Bronzeville runs through the veins of Sir the Baptist — a preacher’s kid who has deep roots in the church and is grounded in music. William James Stokes is the son of the legendary Dr. James Benton, founding pastor of Bright Star Baptist Church, a longtime stable on the South Side of Chicago.
His unique musical style fusing gospel, hip hop, soul and jazz has taken him on the road, entertaining thousands of festival attendees with over 2 million plays on Spotify and Tidal. His single, “Raise Hell,” was released in 2015 and has raised many eyebrows, as his non-traditional approach to testifying through his music pulls no punches with an occasional ‘f’ bomb thrown in for added measure.
The father of two said he’s not afraid of rattling the saints as long as his message is impactful and honest.
“To go back to Thomas Dorsey, I remember in a documentary — he said he couldn’t get his music into the churches because he had this sound that was influenced by blues and jazz. We don’t want you to bring that in the church. I had a similar pushback, ‘What is this? Why are you bringing this hip hop progressiveness into the church?’,” he said. “I feel like it’s needed, not only needed for gospel but church period is becoming irrelevant to the next generation.”
The music scene in Chicago has cultivated a breeding ground of young artists making noise across various genres of hip hop from drill, trap, conscious and organic soul — it all stems from the influence of Black musicians and artists.
Stokes recognizes the history and although his peers may not be aware of the musical shoulders they stand on, part of his mission is to educate his generation on this very point.
Performing at festivals such as Bonnaroo, his 20-festival run in the next three months is mind-boggling and he carries these influences from home wherever he travels. He looks forward to hitting the stage in his backyard at this year’s Lollapalooza.
“It felt like I was getting this crazy opportunity like Jay-Z giving me a hat or performing for the biggest crowds —having people go crazy over this Bronzeville sound. I’m able to take this migration music to be able to spread the culture around. The people go crazy at whatever festival,” he said.
“Jazz is my original love because I was in love with the era my dad come from, the swing era.”
Does a Lot of Festivals
He said traveling to various festivals with faces from different races staring back at him, forces them to see a part of what he’s studied from the legendary greats.
“I just love to incorporate all of this stuff. Just bringing the Coltrane connection to show that you don’t have to be a rebel in this way, you can still connect to various liberties you have or somebody before you. It’s healthy — as artists.”
His manager, Jay Cohen, says it was a no-brainer when he first heard Stokes’ music and thought it would take at least two to three years to gradually work the project.
“It was the opposite. It’s a benefit because it can go several different ways — he can go on a pop tour, it can go on something more hip hop — there are different lanes. It can’t go strictly gospel but there’s different ways where the fans can grasp onto it and understand it,” said Cohen. “In a music industry where it’s so much of the same, each one of those different markets seems to grasp the different parts and appreciate it.”
With his and his family’s commitment to community work, Stokes lives in the shadows of the city’s daily violence and the ripple effects of its damage to young lives. He admits, the voices of the new generation have brought fresh faces to the streets in the wake of police misconduct cases in Chicago, but more has to be done.
“I’m really connected to the deeper question. It leads itself to more questions, it ultimately comes down to ‘Do I feel like police brutality is a problem?’ I feel like we have some work to do. Before we can tackle this the way we want to, we got to do more work — we have to look at ourselves and we have to look at America.”
The Atlantic Recording artist is planning to spend time over the summer in the Deep South, exploring the Gulf areas in Mississippi and Alabama, connecting more with his father’s family. Having recently collaborated with Tony Bennett’s composer Lee Musiker and his hit single, “Raise Hell” is the title song for the upcoming feature film — Birth of A Nation.
He continues to release singles such as “Wake Up” and “Creflo Almighty Dollar” as he prepares for the anticipated full-length of PK: Preacher’s Kid.
No matter how critics of his music categorize, Sir the Baptist’s mission circles back to his family.
“I think fatherhood is so important. The only way to contribute to that outside of my family is what my dad did for me. He took the walls out of mind and let me go. That’s why I’m in this robe right now, reflecting my dad but in my own way,” Stokes reflects. “I hope my kids can do that and I hope to contribute to the fatherhood in my community. I have to do it justice.”
Check out a video clip from the interview with The Chicago Defender: