Sir the Baptist, born William James Stokes, hails from the South side of Chicago and is a reminder that not every stereotype placed on us Chicago-bred black men meets its expectation. He’s calm in demeanor, full of artistic prowess, and will turn up like it’s a basement party in 2006 with the rest of us. When you listen to his 2015 single “Raise Hell,” which hit #1 on the Viral 50 Spotify charts, you will find he is religiously conscious yet lyrically paints a portrait any person can connect to. How does an artist connect their music word to the holy word while still using profanity in a not-so gospel genre? In an exclusive interview, he tells REVOLT just how he does so while remaining true to himself.
Stokes, as I like to call him from years of camaraderie, hasn’t changed one bit besides the fact he is making a splash in the industry. Even during our conversation he points out “I feel like I’m talking to my brother,” as we touch on everything from his musical journey, legacy, politics, growing up in Chicago, dating, and Chicago pizza versus New York pizza! He went from being a self-proclaimed “preacher’s kid singing gospel music with a pop world twist” to maturing into his current lane. His own musical lane.
Sir went from driving Lyft and sleeping in his own car to spitting some of the most game-changing sounds we hear today. Is it ghetto gospel, trap&b, holy hip-hop? Whatever you want to call it, it’s lit!
This year, on top of performing at REVOLT Sessions, he’s performed at Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, and Made in America, and it was just announced he will be joining Jay Z’s Tidal X: 1015 benefit concert. At this year’s Afropunk Music Festival where we joined him, Sir brought the pew and pulpit together with the best party of the summer.
I remember years ago hearing and seeing you create and your sound was like swing R&B, how did you make that transition to your current sound?
I rock with swing and jazz music, which is why I have pictures hanging with Tony Bennett. I really rock with that sound, culture and that time. I get really influenced by that time. But more than anything man I wanted to do something close to home. And then I found out a lot of artists who carried the swing era also came from church. I was like, well, let me dig deep into all our roots if I’m going to do this. So then I decided, well, let me do some church music because that’s easy for me! (laughs) I grew up in church! You have Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and they incorporated swing, gospel, and urban music.
And now you have what we call “ghetto gospel.” Is that what we call your sound? (laughter) It’s basically us that go to church but we also talk sh-t. Its grandma when she’s on the pew and somebody comes through and she’s like look at this mother-cker here. It’s gospel but it also has that feel of we don’t give a f-ck. I believe in Jesus but I’m still, you know, me. I’m going to be myself and be open and be that drunk person telling the truth to everyone. It’s needed because … in church they say, “Shut up, don’t tell anyone your sins, you’re forgiven, don’t talk about [your sins].” I like to talk about it.
The stigma of being judged turns some people away from the church, does your sip that new wine reference in “Raise Hell” touch on this?
Oh yeah! By being more honest, you will essentially be able to accept more people because you will have no other choice but to. Your honesty puts you at the same plateau of someone else; you can’t really judge someone for drinking if you’re sleeping with the bartender. You’re like, well, we’re kind of there but we see it at different times. Nope! It grows into politics as well, this country is supposed to be built off religion and Christianity. You don’t want gay marriage in the United States because religiously everything is supposed to point back to the church and its ideals. Everything points back in its largest form and even the minutest things refer back to something that is intangible, and that is religion. I honestly don’t even read the Old Testament of the Bible because a lot of that doesn’t apply to me. I only read what applies to me — at one point you could lose a hand for committing something. And even still some things need to adapt, and I believe other countries are looking at us like we’re stupid.
And now we have a reality star running for president.
It’s horrible man. It’s just as bad as if Kanye was running for president.
You think that would be bad?! I’m team ‘Ye 2020. We from Chicago!
(laughter) Yes I know man, but we can’t be like that. We have a nation to run! We cannot go there. No, just no. The Afropunk performance will have a Trump impersonator and we will sit him down and teach him the things he thinks he understands. Like, he thinks black people will vote for him because they want money. He’s using this as some sort of propaganda with marketing and tactics in a campaign to tap what he thinks is our emotions and desires for money. With that, onstage I challenge him and ask him, what is the difference between a $100 and a $1 bill? Not the ink, not the paper, but the systematic racism and governance to be like I” know you black people want this money,” taunting us because “black people love money!” No, we want respect, equality, and we want our own things and our own businesses. These are the things I teach and address with him during the performance.
You came out of a casket at Lollapalooza, you have the Chuchpeople featured on your songs, a Donald Trump impersonator at Afropunk — what is Sir the Baptist’s creative process like?
Well first I’m extremely long-winded and emotional, and potentially crying somewhere with a group of people.
We light-skinned, we do that type of shit. (laughs)
(laughs) Right, right, right, first it’s that moment! So I try to make my art emotional and entertaining. I learned that while I was working at Leo Burnett in Chicago, how to tie in mission, marketing, and music. And that helped me out, how to do my conscious music and still entertain. I get a chance to bring a casket on tage and you’re like, “Oh my God, shock value!” and I’m like, no no, I’m not getting out of a casket to show you something cool it’s more of a representation to show you what I’ve overcome. I’m standing on top of this casket to show you, I wasn’t “supposed” to make it to 21 years old but I did and now I want to push this message forward. It’s not about what they say in the media, you can live and you can overcome. As an artist who is conscious, some artists will stroll outside in a dress, and that’s cool they went for shock value. Just find that balance where the shock value is rooted in something very important and also important to the people. And that is my creative process.
How do you respond to the criticism from those who think your music should not have the term gospel in it or think you’re making a mockery?
I’m not making a mockery of the church, I’m doing exactly what Jesus would have done. Jesus would metaphorically go into church and turn over tables and be like, ‘yo, what are yall doing?!” When he would be advised not to talk with someone, he would go and talk to that person. When they said he shouldn’t be in the manger, he was birthed in the manger. They thought he was going to be some prince or a king, and in the same breath the message of the music might not come the way people might be familiar with, and that’s okay. They’re still looking for the blinded message. I’m trying to say, “Here, take the blinders off and I want you to say exactly how you feel and I’m going to dictate this the way it is in real life.” And you know, I’m not worried about criticism; I treat the criticism just how we would treat it. It’s my sh-t and if you don’t want to listen you don’t have to.
If you could go to the future and look back at your music legacy, how would you want it to look?
I would love my music legacy to be housed in me being the first hip-hop chaplain. Right, so this chaplain can go from a football team chaplain to further being an ambassador of First Bishop of the White House sort of thing. This is my longterm eulogy goal. To be able to incorporate spirituality into our culture in a seamless way. Like ‘Pac, he was a prophet. If you listened to some of the things he said, it’s exactly what we’re going through now. I want to take that in the realm of making that more of like a lifestyle and building that out. Letting my music sort of build opportunities for people to be more spiritual but also to be cultured. I had no idea people would rock with me being a preacher’s kid, and then I found out there are so many preacher’s kids out there and so many people that are just spiritual going through the same thing. I’m just here to say, okay, let me completely go off the hinges, and this music is open to whoever, whenever, however, and forever.