His spoken-word performances have generated millions of views on YouTube, but long before Ezekiel Azonwu ever moved a poet slam audience to snap its fingers, he battle rapped.

“Tenth grade through twelfth grade, that was my life,” Ezekiel said. “I breathed battle rapping and freestyling. That’s all I did.”

Ezekiel was so obsessed that he started a rap battle competition at his Los Angeles high school, similar to that of Freestyle Friday on BET’s 106 & Park. His rhymes were gun-centered, until he became a Christian as an underclassman in college. Ezekiel’s desire to impress listeners with punchlines transformed into a motivation to minister.

But as he attempted to communicate the message that changed his life through music, a hindrance emerged.

“I stopped rapping with beats because I hated that people would bang out to the music and wouldn’t hear what I was saying,” Ezekiel said.

At church shows, he began to perform his songs a cappella. Then in 2010, a poet named Prophet who performed at a church called Passion 4 Christ Movement invited Ezekiel to try spoken word there. Prophet showed him how they used poetry to share the gospel, which astounded Ezekiel.

“I could never do that. That’s amazing,” he said. “I almost felt convicted and discouraged about rapping. I’m like ‘Man, I’m not doing what God’s calling me to do. Maybe I should step away and be a missionary.’”

Prophet convinced Ezekiel to try spoken word — but only once. Then he would quit.

When Ezekiel performed his first piece “Almost (Saved)” at P4CM, though, it encouraged listeners more than he ever had before.

“It was crazy,” Ezekiel said. “It was just my testimony. I didn’t really need swag to do it. I didn’t need a beat to do it. And finally, for the first time in life, people were able to hear and relate to my words.”

“Almost (Saved)” became one of the most popular videos on P4CM’s YouTube channel, having accumulated nearly 800,000 views.

And Ezekiel did not quit spoken word. Instead, churches and schools requested his poetry so often that — with a wife, children and another job — it left no time for hip hop. Only when Ezekiel became a full-time artist in late 2013 did he find the time to record music again.

Over the past year or so, Ezekiel has released several songs that have left listeners wanting more. They will get more, as he’s in the process of completing a hip-hop project.

Not all artists can seamlessly make the jump between hip hop to spoken word. One who recently pulled it off with success, though, expects success from Ezekiel in his return.

“Ezekiel is just a beast when it comes to art,” Jackie Hill-Perry said. “I just think he’s a quality artist — full of punches, full of bars, structure, timing, pacing, style, flow — all that. Then he can get on the stage and do a dang poem and you wouldn’t know the difference.”

If the frequency of Ezekiel’s rap performances start to increase again, expect punchlines — but not a volume of music that risks listeners not hearing every word of his message.

“It’s not going to be a hip-hop concert where everything is blaring and, unless you know the song, you’re not going to be able to follow,” Ezekiel said. “I want people to be able to hear the words whether it’s a hit or not.”