Propaganda: Music is an Outpouring of My Heart

Written By Callie Opper, USA

For American Christian hip hop and spoken word artist, Propaganda (or Prop), who is in his 30s, his rap music journey began way back in the neighborhood he grew up—a largely Mexican American neighborhood. At a young age, he realized he was different.

“I was this one black kid in a white neighborhood,” Prop says. “I felt like I didn’t belong, the wrong color, in the wrong neighborhood.” Besides the color of his skin, there was another reason that made Prop stick out: he loved to draw. This was unusual in a community where most boys found it more beneficial for their safety and well-being to dabble in gang life.

This feeling of not belonging eventually helped him to find his identity in God; his love for drawing subsequently spawned his love for hip hop, rap, and graffiti.

Today, Prop, whose real name is Jason Emmanuel Petty, is known and respected not just for his talent and creativity as an artist, but also for his deep love for God and others, and his passion for race and justice.

These passions are clearly seen in his four albums released through Humble Beast Records, a non-profit organization that describes itself as “a family of creatives, pastors, writers, theologians, and musicians who leverage their talents to see the Gospel go out into the community and transform lives”. Besides Prop, it is also home to other Christian artists like Beautiful Eulogy, Sho Baraka, Jackie Hill Perry and Alert312.

On June 30, Prop released his most recent album, Crooked, which is available for download.

Humble beginnings

“I became a Christian really through good youth ministry,” Prop tells YMI in an email interview. “Somewhere in middle school, via a combination of my parents’ conversion and impact from my youth leaders, I was able to see really great examples of real people having real-life change that made me start to believe.”

In high school, he was given the name of Propaganda by his cousin due to his love of visual arts, history, poetry, and evangelism. “I was so fascinated with the culture of hip-hop and its musical expression,” Prop says. “It sat in the same street of black music I grew up with—being narrative, emotional and uplifting.”

But ask Prop what made him decide to venture into “gospel rap” and he quickly says that he doesn’t think there needs to be a distinction between hip hop and Christian hip hop. “I made no conscious effort to make ‘Gospel Rap’ because as far as I was concerned, there was no such thing,” Prop says. “All rappers had a worldview, I just rapped what I knew and believed.”

In 2002, he was discovered by an underground hip-hop collective and has been going strong ever since. In 2011, Prop signed with Humble Beast Record Label; he is described as a poet, rapper, artist and political activist. Prop released Art Ambidextrous in 2011, Excellent a year later, Crimson Cord in 2014.

As his journey as a rapper began, Prop made sure that he did not rap for the acceptance of others; he never felt the need to respond to those who had harsh opinions about the rap industry. Instead, he rapped simply because it was an outpouring of his heart.

Interestingly, he shares that his biggest critics are not non-believers but believers. “Most backlash I get is from other Christians—mostly very conservative Christian would say I’m too preoccupied with race and justice. My heart actually breaks for those that can’t see that both are Gospel issues,” he says.

Hopes for his latest album

 On his recently released album, Prop says, “Crooked is about all of us.”

“The record is about a crooked person, with crooked desires, inside a crooked system, hoping for the day the crooked is made straight.”

In it, Prop weaves together his own personal struggle over the past few years with all the idols Christians and non-Christians experience daily. He is honest about his own failings, revealing that he struggles with the same challenges other Christians face. “Pride, lust, comparison, self-righteousness. I can’t say I’ve overcome them. I’m constantly confessing my weakness and dependency.

The songs on Crooked tell the story of the world we live in, the people we truly are, and how much grace God freely gives us. Prop raps about issues that many young Christians face today while living in a crooked world.

Prop hopes everyone can relate to his album. In one of his songs, Olympian, he illustrates the heartbreaking realities of this life—that hard things will happen in this crooked world, but we have a perfect God who is constantly perfecting our purpose. Through his lyrics, he urges listeners to not lose heart while fighting against injustice, fighting for peace, and standing up for Jesus.

For Prop, rapping is so much more than just a creative expression. His overall goal is to preach the gospel and remind Christians that we are all image bearers of Christ. “I make music out of an outpouring of my heart. And evangelism is again a part of my life.”

 

Click here to download Prop’s latest album Crooked.

James Fazio: Changing Lives after a Near Death Experience

James Fazio knows what it’s like to be at death’s door, but he’s not one to let a harrowing experience stop him from grabbing life by the reins. He’s now using his love for surfing and filmmaking to help turn around the lives of troubled teenagers, giving them their own story of a second chance in life.

