Andy Mineo was ten, maybe eleven years old, dead tired, laying out on the pieces of cardboard he and his best friend Ryan had spent the last few hours breakdancing on. As they recovered, the instrumental version of a song came on the boombox — they would buy CD singles with a dirty, clean and instrumental version of a track for $3.99 because, as kids, they couldn’t afford to shell out $15.99 for the full album. They decided to rap to the song. The two started writing down rhymes on the cardboard beneath them.
Shortly afterwards, Ryan bought a computer microphone and a program called Cool Edit, and the boys started recording themselves. Andy, now a twenty-six-year-old touring hip-hop artist, remembers the moment with Ryan in their hometown of Syracuse, New York, when he first heard himself on the beat they recorded, as the moment he fell in love with rapping.
* * *
This is art, it don’t have a religion, they try to pigeon-hole me / Say I’m too holy to show face…
Andy Mineo’s not a typical rapper, in part because he’s a devout Christian. He’s not a huge fan of the “Christian rapper” label for a few reasons. One, he says it keeps people who aren’t Christians from listening to his music, and that’s the last thing he wants to do. “I’m trying to reach people who aren’t Christians and encourage those who are,” he asserts. And two, Mineo says the label is limiting because a lot of people associate “Christian rap” with a bygone era of music that sounds “dated and old and crusty,” as he puts it, and they have written it off. Still, a few rap pioneers influenced him, artists like The Ambassador, Da’ T.R.U.T.H. and Corey Red, who showed Mineo he could be a Christian and love hip-hop. But he doesn’t like that people have a tendency to paint him as a one-trick pony — “Jesus rap star Andy Mineo” — rather than seeing him as an artist who also happens to be a Christian.
“I think if people give the music a fair chance, then there’s real opportunity for them to eventually get the message, get what I’m trying to say,” Mineo says as he walks his bike up St. Nicholas Avenue and back to his apartment in Upper Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood. “Excellence is the best marketing tool, and I know my music is excellent. So if people listen to it and just objectively they can enjoy it and say, ‘Wow, I like this. This is good,’ then they’ll have the opportunity to soak in the content and say, ‘Oh, he has a different perspective.’”
Listening to Mineo’s music, it doesn’t take more than a few verses to realize what perspective he’s representing. His songs explicitly mention God, the cross and grace — the Christian narrative. His track “Superhuman” begins with an eerie rendition of the eighteenth-century hymn “Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy” and “The Saints” is a heavy, militarized anthem that plays on Louis Armstrong’s classic gospel song. His isn’t the worship music played in churches, but an expression of how he lives life as a Christian, something largely missing from hip-hop.
“I want to offer a perspective in music that isn’t shared often but I think needs to be,” Mineo says. He doesn’t want to see girls growing up to believe all they can be are strippers and video vixens — and he wants guys to know there are other options than selling drugs and joining a gang. “I want to change the way people see Christians,” he says. “I’ve found hope in my life and I want other people to be able to find hope through my music.”
Though he’s been gaining popularity, with hundreds of thousands of views on multiple YouTube videos, Mineo still doesn’t get much radio play. The family-friendly Christian stations won’t play his (or any) rap. “It has nothing to do with the music or the movements or what’s gonna change peoples lives,” Mineo says. “It has more to do with, ‘What’s gonna make us money? What’s safe?’ Christian music is just notorious for not being innovative.”
Rap hasn’t been able to shake its stigma in some of the more conservative circles that Mineo’s music has reached. To many, the pounding beats and fast lyrics still signal that the music can’t be good, that it can’t glorify God, because rap is about money, sex, and drugs. In response to opposition to his art form within the Christian community, Mineo’s advice is to not throw out the baby with the bathwater.
“Hip-hop itself is not evil, it’s just been the way that we’ve decided to use it,” Mineo says. “But that’s why we’re here, to try to shift the culture, to try to change it, to redeem a good art form that God has created and allowed us to use. So, we’re just gonna inject our truth in it.”
Christians who use rap as an art form to reach people with the gospel have been critiqued for engaging too much with the less savory aspects of secular culture, most notably at an evangelical conference last year, during which a panelist called Christian hip-hop artists “disobedient cowards.” (He later apologized.) Mineo’s track “Wild Things” addresses such arguments, with lyrics like, “I’ve chosen this lifestyle, you ever met my friends? Porn stars, dope dealers, they like, ‘Why you chill with them? I thought you was a Christian? Yeah, I’m on that team, but I’m with them cause my life’s the only Bible that they’ve ever seen.’”
