Read the full Q & A with Alex below or listen to it above!
This Black History Month, UYWI continues to highlight modern-day leaders we believe are carrying MLK’s vision, forward. Our final spotlight is not on a cemented legend, but one-in-the making. Mr. Alexander James.
Native to South Central Los Angeles and raised by a single mother, Alexander took pride in being the black sheep in most circles growing up. Now, he is a young adult director, social activist, youth advocate, and full-time spoken-word artist. An undaunted wordsmith fueled by a heart of passion and a soul forged by a plethora of complex and enriching experiences, Alex’s way with words will dig at your comfortability, but then tug at your heartstrings at the drop of, not a dime, but a mic.
UYWI’s very own Shuree Rivera, Creative Director (and the author of two of four Black History Month Spotlight Pieces, sat down with Alex to discuss the implications surrounding the complexities of not only being a Black artist, but a Black artist and a Christian.
Q & A
Alex: Diversity is important because you can’t divorce the way you interpret scripture from your culture and your lens. Every culture has a lens that they interpret scripture through, which is why we can’t even hear all of what God has to say, without inviting all cultures to the table…
Shuree: I believe that’s the whole idea of the Kingdom. I think we’ll be able to see, “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth, [as it is in heaven],” because of all this diversity, living together in this ecosystem full of peace, unity, and joy. [The Kingdom] will be highly relational with none of this polarization, division, and hatred. I’m excited about that day. I’m down for MLK’s dream and I know you are too.
Alex: I’m excited about…what worship nights will be like in heaven. If it’s “Tuesday Hillsong nights,” then [I wonder if] folks who do Black church, are going to come? If there are Kirk Franklin Thursdays, what does that mean? Like, no! We are all glorifying the same God but in different ways. So, I’m interested [what the] the dance floor [will look like in] in heaven, as it’ll be the one place where everybody is finally “one,” because the “one” who is worthy of all of our worship, is present.
Shuree: I think oftentimes, [we] say “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done…” but what we really mean is, “My Kingdom come, My will be done!”
Alex: The more unfortunate part, [is when] folks rest in the “Thy kingdom come…” and in a place that is not here yet. I think what UYWI is doing and what the generation coming up is passionate about, is what’s on earth. We’re the ones who are saying, “Hey, I believe in Jesus, that redemption is coming, that justice is coming. But what part do I have to play in the “now” to make his kingdom evident [here] on earth…? [Jesus] is on His way back—we get that. But I think our generation is more about, “What can I do now? How can the Church employ me to be an agent for Christ on earth now and not just wait for heaven, so that we can show people His light on earth right now?”
Shuree: We’re not waiting until we get to heaven, because there will be a new heaven and a what? A new earth and Jesus will be King over that new earth. So what we do now on this earth still matters, because this earth ain’t going nowhere.
Alex: We have so many examples [Black figures] that we’ve already talked about all month—folks who’ve made incredible changes either in their community or in their surrounding spaces. But the greatest civil change that ever happened—I almost want to say in any country—is when the church stood up and said, “that no justice matters.” How else do you get people to know that there are dogs and firehoses and policemen if you don’t preach them a Jesus who was beaten and ridiculed and mocked? How do you get people to give a sacrificial faith, without the example of a willingly sacrificial God, who was beaten and mocked? Jesus showed us an example of what it means to fight for justice in a way that puts your comfort—and in some ways your life—on the line. I think God is calling us to do that, especially when it comes to us remembering those for Black History Month…and how we are eating from the trees that somebody else’s blood watered.
Alex: You know this concept of “singing songs as a free person that slaves wrote?” There should be this deep reckoning with the liberty that we have in Christ. [This] appreciation should drive a willingness to act in bringing liberty to others. I would say this, we as believers—especially this month—should more often call ourselves liberators. [However], I don’t think [the Church] associates the two together enough. Christ literally liberates from sickness, from pain, from depression…, and then He calls us and says, ”Hey, you’ll do even more than me if you’re willing.”
Shuree: Yes! Oh man, there’s so much to say about that. Liberation is a big word that I’ve been meditating on, Even as an artist, a vocalist, and a worship leader, this idea that when I come and lay down my worship to lead a congregation, I’m not just leading a tune. I could just go up there and be like, “Hey, let’s sing [this song] like on the album!” That would be….
Alex: Right, right right.
Alex: They could just play the album!
Shuree: The idea that you could get “liberated” at that moment, that you could get free at this moment is [powerful] That’s not just a church word, it’s a Biblical word—liberation and freedom.
Alex: Who was it, Paul, where they were literally in prison—worshipping? Their conditions, circumstances, and surroundings were the exact opposite of what they were singing about. They were singing about the goodness of God while chained up. The Bible says in [Acts 16:26] that the earth shook and all the doors were flying open. I think [what we often miss in that passage], is that every single door in the prison was opened,—because two men worshipped.
