- Sam Wilder via Wikimedia Commons
When music lovers outside of the Beehive State hear the term "Utah rap" they probably envision a cringe-worthy high school rendition of a Top-40 pop song. Unbeknownst to many, hometown acts of the past like Adverse, Chino4Real and Eneeone, along with more recent BriskOne, Concise Kilgore and Melvin Junko have represented us alongside national artists and outlets.
With that said, Utah hasn't had an unquestioned breakout artist in the rap genre, and things were moving very slowly on that end—until the "Tellin You Y" video came out. That's when James the Mormon caught the attention of millions of rap fans by having the BYU football team, cheerleaders and fans back him at LaVell Edwards Stadium for an energy-packed video that's been viewed more than 800,000 times. It was the start of the James the Mormon wave (or the trough, if you're a Utes fan).
The old adage is true that some stories basically write themselves, as is the case with an LDS rapper stamping his brand on a market of about 16 million listeners. A rapper with a religious background gaining traction out of Utah was bound to happen; however, not even the most talented clairvoyant could foresee this individual identifying as black and getting his video on BET, with his albums ranking next to Drake's on iTunes.
"[Debut EP] I'm Not a Rapper didn't have too much thought behind it," says James, whose surname is Curran. "I approached music pessimistically. I always thought there was no way I could 'make it.' I still genuinely feel this way. There was no theme; it was like a mixtape where six songs were put together."
On his new offering, We Came to Play, which debuted at No. 4 on the hip-hop albums chart, Curran has extended the track listing to 11 songs. He teamed up with other MCs, producers and singers from across the valley, and in congruence with his faith, brought together people from diverse backgrounds like Eddington, Shelbadine, Burnell Washburn, Umang, Sione Toki, Underground Ambitionz, Zac Ivie, D Blacc and Chance Lewis, essentially taking them along for the ride—under one condition.
"My brand of music is profanity-free, without sexual or drug references," Curran says. "That's a reflection of what I believe. I invited them and said, 'Hey, just please don't use profanity,' and everyone was down. You don't need profanity. They didn't need profanity to go hard."
Depending on who you ask, a well-timed four-letter word can be oddly appropriate and cathartic. Yet, when you dig deeply into the content of many lauded rap catalogues of the past, negative themes like gratuitous cursing, violence, misogyny and homophobia are real and apparent. However, censoring and shaming artists for expressing themselves feels like a restrictive approach to evaluating them, and hip-hop purists have suggested that James the Mormon's newfound success is plastic or manufactured. A faithful Mormon's mere presence in rap music begs myriad questions, which in turn generate controversy and commentary. "It's an interesting line, because I really am a believing member of my faith, but at the same time I want to be accepted by the hip-hop industry," Curran says. "I try to just be exactly who I am. Hip-hop in its truest form is telling your story and being genuine to who you are."
He has a unique perspective, however, on drawing Mormon listeners to hip-hop. "I feel like the only advantage is that I'm the first of my kind, and therefore was able to gain a large fan base who ... saw themselves in me," he says. "But it's a double-edged sword, because with that comes expectations. I feel like a lot of people just became fans because I was Mormon, not because they liked hip-hop or even the music. They just learned to like the music because of what I represent.
"I actively hope that Mormons stop listening to me. I don't want Mormon fans, because it's not for Mormons. The music was always for non-members, but I do contribute all those accolades to [the church] ... However, if I could, overnight, switch all my Mormon fans to non-Mormon fans, I would do it."
No matter where your opinion lies in the controversy, you can't deny that a part of the reason why Curran has had any success is that he works hard at his craft. "At the end of the day, I feel like what I want to deliver the world is hope," he says. "Hope and faith comes from working hard. I might be an underdog and people might hate me, but I'm gonna keep working hard. I think that's a message everyone can relate with. And you can be clean while you're doing it."
He's put his faith and his art out there for the world to see, and whether you like him or not, he's in a position to make an impact on Utah rap music in ways that previous MCs couldn't. James the Mormon's sauce might be bland to the palates of Utah hip-hop heads, but they have to respect the fact that he's got people across the world looking in this direction—even if their focus is mainly on Temple Square.