Finally Comfortable in His Own Skin, GAWVI is OK Being a ‘Heathen’ [Interview]
When you think of someone putting in the 10,000 hours required to master a craft, you think about some of the most gifted and talented professionals in the world. When history looks back to document these key moments and say, “This person is important because…” you see a definitive timeline of where they came from, how they got there, and how they transformed the world around them. In Christian music, this person is GAWVI, and with his album Heathen, he is trying to make a bridge between worlds that can never seem to align properly.
Here’s what you probably know about GAWVI, he’s a super-producer and the man behind some of the greatest hits in Reach Records history. His sound is unique. When you throw a song on that was produced by GAWVI – you know it. While he doesn’t necessarily have the 1, 2, 3 trademark count of a Pharrell, he’s the space’s Pharrell none-the-less.
Now here’s what you don’t know about GAWVI: he’s so much more than a producer. He is an artist in the true sense of the word. He can vividly paint a picture with words, sonically engulf your ears with layers of sound, and move your soul with the intimacy of a track. The funny part about all this is – GAWVI didn’t know it either.
Therein lies his 10,000 hours. It took GAWVI over 10 years of soul searching sounds and styles; hearing from God, discovering who he is, and letting go of what he thought to be true. The producer/artist finally found his voice and discovered what he had to say was loud and important.
“Being an artist, that was never a goal,” said GAWVI. “I was really good at making beats and knowing how to make a song as far as vocal references. I went through a journey at the age of 15 in Christian hip hop. At age 20 I went to LA and was on a soul searching thing and I was under the wing of Rodney Jerkins. He got to teach me a lot of stuff in the pop world. I’ve always been a fan of that. What I learned was that I really wanted to apply that in my music.”
He continued, “When I came to Reach, a lot of the things I wanted to do, I knew it wouldn’t sound good for Lecrae, think Church Clothes timeline. Let me just make music for myself I thought and Reach came in and said, ‘Yo this is really good, what are you doing with it?’ ‘I don’t know, I’m making it for fun’, and one thing led to another and they said to keep working on it and see what happens. That’s how it just started.”
Once he was signed to Reach Records as an artist, there was a lot of preparation and growth in that season. He himself was not sure what he’d look like as an artist. That’s when We Belong started to take shape.
“Sometimes I get annoyed at it because I know as a brand new artist I was trying to make everyone happy,” he revealed. “I was making radio music or music for youth events. [I was] trying to please people because you are either fully Christian or fully hip-hop, it’s all one lane. I really hated that. We Belong opened up so many doors to feel people out.”
While GAWVI’s debut carried the appropriate title of “togetherness,” it was him that didn’t feel like he belonged. He was just creating music to in a sense fill a quota to a market that wasn’t true to his internal mission. At the time, he didn’t know better, but as the seasons changed, so did he.
“Panorama became my album of rebellion and there was a lot of trial and error in that. Now, I think with Heathen I finally figured out who I am as an artist and am super confident in that.”
Around the time of Panorama, he was really excited about making his style of music now. As he began to do a deep dive into Christian music, he realized all of Christian radio sounded alike.
“Why is it like this? When I turn on the radio, why is it all Hillsong vibes? Why is it the same songs from 20-years ago,” he asked himself. “I’m trying to understand what Christian radio is. They are explaining and I’m learning and I ask, ‘Why aren’t we on these radio stations’?”
What GAWVI discovered is that Christian rap was relegated to time slots. For example, there’d be a Friday night hour or two-block just for CHH. It was either that, or you’d have to tune into Houston stations like NGen Radio to hear it.
“It’s not a very popular thing. We make really good music. ‘Fight For Me’ is a clean song, I think it can fit into a Christian mold without selling out. It’s a fire hip-hop song but very pop radio. And I’m being told by Christian radio, ‘Sorry it’s not Christian worship, it’s too risky. Our supporters won’t like it’.”
He asked, “Then what is your fanbase because I don’t know young people jamming out to it 24/7 like that. I started seeing the ripple effect…”
In his brief Reach Records documentary he furthers the discussion:
“…Ya’ll driving something into people culturally where it doesn’t even connect with people. Like people in the hood aren’t listening to country…”
“Hillsong is amazing, Hillsong changed my life,” he said. “They are the pioneers of that sound…there’s nothing wrong with that.”
He continued, “When you consider that the only genre of Christianity, why?”
These thoughts are what helped spark the idea of Heathen. Think of “Heathen” as GAWVI’s 2020 answer to DC Talk’s “Jesus Freak” in the 90s. They took a derogatory term used to describe fanatical Christians and flipped it on its head to be an anthem and rallying cry that still sparks the same feelings 25-years later.
“Heathen isn’t an offensive word but it can be used as one,” he explained. “Nowadays it can even be used in a playful manner. If you miss church on a Sunday, it’s a joke and you’re called a ‘heathen’. There’s a little jab to it.”
He continued, “With heathen the actual term is sinner. I’m not lying about it, it’s biblical. I don’t care how much you love Jesus, we will sin still. We live in a fallen world. The grace of God has given us the holiness of Jesus. That’s what makes our identity, not a heathen. I’m not telling everyone, ‘Hey, let’s go sin’. Let’s identify what’s a reality to us and not be scared of reality.”
