Amid the holiday season, there’s been plenty of talk about budgeting, gift-giving, and because of the COVID-19 pandemic, financial struggle. While we pray for the well-being of our entire community, the larger body of Christ, and our society as a whole, we also recognize not everyone, artist or otherwise, is in an especially well-off position.

Enter Ruslan. The self-described “hip-hop artist and creative entrepreneur” has seen immense growth in his YouTube channel and wealth over the past year, particularly as he began creating content centered on matters of faith and the sociopolitical condition of the United States. While his YouTube blowup can certainly be attributed to the honest, hard-hitting conversations he’s done on these matters, Ruslan is also a voice of economic wisdom, providing his viewers and Patreon patrons with tools of “ethical wealth-building.”

You’ve often talked on your YouTube channel about the concept of “ethical wealth-building.” For everyone who hasn’t been put on game yet, can you define that for us? 

In our society, some people believe or assume capitalism is intrinsically bad. I grew up in a communistic country, was born in Soviet Russia and I remember real communism, and I remember lining up for rations. I remember our apartment having a bathtub of water that we’d have to share for a number of days. I’ve seen the other side firsthand.

Now, America’s not perfect, and capitalism is far from perfect, but this notion that in order for me to win someone has to lose is extremely toxic and combative, and it assumes that kingdom capitalism with ethical wealth-building is a zero-sum game and it isn’t, it’s a win-win-win game. If I add value, service, or a product to the marketplace that consumers find valuable and are willing to pay me for, they get a great service or product, and I get paid for it. This is intrinsic to humanity.

Look at how amazing of a time we’re in right now where I can make incredible money to help a lot of people give away a lot of money by never really leaving my house.  That’s ethical wealth building.

Look at how amazing of a time we’re in right now where I can make incredible money to help a lot of people give away a lot of money by never really leaving my house. That’s ethical wealth building. It’s for the intent of helping people and putting your consumer first. It also comes with the mentality of “if I put the consumer first, I also gotta put people first, if I put people first, I’m gonna be more generous with my money. I’m gonna be more intentional about giving money to churches, and charities, and if I make more money, society as a whole, benefits more. My church benefits more, the people I hire, benefit more,” and so on.

So it’s not a zero-sum game, there’s no winner or losers, and I think that has subtly become our mentality in America, but specifically in the church where we view a hierarchy. But that’s just not the case, everybody can win, everybody can build wealth. Maybe not everyone can be rich, but by and large, in 2020, 2021, if you’re of able body, sound mind, and you have a heart for people, I think it’s an incredible time to be alive.

*And he’s right, not everyone can be rich, nor should they. But one of the issues we seem to have in Christian culture is a complete misunderstanding of the role of wealth in our lives, thanks largely to biblical misreading. In addressing the concept of a church hierarchy, Ruslan was grazing along this issue in the American Church. So often we choose, unintentionally or not, to see the Bible’s teachings as matching up perfectly with our society, but the reality is the biblical authors came from a time that was very different from our own. As such, we have to focus on proper interpretation and application of Scripture, simultaneously trying to understand what the text meant in their time, and then discerning applicable lessons for ours.*

Ruslan

Elevation Conference by @mattedpictures

A lot of Christians get wrapped up in and often misquote 1 Timothy 6:10, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows” (NKJV). This verse and others are often taken as an outright condemnation of wealth, but can you talk us through the nuances of that verse’s application, particularly in the context we live in? 

Whenever we approach Scripture we have to look at all of Scripture. Scripture has to interpret Scripture. Christians love to pick apart verses. I don’t do verses, let’s talk passages, let’s talk ideas, let’s talk chapters. I believe 1 Timothy. For the love of money is a sin to all kinds of evil. So how does that relate to today?

There are people who just want to be rich and famous for the sake of being rich and famous. Proverbs says an inheritance attained too early in life is not a blessing, it’s a curse in the end. Meaning if you get rich quick, if you get rich before you’re equipped to handle it, you get an inheritance, you win the lottery, that’s not a blessing in the end because you’re not equipped to handle it unless you come from a really good family that can prepare you for that.

Don’t be greedy. Don’t try to be famous for the sake of being famous. Money comes from an exchange of value. And the more value you can give, the Bible says to become more helpful.

Ephesians 4:28 says, “‘Let the thief steal no longer but rather let him labor doing honest work with his own hands so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (ESV). And Ephesians is just talking about Christian conduct, very basic stuff. But this verse, let him labor doing honest work with his own hands. Why? So they may have something to share with anyone in need.

The verse that’s convicted me the most is in the context of the church supporting widows and being generous, 1 Timothy 5:8, “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (NIV). This next one’s specifically for all the Christian rappers. This is the verse that got me out of debt, Proverbs 12:11, “Whoever works his land will have plenty of bread, but he follows worthless pursuits lacks sense” (ESV).

Money comes from an exchange of value. And the more value you can give, the Bible says to become more helpful.

So if we’re looking at scripture, don’t be greedy, make yourself useful. Do something with your own hands, share with those in need. And you can. You can make a comfortable living, especially in 2020 in Christian hip hop. But if the objective is money you’re done. It’s gotta be something deeper than that. For me, it’s helping people. Sincerely helping people.

*A willingness to help others is and always should be one of the marks of a believer, and verses like Ephesians 4:28 paired with Jesus’s commentary on knowing one by their fruit and doing for Him what we’d done for the lowest in society (Matthew 7:15-20 and Matthew 25:35-40) all point to generosity being fundamental to our faith. But there are Christian camps that take specific points of doctrine and concepts to their extremes, and when it comes to wealth, there are at least two such camps.

The Prosperity Gospel is one that’s become more prominent in Christian discussion, particularly because we associate so many major televangelists with it. But there’s also the Poverty Gospel, which decries wealth completely and places all value in self-denial. To most Christians living in a capitalist society, both of these likely seem outrageous. We know earthly riches aren’t our purpose, but we also know we have to pay for our goods and possessions.*

On the extreme ends of ethical wealth-building’s more moderate position seems to be the Prosperity Gospel and Poverty Gospel. Generally, the former portrays our faith as a determinant of our wealth, and the latter treats poverty as a necessary component of that faith. How dangerous are both these ways of thinking for the Christian community? 

Ruslan

The prosperity gospel can sway very drastically to borderline delusion. And I’m not saying words don’t have power. Our faith matters. Our words matter, and our thoughts matter. But when you allude to that alone as what makes someone wealthy and healthy. That’s just silly. And I don’t want to make a caricature of all people who believe in the prosperity gospel, but it’s now taken over towards its own denomination, and now you literally have people that believe if you name it and claim it, God will give it to you. And not just that, but that your faith is connected to your wealth, and that’s not true.

Sometimes people have a lot of faith, but they don’t have useful skills, or can’t have useful skills, because they’re disabled, because they have a chemical imbalance in their brain, because they need to go to therapy, or because there’s trauma. Those are people we need to pray for, we need to be gracious and humble and encouraging towards.

The prosperity gospel is in error, in my opinion, when it simplifies wealth building to just thoughts, prayers, and words. It’s way more than that. Now a lot of times it does start there. You behave how you believe. So if you believe the system is rigged, and you believe the little man can’t get ahead, and you believe capitalism is evil, then guess what, you’re gonna act congruent and according to your own beliefs. But if you believe there’s abundance, if you believe that we live in an incredible time with a lot of opportunities, and you think, “man, what skills can I develop? What can I learn to help somebody else?” You can act according to that.

The poverty gospel takes on a more pious position. It overemphasizes suffering for the gospel, but the issue there is, what is our current context? Are we getting beheaded the way the Apostles got beheaded? Or do we live in a society that is substantially more friendly to religious liberty, to some of our views to the point where there’s a big chunk of our government that are followers and believers of the Way and want to legislate that? I think that’s the part the poverty gospel misses.

I would say to me suffering means self-denial, and to me, suffering means loving my wife and my son when I don’t feel like it. To me, suffering means waking up early and beating my body into submission through training and nutrition. To me, suffering means reading my Bible when I don’t feel like it. I think that’s our applicable step in terms of suffering, not suffering because you’re going to die, or because you’re going to get beheaded, and you’re going to get persecuted. Yes, there’s persecution, but come on, somebody calling me a bigot because I think fornication is a sin? That wasn’t their context.

*Keyword: context. Our world and the world of the apostles is an entirely different one, and while we are not of the world, we do live in and must engage it. For artists in the Christian hip-hop space, for both their careers and the advancement of the Gospel, that means taking advantage of the various technologies and platforms available to them.*

In your conversation with the Crew, one of the points that came up was Wande and Paul Russell’s emergence on Tik-Tok. CHH has often been portrayed as a space of limitation where artists can’t really get past Lecrae, Andy, or KB numbers (with NF being an outlier). Talk to us about how this mentality affects our entire space. 