The 27-year-old American pro-surfer, filmmaker, and father of two, has just completed his first documentary, Time Well Spent, about four teenage boys from different parts of the world who each have a unique story of pain and hardship but are bound by a common love for surfing. He hopes to release the documentary in the boys’ home countries, followed by the US.

In the 1½-hour long documentary, viewers follow Kross Brodersen from Hawaii, Henry McAlvany from Indonesia, Declan Bradley from Australia, and Yeferson Bellido from Peru on a surfing journey that culminates in a discovery of their value, worth, and place in life.

It’s a project that has cost James heavily in terms of energy, money, and time—it took him close to three years to put this documentary together—but it’s been worth every cent, second, and inch of effort. To James, this is simply his way of giving back to God after being given a second chance.

 

God’s Plan for James

The documentary’s tagline, “Your past does not define your future”, reflects James’s own life journey. The surfer almost died at the tender age of 13 after he contracted Kawasaki disease, a rare auto-immune disease that causes blood inflammation. For months, high fevers raged in his body, causing skin to peel away from his hands, feet, and around his mouth and throat. The last bit was the worst, as it left his throat sore and unable to eat. He needed 16 aspirin tablets every day just to keep his temperature down and the inflammation at bay.

“They had to shove Go-gert (yogurt in a tube) down my throat just to take the aspirins,” he recalls. To make matters worse, he was resistant to every medical cure. The prognosis was grim: James was likely to die from the disease. “I was pretty bummed thinking I would die without really doing anything,” he says.

And even if he did survive, he was told, he would suffer from heart problems for the rest of his life, making it impossible to lead an active lifestyle. That was heart-breaking news to the young boy, who loved surfing and soccer.

But God had plans for James. Through a prayer chain at church, his story came to the attention of a woman who had heard of a new experimental procedure. James was put on Remicade, a drug used to treat rheumatoid arthritis or severe plaque psoriasis. “My parents signed document after document, giving consent for me to take this medicine,” he says.

Young James was only the second person to undergo this experimental procedure. To the surprise of the doctors, it worked. “They were shocked by my case—that I was one of the most resistant cases, yet walked away with no long-term side effects or heart troubles,” he says. James’s case was even reported in a medical journal.

Six months later, James was back playing sports and catching his first waves, doing nearly everything that seemed so impossible just months before. “It was truly a miracle,” he says. “I should not have made it. I should have not ever been able to play sports again, and I most definitely should have had major heart problems for the rest of my life.”

Convinced that divine intervention saved his life, James resolved to change his perspective towards life. “God saved my life at 13 years’ old and I knew I wanted to live my second chance the best I possibly could. I wanted to know this amazing God who saved me and I wanted to live a life for Him,” he shares.
 

 

Photo taken by Eillot Gray

 

Giving Back to God

From then on, James desired to give to others the way God had given to him.

As soon as he completed high school at the age of 19, he went to Chile to volunteer and eventually landed in an orphanage in Perú, Casa Generacion. There, he met Yeferson Bellido, a 17-year-old who was the oldest boy in the orphanage and also its longest resident. The duo became firm friends and would go surfing every day. Once James heard about Yeferson’s life story, he was determined to share it with the world.

“He went from living on the streets and living with abuse of all sorts, to moving into an orphanage, and becoming one of the top surfers in Peru. And he was studying to be an architect at university,” he says. “Most of the people I know from privileged life circumstances can’t even accomplish half of what Yeferson did.”

James was not a filmmaker at that point, but Yeferson’s story gave him a strong desire to be one. “I had a dream one night,” he says. “God spoke to me and said to use filmmaking to show people His love and character.” This was confirmed by three people who told James he would be making movies one day.

James met the rest of the boys—Kross, Henry and Declan—through his travels, family members and colleagues. “We chose these boys because they had been through so much in their lives, and their common factor was that they turned to the ocean as their refuge,” he says. The ocean, he explains, was a safe place for them to get away from their problems and frustrations. And despite having gone through abuse and homelessness—one also losing his parent through suicide—they still had “amazing hearts” and wanted to do more with their lives.

 

Yeferson Bellido | Photo taken by Elliot Gray

 

Declan Bradley | Photo taken by Eillot Gray

 

A Rocky Journey to the Waters

While God placed their hearts to bring the boys on an amazing trip, it was not all smooth sailing. Apart from finding the money to finish the documentary and facing disapproval from friends and acquaintances, James and his team also had to deal with the paperwork to get passports and visas for the boys.

With no official sponsors or backing, money was often tight. Friends could not understand why James wanted to devote so much time, energy, and money to the documentary. “We received a good amount of flak of taking this project on,” he recalls. “But every time we were about to give up because we had no money, or something wasn’t coming together, God worked it all out and provided for everything through incredibly generous people.”

