As Lecrae and BJ Thompson drove up a remote, winding Mo. mountain road for Lecrae to perform at a Kids Across America (KAA) camp for the first time, they had no idea what awaited them.
“Is this really happening?” Thompson thought to himself upon their arrival.
When he and Lecrae began serving at juvenile detention facilities in Roanoke, Texas, they never imagined entering a campground to one of Lecrae’s songs playing over loudspeakers and teens rapping along.
Thompson—now a cofounder of Build a Better Us—and Lecrae met in 2001 at the University of North Texas through involvement in Denton Bible Church’s on-campus ministry, PlumbLine. The two recognized that they shared a similar passion in sharing the gospel with urban youth and started visiting a juvenile detention center together weekly.
Lecrae rapped. Thompson preached.
“As we began to connect, our hearts would just feel more and more to see them grow to maturity,” Thompson told Wade-O Radio. “I was trying to figure out, ‘How can we go deeper in discipleship.’ Lecrae was really wrestling with, ‘How can we give them music that’s complimenting the things that we’re teaching them?’”
Lecrae came to the conclusion that he should release an EP-sized project for his and Thompson’s ministry. While working on it, they met a Denton Bible intern assigned to the prison that Lecrae’s music impressed. The intern then encouraged Lecrae to turn this small project into an album.
The intern: Ben Washer. The album: Real Talk.
“Real Talk was an expression of the faith and the life of, not just of myself and Lecrae, but a whole group of us who were walking with Jesus, who had came from the urban environment and now wanted to see Jesus experienced with those people, but also with an expanding audience,” said Thompson.
Washer, who would go on to cofound Reach Records with Lecrae, had also spent years as a camp counselor for KAA. KAA releases music each year that coincides with the theme of its camp. Lecrae wrote the first of many Reach KAA theme songs that year, “Crossover.”
The Unashamed Movement was born. From humble beginnings in Roanoke—population 3,569 in 2001, according to the United States Census Bureau—it blossomed into a worldwide movement. This year’s Unashamed Conference, being held in Atlanta on Sept. 13-15, alone has only several hundred Twitter followers less than Roanoke’s population then.
“None of us had a clue that all of this would take place,” said Thompson. “That people would be chanting 1-1-6, that’s mind blowing to me. It’s literally mind blowing to me to think something that we had been living and fighting for in a little area in Roanoke and Denton, Texas—because we all came from major urban areas across the U.S.—that we would see people across the globe with these tattoos on their throat and on their wrist.”
The Unashamed Movement’s greatest critique, despite its conception in prison ministry, is that it targets youth groups. Thompson explained it as a misconception.
“Some people have accused ReachLife of targeting youth group culture,” he said. “What they don’t realize is, in the season of life that we began, we were youth. We could only respond to the needs of those who we readily understood. When you see an exchange with a youth group, a lot of us were early 20s, late teens.”
Many of the originators of the Unashamed Movement are now the age of 30 or older and have wives, children and mortgages. Thompson attributed Reach’s growing target audience, as well as the transition in artists’ content, to that maturation.
“BJ Rollin Wit Me” Thompson served as ReachLife’s outreach director when Reach Records formed its non-profit arm in 2006. He also played a key role in relationally, theologically and philosophically sharpening the original Reach camp—Lecrae, Trip Lee, Tedashii and Sho Baraka. His formal position with Reach ended in 2009, but he continues to impact the Christian hip-hop scene through discipleship.