Dressed in white, he bolts across the stage like a televangelist under the grip of God. A graphic of zombie Jesus adorns the back of his long robe.
“Imma raise hell until I reach heaven’s door!” he shouts. A church choir dressed in all black echoes the message deep into Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park.
It’s Sunday afternoon and the final day of Shaky Beats Music Festival. Church has already let out, but Sir the Baptist is just getting started. The gospel-rapper from Chicago performs first today and will be followed by a swath of DJs and EDM hitmakers.
Sir isn’t here to drop the bass, though. He won’t tell anyone to “put their fucking hands up” either.
He has a different gospel to preach.
“What I have a desire to do is put the spirit back in hip-hop, because we lost it,” the 28-year-old tells me after the set. “We only talk about craziness, we don’t really talk about our spirit and our soul and who we are.”
Sir explained that the first time we met a little over a year ago in Chicago. That’s when William Stokes’ name flashed across my phone and he picked me up in his Lyft. A struggling artist, he drove 12-hours each day and slept in his car at night.
Riding shotgun in his silver minivan, we discussed music and mixtapes and Stokes’ own aspirations as a recording artist. We talked about Sir the Baptist, the gospel spin he wanted to put on hip-hop and how Chance the Rapper just invited him into the studio for a session.
My experience wasn’t unique either. Stokes told dozens of riders about his pursuit. Riders like Scott Englert, a creative consultant working for the Grammys in Chicago. Englert met Sir after getting picked up from a work meeting one afternoon.
“He had his laptop like in the front seat,” Englert said. “He played [his music] and right away I was like ‘YO. This is hot, I’m feeling this.’”
The two stayed in touch and in just a few months Stokes was back on his feet and making music a full-time career.
Spirit and soul were all William Stokes knew growing up in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood. The son of a pastor, he was raised in a church where religion and spirituality and music consumed him. By age six he was playing piano.
“If somebody doesn’t show up, your Dad’s church isn’t going to happen,” Sir said. “You gotta learn when you’re young so that by the time you’re 10 or 11 you know how to play the piano and drums.”
That upbringing inspired “Raise Hell,” Sir’s breakout single that has already garnered over one million streams on Spotify.
Sir’s Impassioned songs about domestic violence, hedonsim and religious hypocrisy would eventually catch the eye of Michael Kyser. President of Urban Music at Atlantic Records, Kyser had faith in the “hip-hop preacher” and signed him to a record deal earlier this year.
Following the deal, Sir the Baptist and his ChuchPeople band made their national television debut on Late Night With Seth Myers and are gearing up for several months of festival dates that will take them from Sasquatch to Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza and Afropunk.
It’s a ride he may not be on without Lyft.
“Lyft did this,” Sir said. “I would say I was using Lyft as a tool, not just to get money, but to build friendship and family and community.”
Today, he estimates that nearly 75% of his team is comprised of people he met while driving and using the app.
That silver minivan still sits in a lot behind the festival too. Parked next to it is a shiny new sprinter large enough to carry Sir and his 30 disciples as they take audiences to church all summer long.