On the very first page of the book you address the idea that foul language isn't the only problem you see with today's rap, and then you go on to talk about how the worldview is an issue as well. What kind of cautions would you give to parents or even to kids about the rap music that they're listening to today?
Lee: What I don't want to do is make this divide – here's the kind of music you may listen to, here's the kind of music you may never listen to. I don't want to make that divide...but I do want to caution people...whether it be music or any kind of media, just to be really cautious about the kind of worldview that we're hearing, the worldview that is influencing ours.
I know when I was growing up, a lot of the views I was listening to, it was a worldview that was not helpful. The world even sold me a false idea of what the good life was, and I wish that people would have helped me to think better about how to interact with that worldview.
I think that would be the main caution I would give to parents or to anybody...be cautious of the worldview that you're hearing. Don't just take in stuff and take on the worldviews, because that's the very thing that I did. But if you are going to listen to music that has a worldview that's contrary to what God says, to interact and think about the way that God would have us feel.
CP: Is it still tempting for you, at times, to pursue the world's definition of the good life now that you've seen some success?
Lee: Absolutely, I don't think there's anybody who's thrown off all of their struggles. I think one of the things I talked about, one of the lies about the good life, was "be-all-you-can-be-ism." It basically said the good life is climbing...Go out there and be all that you can be. And of course as I do my music and the platform continues to grow, and you get award nominations, and you get to be on this tour, and you sold this many albums, you get to do all of these things, of course that...kind of creeps back in because my heart loves that success. And so it's easy to get tempted into starting to build my life around that, starting to make decisions based on how I can just try to be more successful and make that next step.
But that's what the whole book is about. When I feel my heart going there, I have to call myself back to what I know to be the truth because the world's going to lie to me about that, my heart is even going to lie to me about that, and say that's what's the most important. That's why I have to call myself back to the truth and live by faith in a good God, instead of faith in what the world is telling me.
CP: Do you have some people around you that hold you accountable to that? Who are they?
Lee: The brothers that I'm on the road with often, from Reach Records, they all deal with all the same kind of issues that I do...We're always talking about these things, always thinking about how to navigate through situations, always thinking about how to be faithful in the new places God is putting us. But we're not together all the time, and when I'm home in D.C. I have a lot of friends and, of course, my wife.
My wife, she knows me better than anybody else. She knows what I'm struggling with and she knows where I'm at. And I have friends, pastors, and it's good not to have my only friends be people who think I'm special. It's really good to have people who think I'm just an ordinary guy.
CP: Not only have you written music, but you've been blogging and now you have this book. It seems pretty clear that you have a love for words, but is writing a book something that you've always wanted to do, or is it something that you decided to do only after your musical success?
Lee: Writing a book has always been something that I wanted to do, and I think there's this thing with me where, when I've been impacted by something, I want to impact people in a similar way. That's part of [the reason] why I did music: there was a lot of hip hop I was listening to that helped me grow as a Christian. It helped me to understand God better. I said, "Man, I can rap a little bit. I would love to do the same thing for other people." So that's one of the motivations when I started doing music.
And then writing: reading books has been a huge part of my growth as a Christian. It's helped me understand big truths about God, it's helped me understand what it looks like to love other people, these kinds of things. I thought, man, if I can write a book for other people and help them to understand some of the things I've understood, then that would be great.
That was one of my dreams. I didn't expect that I would be able to do it when I'm 24, I thought maybe I would have to wait a little bit longer, but I'm extremely grateful that I had the opportunity now. And I'm hoping that the Lord will use it.
CP: One of the most obvious things both in your music and in your writing is that you have a message that you're trying to get out there. I know that you're pursuing a degree in Biblical and Theological Studies. Do you ever think of rapping as being comparable to preaching?
Lee: Yeah, I think in some ways it's similar. When I'm rapping, I get to say a lot of words in a song, so...I want to say something meaningful. Some songs I really, really set out to communicate a certain message, and so I'm being very intentional about trying to lay out this message for the listeners. Some of the preaching, obviously, is different and is playing a different role in God's plan, but I think that it is comparable.
