Trip Lee perseveres through disease for the sake of servanthood
Trip Lee and his two-year-old son Q manned the door, greeting churchgoers who exited the sanctuary following this Sunday morning’s worship service — about 10 hours before his fifth album Rise released.
Trip Lee, known as Trip Barefield to Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CHBC), shook hands. Q blew kisses.
Serving his biological and church family is why, backstage before the final concert of the 2012 Unashamed Tour, Trip Lee announced that the group road trip would be his last.
“It was a decision that me and my wife wrestled through for years,” Trip Lee said, “painstakingly thinking through, praying through, getting counseled through, ‘What should we do here?’ I want to help shepherd God’s people. I can’t do it from a distance. And I can’t travel this much if I’m going to be a pastor, so something has to change.”
Misty eyes filled the green room. After the show, his Reach Records label mates hoisted an embarrassed Trip Lee on their shoulders in front of the thousands of cheering fans that filled Memphis, Tennessee’s New Direction Church.
Trip Lee’s hand-shaking performance this Sunday failed to attract the same fanfare. Several members who had heard the pre-release live stream of Rise on Vibe.com encouraged him. No one asked for a picture or autograph as he greeted, though — which typically only happens once a week anyway.
It isn’t as glamorous as rapping, but Trip Lee, 26, prefers serving. In the intro of his latest book “Rise,” which will be released on Jan. 27, 2015, he calls himself “95 percent preacher and five percent everything else.”
However, a fatigue disorder has denied his attempts to produce these percentages.
95% Preacher, 100% Tired
Trip Lee aspired to be a full-time pastor years before health problems plagued him. As soon as he became a Christian, the King James Bible that his grandmother had given him began to inspire.
“Before, it was just this old dusty book … It had pictures in it and everybody was black. Solomon was black with dreads,” Trip Lee laughed. “When I tried to read that Bible, I didn’t understand it. I didn’t like it. When I became a Christian at 14 and my eyes were opened up, the Bible became brand new to me. It stopped being old, dusty stories, and it started to be relevant truth for my day-to-day life. That changed everything for me, so as stuff would impact my life, I wanted to help other people see.”
Trip Lee’s youth pastor, Stephen Brown, made him a student leader of Concord Church of Dallas’s youth group in ninth grade. Brown asked Trip Lee at 17 to preach his first sermon for the youth group. His potential shined.
“[Trip Lee] explained the word of God in such a way that the teens got it, as well as the adults who were present,” Brown said. “We could all see back then that, ‘Okay, there is something really special about this kid.’”
Trip Lee took the advice of a mentor, Cross Movement rapper The Ambassador, and attended college in 2006 for Biblical studies at Philadelphia Biblical University (now Cairn University). Trip Lee had just signed with Reach Records, graduated high school and released his debut album If They Only Knew. But when Trip Lee returned to school in 2007 for his sophomore year after joining Cross Movement on The HIStory Tour, his youthful motor vanished.
Something was wrong with his body—at least that was his educated guess after he started to sleep 18 hours a day. Doctors initially didn’t know what was wrong either, though. One eventually diagnosed Trip Lee with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), an incurable, untreatable disorder that does what its name suggests — exhausts.
“I can’t remember the last time I woke up feeling rested,” Trip Lee said. “It’s just not something that happens in my life … but the random times it kind of happens, it feels like a million bucks.”
CFS made school so strenuous that Trip Lee dropped out in the spring of 2010. It’s the challenge that he knew he’d face when he stepped away from the mic in the fall of 2012 the year after completing a pastoral internship at CHBC in Washington, D.C. — a decision that Reach CEO Ben Washer customized a cake for to celebrate.
“It had a robot on it,” Trip Lee said, “‘2006-2012,’ like I had died.”
CHBC’s internship was no cake walk. Over just a few months, interns are expected to complete over 5,000 pages of reading, 75 papers and weekly three-hour discussions.