“In the church, we close ourselves off because we are too scared of being vulnerable and people seeing who we truly are. That causes a lot of destruction. I’m hoping people can reevaluate their identity and how they see people. If you see something different and heathen is offensive and you feel walking in a different style of Christianity is offensive to you, then hey, cool, call me ‘Heathen’ because I know my true identity.”
GAWVI credits his mom for this kind of thinking and says she’s one of his biggest inspirations. In the documentary, you hear him say, “She’s always told me, ‘When someone tells you you’re not normal, say thank you. Thank you for noticing I’m not the same as everyone else’. What’s funny about the word normal is it isn’t a bad word, but you can use it an offensive way.” That is the same concept as Heathen.
Not being normal is being different. For GAWVI, he wears that like a badge of honor. In addition to being a “Heathen,” he’s a Latino who embraces his heritage and the diversity found in his people and culture.
Last year, there was an incident that occurred at the Dove Awards. Simply put, a video appeared to show a red carpet reporter annoyed at GAWVI and his crew’s presence at the Dove Awards. It created a huge wave the night it was posted. Many artists rallied behind GAWVI and his team, others clamored that the video was taken out of context. GAWVI took the time to explain the situation.
“I received that video from a friend of mine and it struck a chord with all of us because it’s something that happens to minorities. It doesn’t happen every time but it does happen. It’s very frustrating, and I brought it up to my team and I brought it up to Reach Records and everyone was on board for posting it. It needs to be something of awareness. I didn’t know that Kirk Franklin was going to post what he did the next day (Boycotting the Dove Awards).”
Ultimately GAWVI decided to take the video down because he “saw how much hate spread around.” What he thought would spread awareness instead created a division that escalated things to another level.
“I don’t think the Dove Awards are bad, I know the person who runs it, she’s amazing. I was trying to bring awareness to Christian culture,” he shared. “And I went into investigation mode and we found the lady [reporter] and the company that she worked for and said we’d like to speak to them. They said they’d love to speak and clear it up. They thought it best to just speak to my manager instead of just talking to me to settle it. I have never spoken to her. The company spoke to my manager and said it’s a misunderstanding.”
These incidents bring up important and necessary conversations about culture. Christianity is just as diverse as anything else, and yet there is so much separation when it comes to representing race and the things that make us all beautiful.
“I’ve talked about culture a lot, and I’ve had Christians tell me, ‘GAWVI, why do you talk about culture so much? Just talk about Jesus. Jesus is enough, you don’t need to talk about this all the time’.”
GAWVI further said, “That made me realize how important what I’m doing is. Culture defines us. You see how Jesus moves. How he spoke to poor people, people in the governments. He knew how to maneuver the culture.”
The Reach Records artist said much of the division comes from doctrinal issues and having to feel right all the time.
“So many times there’s a self-righteous superior way that some believers feel Christianity is supposed to be. It even gets into doctrine. The Baptist way, the Pentecostal way. It’s so annoying,” he said. “I just try to bring light and testimony into my story without shoving it. With Christians, some may resonate with it and some may not just because it’s not familiar with them. If you look at a dude from the hood and he’s all tatted and you put him in an all-white church, immediately it’s scary, different, ‘Is this guy gonna rob us?’ It’s so important to talk about culture.”
GAWVI stated, “I want to make sure people know what I’m communicating. I’m not trying to pioneer a shift in the culture. I’m just trying to be part of the movement of a lot of great legends who have been fighting for this. This is me in my confidence and knowing who I finally am now and being able to communicate. I’m really excited to try to break walls down like how Lecrae did for us.”
Ultimately, he’s thankful to be a Latino and he’s thankful to be in Christian hip-hop. He’s also thankful to be part of a family of creatives. It’s something he’s always been a part of on this journey of music.
GAWVI came up as the producer of rap trio Rhema Soul. He helped create the sounds of Butta P, Juan Love, and Konata Small as G-Styles. That was his first family. That family blended into the early days of Social Club Misfits when Marty and Fern were feeling themselves out. After that family, he joined Reach Records, and now in this present, he’s heading his own family.
Just listening to GAWVI’s last two projects and you’ll hear a series of young, up and coming artists who’s sounds are all across the spectrum. Some of these names include Aklesso, Rhomar Jessy, TROSSTHEGIANT, WXLF, Tommy Royale, DJ Enzo Gran, and more.
“Music has never been a one-man-band type of thing. The best part of making music is when you can make it with your friends. This is not me taking them under my wing, this is just a partnership, a friendship, everything is organic and a lot of fun.”
While that sounds like a nice and humble answer, the thing is, for these artists, it means a lot more than maybe he realizes. You can hear it in the way they speak about him in the credits of Heathen. You can read about it in the Rapzilla interview with Aklesso, when he mentions GAWVI being instrumental to his success.
This is GAWVI’s new family and while we don’t know the name yet, this is the future of CHH, Heathens and all – led by the guy who is creating music beyond his 10,000 hours of mastery. So when you listen to his new project, keep all this perspective in mind. Every time you hear the catchphrase, “GAWVI GET-EM,” now you know, he’s really trying to “Get-Em.”