Meet Serene: The UK rapper who S.O. of Lamp Mode encouraged to return to music
As a UK-based, Christian hip-hop artist, Serene has already separated himself from what most know of the subgenre.
America, home to many of the major labels and artists of Christian hip hop, still dominates the majority of the subgenre and presents a unique set of circumstances to any artist outside of its borders.
Serene hopes to soar above the boundaries between his home and where the majority of his industry resides, attacking things from a global perspective. In doing so, he faces a challenge that he feels is all too prevalent with Christian hip hop in the UK.
“I will be very honest in what I am about to say,” Serene said. “I feel like at times the UK only realizes what they have when America gives the co-sign.”
Serene saw this sort of reality when UK-based artist Dwayne Tryumf was featured on Lecrae’s “Don’t Waste Your Life”.
“I feel like people didn’t give him the love and respect he was due until he was on the track with Lecrae,” Serene said. “That was like the pinpoint of when people were like, ‘Oh yeah! That’s Dwayne Tryumf! He’s a UK rapper!’ and I kind of felt like, ‘Well you guys weren’t really on his back like this before that. Why now? Is it because he is on a track with Lecrae?’”
It is situations like this that Serene is trying to overcome in his career and with his upcoming release of Different Strokes II: Mending Broken Strings, which is set to release on May 4, 2015.
Serene was born and raised in South London, England. He grew up in an African household where church attendance was not choice, but an obligation.
“It was something you were required to do each and every Sunday,” Serene said. “In that environment, I was exposed to the church, in particular, this sort of Pentecostal, charismatic-type of church setting.”
Despite this strict approach to church attendance and participation, Serene still found himself hanging with the wrong crowd, commonly associating himself with those who were highly involved in the gang activity that was prevalent in South London.
“I had an affiliation with certain gangs in the area that I was ‘rolling in,’” Serene said. “I never claimed to be a part of a gang, but with me having certain friends who were part of a certain gang, it would be viewed as if I was a part of them.”
However, his involvement in gang activity did not compare with his involvement in music, which was ever present in his household. His brother was a secular emcee for a genre of music called garage that was popular in the UK at the time, and Serene listened to artists such as Big L, The Notorious B.I.G. and Jay Z.
Given his heavy involvement in the church for most of his life, Serene was also familiar with some of the early roots of Christian hip hop in the UK — groups like Zion Noise, which included artists such as Jahaziel, Dwayne Tryumf and Royal Priesthood.
However, it was not until he heard Japhia Life’s Fountain of Life album that he realized that Christian hip hop was bigger than just the UK.
“Before [Fountain of Life], I didn’t realize there was a big movement of this,” Serene said. “I thought it was just in the UK, ‘cause that’s just what I knew the guys in the UK were doing.”
Serene’s first involvement as an artist in the subgenre was at the age of nine in a Christian hip-hop group called A.F.G. Nexus, which he formed with his brother and a few other friends. This is where he was able to first polish his skills.
“Starting off at a young age, being a rapper, writing music, writing some of the hooks in the group at that time; from that group, I began to really develop as an artist,” Serene said.
The group broke up in 2005, and Serene decided to pursue a much different route than what he was doing in A.F.G. Nexus.
“I kind of wanted to do my own thing and go into a sort of secular realm and kind of just be my own artist without having the Christian stigma,” Serene said. “It didn’t work out too well at all.”
It was following this failure that Serene took a break from music. He did not start rapping again until 2008, when he dedicated his life to Christ. Both of these major changes in his life were a product of a discussion he had with his brother, who is a pastor at Reality LA church in Los Angeles.
“He spoke to me and really kind of just said, ‘Where am I at with my life?’” Serene said.
He then provided Serene with a CD that had five sermons about biblical assurance on it. This is when he finally fully understood what the gospel was all about.
“Growing up in the church, you always hear ‘Christ died for your sins’ and things like that,” Serene said. “Until that was actually explained to me, until I realized why He had to die, that’s when I realized that God’s wrath was actually abiding on me until I repent and rely on Christ.”
Serene recognized that God had given him talent for rapping and decided to utilize that to further His kingdom by fully pursuing a career in Christian hip hop again.
Different Strokes II: Mending Broken Strings is Serene’s second installment in the Different Strokes series, as well as his second release as a solo artist.
Serene chose to take a different approach toward this EP, as opposed to the first installment, focusing on being as personal and transparent as possible in his lyrics.
“I feel like its a very honest and open project,” Serene said. “I just wanted to present a project that came from a place of brokenness, a place of vulnerability and kind of just present hope in our brokenness.”
This sense of brokenness came from the experience of releasing his first solo project and the disappointment he struggled with after the reaction to the project was not as enthusiastic as he anticipated.
“When I dropped the first project, there were a lot of expectations I had on myself. I thought that the moment you drop a project, in my head I thought that it would start like a bidding war, and labels would now all come after me,” Serene said. “And, it didn’t happen. And I kind of thought, ‘What am I actually doing this music for?’”
In the five-year gap between the two projects, Serene struggled with finding purpose in his career and lacked the motivation to make any sort of follow-up project. It was in this period of his life that he received a large amount advice and mentoring from Lamp Mode Recordings artist S.O., a close friend of his since the age of 14.
“With him, just as I have told any artist, I said, ‘Bro, you’ve just got to work. You’ve got to let the Lord use you where you are,’” S.O. said.
S.O., as well as all the artists under Lamp Mode at the time, aided in rejuvenating Serene’s love for music and pushed him to finally put out another project.
“Being around the Lamp Mode guys and being around S.O., it kind of sparked another sort of sense of love for the music that I was doing,” Serene said. “It made me realize that this music thing was bigger than me.”
Re-energized, Serene called up GP, the producer of all tracks on the EP, and began to work on making the brutally honest music that defines Different Strokes II.
“When he came out and said he wanted to make music again, I automatically knew what we were going to be talking about,” GP said.
GP had also been close with Serene when he was experiencing those struggles following his first solo release and knew right away that his music was going to be focused on that trying time in his life.
“I’ve known his frustrations and the reasons why he took some time out,” GP. “So, naturally, let’s talk about that. Let’s make music. Let’s create emotion about the things you’re going through.”
As a consequence of focusing on the transparency of his lyrics, Serene had to deal with the issue of sharing life experiences that, at first, he was not willing to make public. Perhaps the best example of this is heard on the track “Let Me Go,” in which he address heavy topics like the absence of a father in his life.
“It’s hard because these are people who are close to your life, these are people who are going to hear it,” Serene said. “You don’t know which way it is going to be taken by the person you are talking about.”
Another challenge created due to the extremely personal nature of the EP was selecting the right features. Originally, Serene was quite ambitious in choosing who he wanted on the project, pursuing artists such as Da’ T.R.U.T.H. and Andy Mineo, but he was forced to reevaluate those choices after running into various technical roadblocks that made it difficult for such collaborations to happen.
“I had to kind of review the whole plan and think, ‘Am I getting these features because of their name, or does it sonically make sense with the song?’” Serene said.
He then looked to some of the other artists he admired and matched them to certain tracks based off how they best complimented the project.
From the countless hours in the studio, to the sometimes painful process of digging deep within himself in order to deliver the most authentic message possible, Serene has put all he has into this project. He hopes that through his work, listeners can find hope in their brokenness, just as he did many times throughout his life.
Buy Different Strokes II: Mending Broken Strings on iTunes.