We create ceilings for ourselves. And then we compare ourselves amongst ourselves. What if Chance the Rapper or Russ was the ceiling? Both are independent artists, both are contrarian to the modern concept of what rap is. And this is not an endorsement of everything Russ and Chance rap about, but Chance did a whole album about marriage, right? And people didn’t like it, it wasn’t critically acclaimed, but he did it. Russ talks about not doing drugs. And he’s very hated by a lot of the mainstream hip-hop community. Again, not saying Russ is a Christian, I’m not endorsing his worldview.

What I’m saying is, what if we looked at those guys as the ceiling. What if those guys were the folks we looked at and said, the ceiling is 10 million Instagram followers. The ceiling is 500,000 sales, not 50,000 sales. And then we reverse-engineered from there and said, how did those guys become disruptive? And I think Tobe [Nwigwe] is an example. Outside of maybe Andy, Lecrae, and NF, who’s bigger than Tobe? And Tobe’s completely independent. Tobe’s numbers are crazy on Spotify. He just got to doing half a million monthly listeners on Spotify. When I was following him earlier, maybe a year or so ago, he was at like maybe 80,000 monthly listeners. Here you have someone who completely ignored the ceilings in Christian hip-hop, and he’s doing very well.

We’re all just looking at each other with what’s right in front of us but the world is way bigger.  I’ll give you a really practical example, my numbers are increasing on YouTube right now but as proxy, all my other numbers have gone up. My Spotify grew by 80% in followers this year, I didn’t put out an album and still did almost 4 million streams.

Ruslan

For context, nobigdyl. who I would say is like the equivalent of where I’m at, has put out a ton of music. And nobigdyl. has 10 or 11 million streams. I haven’t put out an album this year, my stuff went up 80%. Why? Because I found a whole other pocket of people on YouTube who are like, “I don’t even listen to Christian Rap. But I’m a Christian. And I like rap. And Ruslan, you make fire music and I’m just now getting your music.” That’s available right now on Tik-Tok. That’s available right now on YouTube. It’s available in a variety of places. And we’re too busy looking at the same 100,000 fans that everybody’s fighting for. The Rapzilla fans, which are dope, the Reach Records fans, and there are so many people out there.

I get 300,000 unique users on my YouTube page a month. I’m doing about 40 to 70,000 views a day. And most of my streams start with my music at the beginning of it. 1.1 million views a month, and it’s only growing from the 40,000 subscribers I’m at now.

And those aren’t even like crazy numbers. But I say all that to say there’s a lot of people out there. There’s an influx of a billion people hitting YouTube right now, from places in the world that didn’t have high-speed internet and didn’t have smartphones. Remember, there are 7 billion people in the world, and a billion are hitting YouTube for the first time. 2 billion active users on YouTube. Instagram’s at 1 billion active users, so YouTube is twice as big as Instagram. And Tik-Tok has 800 million active, so Tik-Tok is right there with Instagram. Meaning there are a lot of people in the world, way more than we could ever imagine. And we’re so obsessed with looking at the same 100 or 200,000 and we’ve set these arbitrary ceilings for our careers for what we think success is.

We’re all just looking at each other with what’s right in front of us but the world is way bigger.

We’re comparing ourselves amongst ourselves and I think it does the community a disservice. I think it does the gospel a disservice because the more Christian rappers we have, the more Christians in rap we have, the Gospel always goes first. People’s palate towards the things of God changes. And we’re set up primely for it.

Kendrick, Kanye, Chance, J. Cole, they’re softening the palate of the rap consumer to be more open to the Gospel. Society is shifting to be more open and less closed off to the idea of Jesus. There’s a huge opportunity where people’s palates are in general, and we have to jump on that. And in doing so we can help people, make money and live comfortable lifestyles.

That’s ethical wealth-building right there. Help people, make money, live comfortably. In a society where financial comfort is possible, isn’t it a logical goal, even if again, it is not our purpose?

In our context, wealth should be a tool. One we use to help our friends, families, and communities, one we use to edify the body of Christ, one we use to exemplify the message of Jesus, and one we use to help advance the Gospel, our ultimate commission.

So can the majority of us be, at the very least, comfortable? Probably. But not everyone knows where to start.

If you could share one more bit of wisdom with your fellow Christians attempting to grow their brand, what would it be? 

First, you have to know yourself. Know what makes you, you. If you don’t know yourself, it’s gonna be difficult for you to know what your unique value proposition is to the marketplace. I’ll give you a tangible example, I’m an only child, I struggle with self-awareness and always have. I intentionally didn’t want to talk about race and politics on my channel, I didn’t even really want to talk about my faith. The things that got me the most amount of momentum and growth were faith, race, and politics. So one, self-awareness. Understanding yourself, understanding what you bring to the marketplace, and listening to what other people are saying about you.

