Author's note: I’m so excited to bring you my conversation with my friend Phillip Joubert. Phillip is a rapper out of New York and Connecticut, now a part of the Knoxville scene. A gifted, honest lyricist, he cherishes the humanity in others and is willing to look difficulty in the face, even and perhaps especially when the faith of which he is a part sometimes shies from those difficulties.
This written interview is edited for length. Please consider carving out some time to listen to the entire conversation. Phillip’s voice is one worth hearing.
PHILLIP: I consider Lupe Fiasco one of the best lyricists we’ve ever had in hip-hop, but he literally doesn’t make any sense sometimes. One of the best songs he ever released is called “Mural”—the kind of music that rappers implode over, just rapping straight for eight minutes. But most of what he’s saying—he has this way of, like, “I’m painting right now,” you know?
And for me, that is very hard, because I came up in Christian music, which is very direct. So, understanding could be creative in writing in general was still like, “Oh—we’re allowed to do that,” like every time we write, we’re not always trying to clearly communicate a message that you’re supposed to comprehend in the first listen. That was a journey in and of itself for me. Listening to Lupe taught me that; listening to OutKast taught me that.
ADAM: Did you grow up in Knoxville? I remember when we did a thing, you said you’d just moved to Knoxville—
PHILLIP: Well, yeah—I moved to Knoxville, it’ll be six years ago in September. I moved here from the Bronx, New York, but I was born and raised in Connecticut. The thing is, I was in and out of New York City the entirety of my life, pretty much.
ADAM: So, when you moved to the South, because there’s literally a totally different way of thinking down here, how did you feel like you had to transfer or change your writing to communicate with all these people who simply think this different way?
PHILLIP: I always say that I learned a lot of writing, and a lot of how to create and sound like me, in one of the best ways—which was just not having access to producing. I had no access to studio time or beats, like that, and I didn’t even think about what I do now and bands. So I just learned to hone it by myself. I was rapping for me, writing for me—learning to get my feelings out.
I started writing before I started rapping, but I was writing random, emotional, slightly Christian stuff, and then instrumental, orchestral stuff. ‘Cause I got real into that; I was beyond inspired by Hans Zimmer and the Pirates [of the Caribbean] soundtrack. That was my mp3 player—dating myself, right, with the 512 megabytes. My little forty songs used to be random OutKast, random Lupe Fiasco, a Talib Kweli record, whatever Kanye was doing early—that I knew about. And then it would be Panic at the Disco, Hans Zimmer stuff, “The Duel of the Fates,” some Daft Punk stuff from back in the day—with no words, you know? Then of course, because of the jazz influence from school, I was listening to Buddy Rich—all this different stuff. Richard Smallwood in the gospel world, Fred Hammond in the gospel world, Tonéx—Tonéx’s stuff was really ahead of its time. He was like the definition of avant-garde.
And when I came to Knoxville, I came here almost thinking music was about to die for me, because I had just left the city. In the city, you can rap anywhere; there’s always an open mic, somewhere you can perform, everybody raps—not everybody, but there are so many creatives in New York, and I knew nothing about the musical scene down here except what I had seen, which was basically Mumford and Sons’ type stuff. I was like, alright, I guess it my be a wrap for me with music, but I was processing a lot of trauma, just writing, writing my feelings, writing a bunch of angry bars all the time.
ADAM: When did you come to find somebody doing the same kind of thing—when you went, “Oh, I’m not alone; it’s not just me”?
PHILLIP: Rapping, not really. I don’t think that’s ever happened with rapping in particular. But with making music, it was a couple years into being here. I would meet people—I used to work in a Sprint store with my man Kevin Watson. We used to to work in East Town, so half of East Knoxville used to go to that store. Kevin knew everybody—a bunch of producers and musicians. And then, it was meeting worship leaders out here, because a lot of worship leaders are more creative than they let on by, you know, singing other people’s songs. I was also getting connected with my man, John Jackson. ‘Cause John is just—
ADAM: John’s awesome.
PHILLIP: Yeah, he just knows everybody! And he’s been doing music in the city with everybody for so long, as either a worship leader, or a conductor of somebody’s choir, or doing an arrangement. He brought a bunch of us together for a project called simple worship, which was just an event. We weren’t doing a live recording or anything. Then I got the chance to lead at Love/War, which—Will Reagan and John have known each other for a while, and Will was like, “John, you gotta bring some of your people over here.” So, that was probably 2016. I had been here since, like, 2014. I hadn’t really been around other people doing music until a couple years into being here. Those first couple years I was here was the Dark Ages for me. Just—I had no idea where to perform any of this music, even if I let it out. Just overthinking, a lot. Asking myself, “Am I washed up?” I’m glad a lot of music didn’t come out in that time. I was just living, working, kind of getting some footing.
