It’s 12:51 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon. Music lovers are slowly beginning to crowd around one of Lollapalooza‘s eight main stages, just shy of the festival’s west entrance into Chicago’s Grant Park.
After a series of sporadic rain showers throughout the four-day music marathon, the sky is a vibrant crayon blue and not a single cloud is in sight. An occasional breeze gently kisses the perspiring foreheads of excited fans, offering a cool relief to those standing in nearly 80-degree heat looking to score the perfect view. As the scorching sun glistens above a growing audience, shining its ultralight beams on every swaying head, Atlantic Records’ Sir the Baptist emerges as the next act to serve a dose of uplifting tunes.
“You ready to go to church! You ready to get baptized!”
Following a pair of flag bearers and dancers decked in tribal-like attire, the Chicago native takes to the stage, ready to turn things all the way up. Decked in a black Chicago Blackhawks baseball cap, a perfectly-tailored, matching 3-piece suit, white button up and tiger-print high-top Converse Chuck Taylors, the son of a Baptist-turned-Pentecostal preacher begins working the audience effortlessly sans his usual pastoral robe-inspired garb. Nothing is stopping the jazz, hip-hop and gospel-influenced musician from pushing the energy to the limit, without missing a single beat.
The turn up is real during the performance of his Twista-assisted single, “Creflo Almighty Dollar,” a raw song addressing the idea, success and greed that often comes with the American currency. The crowd is definitely alive as a slim and nearly 6-foot-3 Sir reaches back into his pocket of church roots and brings out gospel recording artist Donald Lawrence to perform an inspiring new number called “Heaven,” perfect for those who missed a bit of that good ol’ Sunday morning service.
The icing on the cake happens when onlookers are taken to a dark place as six pallbearers slowly carry a wooden casket onto the stage. Little did those unfamiliar (and familiar) with his music know, Baptist would pose the question, “Would you care if it was me?” as he surfaces from the casket for a performance of his socially conscious single, “Wake Up!” a reflective #BlackLivesMatter anthem of sorts, which addresses gun violence and police brutality while pointing at victims like Trayvon Martin, Hadiya Pendleton and Eric Garner.
As his nearly 40-minute set winds down, Sir takes the crowd home with a lit performance of his rebellious single, “Raise Hell,” an uptempo reminder of living your life unapologetically, even if you have to flip tables to get a message across. Aside from his recent collaboration with Chance the Rapper and Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment, those not-so-acquainted with the honest artistry and soulful sounds of the “Urban Monk” are left intrigued about the story of the man behind the microphone.
From the outside looking in, Sir (who got the nickname as a church-going kid) appears to be just another one of those rapping singers or singing rappers, but after really hearing the grittiness of his music and rawness of his lyrics, onlookers realize he’s simply a “keep it 100” believer with an edge. If you were to walk up to him and ask who Sir the Baptist is, he’d keep it as honest and authentic as his music.
“Sir the Baptist is a grown up shell, but inside of this shell is a little kid that’s maybe like 11, and he’s wondering what all this crazy stuff that’s going on in the church is,” replies the cooled-down and reflective singer. “Why does his sister have a black eye? Why is his brother bleeding or why is his mom crying in church? Why do people just give their money? Why are they rolling on the floor? It’s sort of this, you know, putting the pieces together.”
He pauses to gather more thoughts and continues.
“He’s that same kid who thinks, ‘I want my own junior church.’ So ‘Dad, can I have my own church in the basement?’ But then finds out that the basement is haunted by all of these times his brother has gotten molested down there by one of the preachers that was in the church. He’s that little kid in there that’s saying there’s so many little kids that have seen or experienced something, that ties to their spirituality. They’ve got a lot of questions and they’re just looking for answers.”
Hailing from the historic Southside district of Bronzeville (home to music icons like Sam Cooke, Muddy Waters and Nat “King” Cole) Sir, born William James Stokes, grew up as one of the 22 children of a Creole preacher (born in 1924). who migrated with millions of Southerners to the North. His father then built his own church, where Sir would spend a majority of his life. He loved and looked up to what his father did within the pews and on the streets of Chicago. (Those acts of community service would then motivate him to later start DeedPin, an organization encouraging people to be active within their community and pin their good deeds on a digital map.)
Although his father passed away when he was just 11 years old, the 28-year-old singer matured into a young man who now appreciates the rich history and culture passed down to him. So much that he implement the pastoral robe into his wardrobe and campaign #FollowTheRobe.
