To an 18-year-old Shai Linne, you’d have to be high on LSD to think he’d become a Christian hip-hop pioneer and release an album titled Lyrical Theology Pt. II: Doxology.
Linne loved hip hop. But he would’ve regarded the subgenre of Christian hip hop an oxymoron, if he had any awareness of it.
Linne grew up in West Philadelphia. The ideology of the culture was Afrocentric. The music of the culture was hip hop.
Raised listening to Afrocentric hip-hop artists like Rakim, Brand Nubian, The Roots, Nas and Mos Def—many of whom happened to be Islamic or Five Percent Nation—Linne hated Christianity. He called it the white man’s religion, used only to oppress people. When his mother became a Christian in his high school years, he stubbornly rejected it.
The aspiring hip-hop artist instead professed agnosticism. (He never became Islamic because “they set up Malcolm X,” Linne said). He simply lived by his favorite parts of different religions.
After graduation, Linne attended the University of the Arts for theater. He partied his way out of school. His rebound plan: move to Spain to become an independent filmmaker.
Instead, Linne got invited to live with a friend in Columbia, South Carolina. Partying commenced.
But one night, high on LSD, Linne needed space to clear his thoughts. Looking over a second-floor balcony, he realized living his way had ruined his life. He had also rejected Christianity for years without even reading the Bible once.
Not long after that night, Linne visited a Christian book store to read a Bible. The first time reading it, he randomly opened to Psalm 25:7, “Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for the sake of your goodness, O Lord!” (ESV).
Linne called his mother to tell her what happened. Overjoyed, she told him to read the book of John. Weeks later, Linne drove back to Philadelphia a professing Christian.
He quickly began visiting a local church, Tenth Presbyterian. He stayed years for its sound teaching, not its choice of worship music.
Linne was birthed in hip-hop culture. Puritan hymns weren’t.
However, Linne didn’t grumble. His only experience worshiping God was singing hymns, and his only hip-hop experience was with ideology that opposed God. That’s just the way it was—he knew he either had to choose God or hip hop.
The first opponent to this assumption arose as Linne traveled in a van up and down the east coast with a group that performed evangelistic plays. At an event, a fellow actor of his slid a cassette tape into a deck and played music Linne didn’t know existed, Christian hip hop. He found himself listening to Cross Movement’s album Heaven’s Mentality for the first time.
Linne wasn’t sold that he could rap for Christ yet—until he walked into a room of a thousand people dressed like him, listening to hip hop and coming together for one central reason, Jesus. It was William “The Ambassador” Branch’s album release party for Christology.
“When I walked into that room, I realized Jesus wasn’t telling me to completely do away with my culture, but rather to allow him to be expressed through the culture,” Linne told Wade-O Radio.
Linne’s first experience rapping in front of a group of Christians came at an open mic event that the leader of his Bible study, Aaron Campbell—now the lead pastor at Antioch of Calvary Chapel—invited him to. Campbell egged him on to perform. The host looked Linne—wearing dreadlocks, camouflage and Timberland boots—up and down and asked, “You know this is a Christian event, right?”
Linne knew. And the host let him perform. In the audience that night were Cross Movement, Everyday Process and RockSoul Productions CEO Lee Jerkins.
The release party had sparked a passion to reach those in the urban context with sound Biblical teaching. He settled for the sound Biblical teaching part at Tenth Presbyterian where he encouraged another aspiring hip-hop artist through the cultural disconnect, Timothy Brindle.
Linne soon found a way to use his passion by helping to plant multi-ethnic churches. In 2001, he and Brindle helped plant Christ Liberation Fellowship with Pastor Lance Lewis. In 2006, Linne helped plant Epiphany Fellowship with The Ambassador and Dr. Eric Mason, whose living room gathered a nine-person congregation until the church launched.
Between Christ Liberation and Epiphany launching, Linne joined Lamp Mode Recordings and released his first solo album, The Solus Christus Project. The first studio album he contributed to was actually the compilation RockSoul Vol. 1 in 2002, made possible by meeting Jerkins at the open mic where Linne first rapped in front of Christians.
After dropping two more solo projects, Storiez and The Atonement, Linne shifted his focus from music and church planting to pastoring. He completed a pastoral internship under Mark Dever at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in 2010. The internship impacted Linne so much that he referred it to fellow rappers Trip Lee and Brian “God’s Servant” Davis, whom he served with at Epiphany.
Linne released two more albums, The Attributes of God and Lyrical Theology Pt. 1, before he became an assistant pastor at Del Ray Baptist Church in Virginia. He’s attended many churches over the years. And in many of those churches, he’s found Christians wrestling with culture like he once did—except instead of thinking hip hop can’t be holy, they think worship can’t be expressive.
There are numerous exceptions to these stereotypes, but—stereotypically, Linne said—predominately African American churches are more expressive in worship than reformed white churches. It’s also assumed that churches more expressive in their worship have weak theological teaching.