I think one of the main things that makes it different is...we're going to make good art. So it's important that we communicate good truth, but along with that it's important that the music made sounds good. I don't like when Christian artists think: Oh, there's a good message in there. It doesn't matter if the music sounds that great – it can just sound okay. But God is an incredible Creator, and He's given us the gift to create too, and He created a beautiful creation and we will reflect Him if we also would create beautiful things. And He's glorified in that.
CP: In the book you address three different lies that we tell ourselves about what the good life is, and one of them you call "God-is-for-me-ism" – can you explain what that is?
Lee: "God-is-for-me-ism," or "It's-all-about-me-ism," that's this worldview that thinks that the entire world revolves around us – including God. We expect that God is basically here to give us everything that we need, that God is basically here to serve us and not the other way around, and so I think a lot of the reason we think that is because there's a lot of popular preachers and teachers these days that teach us these things: [Have] big dreams, tell God, and He'll show up and deliver it for you. And the truth is it's a lot more complicated than that...The truth is that the universe is centered around Him, and not us, and so I think that's one of the false worldviews about the good life.
I think the good life is not centered around us, but it's actually centered around God. God made us – He made us for Him. His desire for our life is that we would live our lives for Him. And so He's gracious and He's merciful, so He will pour out graces and mercies and blessings on us, but that's not the big picture. The big picture is Him.
CP: You hope to eventually become a pastor. Is that something that you hope to accomplish in the near future? Would you have to stop pursuing a rap career in order to do so?
Lee: Interesting you're asking that question, because I'm actually in a transitional phase in my life where I'm about to transition from music being my main thing to preparation for pastoral ministry being my main thing.
So I'm not going to be traveling and doing as much music as I have in the past, because I do feel like if I want to be a pastor then I can't keep going all the time. For me to be prepared for that I have to be in one place for a little while, for me to be able to be involved in my church in a way that I can grow. And so, I'm in a transitional phase right now where I'm about to kind of step away from music and transition into pastoral ministry.
CP: How soon do you think you'll make that transition?
Lee: The transition is about to start now...I'm going to be on staff at my church in a position that will allow me to continue to be trained for pastoral ministry.
CP: Do you have any regrets for not pursuing a more main stream hip hop and rap career?
Lee: No, I don't have any regrets. There are times, of course, you'll look at some of my peers in hip hop doing mainstream hip hop, and you see the kind of success they get, the kind of perks that come with being a bigger artist, and you think: Man, if my content was a little bit more swallowable for the mainstream then maybe I would have some of these things.
It's natural to think that, but I didn't start doing this for those things in the first place. The reason I wanted to rap is I wanted to do beautiful art that glorifies God and I wanted to help people understand big truth. And that's been my goal. At the end of the day all that other stuff won't matter very much. When I die, when I stand before God, that stuff won't matter very much, but what will matter is impacting lives for Him, so that's definitely what I've been trying to do.
And God gave me this gift. I want to use it for Him, that's why He gave it to me, and I can't imagine taking this gift from God and using it for things that He opposes. I still have no regrets – grateful that I did things the way I did. God has been more than gracious to me. I didn't expect to get to travel the world. I didn't expect to be on this kind of stage. I didn't expect any of this. So I'm very grateful, He's been very gracious to me.
CP: What advice do you have for young people who are considering pursuing a career in hip hop?
Lee: The main advice that I give people is something that I've kind of already alluded to here. The first one is to do good music, to work at being good. If that means writing a verse every day, if that means letting other people hear your music, whatever it's going to take for you to be good at the art form. You want to be good.
The second part is to really think deeply about what it means to be faithful to God in the way that you do it. That doesn't mean you have to rap quite like me, it doesn't mean you have to rap like anybody else. Think about what it looks like for you to rap in a way that will bring God glory. Be faithful to Him in the stuff that you say, the way you pursue your career.
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