"how long o lord, how long will you forget me? Forever? Forever?"
The opening lyrics of “I Don’t Know,” from Trip Lee’s latest mixtape, The Waiting Room, might sound familiar. Feeling burdened to write songs expressing lament, the hip-hop artist turned to the psalms for inspiration.
“A lot of what we think of as Christian music doesn’t have a whole lot of lament in it. You would almost think the fall never happened,” he says. “But then you read Psalms, and most of it is lament. There’s this deep honesty with how difficult life is.”
Lee doesn’t hesitate to address life’s difficulties in his lyrics—or to use Scripture to shed light on them. It’s not his only outlet for doing so. While Lee is most well-known as a hip-hop artist, he spends his Sunday mornings teaching the Bible at Cornerstone Church in Atlanta. In his different roles, Lee aims to show the goodness of God and the hope of the gospel in the midst of life’s difficulties.
Voicing the truth
Lee grew up in an environment rich in music. While his father passed along a love of most musical genres, he was concerned with the content of hip-hop and regularly confiscated Lee’s albums. Lee’s love for hip-hop endured, and by age 12 he was writing lyrics and rapping with his friends during school lunch breaks.
After coming to faith as a teenager, he started a rap group with kids from other churches; when he was 15, he met acclaimed hip-hop artist Lecrae, who became his mentor. Lee released his first album, If They Only Knew (2006), shortly after graduating high school. He has made five albums since then, with Rise (2014) debuting at number 2 on the Billboard rap chart and number 16 on the Billboard 200.
His latest project, The Waiting Room, gives voice to pain, grief, and frustration. Lee has found that songs expressing lament connect deeply with his audience. “I hear from people who are going through hard things that it’s helpful to hear an expression of it,” he says. “It gives them hope; it lets them know they’re not alone.”
Lee is not surprised to hear this. “Music connects with your emotions in a unique way. It has access to the whole person. Melodies grab our emotions and almost teach us how to feel about the content. That’s part of why we sing songs together in church—we can rejoice in a truth because there are melodies, rhythms, and cadences put to that truth.”
In the song “Longer,” Lee depicts his battle with chronic fatigue syndrome, a disease he has struggled with for 10 years. “It’s the hardest part of every part of my life,” he says. “There’s this non-verbalized attitude of ‘I know God says he works all things for my good, but this is not for my good. This is a hindrance to good.’ And I begin to treat my trial as something that’s outside of his sovereignty, as opposed to understanding that all trials are not only for my good, but also from God.”
“IDK” (“I Don’t Know”) might be the most confrontational song on The Waiting Room. Drawing from Psalm 13, Lee expresses grief over the death of his friend’s son and racially motivated shootings—but that grief seems to be answered only by silence.
“We’ve all been at this place where we think things like, ‘God, it’s hard to reconcile your goodness with what I’m going through right now,’ ” Lee says. “I want people to contemplate what it looks like to bring our complaints before God—what it looks like to doubt him, but to strive to wrestle with him and see what it looks like to trust him during those hard times.”
The mixtape ends on a high note with “Billion Years”:
A billion years ahead
This old world will be nothing
There’s a joy that’s coming like
And nothing that we left
Will compare to this new song.
While Lee wants to express honesty and lament, he wants his music to reflect the goodness of God. “In Psalm 142, David’s like, ‘No one is concerned for me, I have no refuge; no one cares for my life.’ But then he says, ‘You are my refuge.’ There’s an understanding that life is really hard, but God is really good. I want that truth to be seen in my music.”
Clarity and boldness
Although Lee’s desire to be a pastor developed after his music career had taken off, preaching has never been a backup plan. “I didn’t want to keep doing music until I was too old to be cool, and only then I would start preaching and teaching some,” he explains. “My passion for both music and preaching is strong.”
He credits his desire to preach to the mentors who helped him understand Scripture. “I realized early on as a Christian that I had this strong desire—whenever I learn something about God or about life—to teach it to other people.”
