Fr. Claude Burns is a pastor at Holy Spirit Church in Evansville, IN. However, many outside of his parish know him as Fr. Pontifex, a rapper whose frankness, orthodoxy and engaging style has made him a rising star in the ever-emerging genre of Catholic hip-hop. In his first full length release, “Ordained,” Fr. Pontifex’s songs range from the autobiographical to the catechetical. A casual observer might think the idea of a rapping priest to be campy or gimmicky, and perhaps on some level, it is. However, Fr. Pontifex’s style, which is simultaneously engaging and disarming, is something that this reviewer found difficult to dismiss out of hand.
More in the tradition of 70’s soul than contemporary rap, the throwback stylings of tracks like the shout-along “Don’t Sleep” and the impossible-to-get-out-of-your-head “Sunday’s On Its Way” exhibit a musical and lyrical sensibility that make “Ordained” an album worth revisiting often. One almost expects to hear Cee-Lo Green jump out from behind the curtain for a guest spot.
What follows is a written interview I had the opportunity to conduct with Fr. Pontifex himself, which further reveals his enthusiasm, humility and love for Christ and His Church.
SWAIM: Being from Southern Indiana, are people more surprised thatyou’re a priest who raps, or a rapper who’s a priest?
Fr. PONTIFEX: That’s a good question. I started rapping in 1989 at the age of 17. At the time I was heavily involved with a non-denominational Christian youth group. I never left the Catholic Church, but I drifted away for a while. My group, The Agape Crew, grew to be very popular and when I realized that I was being called to be a priest, many of the people I had networked with through that youth group were shocked. When I left the group and devoted myself to study and prayer for the priesthood, I didn’t really do any rap for several years, although I was a big fan. Then, the year that I was ordained (2002) I was introduced to Dustin Sieber from http://www.phatmass.com. As I started to do Catholic hip-hop and it emerged, especially after the Massmatics album, many people couldn’t believe that it was me rapping. It just seemed such a contrast to my priestly persona.
SWAIM: There are many who think that hip hop is one of the few areas of modern music where Catholics are putting out quality products in the service of the New Evangelization. Is that your opinion, and if so, why do you think that’s the case?
Fr. PONTIFEX: I do agree. Certainly, I think that Fr. Stan Fortuna was a pioneer in bringing rap music and the Catholic faith together. Fr. Stan is such an incredible musician, and you mix that with a intense love for the Church and well, you can see the result. He has a global reach in the name of the Christ and his Church. I know I am a bit biased, but I really think that Phatmass.com has made that happen as well. It has been the source of networking for Catholic emcees, D.J’s, producers, etc. to connect, build community and use creative energy to put out great music. I also think that manChild of the group Mars ILL,, converting to Catholicism has opened up doors for better quality, quite simply because in my opinion and the opinion of many others he is one of the best emcees across the board, not just in Christian or Catholic rap, but period.
SWAIM: Many of the songs on “Ordained” exhibit R&B/soul stylings, rather than some of the more electronic sounds of “top 40” commercial rap. Who are some of your main musical influences?
Fr. PONTIFEX: My influences are very eclectic. I was heavily influenced by 70’s rock and Bob Dylan as a small child. In fact, in the song “Cold Castle Blues” I use a reference to Mr. Tambourine Man, saying “ancient streets still too dead for dreaming”. In the 80’s, I loved many types of rap. I listened to 3rd Bass, Run DMC, LL Cool J, A Tribe Called Quest, Gangstarr and EPMD. My influences now are The Roots, Matisyahu, Mumford and Sons, Dave Matthews and most anything by Deepspace 5 and their members.
SWAIM: Phatmass.com has been on the cutting edge of orthodox, faithful and creative music for a number of years now, and some of the artists who have been involved with it have also done guest appearances on non-Catholic Christian albums. What would you say is the state of ecumenism in Christian hip hop?
Fr. PONTIFEX: I think that the state of ecumenism in Christian hip-hop is a work in progress. I think we have made great strides in dialogue, with many of these taking place on forums like Phatmass and sphereofhiphop.com. We have intense discussions about matters of faith, but in those instances we try to keep things within the framework of love. I think finding common ground on those forums in particular has created friendships and from that, creative opportunities. I think we will see more and more of that in the future. I really would like to be in the forefront of this dialog because I have so many ties on both sides. I really have fabdaeclectic, whose production is on my album, for that because he has helped open many doors for me in getting to know guys in (non-Catholic) Christian hip-hop. I personally know that I will be working with more non-Catholic artists in my own art.
