Rapper and author Trip Lee, born William Lee Barefield III, recently joined Faithfully Magazine for a live discussion about his career, new projects, and more.
Lee’s debut album, “If They Only Knew,” was released in 2005, and his subsequent albums have hit the Billboard Top 200 and earned a Stellar Award and nominations for the GMA Dove Awards.
In 2012, the married father of three stepped away from music to pursue training as a pastor. Since then, he has released two albums, “Rise” and “The Waiting Room.” His newly released single and music video, “You Got It,” is Lee’s first new music since 2016. He is also the author of two books, The Good Life and Rise: Get Up and Live in God’s Great Story.
In his recent discussion with Faithfully Magazine, Lee touched on several topics, including his new project, how he thinks Christians should handle doubt, where he finds inspiration, and more. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
It’s been 16 years since the release of your debut album. During your career, you also took some time away from music to pursue training to become a pastor. Can you take a step back and talk about ways in which your approach to music may have changed throughout your career?
So, first of all, you didn’t have to mention how long it’s been since my first album. That makes me feel much older than I am! But, yeah, my first album came out in 2006, so I think it has been about 15 years. Since The Waiting Room, which came out in 2016, I think maybe the only thing I’ve put out is a couple of singles, tours, or something like that. But yeah, it’s been a minute. Ways my music has changed? I mean, as much as a person can change in that much time. When I wrote my first album, I was in high school. I was literally in high school. I was going to class. I went to chemistry class for third period, you know what I’m saying? I was a senior in high school.
And when I met all the kind of original dudes from 116, Lecrae and Tedashii and Sho Baraka, I was 15 years old. And the first thing I was on, the 116 compilation, I was 17. So much life has changed. And so it almost feels like a different person wrote music from then. But, I mean, when I listen back to some stuff, there’s a lot that I am encouraged by. I think what stayed the same is, I love God, I love hip hop, I want to make amazing music, I serve an amazing God. I want that to just be apparent in whatever I’m doing.
Since then, I’ve grown a lot as a person, so I think I’m better than I was. I think there’s more variety in the ways that I write. I think it very much reflected, at that point in my life, I had just started reading stuff that was helping me see how big God was. And so I was just like, “I want to learn everything I see about how big God is.” I read a chapter in a book about what it means for Jesus to be God. I’m like, “I want to put this truth in songs.” I had a whole song called “God in the Flesh” on my first record. It sounds like a systematic theology chapter, with Scripture references and everything, you know what I’m saying?
And so, I think I’ve gotten better at some storytelling things in my music. I think I’ve grown as a songwriter. I’ve started doing some producing too on the new stuff. So even like “You Got It,” my new single, produced that with another producer, Mashell. That’s the first time I’ve done that. That’s been something new that I’m really excited about and really enjoy. I think the ways that I talk about human experience have changed a lot. I think we’ll probably talk about that some more. But yeah, a lot has changed in how I write, but I think I’m excited about this new season of music for me.
You mentioned your most recent single. Can you just give a bit of background to what was the inspiration behind the message you wanted to convey with both the music and also producing that as well? Because there’s definitely a message that you want your listeners to hear.
Yeah, the song was called “You Got It“ It was on Reach’s summer playlist. There’s a passage in the Gospels where Jesus said something hard and everybody leaves, and He looks at His disciples, He’s like, “Are y’all going to leave too?” I mean, He’s talking about the Lord’s Supper. And they’re like, “Where else are we going to go? You have the words of eternal life.”
And that passage always sticks with me. It just is like, there are things Jesus says that are hard that make most people want to run away. And part of what it means to follow Jesus is to understand that there’s something hard about what He’s saying, but there’s nowhere else for me to go that has what He has, the stuff I need that only Jesus has. And so that always hits me.
So, I always wanted to write a song about it. So this song, it’s a little playful. You know, the hook is saying, “Where else can I go? You got it. You have the words of life.” And then in the verses, I’m exploring places I could go. I’m like, “Might get me a beamer that you seein’ people pick,” “might get me a beamer, might get a bunch of bread, I might throw a charity benefit and keep all the money.” It’s like all this stuff. “I might pretend to be a thug on Instagram. I hope real gansters don’t get mad at me.” You know, there’s all this stuff that people even expect from rappers too. I could chase after all that, but at the end of the day, what is that going to do for my soul, who I am at a deep level? There’s no where else I can go for that stuff.
In 2012, you took a little bit of a break from music to pursue training to become a pastor and serving in the local church. How did you first feel that call to ministry?
Yeah, that’s a good question. When I was very young, maybe like 14 to 15, I felt like maybe I was called to use my life and my gifts to help people know God. And there are very kind of abstract, mystical ways to think about what it means to be called to something. I think at that point, I just felt a sense, like, I think the Lord has very much built me in a way that when someone helps me see something, I want to help somebody else see that same thing. Like, I hear music that changes my life, makes you want to know better. I’m like, “I want to do that.” And I read books that changed my life, I’m like, “I want to write books that I can help you do that.”
So, I think at that point, I thought, I want to use my gifts to help people see God and follow him. And then I went to Bible College [and graduated] in 2006 which was a couple months after my first album came out. And so I go to college, and people are like, “Oh, do you want to be a pastor?” And I’m like, “No, I don’t think so.” At that point, I didn’t think I wanted to pastor. I was like, “No, I just want to preach God’s word and disciple and help people to know God more, walk alongside people,” which is describing pastoral things.
But it was in my time at a church there when I was in Bible college that I started to understand better how important the church was, and I wanted to help. I wanted to serve in that way. And so the way I think of calling is gifting—I think of desire, gifting, and opportunity. I had the desire to want to do it. And when I would preach and serve and help, walk with people, I saw the Lord using this and the Lord opened doors for me to do it.
And by the way, I think that calling has been affected by my own health and things that seemed good and that I feel called to that don’t work out the way I expect, because I have an illness that is the hardest part of every part of my life. And things don’t always work out the way that I think they’re supposed to, or I felt they would. But nevertheless, I’m just trying to be faithful in this season.
And so yeah, I mean, I’ve had the chance to pastor in a few places. And I’m really grateful for that. I love the church so much. I mean, that’s at the core of it, I see how important the church is and what God is doing and I want to serve as part of that. And for many years, it was me trying to pastor. And this season, I’m actually not pastoring anymore, I’ve actually stepped away in the past few months, because of my health. It’s made it hard. It doesn’t seem like the most faithful way for me to serve the church in this season. That’s the thing about just trying to be faithful: it looks different in different seasons.
I think a lot of times when people look up to influential Christians and leaders, especially artists like yourself, we have a really big tendency to pedestal people and kind of not see them as human. You’ve spoken publicly about your own struggles with health. Why do you think it’s helpful for us especially to humanize the people that we look up to?
I think it’s super important because the more we see people like superheroes who are immune to the things that impact normal people, the less we’re going to be able to find anything in them to emulate. I mean, it’s really going to be like—it’ll be like the way we look up to Superman, like, “Man, that’s amazing. I could never do that,” and that’s the end of it. Which is just not the way that God—it’s not the kind of admiration it seems like God calls us to that we see in the Scriptures. I mean, I would rather have a “follow me as I follow Christ.” It’s harder to do that when we see people as not full people, if that makes sense.
And I think we do that on both sides. I think the people that we dislike, we also see as kind of a caricature, which gives us more space to demonize without ever trying to understand what they really are. So, I really want somebody to just ask me, “What’s made you want to be vulnerable about what’s going on with your health for the past many years?” And I just don’t know how else to be. I don’t know how to not be fake. I would have to be fake to pretend that’s not really happening in my life. If I’m going to be honest and express where I’m at, how I relate to God, who God is, and who he’s shown himself to be, I don’t know how to do that without being honest and real about where I’m at and how my health, which has been the hardest part of every part of my life, which is such a big part of who I am in my family life for good or for ill, but I just don’t know how to speak honestly without talking about it.
You have a triple vocation in your Twitter bio there of rapper, author and pastor, and I’d just love to hear just how you think of how all three of those callings in your life intersect with one another?
I think in one way it is me being impacted by stuff and saying, Lord, if I had the gift to do that, I would like to impact people that way too. I mean, music for me has been a lifelong love. My dad introduced me to music when I was a little kid and was always playing music. We just had a house where music was always playing. And he’s just put me on to great music: Stevie Wonder… Earth, Wind & Fire, just great music. Fell in love with music from a young age. And when I’m so deeply impacted by something, I’m always like, “Can I do that for people too?” Fell in love with hip hop and felt like I wanted to do that.
Same thing with reading books. Same thing with pastoring. So, I’m like, those things do interact in unique ways. I think being a rapper has made me a better preacher in a lot of ways. I think rapping, especially about deep stuff has made me always trying to think like, “I can’t say it like that. How can I find a way to say it briefly and in a catchy way?” I think that has helped me when I preach to not be hard to understand. And I think the same thing with writing. It’s like, I’ve always had to do that. And I think it’s helped me be more in touch with the poetic. I think sometimes [in] Christian books, we really care about saying true things, but we don’t care as much about [how we are] saying them. We want to say them precisely, but not as much about saying them artfully. I think using language well serves the beauty of the truth. Saying beautiful things in a beautiful way serves the truth well and I think honors God. And so I think a lot about me being an artist first has shaped who I am as an author and a preacher, a pastor, too.