“I just wear the robe to symbolize my dad, and my experience as a kid. He would put us in robes, and I even put my two kids in robes now. It really connects me to spirituality, but also family. I want to share that with other people. I’m showing people to follow whatever’s inside of you. I want you to have a robe, where you just feel like, ‘This is tied to my spirituality. Today, I just needed to wear this because, I was just having a rough day last night or something like that.’ You know how everybody is wearing a dashiki right now? The robe is like a dashiki to me. It connects me to my roots.”
“Gospel is an island. Lollapalooza is like a world.”
After writing jingles, landing a Director of Digital Marketing position at the prestigious advertising agency, Leo Burnett, and spearheading their McDonalds campaign in partnership with Rodney Jerkins, Sir followed his musical calling and quit his 9 to 5. To stay financially afloat while pursuing the ears of reputable figures in the music industry, a young Sir decided to make a sacrifice: become a homeless Lyft driver. In between pick-ups and drop-offs, he would catch up on sleep, record music or make cold-calls. A little over a year later, he credits that struggle of an experience for raising his level of humbleness and being one of the many things that spark a bit of happiness.
“When you’ve got nothing, you learn to value the small things,” says Sir with a smile. “Even my two-year-old son, Prince, and my two-year-old daughter. They make me happy every day. It’s the small things. I’ll start crying over the smallest things, and just be like, ‘I’m so happy, G.’ ”
And he has many reasons to be. He’s managed to find a unique voice that allows him to mentally and spiritually contribute to not only his bullet-plagued home city of Chicago, but the world. Above all, he’s found a way to mix the soul-clapping, organ-laden church sounds of gospel with a bit of pop, a classy dash of old swing (jazz) and a fist full of hip-hop. But if you were to pigeon hole his music into one genre, he’d sincerely call it “world music.”
“Human beings. We’re all the same, no matter where we are.”
“I’ve just come to realize after traveling so much that spirituality, church and all types of religion, it’s all a worldly thing,” Sir explains. “I didn’t rock with gospel music that much as far as being a rapper. When a gospel rap artist gets on stage, it just doesn’t feel connected. They usually have the worst beats and they just won’t curse. I like to curse when I’m feel something. We all curse in church! I just can’t be a gospel artist.”
We’re all human and Sir makes his music for all walks of life, regardless of religion. In truth, the same people he hopes to reach with his message also serve as a source of inspiration. “I’ll just look at somebody that’s going to work, or somebody on the plane who’s sitting next to me. Or I’m talking to a journalist and they’re like, ‘Yo, sorry I look like I’ve had too many drinks, I had a breakup last night.’ Everybody in some sort of way inspires me.”
That inspiration will finally be heard on his debut album, PK: Preacher’s Kid, which is expected to arrive later this month. Various real-life topics will be addressed on the album, from the social injustices of today, relationships, spirituality and more. The 14-track compilation will also feature his hand-selected vocal group, ChuchPeople, a collective movement of artists that use their creativity to make a positive impact on society. The interesting part about these members is that a lot of them crossed paths with Sir during his Lyft-driving days.
“I usually try to keep it as church as possible, so whoever’s around that I think is dealing with something and needs the song I’m working on or performing to inspire them, I’ll call on them. My niece usually sings “Deliver Me,” a song about my sister [Mary] getting beat by her husband who was also a deacon in the church. But I had another friend sing it, because she had experienced domestic abuse as well. When she sang it, she just sang with so much story behind it. There were moments when she’d be in the booth and it’s just silent, because she doesn’t know how to hold back the tears. So I try to pick singers based off of their personal experiences. I let who’s available come and record or perform. Some people sing somebody else’s solo. That’s just how church is.”
And although his project is near completion and guest features are done and out of the way, he admits that he would like to one day collaborate with prominent artists in both the gospel and secular realm.
“I would love to work with Kendrick Lamar and Jay Z. On the gospel side, I would love to work with…I mean I’m working with Donald Lawrence, but also, Rance Allen. Yes, I would like to work with them. Oh, and Aretha Franklin and Chaka Khan. I want that real stuff that connect with our grandma’s and moms, but we still get to enjoy, like me and you.”
His first major Lollapalooza show is drawing to a close and Sir the Baptist decides to end his set with a bang. He channels his inner preacher and yells to the audience one last important thing – “You will be great before you die!” before climbing over the front barricade for on last round of jump arounds.
“[Sir the Baptist stands for] Freedom with spirituality. Spirituality usually comes with religion, and religion usually comes with chains. We just have to find a way to sort of free that.”
“I feel like during everybody’s moment, you will see your moment before you die. I don’t feel like anyone can have their moment taken away from them. Somehow before you die, your existence will produce purpose throughout the world. Even if you don’t know it.”
As jarring as that reality may feel, it’s a deep-seeded realization that many (including myself) needed to have uprooted and heard at that very moment.