The team received funds through a small crowd-funding campaign and from friends and a non-profit sports organization, More Than Sport. But the backbone of the support was Kross’ and Declan’s communities back home—they came out in full force to support the boys’ fund-raising.

Looking back, James says it’s still impossible to comprehend how everything came together. “It was truly nothing special we did, but all Him,” he says. “One huge undertaking was the boys’ legal paperwork: we had to track down birth certificates, get social security cards, identification cards and finally passports. It was incredible it all came together on time.”

And it was all worth it. James recalls a particularly touching moment where Kross handed the keys to a house he and the team had “worked their butts off” to build, under the blazing Panama sun, for a local family.

Photo taken by Eillot Gray

Kross had spent a large part of his childhood homeless or couch hopping, so the gesture was especially touching. It was also at that moment that Kross realized he was no longer just a homeless kid, but an “amazing young man” who had the ability to make a difference in someone else’s life, James says. “He was crying, all the other boys were crying, and our whole crew was crying while trying to hold the camera steady. It was a special moment to be part of.”

Kross Brodersen | Photo taken by Eillot Gray

 

Henry McAlvany | Photo taken by Elliot Gray

 

More Stories to Be Told

While James is relieved that the project is finally completed, he is slightly nervous about how the film might be received. “For me, this being my first big personal project, now comes the thought, ‘What will people think about my work?’ ” James says. He plans to submit the documentary to various film festivals before looking for a proper distribution channel. “I am also very excited for the four boys, for their stories to be heard, for them to feel proud and even hopefully get discovered by companies for their incredible stories and surfing.”

Ultimately, says James, the documentary is about inspiring people to see that they are “worth so much more than they choose to believe”. “I want others that are in a similar situation to see hope in the boys’ stories and choose not to give up,” he adds.

As for his future plans, James is thinking of doing a few more documentaries. He plans to do a feature on Yeferson as well as document the story of the woman who started the Casa Generacion orphanage.

Ask James why he does what he does, and this is his reply: “God saved my life, changed my heart and gave me a purpose to live. I do what I do because I want the broken and the lost to feel the hope again. To feel they’re worth something. To be inspired to live a fulfilling life. And to show them the gracious love that God has shown me and that they have a Father in Heaven who is there for them.”

Photo taken by Eillot Gray

 

To find out more about the documentary, click here

Cassandra Kanda: Rocking Christian Music

Written by Jasmine K., Singapore

Think catchy riffs, deep bass rhythms, and synthesizer melodies, and you’re likely to associate them with “house” or club music. But a 22-year-old musician is aiming to break this stereotype and prove that Christian music can be catchy and current too. And to prove it, she’s produced an entire album all by herself.

Meet New Zealander Cassandra Kanda, who produced Genesis in her room. Just five months after the album was released in January, her music has reached some 20 countries and hit an overall stream count of one million on Spotify. Currently, her top-hit, “Sticks and Stones”, occupies 14th position on The Hot Chart, which tracks the most-played songs on the top 40 Christian radio stations across the US.

But Cassandra is quick to say that the motivation behind her music has never been the search for fame and popularity. It all started when she found it difficult to share worship songs with her non-believing friends, she said in an earlier interview with The Good Christian Music Blog. They were turned off by this genre of music as it was “all about God” or simply incomprehensible because of the liberal use of Christian jargon. Noting the lack of relatable Christian pop songs, Cassandra saw an opportunity to try and weave together biblical truths and R&B grooves. That set her on a path to co-produce the album Road to You with her church two years ago.

In an email interview with YMI, Cassandra says that she discovered her interest in music at a young age. When she was 11, she was always fiddling with the instruments in church on Sundays and pestering band members to let her try them out. “I remember they bought a new keyboard and gave me their old one, just so I could stop bothering them on a Sunday, as I was that annoying kid,” she says.

That grew her passion in music tremendously. The self-taught musician, who fully dedicated her life to the Lord at the age of 16, went on to pick up various musical instruments, including the piano, guitar, and drums. She learned music composition in high school and gained hands-on experience by producing for local artists, working on film scores for film students, and mixing and producing her own pieces in university.

But the road leading to where she is today has been a bumpy one.

Voice of God

After college, Cassandra faced her first obstacle: her family. She found herself having to plead with her parents and convince them to allow her to enroll in the New Zealand School of Music. Having moved from Zimbabwe to New Zealand, they had been searching for better opportunities abroad and couldn’t accept music as a livelihood. “The challenge was to convince my parents that this is what God has called me to do and they need not worry about the outcome,” she recounts. Thankfully, her persistence and passion paid off eventually.