After graduating from Bible college, Lee interned at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., under pastor Mark Dever, and then moved with his family to Atlanta, where he serves as teaching pastor at Cornerstone.
While Lee has preached in a variety of settings, he prefers to focus on the goals, rather than the challenges, of preaching the word. “I might preach a sermon a little differently in D.C. than I would in Atlanta; I’m addressing a different demographic of people with different problems and burdens,” he says. “But there’s this simplicity that I wish we’d focus on and pass through our ministry and church planting. There are very basic things God has called us to do. We’re preaching the same word with the same hope.”
While much of the creative craft that goes into writing songs is present in writing sermons, Lee’s priority is to make Scripture as clear as possible. “I want to understand something so well that I can explain it to an 8-year-old,” he says. “I want to say something that you’ve heard before, but in a way that makes it more plain. I want to say something from a new angle so it hits your heart a new way. And then I have nothing new to say. Everything good to say is right there in God’s word.”
At the same time, Lee recognizes—and finds peace in—the limits of his calling as a preacher. “I can’t change hearts. I don’t go to sleep with the weight of the world on my shoulders. I don’t go into a counseling meeting or go to the pulpit thinking, ‘I have to make sure I say this the right way or hearts won’t be changed.’ My goal is to present God’s word as clearly and as boldly as I can, and then pray that the Holy Spirit will use that in people’s hearts.”
Pursuing unity in Christ
As a pastor and hip-hop artist, Lee has brought attention to race relations—particularly racial reconciliation. He struggles with the apathy he often encounters in the church toward racial issues.
“There are unique things about the black experience that are hard to understand if you haven’t lived it. And it is painful when white brothers and sisters won’t believe that’s the case,” he says. “I have friends who were shocked to hear I’ve had a cop run up on me, put a gun in my face, and handcuff me for assuming I was a suspect who looked nothing like me. I’ve been kicked out of stores because people assumed I had a gun on me. I had a dude tell me my sister was kind of pretty for a black girl. … When you’ve had this never-ending cycle of these experiences, and every black man you know has had them, it’s hard to see them as random occurrences.”
The disconnect among different people’s experiences can affect unity in the church, even amid attempts to be multiethnic. “I think sometimes we believe we’ve achieved the goal of racial reconciliation if we just get people in the same building,” Lee says. “But there’s that spin Scripture has given us for our relationships—love one another, bear one another’s burdens, rejoice with one another, weep with one another. And that includes sharing lives with one another around who Christ is; that includes knowing what others’ burdens are. If we do not listen to each other, we cannot faithfully obey Jesus’ command to love one another.”
Lee encourages Christians to seek deep, loving relationships with people who aren’t like them. “When I spend time with people who are different from me and have different experiences, there’s a lot I can learn,” he says. “By listening, and asking God to help us see clearly and grow, we can better understand each other. And it gives us space to actually love each other.”
Lee takes comfort in knowing that Scripture wrestles with the challenge of overcoming ethnic differences. He points to Ephesians as a picture of what unity looks like, even though divisions may seem daunting: “Ephesians 2 talks about us being dead in our sins but raised from the grave. Jesus has removed that barrier between Jew and Gentile. Then in Ephesians 3, Paul is talking about this great mystery—that God is saving both Jew and Gentile and putting them into the same family. Ephesians 4 says there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one Spirit.”
“We are united. The same Holy Spirit of God dwells inside of us. We’ll be spending eternity in the same place. We believe in the same Jesus, we’ve been baptized, and we represent the same reality that’s happened in our souls. There’s so much more that we have in common than we have different from one another—the unity that Jesus has already purchased and achieved. And he has called us to be eager to maintain that unity of the Spirit and fight for it to be seen in our daily lives.”
Lee knows that difficult issues, like racial reconciliation, ultimately need the influence and power of the Holy Spirit. It’s this realization that helps him do his work as a rapper and pastor and trust God for the rest.
“There’s a lot of burden and difficulty and grief,” he says, “but at the end of the day, God has given me all the tools I need to do my part.”