And yet, Mineo is too clean for the mainstream, another obstacle he addresses in his rhymes — “Throw my faith in rap, but they say don’t say that, huh?” That leaves him caught in the middle: too racy for some, not racy enough for others.
Jeremy Castro, an artist and repertoire manager at Sony’s RCA Records — and also the CEO of the popular prayer walk “God Belongs In My City” and its musical wing, In My City Records — says the mainstream radio has ignored so-called Christian rap because for a long time it was by-and-large corny and subpar. “Unfortunately for so long when you add the tag ‘Christian’ it just doesn’t speak well of excellence,” Castro says. “We were more copycats than shooting for excellence, and I don’t think that’s what God wants. I know that’s not biblical.” He also said the content creates an added challenge. “You’re talking about a very real music,” Castro says. “Music that’s speaking about the name of Jesus or the lifestyle of Christianity.”
* * *
They said I was a mac by the number of shorties that I could smash / Now I’m waiting on that matrimony…
Mineo was a rapper before he became a Christian. He grew up in a single-parent home with his mother, a Christian, praying for him and teaching him about Jesus. But he never connected with it — until the summer after he and Ryan first started recording beats, when he went to Christian summer camp, where his sister worked as a counselor. He was twelve, and says it was the first time he had a real encounter with God and started to understand the implications of the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus for his own life. But when he came home from camp, he ran into two problems: His friends didn’t understand his new faith, and he lacked the dense Christian community he’d enjoyed at camp. He says he struggled in his faith because he didn’t have any male role models to relate to, to invest in him and to help him grow in his relationship with Christ.
Mineo had been kicked out of public school in fifth grade for being a “hyperactive, loud, vulgar kid,” but his mom moved the family back to the inner city of Syracuse the summer he became a Christian so he could get out of the behavior modification programs and back into a public high school. Between rapping and captaining the football team, Mineo became popular. Out of his own convictions, he tried not to swear, tried to keep his lyrics a little cleaner. He recalls the tension in his life then as a tug-of-war between wanting to be integrated in the rap culture, where not everyone knew he was a Christian, and staying true to his beliefs. Still, he says, “it just made things harder for me to deny, to turn away from opportunities to indulge in a lifestyle that didn’t honor God.”
By that time, Mineo had built a recording studio in his basement and created an after school job for himself, charging grown men thirty dollars an hour for studio time. He also started a rap group in high school that did pretty well, and even put out a CD. “I won’t give you the name of that, so you can never find it,” he says, only half-joking.
That all changed when Mineo went to college at the City College of New York, far removed from the life he’d known in Syracuse. At CCNY, he met some guys who he says loved Jesus and hip-hop.
“It was like, ‘What? You guys exist? I thought I was an anomaly, the only one, you know?”
One of those guys was Alex Medina, now a Grammy-winning producer and Mineo’s close friend. They met in a music class, where Mineo saw Medina plugging away at his keyboard. Mineo asked him if he made beats; Medina said he made Christian rap and handed him a CD. Medina told Mineo about a performing arts evangelism ministry he was involved with called T.R.U.C.E. (To Reach Urban Communities Everywhere). The group went out into the streets of different neighborhoods to perform songs and theatre pieces and invite people to respond to the gospel message. Mineo began performing with them, and got his first chance to rap in front of a huge crowd — some 17,000 people at the Izod Center in New Jersey.
“That was the ministry that kind of helped me, helped my gifts flourish and my relationship with God grow,” Mineo says. “So, both are happening: musically growing, relationship with God is growing, and they’re fusing into this thing that I eventually ended up doing for a living, which was making the music of a movement, in a way.”
Medina, along with his longtime friend Rich Perez, also a CCNY student, became mentors to Mineo. The three are still very close. Medina works as an art director at Reach Records, the label Mineo signed with in 2011, and has produced a number of Mineo’s songs. Perez was featured on two of Mineo’s tracks, and a few years after they first met, the two started a church together.
* * *
Telling ‘em Christ became a curse for they sin with my words and my works / They won’t come in? I’m bringing church to them. Yeah, that’s why I live where I live…
Christ Crucified Fellowship started meeting in 2011 in the Manhattan neighborhood of Inwood, just north of where Mineo lives. It began with an email. Perez had moved up to Rochester with his wife, but he felt God calling him back home to start a church in Washington Heights, where he was born and raised. He felt the minority culture in which he grew up lacked solid theological teaching, but he wanted to capitalize on the charismatic nature of the culture. “I’m a minority. I love hip-hop, but I also love sound doctrine,” Perez says. “How do I bridge those two together? How do we marry them?”
So he emailed all of his closest friends: “Man, I think I’m going back home and I’m starting a church. Who’s with me?”
Mineo was the first to respond: “Bro, as soon as you get down here, I’m with it. Just keep me informed with what happens along the way.” And so it started: at first, a small group of people meeting in their homes for something akin to Bible studies. At one point, thirty people were meeting in Perez’s apartment, so the group broke into two and Mineo took over the second half. By the time the meetings expanded to three groups, the church decided to come together as one, meeting monthly until Easter of 2012, when they started holding weekly services at a boxing gym.
Mineo first lived in the Heights after he graduated from college. Perez and his wife took him into their apartment when he was momentarily homeless and jobless. Mineo took over their son’s room for about four months, and says he quickly fell in love with the largely Latino neighborhood. He looked for an apartment in the Heights so they could be local when the church was planted.
“We wanted to see life done in Washington Heights, so that it would not be just some place we go to for church, but we live amongst the people, around the people that we’re trying to affect,” Mineo says.
Perez has always served as the head pastor, but in the early stages Mineo had a formal leadership role and would occasionally preach. When his music career started taking off, he stepped down from his former role. Still, he has an agreement with the leaders at Christ Crucified to be present three out of four Sundays each month, and this March he was installed as a deacon. Perez says the title would allow Mineo to travel, but still serve the pastors—“We said, ‘How can we give you responsibility to be faithful to the gifts that God has given you, but at the same time, not be unfaithful to the platform that he’s growing you in now?’” Perez says.
As his friend, colleague and pastor, Perez has always been a supporter of Mineo and his music. But his role has evolved into more of a consultant to Mineo, who will ask Perez to look over his lyrics to make sure they communicate their worldview. As a pastor, he also believes the Bible supports being involved in and studying different cultures. If you do that, he says, it makes sense to use hip-hop as a tool to bring people to the Gospel.
“Acts chapter 17 and Romans 14 give us room to use things as a tool to actually draw people to God,” Perez said. “Which is the ultimate purpose in anything that we do. Do all things to the glory of God.”
* * *
We been all around the world, me and the whole clique / Unashamed everywhere, they holla “116”…
Mineo’s first big break came when he was featured on a track by the most visible and best-selling Christian rapper yet, Lecrae. At the time he was featured on “Background,” Mineo was going by the stage name C-Lite, which he later dropped in favor of his birth name. Lecrae was the first hip-hop artist to win the Grammy for Best Gospel Album, for his 2012 project Gravity, which sold more than 100,000 copies in its first three weeks, besting popular mainstream rappers DMX, Rick Ross and Nas, all of whom put out albums around the same time.
Lecrae, who co-founded the Atlanta-based Christian hip-hop label Reach Records, first noticed Mineo thanks to a song of his called “In My City” that circulated online. Mineo wrote it after a friend introduced him to God Belongs in My City — which began in 2009 with some 1,500 youths walking from Battery Park and 110th Street to meet in Times Square, all the while publicly declaring their faith and praying for the city — and suggested that Mineo record an anthem for the movement and its founder, Park Slope pastor Danny Sanabria.
Since signing with Reach in 2011, Mineo’s been able to connect with increasingly larger audiences. His first studio album, “Heroes for Sale,” debuted at number two on iTunes’s Hip Hop/Rap charts when it dropped on April 16, 2013. It also hit number eleven on the Billboard Top 200, selling some 28,000 copies in the first week. He started out 2014 by releasing his EP NeverLand on January 28. That album was number one overall on iTunes for a few days and sold about 40,000 in its first month. He’s also finally getting mainstream attention — he was invited to drop some freestyle verses on MTV’s RapFix Live at the end of last year, and his “Uno Uno Seis” video aired on BET’S “106 & Park” in June. His first single “AYO!” now has more than 900,000 views on YouTube.
But Mineo’s not alone. He’s part of a global hip-hop collective known as 116 Clique, an initiative started by Lecrae and Reach Records. It’s a reference to the Bible verse Romans 1:16: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” It includes other artists like Trip Lee, KB and Tedashii, all of whom have been featured on each other’s albums. Mineo’s song “Uno Uno Seis” is an anthem for the movement, and he’s also featured on fellow Reach artist Trip Lee’s track “One Sixteen.”
“We’re not just some anomaly. There’s a movement of us. It’s not just me. There’s tons of us, and we’re selling more records than some of your favorite rappers,” Mineo, who has the 116 logo tattooed across his shoulders, says. “There’s thousands and thousands of people just like us around the world who are young, urban, desire a growing relationship with God and are into hip-hop.”
Castro said that the current crop of Christian artists, Mineo included, are finally bringing excellence to the table.