As a practical example, Lecrae retweeted a tweet of mine where I said, “one can be a patriot, acknowledge systemic racism, advocate for systemic changes, embrace and promote personal responsibility, acknowledge privilege while not viewing critical race theory or intersectionality as Gospel truth. Less tribalism, more empathy + critical thinking.” Lecrae retweeted that, and he said, “this man is a thinker right here, we need more people like this.”

I could’ve brushed over that, but what I thought was, “here’s somebody that’s wildly successful, here’s someone I know is solid as a person, here’s somebody that has a ton of influence, and the thing he pointed out about me publicly was that I was a critical thinker.” And I said “ya know what? Why am I afraid to talk about the nuance in all of these things and be uncomfortable? Let me press into that.” So self-awareness but also listening to other people.

People pick up on artists, influencers, or brands that are incongruent, inconsistent, or inauthentic. This is the most marketed to generation ever. They can sniff you out if you’re fake really quick. So if you know yourself, if you listen to what other people are telling you about yourself, the good, bad, ugly, the blind spots, the sin, and you’re willing to press into your vantage point, that’s huge.

Know what makes you you. If you don’t know yourself, it’s gonna be difficult for you to know what your unique value proposition is to the marketplace.

The second thing I’d say is, sometimes you just gotta live life. Sometimes you just have to go through some stuff to find out who you really are. Sometimes you gotta get married, and have kids, and try different things. So many young entrepreneurs find it cool to be an entrepreneur, but don’t really know what problem they’re solving because they don’t know what problem they’re solving in themselves. I’ve figured out quite a few things, now I can talk about these things with confidence. Therefore, I have value to add with nuanced conversations. But if you’ve never gone through anything, and you haven’t done anything, it’s gonna be hard for you to build a personal brand or company. So sometimes the best thing to do is go work for someone else. Go sit with someone else, help somebody build their thing, be an intrapreneur before you’re an entrepreneur.

I was an intrapreneur at my church for two years, I functioned as an entrepreneur inside of a bigger organization that set me up to do everything I’m doing now from Livestream and broadcasting, to a little bit of music, to teaching/communicating, and it was great for me. So a lot of people may find liberation right there in deciding, “let me work on being an intrapreneur for a season before I jump into being an entrepreneur” because no one cares about your cool logo on a tee shirt. What does it mean? What are you trying to say? But when you’ve gone through some stuff, and there’s some pain there, and some struggle there, usually that’s the stuff that tends to translate better to connect with more people.

Knowing yourself will help you find your micro tribe, your target audience. If you try to reach everybody, you’re not gonna reach anybody. So who’s your target audience? Generally, your target audience is the version of you from 10 or 15 years ago that has not solved all the problems you’ve solved in the last decade.

Ruslan

Also, just don’t be allergic to work. Don’t be allergic to being willing to do hard things. If you’re willing to do hard things like learn, like suffer, like be curious as a kid. Jesus talks about having childlike faith, what if we applied that for our personal development? If we approached our business with that degree of curiosity, I think we could do some great things. But we come with very firm preconceived notions of how things work, and again, what you believe will determine how you behave. If you believe in this rigid, rough system, then that’s how you’re gonna go, but if you realize the world is changing, technology is changing everything, then it’ll allow you to try out different things, and be curious, and have fun.

Ultimately we all want to honor God, we all want to love Jesus and love people, at least we should if we’re Christians, and that to me is fun. That to me is the dopest thing ever. I remember what I was like before I was saved. I had substantially less fun. Maybe I had some pleasure here or there, but I have way more fun and fulfillment, excitement, and purpose in my life now on the other side of following Jesus, but it was a journey to get where I’m at.

*That journey is exactly why Ruslan can properly use his platform to speak on all of this. He’s gone through a ton of his struggles, and by the grace of God, overcome them. He’s walked paths that will look wildly different from some of us, but similar enough to others that they can see pieces of themselves reflected in their stories. In the most abridged version of his story, Ruslan immigrated from a communist country, grew up in the United States, came to Jesus, and built a successful business with multiple revenue streams using his God-given creativity, and he’s just getting started.

Our stories all start somewhere, but they don’t have to end there. We have opportunities to be wise, make decisions that honor our Creator and our consciences, and show love to the whole of His Creation. Wealth is just one tool in all of that, not one to be framed, admired, or worshipped, but one to put to use. One to take advantage of and leave even a microcosm of the world better than we entered it.

But whether we live in prosperity, in poverty, in comfort, or in struggle, to God be the glory.*

Check out Ruslan’s conversation with KB and Ameen Hudson that inspired this article below.