And I think being a pastor has helped me to understand people way better than I would have if I wasn’t counseling couples wrestling with divorce, if I wasn’t doing funerals, if I wasn’t talking to people who were struggling with porn, you know, if I wasn’t doing the things that pastors do, I think I understand people better than I would have otherwise.
Lately, we’ve seen a lot of press coverage about what I might say would be the fallout from the young, restless and reformed movement from just a few decades ago. We’ve seen Christians of color who may have been initially introduced to that movement through Christian hip hop, who have reflected on some of the damage that they may have done regarding their own self-identity as Christians of color of how they understand even theology, or prioritizing white expressions of theology and Christianity. Your music and who you are as an artist has also been connected to that movement as well in the past. Can you talk about how you have processed all those things coming out? How do you see yourself as you were connected to that movement decades ago?
Yeah, this is a very weird time. These last few years have been very strange. It feels like the United States of America is burning down all around us. Very strange things are happening everywhere. And there’s a lot of stuff that like five years ago, if people said, “Hey, this is what everything’s going to look like,” I never would have believed it. It’s been very strange. And every day, there’s a new thing that I’m like, “I don’t understand what’s happening.”
So there’s a lot of stuff happening to do with Reformed Christian circles that’s been strange and disorienting. But I think people have experienced it on different levels… For me, I’ve always felt like… Just like we were talking about people being human, who we look up to, like, there’s a chew up the meat, spit out the bones way that we should approach anything we’re influenced by, or even people that we know and love, that we have relationships with, that I want to encourage people to take.
I do think in this very strange time, I want people to be able to evaluate where our errors are, where there’s stuff that we’ve seen incorrectly and be able to be like, you know what? I saw that incorrectly and I’m reshaping it. So for me, some stuff has affected me a little bit differently, where I don’t feel the need to throw out some things and I’m like, but I didn’t get that from them. Or it’s like, oh, I didn’t get that from White Reformed people. I got that from the Bible, so I’m not changing my position on that. They didn’t teach me. My youth pastor told me that. I didn’t get that from them.
I find people helpful as much as they helped me to see Jesus, who Ge is and what it looks like to follow Him and what it looks like to honor Him in this world. And there’s other times where it’s like, White Evangelicals don’t own this doctrine. They didn’t make this up and so I’m not going to throw that particular thing out. But I think sometimes it is stuff where it’s like, we can end up getting repelled by particular groups in a way that makes us want to be like, I don’t want to agree with him on anything. But some stuff, I want to very carefully think about if there are particular things that I’ve seen incorrectly, I want to correct those through the lens of Scripture.
And other stuff I want to say, yeah, maybe some people said that, but hadn’t been entirely consistent with what they said. So for instance, where some people talk about being pro-life, I’m like, nah, I’m not going to feel embarrassed about being pro-life. I’m going to challenge them to be consistently pro-life. I’m going to challenge them to say we can’t just care about people before they’re born. Or even some of the ways we want to talk about things being “gospel issues” and not getting too political, which we like to very conveniently define around the political issues that we like. When it’s political issues that we like, we like to point to how close they are to the heart of God. But when it’s political issues we disagree with somebody on, we like to tell people “Don’t be political, let’s major on the gospel.” When it’s stuff like that, when lines have been drawn unhelpfully and unbiblically and conveniently, I want to push back on that. I’ve been wrong enough times to see that sometimes I don’t see the whole picture. And so I want to be the kind of person who’s open to reshaping those things.
I want us to challenge each other. It’s a strange time, a disorienting time. And unfortunately, I’m not sure we’re much better at unity than the world is in this season. We’re not very good at it. I just preached a sermon last Sunday from James 1, talking about being quick to listen, slow to speak. I think we are generally very bad at this right now. We like to be quick to speak, very slow to listen to the point where often our favorite thing to do on social media is, “Did you see this? Look at this guy, he’s tripping.” And it’s much more difficult to seek to understand where people are at and actually communicate in a way that helps us to grow.
So, it’s a strange time, and I want to navigate it in helpful ways. It does affect for me where I spend my time sometimes. Some things don’t seem like the best use of my time anymore, and that’s okay. I don’t feel as close to people as I once thought I was, and that’s okay. But at the end of the day, there’s some stuff that’s happened. Most people I know, especially those people that I pastor, don’t care, honestly, about a young Reformed movement. And so sometimes, when someone is like, “Man, did you see what blah blah said?” I’m like, “The people that I just spend time with, not only do they not know who that is, they don’t care.” So I can’t summon the level of outrage you have, especially since what that person meant to me was, they say helpful things that helped me. And then it’s like, “That’s not helpful. They’re not helping me.” And so I stopped listening.