Alex: How many people are waiting for you to lift your honesty, your truth, and your authenticity in your space? While [your] conditions remain unchanged…you’re supposed to say “God is good,” [so] other people’s prison doors [can]… [M]y fear is that when we get too comfortable, we preach a gospel of conditions and not a gospel of a loving Son—God—who died on the cross to be with you, is present and is not just a cleaning lady for your life.
Shuree: A cleaning lady for your life.
Alex: Jesus’ goodness makes things better…[H]e’ll fix things and bring joy and peace. But we also need to preach a God that is present in suffering, that is present in prisons, that is present with orphans, and not just a God of better conditions. [God is] not an interior decorator. Church shouldn’t be “home & garden,” it’s healing in wholeness.
Shuree: That’s why at UYWI, we believe in celebrating Black History Month…[Individuals] like MLK, Harriet Tubman, and all these different heroes knew God; sang, ministered and fought from a place of hope and liberation—that God is a God who can part the waters for freedom…[and] break the chains. God is a God who can shut the mouths of lions, and to me, that’s why Black History Month is so sacred. It’s a place where I can go and be in a space where I can say, “You know what, my ancestors bring me back to a deeper faith, to a deeper place of trusting God that no matter what the situation is—whether I’m being hosed, or dogs are coming at me, I can still praise him. So how do we sing the songs of our ancestors while being free? You sing it with a very sacred posture.
Alex: I think the fear that most people have, is that they think the idea of lifting and appreciating the history and contributions of African-American people or blackness is somehow counter “being Christ-like.” But I would just argue that we serve a God who is being intentional about experiencing every woe, every misery, and every pain, so that he can be like his creation, with us, and present in suffering with us. God—who is omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent—was a baby, got tired and was homeless. So when you think of the Black experience, we get that! When we look at Jesus’ ministry, he spent 90 percent of His time with downtrodden, the marginalized, and with the folks who were the most in-need…But I just want to reiterate that the good, emotional feeling we get from Black History Month, should drive us to work harder the other 11 months of the year, should drive us into action in seeking out who is marginalized… How can I give them voice? How can I be a well of living water where people are thirsty.
Shuree: Absolutely! Being in the American church, we oftentimes see things like Black History, or slavery, or racism, or any of those discussions as something as taboo, specifically in the white Evangelical church. What if we talked about these things? What if this needs to be talked about so that we can find common ground as believers, who may be of different ethnicity. I was watching a Netflix film yesterday, and it [discussed] how when the Europeans came over and took over America, and started colonizing, they would love to talk about slaves obeying their masters. That was how they kept people oppressed [with the idea] that, slavery was God’s will. Then, African-Americans—these slaves—got a hold of liberation theology and was like, “Wait, that’s the same God that helped Moses part them waters? That’s the same God that was out there with the people in prisons and chains? That’s the same God that was with Daniel in the Lion’s den? Wait so where is freedom? So I feel like that again, goes back to what I think is happening in America—that we don’t have a full picture of God. Oftentimes, I think we have a very anemic version of the Gospel, and that is what is causing a lot of these issues in the American church. I’ve enjoyed my time digging into black history this month, and it has only brought me closer to God.
Alex: We like to color God with grace, love, patience, goodness, power, and sovereign[ty]. But God’s like, “To reign with Me, you must suffer with Me.” We don’t like to color with those brushes. So what happens is, we create church cultures that are centered around goodness, centered around happiness, centered around materialism and “things.” [Unfortunately], the people who don’t have access to that, who know nothing about that, won’t be comfortable because [their entire] story can’t be present in the room. I was with my young adults…and I told them that in any relationship you’re in, both of you can’t put your truths in the room without the other person running—it’s not a relationship. You guys are pretending at each other. But unless both parties can bring all of their story present in the room, and the other party doesn’t feel edged out, then it doesn’t. So I would say there’s so much healing and opportunity for community that not only happens when we share successes but when we share pain and share worry. I should be able to go to my brothers and say, “Hey, when I’m driving in my car with my two sons, [and] a police car pulls up next to me, my heart changes. My pace changes. If you want to love me well, if you want to call me brother and sister, then I should be able to say that to you, and you do your best to meet me there and love me and encourage me through that.” But to tell a person that, “I love all that you do and how you perform and what you create, but I don’t want any of your pain,” is to make them a commodity—a product and not a person.
Shuree: And I think oftentimes, as people of color, who are artists, we feel that way sometimes. The idea of being a token and once a year during black history month, they bring us in to do that one poem about justice and liberation and MLK those sorts of things, but that’s where our experience is, and it is our experience all the time. So I have a question for you, this is a great segway. What are the implications of being a black artist and a Christian?
Shuree: What are the implications of that?
