Will James Stokes is a man with no shortage of adamantly bold and polarizing opinions that are simultaneously riddled with gray areas.

The Bronzeville native is a self-proclaimed “urban monk” who proselytizes about the bastardization of gospel and the lack of spirituality while preaching against traditional Christianity and its injustices against marginalized identities. This is a man who claims to be married to his native city of Chicago but laments her promiscuity, using language that shames her for “whoring herself out” to the music industry.

KEV_0496LStokes, more commonly known by his stage name, Sir The Baptist, has the stance of a preacher. This is unsurprising, considering the nature of his music. Since his debut album PK (short for preacher’s kid) dropped late last year, he has had to explain his thoughts on Christianity, religion and where he as an artist fits within it all. Though songs like “Raise Hell” are heavy with church traditions and stylings, many of his lyrics are an unexpected contradiction to these tropes.

KEV_0684L“When I really experienced God, I was hotboxing in a Honda,” Stokes told me. “Most churches would probably ban me. [It] isn’t really the place to be for me. I’m a gospel artist because I think I’m gospel, but I’m really not because gospel music doesn’t really rock with me.”

KEV_0544LThis sentiment is reminiscent of his song “Almighty Dollar,” in which he references Creflo Dollar and the culture of monetizing religion that has become so rampant through megachurches around the U.S.

KEV_0818L“Religion has abused so many people psychologically and emotionally,” Stokes said. “I might just be the first one to be this blunt. Here’s the crazy part: you would think it’s just us, [but] there are Muslim girls who have on hijabs and are like, ‘I want to get the fuck out of this.’ There are Buddhists who are like, ‘Yo, my parents are tripping.’ I need to find God and experience it on my terms.”

KEV_0767LHis hands are clasped behind his back, emphasizing the gray robe that has now become his signature look. We are standing in the middle of the crowded State St., caught in the middle of Manifest at Columbia College. His alma mater’s annual student showcase — one that has become an early summer arts fest in its own right — lined him up as the headlining musical performance later that night.


However, when talking about his home city, there is a bitterness in Stokes’ tone.


“I can’t really think about Chicago,” Stokes says with the tone of a man talking about an ex. “All my songs are open letters to the city of Chicago, but I can’t focus on it. If I do, it’s going to break my spirit. It’s so focused on other music and filled with deception. There are a lot of artists here, and I’m the last thing they’re trying to hear. This city has been raped, the cultured has been stolen, whored out. Chicago is my wife, and I’m trying to marry her, but she’s still a whore right now. One day I hope to break that.”

KEV_0839LNonetheless, this is an epic homecoming for him. Only days prior to our conversation, he officially signed to Atlantic Records and was slated to appear on “Late Night with Seth Meyers” the upcoming week. This was to be immediately followed by his national college and music festival tour, culminating in a Lollapalooza performance in late July. He praises the work he’s done so far with Atlantic, crediting them for pushing him artistically.


“They’re crazy,” he says with a smile. “But they’re artists. They really know what they’re doing.”


Despite the heavy topics that are woven throughout his art, Stokes does an amazing job creating songs to get people moving, putting his love of music above everything else.

KEV_0622L“When I was working at Leo Burnett, I learned how to give that EDM, fast beat that gets you moving but makes you think about the lyrics,” Stokes explained. “You gotta have that Jay-Z appeal with those Nas lyrics. You gotta be able to blend those two and know how to market it.”


When prompted about his favorite musicians and inspirations, Stokes claimed he has a bone to pick with several Chicago artists, namely Kanye West’s use of gospel influences in “The Life of Pablo.”

KEV_0521L“Our sound in Gospel music is already so rich in culture that it’ll put chill bumps on you immediately,” Stokes said. “The choir, the chord changes — it’s in our blood and our history. We do it so well. He robbed that. He didn’t contribute to our culture. I still like him as an artist, I would still like to meet him, but his album is toying with something that needs more attention.”


So who are the artists Stokes believes “contribute to the culture”?


“I grew up on Musiq Soulchild,” he said laughing. “I used to use his lines to holler at chicks on the phone.” He also cited Billy Branch and Twista, both of whom are featured on the new album.

KEV_0593LOur conversation was full of ambiguous ideas, and I find it hard to know where Stokes stands in terms of anything. However, there is a part of me — the millennial, post-recession, product of a hyper-religious upbringing who is now a liberally practicing Muslim part of me — that understands his central message. Ultimately, there is no black and white in anything, certainly not in something so complex and longstanding as religion. This is perhaps why his message — and more importantly, his art — is being widely embraced by young music lovers nationwide.

Look out for Sir The Baptist at music festivals across the country. Witness him blow up by following him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram as well as by listening to him on Soundcloud, Spotify and iTunes.


Mooni Salam