“They’ve done a wonderful job of really building a brand, for lack of a better word, that really highlights the gospel,” Castro says. “To encourage those to be unashamed about their faith.”
He attributes their success to two things in particular. First, they’re talking about what they’re for rather than what they’re against. They aren’t smacking people over the head, he says, but going out with the intention of loving people no matter what they’re involved in. On a related note, he says the music is speaking to a generation’s need for songs that help them get through daily, real-life challenges — breakups, divorce, absent fathers — by connecting them to God.
“This generation needs Andy Mineo’s ‘You Will,’” Castro said. “That’s their shout to the Lord, that’s their connection — I know you will. Even when they say you won’t, I know you will. That confidence to connect with God, that’s their shout to the Lord.”
* * *
I rep that Wash Heights like all day, this unashamed life cost me / I try to walk that narrow path, but your boy live off of Broadway…
On a crisp afternoon last fall, Mineo was sitting on the metal bleachers at the basketball courts on West 140th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue in Harlem. When he’s not on the road, he’ll sometimes come here, three stops south on the A train from his own apartment in the Heights, to play pick-up basketball games with friends, including his pastor, Perez. He was wearing City College of New York gym shorts, a gray GR8FL hoodie and brightly colored Nike basketball sneakers. His brown hair was styled into a hipster cut, tighter on the sides, longer on top, though he often covers it with a beanie or snapback — usually a black one decorated with “Uptown” or “Wash Heights” script. He sported a full but clean beard and wore small, black gauges in his ears. Noticeably absent that day were the plastic, rectangular glasses he often wears.
Mineo describes his music as aggressive and lyrical, with pop sensibilities. It’s eclectic and trans-cultural. He lived in Harlem for a while in college, which inspired the underground hip-hop feel in some of his music. He’s a fan of R&B, so that infiltrates his tunes, and they also have a Latin influence, since he’s the white boy in his largely Dominican neighborhood. Every now and then, he’ll throw a little Spanglish into his raps.
When it comes to the content of Mineo’s music, it has evolved along with his faith.
Earlier in his career, “I’d be like, ‘Yo, John 5, x, y.’ It was just rapping scriptures. I think I did that early on because that’s all I was consuming. I was just consuming Bible. I was consuming scripture. I was consuming theology. But I hadn’t had enough time to live it out. So all I was rapping about was what I was learning,” Mineo says. “Now, I’ve had time to have life experience and see how the scripture and how my theology actually looks in real life. And so I want my music to communicate my experiences from a Christian worldview.”
Like mainstream rap, Mineo’s music is full of clever rhymes — “Being from New York, oh it can have its pros and its Con Edison’s bills high like they smoking.” Mineo mixes biblical with pop culture references — “Fishers of men so I stay looking, casting Nets like I’m straight Brooklyn.” He’s often compared to Drake, in part because of his melodies and his vocal presence on some tracks. On Never Land, Mineo allowed himself space to be a little goofy, particularly with “Paisano’s Wylin’,” a parody of mainstream rap that has lines like “Say I won’t rock Fubu, sucka. I don’t do what you do, sucka. Waka Flocka Waka Waka. Westside like I’m 2Pac-a.”
Chad Horton, co-owner of the Christian hip-hop website Rapzilla.com, said Mineo is a genuine hip-hop artist who happens to be a Christian. “Lyrically and skill-wise, he could stand up with a lot of the best hip-hop artists out there,” Horton said. “He’s doing what they do, only better, and he’s just spitting the raw, uncut truth: God’s word, lyrically.”
The overall theme of Mineo’s music is calling upon God to help him with real-life issues like his bitterness toward an absent father or the struggle to remain pure amid sexual temptations. On “Superhuman” he pledges his willingness to be open about his own sins and shortcomings: “Instead of looking for them sundresses I should be looking for the Son I confess it.”
“What I try to do in my music is show my own frailty, my own weakness and the hope that I find in Jesus, ultimately,” Mineo says. “I just try to be humble and real around people when I can, and even be O.K. with sharing my failures.”
Mineo says he is comforted by the belief that there is a God who knows him and all his sins, but still loves and accepts him. His willingness to speak his mind has impacted kids all over the world. More than a few have written to him or run up after shows to say his music stopped them from committing suicide or led them to deepen their relationship with God.
“I’m out in the world just living life and the music is moving around, in peoples’ speakers, in their stereo systems, in their cars, and I’m completely unaware of what’s happening and the effects that it’s having,” Mineo said.
“As we speak, right now, someone is listening to my music somewhere in the world and being rocked by it.”