The internship workload had pushed Trip Lee to the breaking point. The 9-to-5 schedule of the pastoral assistant job that he started in the spring of 2013 broke him. After months of struggle, he transitioned to part-time ministry — an elder role that involves preaching, teaching, marital counseling and youth ministry.
This significantly influenced Rise.
Rising Above CFS
Around the time Trip Lee became a pastoral assistant, he asked Gawvi to produce his entire next album.
“This album could take me 10 years to make,” Trip Lee said, “so I want to make a timeless sound.”
By the time they completed one quarter of the album, Trip Lee had switched to part-time ministry at CHBC. This offered his schedule flexibility — “the main thing I need with my illness because I’ll never know when I have energy,” Trip Lee said, adding that Rise would look “a lot different” if his disorder hadn’t ruined his pastoral plans.
“I don’t know if I would’ve got [Rise] done in time,” he said. “I don’t know what the crunch would’ve looked like. I don’t know what the trips to Atlanta would’ve been like if I was still full-time hours at my church.”
While his album ultimately dropped first, his book set the tone for the broader project.
“I wanted to write a book aimed at young people that encouraged us not to think, “Oh, I’ll live for God when I’m 25 … Oh, I’ll wait until I’m 50.’ No, get up and live for what you were made for now.”
Trip Lee had frequent communication with teens throughout the album creation process. He’s the closest thing to a youth pastor at CHBC. And a fellow church member who teaches at Anacostia High School in D.C. set him up to lead an after-school Bible study.
Trip Lee had these youth in mind on his four flights to Atlanta to work on Rise. He locked himself in Reach’s studios with Gawvi and writers who included Natalie Lauren, Dimitri McDowell and Elhae for days at a time. But Trip Lee’s CFS traveled with him.
“There were a lot of tough moments where I got really worried for Trip because of his health issue,” Gawvi said. “He would come into the studio and say, ‘Man, my body’s about to shut down.’ We really had to push through a lot.”
And push through Trip Lee did.
“He was sending records with his voice pretty much gone,” Elhae said.
“He was a trooper,” Gawvi said. “He really worked so hard where, there were moments when everyone in the studio would tell him, ‘Trip, you need to go take a nap. You need to go rest your body.’ … I haven’t seen a man work so hard on an album.”
On one of Gawvi’s feeble attempts over the phone to persuade Trip Lee that he needed a nap in his home studio, the rapper recorded the second single off of Rise, “Sweet Victory.”
“You see me limping , I know you see me limping
You can’t tell on these CDs, but bro I’m knee deep in it
I’m wading in my weakness, he made me dependent
I’d be lying through my teeth to say I don’t resent it
Even as I write these lines I’m close to tears
My body ain’t been working right for seven years
So miss me with that “keep your chin up try to smile”
Bruh I’m twenty-six, I should feel better by a mile
Keep all your anecdotes and cute quotes
I’ll pass on clichés for true hopes, he’s too dope,” he raps on the first verse.
The same way that Trip Lee persevered as he recorded Rise, he endured Bible studies at Anacostia High.
“I would tell the kids this sometimes, ‘I feel terrible,’” he said. “Sometimes I’m like, ‘I don’t want to do it,’ trying to make up excuses in my mind, but I really pushed myself to do it because I saw the fruit from it. “
Often overwhelmed and always working with a jam-packed schedule, he still forced himself to prioritize the students.
After all, Trip Lee reasoned, someone needed to tell them to rise.
“This may be the only chance a lot of them have to be exposed to Biblical truth,” he said. “They’ve seen so many ridiculous churches with pastors that are just trying to steal their money. They see ridiculous pastors on TV. I want to give them an opportunity to see a real person, face-to-face, open the Bible and talk about what it actually says, talk about how it applies to their actual lives right now.”
Trip Lee is drawn to opportunities to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with people who have lacked the opportunity to hear it. This is why, in 2015, he plans to move to West End, Atlanta to help plant a church with Pastor John Onwuchekwa and Richard Mullen.
