The rhythms of hip hop spin across the stage. The young people of the Salvation Army's Kansas/Western Missouri Division, at their annual Youth Camp, have been given instructions. Split into two groups, they are working hard to create verses for a hip hop song. It's a good beat.
It's time for the performance to begin. "Get Christ! Get life!" says one group. The other responds: "Huh? What?" Back and forth, the groups toss lyrics like hot potatoes. Then one guy sings a verse about survival and salvation. The audience catches the beat and sways to the music. The message can't be missed. As the track comes to an end, the group roars with joy.
The exercise is everything Shomari Tillman, head of MilLion Tracks Productions, Inc., had hoped it would be. Earlier, he had modeled hip hop for the kids. He spat lyrics in a barrage fired so quickly that the untrained ear could easily miss the message. Assonance, alliteration, and rhyme all jockeyed for attention. But the young people got it.
Shomari loves the interaction that takes place between artist and audience. But to him, this is more than entertainment. It is more than art. Shomari is one of an emerging group of "holy hip hop" musicians. He's following a trail blazed by well-known recording artists such as The Cross Movement, Flame, Da Truth, T-Bone, and Grits.
A talented musician, performer, and emcee, Shomari lays an indelible foundation for a unique sound by doing all of his own instrumentation, composition, and lyrics—and through MilLion Tracks, he helps other artists produce their projects. Shomari sees his work as ministry; it is his calling.
The hip hop invasion
Hip hop has invaded every segment of society—you can't miss it in movies, on the radio, in TV commercials—and people of many cultural and ethnic backgrounds are embracing it. But in recent years, because hip hop has become associated with a specific kind of rap called gangsta rap—promoting sexual promiscuity, violence, misogyny, and drug abuse—
it has often been given a bad rap, especially in Christian circles.
"It's being pushed on the culture," says Shomari. "There used to be more artistry."
Hip hop, when it began in the 70s, came through the African-American community as a way of telling a story in a unique way. Says Shomari, "Now it's about the dollar, and [rappers] can say anything and do anything as long as it sells."
But Shomari maintains that hip hop or rap music, just like rock or alternative music, isn't inherently evil. Sounding like Salvation Army founder William Booth, who said, "Why should the devil have all the best tunes?" Shomari says that this form of music can be used by God.
"Christ has the ability to take people and musical styles and do good things with them," he says. And by using hip hop to deliver his Gospel message, Shomari has an opportunity to reach an audience who won't listen to much else besides hip hop.
"My intent is to lead people to the Cross, to reflect Christ, and to show others what He did." He has even incorporated one of the names of Jesus into his company name. The "Lion" of MilLion Tracks is the "Lion of Judah." Shomari's vision for MilLion Tracks is that it become a production studio serving Christian artists throughout the Midwest.
Buffet of beginnings
When he was very young, in Kansas City, Kan., Shomari began tapping out rhythms and tunes on his drum machine and piano. He was nurtured on a buffet of musical styles that included an ensemble in which his father played bass guitar and sang with a group of friends; hymns of the Church; rap he listened to on an eight-track player; and the tunes of Kansas city up-and-coming rap artists he heard on the radio. As the "break dancing" era wound down, hip hop began to emerge, and it grabbed Shomari's interest.
"I loved the music," says Shomari, now 30. "It was upbeat, and the rhythms were captivating." He says the songs in those days didn't have controversial lyrics but told stories. "As a kid growing up in the inner city, I could identify with the life stories in the songs. I realized that I wasn't the only one having these experiences."
Shomari's musical interests grew to include playing the drums in church, and eventually to the viola, which he played in the Rag Town South High School orchestra. He speaks with pride about holding first chair in his junior and senior years, and the "excellent" ratings he won at state competitions.
After high school, he landed a full academic scholarship in electrical engineering with the University of Missouri at Rolla, Mo., and graduated with a bachelor's degree. Soon afterward, Shomari took a job in information technology. But his life was about to skid out of control.
Not defined by poor choices
As a teen, Shomari had given in to "temptation to try something new" by using drugs. That first choice, he says, "led to a desire to use drugs more often.... It became an addiction; I had to have some sort of drug every day, or the day would not feel 'normal.' Stephanie, now his wife, fell into the same pattern. Says Shomari, "In time, these choices led my family and me to become homeless. It was only by God's grace that we were able to recover...."
After the Tillmans were evicted from their apartment in Mission, Kan., they had no place to go. But they heard that in nearby Olathe, the Salvation Army had a Family Emergency Lodge, where they could find shelter and help to get back on their feet.
"It was a scary and life-changing experience," says Shomari of those first days. "We did not know what to expect. But they embraced us at the Army. The love was great."
He and Stephanie had time to reflect on how their lifestyle choices were affecting their children, Desir?e and Isaiah, now 7 and 6.
"What kind of direction are we giving them?" they asked themselves.
All the answers didn't come at once, but they made some new choices that helped them find their way. While at the lodge, Shomari and Stephanie began to attend church, and both made decisions to follow Christ. The truths of the Gospel that Shomari had heard as a boy became a reality.
"I was raised in the Church," he says. "I heard the Word [the Bible], but it didn't sink in until I got out on my own. Then I began to understand some things."
Shomari eventually came to understand that he didn't need to be defined by a series of poor choices. His love of music provided the vehicle for expressing the change that Christ had brought into his life. The experience also left the couple with a passion for young people and for people going through life struggles like the ones they had faced.
Not to be taken lightly
It's been just four years since the Tillmans' turnaround, and their life has changed radically. Now, Shomari works as an information technology consultant and devotes time to his music ministry. Stephanie has found work with the national Homelessness & the Power of One project. (See sidebar.)
For the past two years, Shomari has reached young people by performing at Salvation Army youth camps. He also serves as a backup drummer for the praise band at the Salvation Army's Olathe, Kan., Corps (his church).
Attend one of Shomari's performances, and he promises that you'll have fun. You may even find yourself on your feet, clapping and dancing! But you'll be sure to get a clear message from Shomari's hip hop music. He'll leave you with something to think about, something you'll be invited to make a decision about.
"I don't take the things of Christ lightly," says Shomari, "because I'm accountable."
Shomari's nationally released tracks can be heard on his website at www.milliontracksproductions.com. And look for his solo work in the near future.