SWAIM: One of the most powerful tracks on the album is “Perceptions”, in which you tell the story of being ridiculed by an attendee of an album release party, who suggested you were a pedophile because you were a priest. Can you talk about that incident and its relation to the challenges facing young men who respond to their call to the priesthood?
Fr. PONTIFEX: The scandals that were exposed in 2002, the year I was ordained, certainly set us back in regard to vocations. However, I am very hopeful that as young men and women get to know and experience priests and nuns who love their vocation and love their people they will respond to the call of the Holy Spirit. What the song talks about is really an outpouring from the depths of my heart about the scandals and the challenges that they have brought to me and my brother priests, who are not perfect, but who are certainly trying to live this life and feed our people.
When I went to the Mars Ill release party and that young man made that comment, “hey there’s no little boys here for you,” it hurt deeply and I was angry. It was no longer the headline of some random priest out there but it was affecting me in a more personal way. I was being perceived erroneously because of the sins of other people. It was an eye-opener, and I really battled to keep my focus for awhile. In the end, the line in the song “Perceptions” is really how I deal with the trials: “headlines that aren’t mine can’t define this man.”
SWAIM: Which track on “Ordained” did you have the most fun recording?
Fr. PONTIFEX: I had so much fun recording the track “Don’t Sleep”. For one thing, working with Le was a real eye-opener for me. I had a very little exposure to his art and he really just blew the track up. My mouth was open in amazement at his talent, and then his contribution in the hook was incredible. The night I recorded my verse for that song at the Phatmass studio C2Six, another Catholic rap artist was in the studio coaching me along and hanging out in the studio. It was a fun night. The next night of those recording sessions I was finally able to connect in person with Sammy Blaze. He had come into the studio to record for “Don’t Sleep” as well. Sammy is a great guy, and he really stepped up to the plate at the last minute to write an incredible verse and record it real late that night. It was such a blast to hang out with him, Sean P, and of course Dustin from Phatmass that night. The track turned out so well, and I’m really blessed to have such talented people who have my back.
SWAIM: What would you say to people who might question your involvement in music as a distraction from your priesthood?
Fr. PONTIFEX: I know where my heart is, and that is with my parish. I am a pastor and really I have no desire to depart from that. Music is a passion and we’ll just have to wait and see what God has in store with this album and future projects. Honestly, I think my people are very receptive to my music. My kids love it and it really helps me to connect with them. I’m speaking in a language that they understand and want to hear. For many people, I think seeing this side of my ministry makes me more accessible, more human if you will. Lastly, I think that a natural balance occurs; I can be the rapping priest and I can be the very devoted priest who sees the Eucharist as paramount in my life. Hopefully, all of this comes through in my lyrics.
SWAIM: Has being both a priest and a rapper opened any doors to discussing Catholicism with people who might not otherwise be open to asking about it?
Fr. PONTIFEX: It opens up many doors for discussion. I think just being on non-Catholic Christian rap albums, like “Last Call,” has helped open the door for dialog. Many misconceptions about our Catholic faith can be dispelled when you make friends and begin communicating with love as a starting point. Again, I think when people happen to catch me rapping at some event they find me more accessible. It seems to naturally open up a door of ease in conversation.
SWAIM: What do you hope that listeners take away from their encounter with your new album, “Ordained?”
Fr. PONTIFEX: I really felt as if I made myself vulnerable on this album. I tried to put on display my own human drama; my love for the Church, the Eucharist, the priesthood, the saints, and our Lord Jesus. The title track, “Ordained” is my favorite track because it really is an autobiography. I really did have a nun in the first grade who helped open me up to Christ. I really did have statues fall in the night and had my consecration medals ripped off my arm at 3am. I really do feel the angels at Mass surrounding the altar. I guess I just want people to see that I take this art form seriously and that what I am saying is straight from my heart.
Listen as Fr. Pontifex raps “Sunday’s on its Way”
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