A Sacrificial Heart
Trip Lee has the means to live comfortably as a full-time rapper. Rise climbed to No. 3 on the iTunes’ top-selling album charts on Monday. He’s even had the means since his debut album, which sold enough for him to pay for his college tuition.
Between then and Rise, he dropped three Billboard 200-charting albums. He’s accumulated 700,000 followers on social media. And Christianity Today even named him one of the 33 most influential Christians under the age of 33.
He’s come a long way from rapping at purity banquets in front of 25 kids — from getting paid after a performance for the first time and reacting, “Oh snap, I made it! I don’t even do it for the money, but I’m not mad!”
Despite how far he’s come, Trip Lee will still move his wife Jessica, son Q and four-month-old daughter Selah from cozy Capitol Hill to West End, Atlanta — which Mullen, who led the church plant, attested that just a few years ago had held a reputation as “forbidden grounds” for its poverty and crime. The neighborhood has made positive strides in recent years, but even after the Barefields selected a home in West End, major foundation issues returned them to house hunting.
Which, of course, is the least of Trip Lee’s concerns.
“The way that I choose where I’m going to live and what I’m going to do with my life is not based on what’ll make me most comfortable,” Trip Lee said. “It’s based on how I can best use my life. As I think about the places that need truth preached, some of those are the most broken places where nobody else wants to go. If nobody else is going to go, then I’m going to go. It’s not only people in the suburbs and nice, cushy neighborhoods that need to hear the truth. Everybody needs to hear the truth.”
Rise could be his last record, Trip Lee admitted. But even if he retires, his primary pursuit is far from finished.
“Music was always unashamedly a platform for [Trip Lee] to be able to do what he really wanted to do,” said Onwechekwa, currently a pastor at Atlanta’s Blueprint Church. “His passion was to be a pastor, to teach God’s word, to shepherd a group of people. Those were the things that drove him more than anything else.
“It’s the same thing that was in him at 16 years old. It’s just grown, matured and been refined in the past 10 years.”
Sacrificing music in the future for ministry won’t keep Trip Lee awake at night. What will help him make the transition — and what sets him and his label mates apart — is that he’s been prioritizing his family over music for years.
“This career path of being an artist, it’s set up to absolutely ruin you if you do everything that it asks you to do,” Washer said. “There’s a reason most people don’t have thriving families that are at the top of the entertainment industry. It can happen, but you just don’t see it this much. [Reach’s artists] are fiercely trying to protect their home life and their relationship with their wife and their kids … You got to say no to a lot of opportunities in order to protect what’s most important. Trip’s been real courageous and stuck to his guns in that.”
“[Trip Lee] has so many opportunities that just crash in on him,” his CHBC mentor, elder Matt Schmucker said. “He takes his family into consideration first … It may not make him more popular in terms of record sales or concert attendance. It will make him a better disciple, husband and father and, at the end of the day, that’s what’s going to matter most.”
As much as Trip Lee has sacrificed, as much exhaustion as he’s endured, his album sales are still skyrocketing. And he still has tours worthy of a full-time rapper scheduled — Winter Jam this year and one for Rise next spring.
He isn’t sure how he’s managed to accomplish so much over the past several years with CFS. Carol Head, President and CEO of the Solve ME/CFS Initiative, called his level of success in spite of the disorder “quite unusual.”
Schmucker has a suggestion: That God is using Trip Lee as a walking billboard, campaigning for the very message that he bought into at 14 — rise, and follow God no matter how young you are.
“I think if you honor the Lord with your life, in an unusual fashion, he will open up opportunities and Trip’s a good example of that,” Schmucker said. “When he was converted, he was converted. His life changed. He avoided a lot of the mess that teenagers and young 20-year-olds make and instead gave himself to being discipled. There are a lot of young men and women out there who want to be rappers, Christian and non, but I think the Lord has given special favor and voice to Trip because he’s honoring him with his music … His heart beats with the Lord’s.”
David Daniels is a writer for Rapzilla.com. He’s been published at The Washington Times, Bleacher Report, Christianity Today and The Daily Caller. Follow him on Twitter.