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Interview: Are rap and religion compatible?

FIERY: Kiing Koko

WHAT DOES faith mean to you? For 32-year-old rapper Kiing Koko, it’s having a strong relationship with God through all adversities and tragedies in life.

The San Francisco-born rapper has faced a few testing times in his life, from almost dying at birth due to his umbilical cord becoming wrapped around his neck, to being kicked out of his church at aged 17, to turning to drugs, and tragically losing his three-year-old son.

With these hardships came an even stronger relationship with God – a strength that saw him return to the music industry last October and the release of his single Lukewarm – a catchy, hard hitting track where Koko displays his desire to exceed expectations in the name of Jesus.

Lukewarm came about from two writers who sent me the track, and I was really feeling the music, but I didn’t know where I was going with the song lyrically,” says the rapper.

“So I prayed about it, I went to sleep, and after I did my devotional one day, the words came to me: ‘I just don’t want to be lukewarm’. The lyrics and the melodies came by themselves – it was a true gift.”

Koko started his musical journey at the age of 13, after being inspired by his father who was a musician. He recalls:

“My dad was signed to Island Records, and released a jazz hip-hop project.

“I grew up around all this instrumentation and through that, I learned how to engineer and produce records. By the time I was 13 I was able to write my own record.”

While Koko’s musical talents were evident, it took a while before he decided to embark on his musical career, as he faced different hurdles in his life. The gospel MC says:

“I didn’t focus on music in my youth, and I really went through life instead.

“Christ came into my life at a later date, and it wasn’t until recently that I was able to fuse my love of Christ into my music.”

In today’s music industry, the rise of Christian hip-hop has gathered momentum, from the success of Chance The Rapper’s Colouring Book to the gospel influences on Stormzy’s Gang Signs And Prayer. This influx of mainstream gospel rap is something that Koko is happy to embrace and wants to continue to bring the genre forward. He says:

“Gospel music used to be a lot stricter and more confined, but now you can be a lot more colourful with how you display your love of God, which is great,” he says.

“What I always want to do is break down those church walls and make Christ available to all, regardless of your lifestyle.

“I am hear to break down those stereotypes of what people want to put on Christ.

“He did not come here with stipulations – he came here to love, and show us unconditional love so that we can love people the same way, and I don’t feel like that message is being brought to the forefront.”

Koko’s free-thinking approach to Christianity was something that his church struggled with, resulting in him being banned from their congregation – an act that didn’t deter Koko’s faith.

“It didn’t waver my love of Christ, but what it did open my eyes to is that even Christians are crazy,” he says.

“I knew I wasn’t wrong, and that I was living my truth.

“I was doing missionary work at 15 years-old on the streets of San Francisco and I was teaching about Christ.

“So He has always been there in my life, through different stages – and now I’m here.”

Koko is in the UK promoting his aforementioned single, Lukewarm and working on his upcoming project. The innovative rapper says he has numerous influences as a result of moving around throughout the years.

“I did all styles of music, from pop music, which is very big in California, to moving to Atlanta and getting into rap, hip-hop and country music.

“Even being here, I’ve really been impressed by grime.”

The California native even said he fancied his hand at the genre.

“I want to try my style with that, and I want to work with British producers. I don’t want to appropriate it and make it me – I want to get the authentic sound and learn.”

Despite the different sounds and influences that Kiing Koko is interested in, his message remands the same.

“The message is always the focal point, but I want to bring a secular mentality to Christianity,” says Koko.

“I envision there being a club with no alcohol, with everyone at 11pm listening to Christian music. That’s the vision I see, and that’s what I’m trying to provide for the people – a diverse, alternative sound to gospel music that still retains a clear message."

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