ADAM: There are not a lot of people around here doing what you do, so has there been any sort of education process for listeners? Any growing pains of introducing yourself and your style to other people?
PHILLIP: Yeah, yeah, ’cause I felt like the sound of the city was that indie-folk sound, which I’m cool with—I don’t have beef with that sound. But, where I came from is, you know, sound like yourself. Particularly as a singer, I thought, sound like yourself. So everybody in that field, at least, they kind of put this voice on. It felt like that was the majority of what I was around.
Also, I gotta say: this is a part where my cultural experience of Knoxville played into that. I was going to a suburban church. I was around mostly white people—and these people are my real friends, you know. So, I was seeing Knoxville from their eyes, because that’s who I was around. I didn’t know about the soul music area of Knoxville at all. Now I do know—there are a lot of emcees around here. And the other thing is, the bulk of what I made is exclusively Christian rap. That’s a niche of a niche of a niche audience, so I was very nervous. You meet people for the first time, and introduce yourself, and my stuff is, like, super Jesus-God-bars in the early stages of my career. It wasn’t embarrassing at all, but I was concerned about the explicit nature of the way I presented my faith at the time. I think I was creating with a different audience in mind when I first started making music.
ADAM: Who was the audience?
PHILLIP: People who understood a decent amount of what I was talking about when it came to church stuff. I was listening mostly to Christian hip-hop when I first started writing, so that’s what was on my mind, and that was the subject matter. There was a time when a lot of Christian hip-hop was circulating among other people who listened to Christian hip-hop, so I was writing a lot of stuff that I knew they would hear. But my subject matter, especially in my earlier stuff, was subject matter that wasn’t very common, because I was talking about my depression, being an addict, I was talking about family trauma—
ADAM: So, stuff people were not going to be comfortable with.
PHILLIP: Yeah, it was—back then, it was kind of, “We’re struggling, but God! Here we go!” Back in the day, RIP the third verse, you know what I mean? Your first two verses could talk a little bit about struggle, but it always had to be vague.
ADAM: Everybody ends on a major chord.
PHILLIP: Yes! And then the third verse, we always had to wrap it up with, “But I know God is good!” And I’m fine with that, but I just—I felt like I wasn’t supposed to do that. I felt like there were enough people doing that. So I feel like my subject matter has helped in introducing my music to people.
ADAM: What has been your experience with changing people’s minds with art?
PHILLIP: I feel like what I do with music is very much beyond me. Everything that’s ever impacted people has been the things that’s beyond me. When I’m trying to be dope, it’s still dope—in my opinion, right? But those songs don’t usually go nowhere. The stuff that’s really catapulted places or dramatically impacted people has been stuff that was really just sitting in my heart. I think art is a special, special gift that needs to be stewarded. You can’t overthink it, and you can’t under-think art—not good art. Not in my opinion. Art can preach in a way that a sermon can’t, or a book can’t, or a lecture can’t. Or a march or a protest can’t.
ADAM: And I do want to talk about some of the racial stuff, but you’ve talked about it a lot. Since most of not all of the historical voices quoted by the Church here are white, there have been some good calls for people to pay closer attention to black theological voices. So, going past some of the obvious required reading or listening of Frederick Douglas, Sojourner Truth, and Dr. King, what are some places for people to start some deeper reading or listening?
PHILLIP: There’s a lot of places, and if I’m honest, I’ve never been more grateful than I am now that my formative experience with the church is from an African tradition. That is the proof to me that I have a place in this faith, and that my people have a place in this faith.
What I would say is, before I start naming a couple people, to people who have the white church as their foundation—and people get upset when you say ‘white church.’ But I say this regularly: white people are the only people who don’t know they have a culture. And I’m not damning anybody’s culture, but you have to understand that you’re a product of yours. That’s the thing. I came up knowing I was in a black church. So, when we talk about listening to non-white voices, that is uncomfortable for the average white person, because they don’t even realize they have to do it on purpose.
Particularly, if we’re talking about helpful black theological voices, Truth’s Table is a great podcast, founded and headed by black women. The Pass the Mic podcast is very impactful. Tom Skinner, one of my favorite people ever; he was from Harlem. One of my favorite messages of all time is one he preached called, I believe, “Race and World Evangelism.” He preached this in 1970, so fifty years ago, and you would think a good 92% of this could have been said yesterday. Dr. E. V. Hill had some amazing just on God, period, and then also a lot of teachings on race. In the black church there’s a lot of teaching on how God relates to the oppressed, and how God relates to hard times. Also, Dr. Eric Mason and Dr. Sarita Lyons.
Editor’s note: For the record, if you’re listening to the audio, the Jars of Clay song “Frail” is Stephen Mason’s composition. Adam had his facts wrong. Apologies to Stephen, Charlie, and the gents in Jars. You’re wonderful, and we’re geeks about your music, even through our ineptitudes.