On A Mission: Dee-1 Talks Music and Ministry
It’s difficult to label artistry you don’t understand. That’s why New Orleans emcee Dee-1 doesn’t mind whether you call him a Christian rapper or not. However, Dee-1 makes it very clear that he’s creating his own lane in the rap game by staying true to his Mission Vision: Be real, be righteous and be relevant.
In February, his single “Sallie Mae Back” took a life of its own and quickly became recognized as the anthem of a generation. The LSU graduate and former middle school teacher recently kicked off the first leg of “The Sallie Mae Back Tour” promoting the importance of higher education and financial literacy, proving once again that he’s definitely one to watch. Recently, Dee-1 set the internet ablaze with the video release of “Against Us Remix,” featuring Lupe Fiasco and Big K.R.I.T.
Dee-1 spoke to JET about walking in his purpose, how he identifies his music, and staying faithful to his Mission Vision.
JET: With “Sallie Mae Back” going viral, being on tour, and the reaction to the “Against Us Remix,” how are you feeling right now?
Dee-1: I feel like I’m growing. I feel like if I wasn’t growing I would be scared to death because anything that’s not growing is dying. That’s probably why I wake up every day with this permanent smile etched on my face.
JET: How did the “Against Us Remix” come about?
Dee-1: I put the original song out and it got a really good response from everybody. It felt like one of those songs that needed more perspective brought to it. “Against Us” is a theme that a lot of people may want to chime in on and have something to say about what it means to them. So I didn’t just want to get one person for a remix, and I wanted it to feel like a completely new song. I put a new verse on it and I got two guest artists on the song. When it came down to who I wanted, I just wanted to pick two of my friends.
Honestly, I don’t like all the industry back and forth of trying to work with people who really don’t care about your movement or your brand. I wanted to work with two people I was friends with, but who I also respected highly as artists. Lupe Fiasco and Big K.R I.T. just made so much sense, it just clicked for me. I think based off the reactions it was a good combination that I put together. Nothing feels the same on that song. Dee-1 doesn’t sound like Big K.R.I.T., Big K.R.I.T. doesn’t sound like Lupe Fiasco. It doesn’t feel like we’re competing against each other. It feels like we’re unified from three different angles.
JET: Is it difficult for you to find other artists you want to collaborate with?
Dee-1: Yeah, definitely. Sometimes I’ve collaborated with artists and I didn’t use the verse they sent over because I don’t want to censor anyone. But I would think if someone gets on my track, they would be respectful of my brand. But for some people that’s just their artistic freedom to go in whatever direction they want. I’ve ended up not putting out songs featuring them because it didn’t go along with the mission that I’m on.
JET: How do you identify yourself as an artist?
Dee-1: I let people do it for me. I don’t look at myself as a rapper. I definitely see myself as more of a teacher than a rapper. I feel like a revolutionary. I know that I’m going against the grain, and I’m attempting to eradicate a lot of things that have been wrong with society and the music industry through my walk and my musical catalog. I’m actually using rap to get my message out there, but rap isn’t using me at all.
JET: Let’s talk about “Sallie Mae Back.” How has that single changed your life?
Dee-1: When “Sallie Mae Back” came out, it went somewhere that no one was expecting hip hop to go [in terms of] talking about financial literacy, fiscal responsibility and the importance of celebrating your accomplishments, namely when you get out of debt.
What “Sallie Mae Back” did was position me in a place where everybody is like, we have all these rappers who are doing [one thing], and then you have Dee-1. He’s one of them, but he’s doing something different. And what it’s done has spun off a bunch of tour dates. I’m in the first leg of the Sallie Mae Back Tour.
In some cities I’m doing concerts and in other cities I’m doing speaking engagements on everything from financial literacy to the importance of higher education. I’m giving a commencement speech in my hometown inspiring high school graduates. It really has taken off in that realm. Also, behind closed doors, there are some big moves that are being made that will be announced soon, but it’s definitely come about because of the success of this song.
JET: When did you know music was your ministry?
Dee-1: I think I started looking at it as a ministry in 2013. I did a show in Cincinnati, OH, and I was sick as a dog. I almost couldn’t do the show. I pulled it together, went out there and did the show and there was a guy who came up to me. I was at the merchandise table signing autographs, taking pictures with people and this guy came up to me and told me that he decided to give his life to Jesus Christ that night after seeing me perform, hearing my story, and feeling my energy. When he told me that, that was the first time I looked at what I do as ministry. Before that, I knew it was something positive I was doing, and I knew it was different from the norm, and I felt like it was needed as well. But I never felt like it was ministry until somebody told me that my music was the reason they decided to form a relationship with Jesus Christ.
JET: I heard you’re working on your next album—what’s on your heart to talk about this time around?
Dee-1: What’s really on my heart is to talk about my journey. I realize that I don’t have to look outside of myself to be able to relate to people. I do a great job at breaking my journey down and being able to conceptualize my journey in a way that a lot of people can relate to, just by telling my story. I want to tell my own story, but with more intimate details than ever. That’s the part where I’m challenging myself to go deeper. Somebody told me years ago: “Man you’re doing a good job, but you need to go deeper.” I didn’t know what he meant at that time, and now I do because there’s a lot more I could be telling than what I have been.
JET: I saw your video on Facebook where you talked about rejecting an acting role because it required you to use profanity. Your transparency and how you broke down the difference between a good opportunity and a God opportunity was so dope. How do you stay faithful to your Mission Vision?
Dee-1: The funny thing is that I wrote this down last night in my notes on my phone. The number one thing I wrote down is that I know why I’m in this industry. I’m in this industry to be able to make those types of decisions that people aren’t used to seeing a celebrity or rapper or person in that limelight make. If they do make them, they’re not used to that person being so forthcoming to where they’ll talk about it. I actually caught some flack for making the [“Sallie Mae Back”] video, just to be real with you. That was just a personal choice I made based on my conviction.
Secondly, the value of standing for something greater than money is truly priceless. This isn’t just a role that I’m playing on the microphone. This is me on and off the mic. I’m really trying to be the best man of God I can be. I’m trying to be the best leader I can be. It hurts me when I feel like I let my fans down, or if I let God down. It hurts me to the point where I don’t have to be reprimanded by the media because I feel bad enough on my own. I know why I’m in this industry—to be different, to be a light and to be able to set an example for people.
JET: What did you have to overcome in order to fully walk in your purpose?
Dee-1: I had to overcome caring about what people thought about me. I really cared about what people thought about me to where I wanted to manage my public image so much that I didn’t want to fully embrace having God be part of my brand. But I think being sometime-y with God makes it so that he’ll be sometime-y with the blessings we ask for. So the same God that I’m praying to for blessings, I can’t be afraid to give Him glory no matter what stage or platform I’m on.
It took a lot of life lessons for me to embrace that and fully get it. I went through a bad bout of depression, I was suicidal and the root of it was frustration with a lack of progress. I realized it was God wanting to know that if He put me on the type of platform I wanted, would I be a good steward of this platform? I had to go through those things to fully walk in my anointing.