*Based on an interview with AJ Robinson by Nick Bettis. Responses have been lightly edited for flow and comprehension.
At the beginning of the interview, I ask a big question.
“Who are you?”
Without a pause, he answers.
“I am AJ Robinson. I am 22 years old. And I am very passionate about incorporating the meaning of the gospel into music and allowing people to experience that in a fresh, new way.”
AJ, AoP ’16, and I both attended the 2017 National Festival. We somehow managed to completely slip by each other and didn’t actually meet until eight months later at Asbury Theological Seminary, where we are both students in the MDiv program. We had a class together, and all I knew about him was that he always wore retro shirts from the 80’s or 90’s. As I slowly got to know him better, I learned that he was a rapper. I also saw something that seemed odd to me: although he went to two National Festivals, he didn’t seem to be preaching anymore.
But I was dead wrong.
His mom served 22 years in the Army, and they spent time living in Japan (where he was born), Missouri, California, and Belgium, before finally settling in for the long haul in Kentucky. AJ says he was in and out of church as a kid, never really understanding what, or who, it was all about. One thing that stayed constant for him was music. “I did talent shows all throughout elementary school,” AJ says. “My mom told me I started singing when I was three when I sang for my grandma over the phone.” It wasn’t long until his music interests narrowed to one genre: rap.
“It was in fifth grade that I actually tried writing my first rap.” How was it? “It was garbage,” he says with some laughter. And then he says this one phrase that comes up a few times in our conversation.
“It was a starting point.”
A starting point. A place with no set expectations, just somewhere you can use as a launching pad.
AJ really started making music in high school. After an uncle passed away during AJ’s eighth-grade year, he was given his uncle’s MIDI keyboard and recording program. “My grandma let me take the keyboard, and I thought, ‘It’s small, I don’t know what I would do with it.’ So I got that in eighth grade, and it literally sat in my closet for two years until I took it out and decided to learn how to use it.” He then spent the next few years making beats, without focusing much on rapping. But something wasn’t right. As he grew older and went to college, he wasn’t satisfied with his life revolving around popularity and parties. “I didn’t I want to do that anymore.”
AJ came to a starting point. He received a scholarship to sing in the choir. “All we sang were religious songs.” The music helped lead him in a new direction. “It was the conviction of singing those songs, as well as the people in the choir with me who just wanted to love me. As I started spending more time with them I thought, ‘I’m intrigued. What do you guys have that I don’t?'” Through his new friends, he came to faith in Christ. “If I didn’t have that community I don’t think that transition would have happened as smoothly as it did.”
That new start changed how he approached his music. “I had all this desire to make music, but I didn’t know how to incorporate who I was in it because I didn’t have an understanding of who I was.” AJ started rapping seriously, recording songs on his computer until it crashed (For the last 3 years, he has been producing and recording his music in the Garageband app on his iPhone 5s). His songs had a new subject: God. “All the things I tried before, the cars, the women, I rapped about all the things I didn’t have. Now I rap about something I do have. It’s tangible. You can’t have anything greater. It changed my perspective, and I was like, ‘This is it.'”
Soon after he found his new faith, one of his professors asked him a question.
“Dr. Calhoun pulled me aside and said, ‘Do you like to preach?’ I said, ‘Well, I’ve never preached a day in my life.’ He said, ‘I think you would be a good fit for this Academy of Preachers event coming up.’ I said, ‘Huh? But I’ve never preached before!’ So I was about to say no on the spot, but I thought about it and met with everybody else who was doing it. Then, sure enough, I was on my way to preaching for the first time.”
AJ preached his first sermon at the 2016 National Festival of Young Preachers. It served as another starting point.
“After I preached my first sermon, it was almost as if opportunities for preaching were coming at me left and right. And I would just jump at every opportunity. I built on each opportunity I was given. I was trying to improve my preaching and grow my connections. I just tried to find my style and my voice. I’m still trying to do that now.”
I asked him if he would have taken these preaching opportunities without his experience at AoP.
“Probably not. It was good to build a foundation of what preaching can look like, and start from there.”
Now in seminary, AJ doesn’t preach often anymore. Or at least, not from the pulpit.
Again, I asked a big question. “Do you think your rapping is a kind preaching?
And again, without any hesitation:
“I do, I do actually. I don’t believe preaching can be put in a box and just limited to the pulpit. I think when you have experienced something that you know is good, you don’t want to keep it to yourself. You want to get other people in on it.”
AJ says discovering Christian rap opened his mind to what preaching could look like in different contexts. “I used to think that preaching a sermon was the only way that I could do it. That was the only perspective I was open to. It wasn’t until my roommate introduced me to Christian rap that I realized you could do something like that. Other people are doing it, let me see if I can do it.”
He can, and he has.
He recently performed at a show in Lexington, KY. The show featured several rappers from around the area, and at the end of the night, a winner would be chosen by applause. “This was hosted in a bar. It was an opportunity to rap what I’m rapping about in that setting, knowing that other people were rapping about something on the opposite side of the perspective.” He admits he was nervous. “I wanted to be a good representation of the Lord’s work.”
So he got up on stage. He preached. He didn’t win.
But then, after his set, a woman came up to him who realized something that I didn’t about AJ’s music.
“I had one lady tell me, ‘I heard you up there preaching, you’re a preaching man.’ I was like, ‘WHAT! Shoot, that’s crazy!’ That just made it all worth it. It wasn’t even about winning or what I could look like. It was about God being present in that moment. When she told me that, I thought, ‘Dang. This is something I could keep on doing. This isn’t something that’s just a phase for me. That was a crazy experience.'”
He was up there preaching. He was sharing his testimony, the soundtrack of his faith.
AJ isn’t sure what his future holds. He is considering ordained pastoral ministry in the United Methodist Church. He is hoping he can do something related to music. Right now, he’s just focused on finishing the semester strong and preparing for an upcoming Vans showcase in California. But he said something that reflected his eagerness to spread the gospel, no matter how unclear his future appears.
“Rap is my pulpit. If God calls me to the church, I’m willing to go there too.”
That seems like a great place to start.
Photos by Mark Bischof
Do you want to write for the Academy of Preachers community? Connect with Nick at email@example.com to submit your writings (blogs, preaching tips, book reviews, etc.).
Nick Bettis, AoP ’15, is a certified Elder candidate in the Missouri Conference of the United Methodist Church. He is the Communications Assistant here at the Academy of Preachers. After earning a degree in Pastoral Ministry and working 5 years in youth ministry in Missouri, Nick and his wife Shelby moved to Wilmore, KY, to study in the MDiv program at Asbury Theological Seminary.