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Local artist seeks to ‘Reach’ wider audience

Christian hip-hop performer out to bridge gap with music video

POSTED: December 24, 2011 11:07 a.m.
TOM REED/The Times

Local singer Austin Whelchel holds a computer playing his music video that will be premiering Monday on JC-TV.

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Like Rodney Dangerfield, Christian rappers get no respect.

At least that's how Austin Whelchel sees it. And he's doing his best to change that.

"I think a lot of times, you have different Christian rappers who understand the gospel, but they don't understand the art form of hip-hop," said Whelchel, a 21-year-old Flowery Branch resident.

"Psalms 33, verse 3, says, ‘Play skillfully.' I've really taken to studying hip-hop. Not just looking to certain people who do and say what I'm talking about, but studying the overall art form."

His efforts have gotten the attention of executives with the Trinity Broadcasting Network, which bills itself as the "world's largest Christian network."

On Monday, Whelchel's first music video will premiere on TBN's youth-focused station, JC-TV. The video is for his song, "Reach," which Whelchel wrote when he was 18.

"One day I was sitting in my room and the lyrics just came to me. Shortly afterward, I shared it with my youth pastor. He heard the lyrics and was like, ‘Yeah I want you to do this for a service,'" Whelchel remembers.

"The funny thing is, I originally wanted to call it ‘Shine,' but we were having a program called REACH - Responsible Effort and Active Community Help - and my lyrics all had to do with what REACH was about. So I changed the name of the song."

His song will premiere during the show, "Exit 16," which airs locally at 10:30 a.m. Mondays. The show can also be watched on JC-TV's website.

Although the song is 3 years old, Whelchel didn't record it in a professional studio until about three months ago. After sharing the recording with friends, one asked to shoot a video to accompany the song, which Whelchel posted on Youtube last month.

"I'm friends with Ms. MaryJo Castro, the producer of (the TBN program) ‘Praise the Lord' and she saw the video. She said it was pretty nice and that I should submit it to JC-TV.

"I emailed them the video and the producers for Exit 16 emailed me back and said they wanted to show it. It's a show for up-and-coming artists. It's amazing to me because I'm just like, ‘Wow. You thought it was that good?'"

Whelchel is hoping that this exposure will be the gateway for him to share his newer, more lyrically advanced songs with a broader audience.

"Reach is doing well, but when I hear the song now, it kind of bothers me in a way because my vocabulary and level of skill has grown," Whelchel said.

"Still, it's amazing to see how well the song is doing. It's humbling. There's still a place for my older music. When I was 18, those songs were reaching kids locally, now those old songs will do the same thing with kids internationally.

"I just know and trust that my newer songs will be able to do the same thing at a stronger level."

The strength of his music comes not only from his passion for music, but also from his biblical knowledge.

"Growing up, anytime I got into trouble, my grandma would have me read a whole chapter out of the Bible," Whelchel said. "It got to the point that as a 6-year-old who got in trouble with grandma a lot, I learned big chunks of the Bible."

At first the readings were a punishment of sorts, but they soon became the foundation for his thirst for the word. After accompanying his grandfather to a Bible study, Whelchel was hooked and soon joined the youth choir. The rest is history.

Although he happily identifies himself as a Christian and chooses to live a life that reflects that, Whelchel bristles at being called a "Christian rapper."

"I tell people all the time that I'm not a Christian rapper," Whelchel said.

"I'm a rapper, who happens to be Christian. It just so happens that's what flows out."

Being painted into that corner goes against the grain of his aspirations.

"Ultimately, I want to be able to reach more people with my music and open doors," Whelchel said.

"I don't want my music to just be played on (Christian) stations, I want my music to be played on (mainstream) stations too. Not selfishly, I just want to be able to reach the unreached."

Christian music overall, not just rap, struggles universally to reach mainstream audiences, Whelchel says.

"One thing that has always bothered me is that you never hear anything with a gospel message on MTV, yet they call it Music Television. When Michael Jackson did the ‘Off The Wall' album, it was a huge success, but it didn't get any play from MTV because they said their audience didn't want to hear music from black artists," Whelchel said.

"(Jackson) said his next album was going to be a thriller and they wouldn't have any choice but to play it. The next album he made was ‘Thriller' and it is still the best-selling album of all time. That's kind of my drive - I want to make the gospel version of Thriller.

"There's never been a Christian artist to really bridge the gap. I want to reach those platforms, but I won't do it by compromising who I am and what I believe. I don't believe in letting your gift take you where your character can't sustain you.

"Having balance is key."



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