Then she faced another obstacle. In her application for the Bachelor of Music course, she realized that she had not taken a certain paper in high school that was required. By God’s grace, however, the university suddenly held a sitting of this paper during the summer break before school reopened; it was the first time the module had ever been scheduled so early in the year. “The timing was uncanny,” she recalls.

This was just the first of the many times in which God continued to affirm Cassandra’s decision to go down this path. After completing her music degree, she did a worship internship in her church. This included doing the roster for worship duties, leading worship, and being the band director.

One night, while she was praying and doing her devotions, she heard God telling her, “Make an EP, make music.” It was a “weird moment”, she says, as that would mean she would not
be continuing her internship in the following year, as she had originally intended to.

But any uncertainty she had vanished just one month later. At a retreat, a woman whom she barely knew pulled her aside and told her, “God’s called you to do this.” Cassandra was blown away; she knew it had to be God nudging her.

Voice for God

Things were also rough in the lead-up to the release of her first album, Genesis. When Cassandra first started, she couldn’t afford to pay for studio recording or promotional plans. A few of her close friends and mentors, concerned about the risk she was taking by diving into an “unorthodox” genre of music, also tried to dissuade her. They were afraid that the plan would fall through and her efforts would go to waste.

On one occasion, a conversation with a colleague discouraged her greatly and made her doubt her decision. “He said, ‘Do you really think you can make music like this for God and be successful? Your voice probably isn’t what most radio stations would want to play’,” she recalls.

For a while after that, Cassandra began to avoid spending time with God. It eventually reached a point where she found herself on her knees, crying in her room. “I wanted to do right by God but at the same time, I didn’t even believe in myself,” she says.

But that’s when she felt God’s presence strongly again. “He was just speaking encouragement over me, reminding me of what He said and that He never makes mistakes and I certainly wasn’t an exception of that.”

That was enough to get her back on track. Cassandra also began to experience God’s provision. “When I had no money for food or no idea how I’d get home from the church office, someone or something would come up to bless me or provide me with what I needed.”

Touching lives

What gives Cassandra great joy in this whole journey is seeing how God has used her efforts to bless others, including her non-Christian friends. “They love it,” she tells YMI. “They listen to it all the time and message me about it, asking what it means.”

She’s also been overwhelmed and humbled by the responses she’s been getting from complete strangers. Close to a month ago, Cassandra received a message from a lady who said she had lost her brother and was struggling to see God’s healing and comfort. She was consoled by the lyrics of Cassandra’s song, Sticks and Stones. “I cried reading it because it was one of the things I’ve always been praying—that music will help those who need comfort and solace,” she says.

On another occasion, Cassandra was greatly encouraged by a message from a teenage girl who was battling depression and struggling with her final examinations. She shared how Cassandra’s album helped to tide her through those rough patches.

Future plans

Currently, Cassandra is working on a new song, “Thoughts”, for her next album. It is a reminder from 2 Corinthians 10:5 of the need to guard her thoughts as an act of obedience to the Lord.

In the near future, Cassandra plans to travel internationally to share her love for God and music. Some 10 or 20 years from now—or whenever God gives her the green light—she hopes to start a record label.

What’s Cassandra’s chief motivation for producing music? “I do what I do because I want to be obedient to what God has called me to do,” she says. “And, I know with everything God places in my hands, He usually has a greater plan and way to help and encourage other people.”

Ivan David Ng: Displaying Love and Art Amid Hostility

It was his first time on a plane. Flying 15,000 kilometers from his home in Singapore to the mid-Atlantic region in the United States, where he would spend the next four years, Ivan David Ng was excited about his newfound freedom and eager to embrace new experiences. But the young artist would soon find out that being a Christian in a foreign land—what more, in a fine arts university—would be one of the most challenging experiences in his life.

Today, Ivan is back in Singapore, as an up-and-coming artist who has exhibited his works both in the US and Singapore. He recently graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Painting from the Maryland Institute College of Art, where he was the commencement speaker for his cohort.

Throughout the two-hour long interview with YMI, the 26-year-old exudes joy and confidence when sharing about his art and faith. But things were not always this way, he tells us. In his freshman year, he was confronted with culture shock, personal challenges, and opposition to his faith.

In his first week of school, a faculty member openly ridiculed him for being a Christian. His philosophy professor had asked everyone to introduce themselves and to share what helped them make sense of the world. When it came to Ivan’s turn, he explained that it was his faith, having become a Christian at the age of 17. His professor promptly responded that she thought religion was “very insensitive, illogical and intolerant”.

