Hip-hop hits spiritual chords
LOS ANGELES, United States — Be cool. Be religious. Yes, you can watch MTV and still have morals.
Some music professionals in Los Angeles - all of them Baha'is and all knee-deep or more in the entertainment industry - have come out with what one recording artist terms a "straight-up Baha'i album."
The group calls itself the Dawnbreaker Collective, the album is named "Arise," and the music is, well, cool.
Rap, rock, funk, R&B, spoken-word - all are represented.
"Come talk with Me, speak heavenly, remember Me, O son of Spirit," sings Tara Ellis on one of the hip-hop tracks. She has recorded with rap star Eve and with Will.i.am of Black Eyed Peas fame, and is unapologetic about her current contribution to a religious record.
"This was an incredible project to part of," she says. "It's different to the stuff that most of us do because this is a straight-up Baha'i album. It's us being Baha'is and doing what we love. ...
"It's the sound of our times but in a good way."
Benny Cassette - he's a hip-hopper and producer who has worked with Mos Def, Willie Nelson, Eve, and Akon, and is slated to release a solo album on Universal Records - says the idea is to talk religion with young people in a language they understand.
He and the other artists - 17 of them altogether - wanted to "create something that Baha'i kids can listen to as easily as they listen to some of the other popular music out there."
"You know," he says, "they look up to the people they see on MTV and things. So what we are trying to do with this album is show them that there are people who work with the MTVs of the world but still hold to our values - which they can do, too."
Hundreds of Web messages from the U.S. and around the world suggest that Benny and company are on the right track.
"I just discovered your music," writes a woman named Sandra from Cameroon. "Really, I didn't imagine rap could be so inspiring."
From Dorina in Germany: "I like this special new style of performing Baha'i themes. Do you know what important work you are doing?"
Part of the album's new style is the way sacred scripture is used.
"This album has introduced the world to a different way of treating the (Baha'i) writings," says Vahid Brooks, one the featured artists. "We are not being disrespectful or anything. All we are doing is using the writings in a language that makes sense to us and the people we live with."
Benny Cassette says that although the album is inspired by the Baha'i Faith, "we are trying to make music for the world. ... Ultimately we want to create a doorway for people to access the Faith."
The songs on "Arise" are not really scripture set to music, explains Jamie Lewis, manager of the Dawnbreaker Collective.
"It's more a vibe or a feeling," he says. "The album was created by the artists praying and deepening together and then going off and writing the songs."
Love for their religion is what led the artists to make the album, adds Benny.
"I can remember thinking to myself that I will not be happy having any song on this album that I couldn't see myself sitting down and listening to with 'Abdu'l-Baha," he says. 'Abdu'l-Baha was the son of the founder of the Baha'i Faith, and Baha'is look to him as the best example of how to live.
"The arts are extremely powerful," says Michael Mathenge, a member of the Dawnbreaker Collective who goes by the name Mathai. "They can inspire, and they can motivate anyone if they are used in the right way. This is what we are trying to do."
The artists who created "Arise" - in addition to Benny Cassette, Tara Ellis, Vahid Brooks, and Mathai ("Solomon Coal") - include Andy Grammer, Robert "Iodine" Sinclair, Jamal "J-Bird" DeGruy, Ruth Foreman, Rey "Rey Loo" Luna, and Jason "Matu" Greene. Also contributing were Jamey Heath, Deep Red, Rance, Dorothy Dixon, Devon Gundry, Fondi Dixon, and John Barnes the Third. Oscar DeGruy makes a guest appearance, and Allison Anastasio designed the album cover.
The album can be purchased online at http://www.dawnbreakercollective.com/ and through iTunes, and it is increasingly available internationally at outlets where Baha'i books and materials are sold.