Before Marty Santiago routinely climbed iTunes charts as a member of the Miami-based rap duo Social Club, he was a youth pastor.
An evident common denominator between his roles as a rapper and pastor is his impact on teens, which a former member of his youth group, Steph Villa, detailed to Rapzilla.com. Her first impression of the self-proclaimed awkward artist did anything but scare her away.
“My family just had left a church that was rude and stuck up,” Villa said. “When we first got to [his] church, Martin was one of the people that made us feel the most comfortable there.”
Villa admitted that, pre-Marty, she was often uncomfortable around people. However, the youth leader-turned-pastor preached then what he raps about now — being who God called you to be, which is the concept of his latest album.
“I’ve always been very shy, and I was basically intimidated by people,” Villa said. “I was never really vocal about my faith, but Martin always encouraged me to be who I was.”
On Tuesday, Marty released his second retail LP with Social Club. The project, titled US, starts with a motivational speech by New York City pastor Chris Durso.
“You were called to change your family,” Durso begins the track. “You were called to change the world.”
Durso’s encouragement to make an impact sets the tone for US — encouragement that sounds familiar to Villa.
“That’s like the main thing [Marty] talked about,” Villa said. “He called us planet shakers.”
Marty made bracelets for his youth group with the Bible verse James 1:22 on them: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”
Marty’s youth group gathered on Thursday evenings, and he pegged one meeting per month as prayer night. On one occasion, Villa said, he prayed with her about becoming a great influence on young women.
She has since found herself as the lone Christian encouragement to friends who have suffered from suicidal thoughts, as well as Bulimia. When Villa is discouraged, she remembers Marty’s prayer.
“Honestly, Martin’s probably one of the biggest inspirations I’ve had as a Christian,” Villa said. “I’ve been going to church my whole life, and Martin’s one of the people who taught me the most about God and the Bible.”
The same attributes that Social Club has become known for — grace, vulnerability and humor — Marty also embodied as a youth pastor, Villa said. Funniest memories with the artist include him freestyling to a Denny’s waitress and his antics at a local fair (fast forward to 0:24).
“I can’t think of one person who disliked him,” Villa said. “There were a lot of kids who their parents made them go to church, but they enjoyed going because of Martin.”
In 2011, Marty was unjustly excommunicated from his church. Months later, Villa took to Twitter to see how he was doing. His follower count had increased, thanks to a return to rapping.
“Oh wow, Martin’s famous I guess,” Villa said.
Marty, previously featured on four songs on Rhema Soul’s album Dope Beats & Good News in 2008, had put the mic down to focus on ministry. He picked it back up in 2011, but his focus on ministry remained. Since then, Villa’s testimony confirms, the only thing that has changed about his message is the size of the audience receiving it.
“He wasn’t judgmental, he was very approachable and he was always real with everyone,” Villa said. “I don’t think he’s changed. It’s really cool that he’s doing what he’s always wanted to do.”