I want us to be able to adjust and think about how to be the most faithful. I want us to think intentionally about what stuff we throw out when we think that maybe there’s some rot somewhere that we didn’t see that stuff was built on. Let’s think intentionally about what may have been built on rotten stuff, rotten foundations. Let’s throw that out. And then let’s think about what stuff is just stuff we agree with particular people on. Theologically, for me, I would still be Reformed theologically, because I think of the stuff I saw in Scripture that I still believe because I don’t see anything different in Scripture. And there’s other ways like, “No, I think this, I wouldn’t express it like that,” because I think that was built on these strange assumptions. But I just want us to think carefully in a community about this type of stuff.
What’s the best way to foster a posture of humility for Christians?
I think part of it comes from the circles that we run in, for one. I want my time to be spent with other people who take the truth very seriously, who want to see things accurately, who want to know what God has said in his Word, but also, we don’t want to feel like it has to be the end of our identity if we’re wrong about something that means a lot to us. When you’re wrong about something, sometimes it can feel like, “No, but if I’m wrong about that, then this and this and this, and I told this person this, and this person this,” and it’s like, this is part of what it means to be a human. You’re not omniscient.
And we do harm when we are so afraid of being wrong, that when we hear things that challenge our position, instead of being open and humble, we’re so defensive, that we double and triple and quadruple down. That can do great harm. And I just want to spend time with people who are okay with being wrong, who are okay with me being wrong. I don’t want to spend time with people who, if I’m wrong about something want to like, alley-oop and dunk on me. It’s like no, I mean, this is part of what it means.
Because I think what’s happened is, especially in this kind of social media age, like we’re so afraid of being wrong now that we’re afraid to take positions on anything. It’s like, “I don’t want to say that. if I say this, it’s going to make them mad and what if I’m wrong later?” And it’s like…What if I did that as a parent, like, where I was afraid to teach my kids anything, because I could be wrong. Like, there could be things I’m teaching my kids that I’m incorrect about. But that can’t paralyze me to the point where I’m scared to teach them things that I know are true. And then what I want to teach them is, I also want to be humble enough to say, “You know what, I felt this, that’s why I said this, but I was wrong.” And what Scripture clearly commands us to do is to be humble, but also bold. And this is just part of what it means to be human and it is scary, but we’ve got to trust God enough to know the world doesn’t crumble if you’re wrong. Be humble about it, and then adjusting when you found yourself to be incorrect, and I don’t know how else to be.
Your listeners, myself included, we’re crossing our fingers hoping that there’s more in store. Can you share if there’s anything else that’s in the works in terms of music, maybe another book, or authoring? What are things that you’ve been processing over the past couple years that you want to bring into print or in music and so on?
Yeah, there are stuff in the works. I have a book that is extremely overdue, and shout out to my publisher for being very gracious and patient. And I’m hoping to finish soon. That book is about identity. I’ve had a very interesting several years since I started that book. And so some of the ways I’ve thought about identity have shifted. Not in dramatic ways, but I think it’s deepened and nuanced.
But also, there’s a lot of music. I have a folder of hundreds of random songs that I’ve just been just making. I love making stuff. When I have thoughts, I want to make something beautiful out of thoughts. And so yeah, there’s a lot of music that I’ve been working on that I’m really, really excited about, that I’ve been producing and writing and working alongside some amazing people, like Mashell who I worked with on “You Got It.” We’ve worked on a lot of stuff together. And so there’s a lot of stuff around the corner I’m really, really excited about that I can’t wait to share with people.
And I think one of the things has changed my music over the years, even to tie it to that early question, is, as life continues to happen, you know, I’ve been married for 12 years, I have three kids, I have a nine-year-old, a seven-year-old, and a one-year-old. And my illness too is just quite the crazy journey. And I think Christians don’t often… I think sometimes we’re afraid to be honest about how hard life is and how good God is at the same time. We feel like we’ve got to choose one. And I just really don’t think we do. And I think, especially in this season, after this pandemic like this, and everything going on as the United States, it seems like the series finale of America, it’s just like, I don’t know what’s happening, but it’s just crazy. And there’s just a lot going on.
I’m excited for some of the music I’ve been writing that deals with some of the difficulties, hopes and dreams that don’t end up how we wanted them to, things that shake out the difficulties of life. I think that’s been a lot of themes showing up in my music, and so I’m really excited to get to share that with people, and I think some of the music I’ve made in the past is connecting people most, has been the stuff that has been honest about stuff that’s hard about, like, how God is good in the midst of it. And yeah, so I’m excited to keep sharing that with people.
This video was recorded live and has been edited for clarity.
Editor’s note: This article will be updated with a transcript at a future date.