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The Chicago-born, church-raised musician defies genres and is using science and spirituality to move his audience to activism

Sir the Baptist, does not fit into categories and that is fine by him. Raised in the church, he is deeply spiritual and religious but has a conflicted relationship with the institution. He has a hip-hop sensibility but treads in R&B, pop, soul and gospel.

Born William James Stokes, Sir grew up in the Bronzeville district of Chicago’s South Side, the son of a Baptist minister father and missionary mother. He was one of 22 children and got his early musical education at the Bright Star Church of God in Christ where his father preached. He bypassed college for a job at the mega-advertising agency Leo Burnett, scoring jingles and managing digital marketing campaigns. Looking to focus on his music and ideas, Sir left the agency and started writing songs while driving for Lyft.

His May 2017 album Saint or Sinner took over a year for Sir to release as he analyzed every lyric and chord, giving in to his perfectionist tendencies.

“I’m really picky, and I pushed it back,” he said. “I would look at verses and rewrite them over and over. I saw it like scientists in a lab, and you can’t find a cure until you have it down pat, until it’s exactly right.

Through science and spirituality, Sir says he wants to heal people with his music.   

“I spend a lot of time focusing on how I’d like to apply my music,” he said. “Saint or Sinner the album is the battle of spirituality and the industry … There’s a lot of back and forth but in the end, I’m just going to do me. Sometimes I’m a saint and I’m sometimes I’m a sinner but I’m the same person at the end of the day. I think a lot of artists that were raised in the church dealt with that push and pull, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson.”

Fame, especially the first taste of it, can be difficult to handle, Sir admits. His goal: Use the notoriety to help people. His church upbringing also influences his drive to accomplish something greater with his music and time in the spotlight. Sir has partnered with Boys and Girls Club, Global Citizen and other organizations, and has devised innovative ways to spur activism and foster accountability. He has founded an urban church, Tymple, and a charitable organization, DeedPin.

After Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston and other parts of the gulf coast, Sir organized Mission 432, a campaign with the goal of sending 1200 “urban monks” to the area to help rebuild with sponsorship from H&S Commercial & Industrial Supplies and Services to pay them $17 to $25 hour.

ABP caught up with Sir to talk about his music, aspirations, community work and that number, 432.

Where did your name come from?

Growing up I would say I wanted to become a knight and people started calling me “Sir” when I was little. Baptist came from John the Baptist. I came from the area called ‘Chi-raq,’ and trying to be this voice calling out in Chicago, trying to be a knight for change, John the Baptist fit.

What do your friends and family call you?

Sir.

You recently released your video for the track “Heaven.” What was the concept?

The idea in the video is that I hijack a satellite and shift the frequency of hip hop back to healing frequencies. We vibrate to these frequencies. Our bodies are like 80 percent water and these frequencies in the world affect us, they make your body move and they can also heal us. 432hz is the healing frequency of the world. So I want to change the frequency of hip hop back to the healing frequency. David played the harp pitched to 432 to drive back the demons. You have to an understanding of the science behind it.

How did working in marketing prepare you to tackle the music industry?

You learn the business behind music. I was working on million dollar projects like McDonald’s and General Mills, making presentations for Fortune 500 companies. I did jingles, and learned about making music that is catchy.  But it was 90 percent business, 10 percent how you looked and nothing about music. … Eventually, the business of branding became a little overwhelming and I wanted to do something with music other than sell Big Macs.

What was your experience like driving for Lyft?

Lyft helped me find a balance. Whoever was in the car, I would try to relate to them somehow. I found a lot of my musical creative drive at Lyft. I drove with them for a year and a half. Right now I can’t drive for Lyft, but I get the urge to drive again so I can meet people. I would get inspiration for songs from all the people I’d run into driving around. It may be a grandmother who needs to get somewhere or a mom picking her child up from daycare. With Lyft you get to build relationships with people.

What was behind your idea to perform part of your Lollapalooza set in a coffin?

People come to Chicago, to Lollapalooza to enjoy themselves, escape problems. I wanted to give them the funeral that we have every week or so often. I live in Chicago, I know about dealing with the daily pressures of this community. I know about going to look for people you knew and finding out they are dead. This isn’t just about entertainment, I’m here to change the world.

Sir the Baptist worked at a large marketing agency and drove for Lyft before releasing his debut album, Saint or Sinner, in spring 2017.

What do you think of the current political and social climate in terms of being able to share ideas and respect other people’s views?

I want a button for peace on Instagram and Facebook. The propaganda behind Trump is larger than his actual actions. He can’t really do anything except he will contribute to hate, and I believe he will be remembered as one of the most destructive presidents. We can band together and get this guy out of there.

We have to use our powers of observation, understanding, cohesiveness, and come together as family. We can’t let colors or race or sexual preference get in the way, we can actually do a lot of work.

I’d push people to take their eyes off Trump and think about what you can do to change the world. Then, go out and influence other people so we can all get on the same page against one guy, who, when you think about it, is not all that powerful.

How would you define your musical style?

It’s life music, inspirational music. I’d love to be in hip hop, but I’m not that hard of a rapper. I’m a hip-hop chaplain. I want to give hip hop some spirituality and spirituality some common sense.

What’s your relationship to the church now?

I don’t necessarily say the right words all the time to be in line with the church, but I go back to say hi. It’s always a conflict, in a way I imagine John the Baptist had the same conflict; saying things you’re not supposed to say and then he eventually gets beheaded.

For example, the church is not really ready or not comfortable discussing sexuality and embracing other ways of viewing sexuality, and a lot of the conversations we need to have aren’t happening.

Sometimes when you try to spearhead change you run into problems, and you don’t know what will come. You just keep pushing for it and know that you have a mission in mind. Know that it will open doors for the next person to be great … like Jesus did.

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