By Imade Nikobun
Interviewed by Imade Nibokun
Japhia Life is often considered Christian Hip Hop’s bad boy, but his fearless defiance comes from a higher source. Despite the labels thrust upon him, he defines himself by an audience of One. When his cult classic, Pages Of Life, was released in 2000, Japhia was a Nas trained emcee learning to live for God in the gritty streets of Philadelphia. He didn’t rhyme for youth services or the doorkeepers of Christian Hip Hop. These manmade sources of approval were on the periphery of his consciousness. Instead, his motivation came from a place of purity. As a former drug dealer, Japhia wanted to reveal the pain of the streets while offering a living hope. Twelve years later, Japhia is returning to the first pages of his life with more maturity and artistic freedom. This is his rebirth.
“Even before I made it, I knew that if I was going to make an album, I’m going to say everything that is not being said. That was my whole angle. To bring what I felt was missing in the game.” For Japhia Life, what was missing was positive creativity in a genre overwrought with glamourized images of crime. Pages Of Life filled a needed void that produced unexpected results. “A secular, independent Hip Hop label [Ready Rock Records] said ‘If you do three more, we’ll put out an EP’. They flew me out to have the EP mixed and mastered. That was my first trip to the West Coast. It was amazing because I never thought I could get that far away from Philly based on my gift.”Even before I made it, I knew that if I was going to make an album, I’m going to say everything that is not being said.
Soon after, Pages Of Life was heard in places much farther than Japhia’s hometown. “Hip Hop artists in the secular market were impacted by that album. Pages of Life had vinyl, it was in the stores, and it was being compared to classic albums. It was getting a lot of love. That’s when the Christian Hip Hop community started reaching out and embracing what I do. I got a lot of love but I got a lot of opposition as well.”
Living in the same city as Cross Movement, it was inevitable that some would question Japhia’s connection to the secular industry. Despite the tension, Japhia focused on his calling. “I’ve been carved out for something unique. I’m excited to engage [with non-Christians] in a way that they may not [have] been engaged before. He uses me to give people a real take of what the gospel is so a light bulb can go off in their mind. I see it when I build relationships with secular artists.”
Japhia Life may be gifted in evangelism, but he also blazed a trail right to the heart of mainstream Christian culture. “It was during the Dove awards [week] and we were outside of a showcase one night. This white dude walks up to me and was like ‘Are you Japhia Life? I’m a big fan of your music. I’m Toby Mac.’ He’s one of the top artists in Contemporary Christian Music. For me to even be on his radar, it blew me away. I learned to continue to do the music that [I] want to do. Whoever it reaches, it reaches.”
Japhia’s 2006 album Fountain Of Life brought new fans with the help of Beatmart Records. Along with success came speculation that label owner, Todd Collins, was in control of this pop leaning album. It was another perception that Japhia had to rise above. “Beatmart was a home for me. I said on ‘Hip Hop’, ‘Todd don’t pick these, I pick my own beats.’ He didn’t insist that I make those type of records on the album. Those records were for me and my own creative space. I wanted to make an album that was different from my other albums [and] be more expressive of the place I was in during that time. Fountain Of Life was probably the most refreshing in terms of sound.”My sound now is just more free. I feel unapologetic. I don’t make any apologies for my cadence, my content, my swagger.
After leaving Beatmart and releasing Nazareth in 2010, a new Japhia emerged. Some would say he’s become a disgruntled rapper bitter about judgmental Christians. For Japhia, his outspoken stance is a testament of new found courage. “Religion pumps fear in you. I had to overcome so many fears leading up to [Westside Pharmacy] and through the recording. I faced them and dealt with them and they don’t exist anymore.” Japhia’s evolution means more than retracing his steps and signing to a secular label. Westside Pharmacy promises to be an album that unmasks the Japhia we never knew. “My sound now is just more free. I feel unapologetic. I don’t make any apologies for my cadence, my content, my swagger. My freedom may offend some people. It’s very audacious. This album makes a mockery of all of the naysayers that says you can’t put out this type of music.”
Those are bold words coming from an emcee, but Japhia seems prepared to back them up. The brash, rock-tinged single, “Lifey’s Revenge”, shows Japhia pulling from unconventional inspirations. “I reached back to the artists who take risks. Early Hip Hop was very inspirational in the creation of this album. Like Public Enemy, KRS-One, Beastie Boys, and Run-DMC. I had to find artists who were like me [such as] Switchfoot. Artists who are not labeled as Christian artists or in the Christian industry but are Christians to the core.”
Japhia Life is an artist who embraces the essence of who he is. He shares the key to his unwavering self-acceptance. “The main thing is being conscious and intentional. You have to be set on a course. I’ve always been intentional to give people a proper take on who God is. That’s how my music remains biblical.” Japhia is confident enough to accept criticism while focusing on a greater mission. “You have to be willing to die for what you believe. I’m cut from that cloth. I’m excited because every day I’m becoming more fearless.” Somehow, it all comes back to that humble EP. “Pages Of Life is a great representation of what I believe I’m meant to do. That was in its infancy. So now, the gloves are off.”