This hostile reaction was a rude awakening. But Ivan soon found it becoming a weekly occurrence. Any mention of his faith, Jesus, and going to church on Sundays was met with patronizing smiles, awkward silences, and the occasional eye roll. “I felt like I was thrown into a furnace, it was extremely difficult for me,” he adds.

Throughout his time in university, his close friends teased him frequently about his faith and the choices he made for his belief—especially when it came to his sexual conduct. One of the more memorable comments he received was, “Did you put on a chastity belt and throw the key away?”

He says, “When I first got there, I felt like Elijah . . . am I the only Christian here?” When Ivan tried to seek out other Christians in the college, he stumbled upon a small Christian fellowship on campus. They started to meet regularly.

“It was a time of ministering to one another, loving other people together, and supporting one another in prayer,” he adds. “Once there was strength in numbers, I didn’t feel alone anymore and we started serving the people in campus together. We became Jesus’ covert hands and feet in a place where people didn’t want anything to do with Him. The support of these Christian friends was how I stayed Christian.”

 

Expressing love in a hostile environment

The hostile secular environment and several failed attempts to reach out to friends using traditional methods, however, made him rethink his approach to evangelism. “It’s not so much about standing up for what you believe, but more of just loving people that God has placed around you,” he says. “If I can love them so much and want their salvation so much, what more God? I’ve learned to be prepared for long-term gospel work and enjoy them genuinely as friends—that’s evangelism in that context,” he explains.

The key, he says, was to be emotionally invested in his non-Christian friends and learn to enjoy their friendship and company. He says, “Often, as Christians seeking to reach our friends, we feel the responsibility to give to our friends emotionally, spiritually and even materially. But how often do we allow these non-Christian friends to give to us? In a real friendship, this goes both ways. Otherwise, these friends we are trying to reach out to become ‘projects’—and they feel it.”

“These friends supported me when family members passed away while I was far away from home . . . if they sometimes want to tease me for my faith, so be it! I know they love me,” Ivan says with wide grin. For him, the right to speak about the truth found in Jesus had to be earned through a long, faithful friendship, where love and mutual enjoyment has been consistently demonstrated.

Over time, some of these relationships bore fruit. When a friend who often laughed at Ivan for his faith faced a major personal problem in his life, he turned to Ivan and asked for prayer and counsel. The incident encouraged Ivan immensely.

 

Experiencing God through Art

Besides the shift in his perspective on evangelism, Ivan experienced another change. Though he was a painting major, Ivan discovered that he was more inclined towards material-based and tactile processes. Slowly, his work took on more three-dimensional forms. “I liked to do things with my hands. Sculpting gave me more satisfaction as compared to painting,” he shares.

To Ivan, his art and his faith are intertwined. He says, “My art is essentially about my faith . . . If I were to talk about themes surrounding my art, it stems from a search and longing for God.” He draws inspiration from landscapes, and enjoys working with natural materials such as stone, handmade paper and clay. Referring to them as “toys that God leaves behind for me to discover”, he says, “In putting these materials through processes that transform them, I feel that it is God leading me on a journey of discovery and wonder.”

His passion and joy in creating his art is evident as he excitedly explains and shows off pictures of his art pieces, one of which is a sculpture titled Are You In Love. Pointing to the grey stone, he says, “I cut open a quartzite stone I picked up from a construction site, only to discover that the stone was shiny and glittery on the inside, although its surface was dull.”

Titled : Are You In Love

To Ivan, using the materials that God created and designed in his art is a form of worship. “As I create, I am merely reflecting my Creator. As I work with these beautiful materials that He has in the first place created, I acknowledge God as Creator and I recognize myself as collaborating with Him,” he says.

That said, he urges young Christian artists not to feel the pressure to always make their art a tool for presenting the Gospel. “I don’t intentionally weave the cross into my work, although the work by nature bears witness to God in creation. Sometimes when artists use art as a direct, literal Gospel tool, it ends up being cheesy because people already know where it leads. They don’t feel invited into a deeper conversation; instead, some may feel that the work is lecturing them. It closes up conversations instead of opening them up,” he explains.

He hopes young Christian artists can learn to enjoy making their art and “find God’s fingerprints in their making of art”. “God is always involved—it’s whether you’re conscious of it or not,” he says.

For Ivan himself, art is a springboard for relationships and for long-term Gospel work. He says, “Enjoy the people your pursuit of art takes you to and see those relationships as Gospel opportunities. Perhaps that’s the way we can be witnesses for Jesus as artists.”