Rapping for God

| June 19, 2013 | 0 Comments
Abe Gross, left, and Max Haben. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Abe Gross, left, and Max Haben. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Catholic hip-hop artists aim to reach youth through popular music

Like many young adults, Max Haben is a big fan of hip-hop. But his passion for this rhythmic style of music with its often-rhyming lyrics isn’t limited to just listening to his favorite artists.

During his senior year at North High School in North St. Paul and the following year as a freshman at the University of St. Thomas, Haben began writing and recording his own “raps.” He wrote in his dorm room and started to perform at open mike events around Minneapolis.

“I took a poetry class in college and my professor said, ‘You have a gift for metaphor, and lyrically you have a gift,’” the now-26-year-old Haben said. “I think there is a direct relation between poetry and hip-hop lyrics.”

But he didn’t know how God wanted him to use his gift until he had two transformational experiences at St. Thomas — one with St. Paul’s Outreach and the other with a fellow musician and college student, Abe Gross.

The experiences inspired both men to begin recording and performing Catholic hip-hop music to evangelize other young adults and bring them closer to Christ.

Coming together

Haben, who was raised Catholic, said he fell away from the Church for about a year during college and stopped going to Mass. One important step in his return was connecting with a group of fellow students at a men’s night event sponsored by SPO, a Twin Cities-based Catholic ministry on college campuses.

“I walked in and there were about 25 guys on fire for the Lord, and it was just like I had no chance,” he said. “I was hooked. I just kept coming around that year, and the next year I moved into [an SPO] household.”

Gross, 24, who attended high school at Trinity School at River Ridge in Eagan, said he also grew up in a “strong Catholic family” but similarly fell away from his faith during his first year at the University of Minnesota. Like Haben, Gross also connected with SPO and lived in one of the ministry’s households.

When the two met through SPO, they talked about their mutual interest in music, although Gross, who played guitar, knew little about hip-hop. “We tried to jam together, but it didn’t really work,” Gross recalled.

Then, both men attended an SPO summer training program at St. Thomas called the School of the New Evangelization, which helps college students to live and share their Catholic faith on campus.

“I remember sitting on a patio on the St. Thomas campus, and we were saying we just had this amazing experience where we really met the Lord in a personal way,” Gross said. “We asked each other, ‘What are we going to do with our music?’ At the time, it was focused on us.”

A few months later, the two started collaborating and “making music that was more focused on the Lord and on life, beauty and truth,” said Gross, who added that learning the hip-hop beat and style “opened up a whole new world of music for me.”

Striving for beauty, truth

The Catholic hip-hop that Haben and Gross perform is the result of an eclectic combination of influences. One website describes Haben’s music as sounding like rapper Jay-z and C.S. Lewis “sharing a cup of coffee.” Haben’s influences range from rock-and-roll icon Tom Petty to Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Jesuit priest and poet.

Their most recent album is an EP titled “Change Me Now.” One of the songs, “King of the Castle,” resulted from a conversation between Haben and Gross about commitment — “it can really be a prison, or it can be this castle where you are safe and able to operate freely and have this protection [because of] the commitment that you made,” Gross said (see sidebar box for an excerpt of lyrics from the song).

Haben, who draws on his own personal experiences for his lyrics, and Gross said they strive to create music that is beautiful and attractive to young people so they can hear the Gospel message in a non-threatening way.

“I think beauty can really draw people into goodness and to truth and give them a relationship with Jesus Christ,” Gross said. “I see that as a huge part of the new evangelization, of the evangelistic work we’re trying to do.”

“When you’re speaking from a world view that is based on the truth of the Gospel and the Catholic faith, there’s really no better combination,” said Haben, who graduated from St. Thomas with a degree in Catholic studies.

In the context of the new evangelization — the Church’s call to preach and teach the Gospel in new and more effective ways in today’s secular culture — hip-hop music can play an important role, he said.

“Hip-hop has become kind of the new rock-and-roll, especially for young people,” said Haben. “It’s gone across cultural and social boundaries — it’s everywhere. . . . I think there is an opportunity for myself and for other young people who are more familiar with this genre of music to have some influence in the culture.”

Haben and Gross continue to be involved in SPO and work together at Arizona State University in Tempe — Haben as a mission director and Gross as a mission leader.

They perform several times a year, often through invitations extended by other Catholics and Christians who are familiar with their work. Plans for a mini-tour in May and June were put on hold when Gross severed a tendon in one of his fingers, but they hope to play a few shows later this summer for Catholic youth groups if the injury heals before they head back to Arizona for the school year.

“One of the things I’m most thankful for is when I encounter someone who’s genuinely moved, or the music . . . impacted them deeply,” Haben said. “It’s one of the most honoring things that I’ve experienced.”

Both men hope to continue their music ministry and use their gifts in whatever ways God sees fit.

“I love this, and I would love to do more of this,” Gross said.

“For me, there is a desire maybe long term to pursue possibly a career or make it more of a full-time thing,” Haben said. “It’s just about seeing what doors God opens up if that’s possible.

“I hope to continue to use this [music] . . . either by incorporating it into a ministry or use it as a way to preach the Gospel and witness going forward.”

 

‘King of the Castle’

Here is an excerpt of the lyrics from the song “King of the Castle” on the EP “Change Me Now” by Max Haben and Company:

Knockin’ on the door

Christ finally coming in,

Opened up my heart

Turned away from the sin.

Breath of a Spirit wasn’t blowin’ in the wind,

It came from my soul,

Wellin’ up from within.

Rest in me and the peace that I bring,

The groom on a knee holding out a wedding ring.

And now that you see me,

Will you give me everything?

Set my tongue on fire when I began to sing,

You’re the king of the castle,

I come here to serve,

You know what I need,

Give me more than I deserve.

I walk in the light, I live in the day,

I choose to be free,

I will not be a slave.

You’re the king of the castle. . .

You can learn more about Max Haben and download music on his Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/maxhaben or at http://noisetrade.com/maxhaben/change-me-now-ep.

 

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