Alex: I would say like, it is to wrestle with what I call “the monster of your creativity,” which I really think is just like finding different ways to convey personal truths. I have things I’ve experienced, that I know. But I want to find creative ways to share these things in a way that is edible to other people. Being an artist in itself is to see possibilities, where everyone sees a blank page. But when you add a person of ethnicity attached to it, then that kind of helps you choose the colors you pick, the curves you make. I would almost say, the way you color is different based on who trained you or your background as an artist. Early in my artistry years, all of my stuff was angry. I had only angry poetry, I was mad at everybody. All my art was very “finger-pointing” because I think artistry goes through the same phases as a human body—angry adolescence and teenage angst. Now I’m in a space where I find that content doesn’t get you invited back, because all you did was make others mad, and two, most people already know what the problem is. Somebody creatively pointing it out isn’t necessarily helpful. I’ve been able to inspire more change by being able to publicly say, “Hey, I was messing up, and here’s what God has done with me, with this.” I think if you allow you elephant in the room to say, “Hey folks, I’m kind of dealing with this right now. This is how I’m wrestling through with it, I’m trusting Jesus, and one day I’ll hopefully get through it.” Then folks begin to notice the elephants in their room. It’s almost like this idea of honesty and authenticity almost forces others to do the same. Some folks will go, “I think I need to deal with that elephant.” Others will just pull a shade over and go back into their space. I’ve heard it said that most folk would rather buy a pillow for their prison, then find the key: “If I make my conditions more comfortable, then why leave? This is the best I get.” The last thing I would say is, with being an artist, especially an artist of color, there’s this unspoken expectation to be an agent of hope.
Alex: I would say there is one given expectation that is healthy. It’s good for us to be in the midst of, speaking truth and wrestling against things that are not the will of God. It’s also important for us to go, “But Jesus is King, He’s Lord, He’s present, and all things work together.” Now, that’s not to say you need to put the Jesus bow on the end of everything, because there is a space for exposure. [In the Bible], Nathan teaches us that in the way he dealt with David. But remember, when David turned around, God showed him grace. So it’s about measuring how you show truth and the way you experience love.
Shuree: I think this generation is all about exposure, and they don’t want a clean answer. They want us to fight. They embrace activism. They embrace calling out, cancel culture, the clap back…So my question to you is, what’s the implications of being a Black artist and a Christian in leading youth and young adults in this generation?
Alex: I am blessed to be the Young Adult Director at Light & Life Christian Fellowship in Long Beach Shout out! I’ve had young adults tell me and my wife, “Hey I’m so glad that you are leading this because it helps me feel seen…[Y]our voice and influence helps me trust the leadership here because of the diversity…” I would say that I am privileged with the burden of seeking out others, especially men of color who grew up in the same culture as I did, where—and this is in the church to some degree—you are not valuable if you do not have a ball, or you preach.
Alex: So it’s either have some bright external gift…or do something else. I’ve been told by a teacher in high school, and I quote, “Good thing you’re big and Black because you’ll never get a job speaking.”
Alex: This is like the second week of high school in ninth grade. I had friends and mentors help pull me out of that. But I can only imagine all the other boys who didn’t have someone to pull them out of [those types of moments]…So it’s always in the back of my head: “How can I help you feel seen and valued and loved outside of the expected gifts of black people?” I have the privilege of leading a group of guys every Monday called “The League,” and there’s a comic writer, a clothing designer, a singer, a preacher and a teacher. [To them], I’m like, “Hey all you guys are preachers, whether you think so or not.” The one guy drawing anime manga, I’m like, “No bro, you can use that for the Gospel.” When is the last time you saw a Black anime illustrator? [I think it’s important for folks to] finally get to the space where they can be who they are, and not fall into a space…that society kind of set up for us.
Shuree: Sounds like when you were younger, you did want to be a speaker of some sort. Was it poetry that always had your attention or what was it?
Alex: [Truth is], after the teacher said [that], I believed her. So I became the captain of the basketball team, captain of the football team, and captain of the weight room. I completely leaned into my identity as the big black guy, and I was good at it. Side note, the scariest things happen when you are good at something that is not your purpose. I was a talented—talented athlete. It wasn’t until the 11th grade, in AP English—the course that changes everybody’s life—for good or bad, where I had this teacher who just wouldn’t let me pass or let me slide: “no, you’re going to write a poem.” [She] forced me to write this poem, and because it took me so long, she made me read it in front of the whole class.
Alex: She thought she was being a good teacher. She didn’t know she was forcing me to relive that moment in 9th grade, where I had to stand in front of people and get laughed at. So I read this poem and [received] the first standing ovation in my life—that didn’t have to do with being fast or strong. It messed me up, Shuree.
Alex: I didn’t know what to do with appreciation without a ball or grass or turf, and I melted in tears in front of the whole class. So she sends everybody off and looks me in the face and says, “I knew there was a writer in there. I knew there was a creative in there.” So Ms. Jackson, thank you so much…I would say my [heart’s desire] is to create that moment for folks of color as much as I can…
Shuree: How did you heal from that situation, when this teacher said, “You’ll never be a speaker…”?
Alex: I would say the healing came from a combination of doing my best to stay as warm around the fires as I could—as far as the Black church is concerned but then trusting God when he sends His community, entrusting someone who’ll love you enough—that you can share that pain with and then invite them back. After that moment with Ms. Jackson, I told her what happened way back in ninth grade. So she set up a meeting [between herself], that teacher, and the principle and advocates for me, helping me redeem [this really painful moment].
Shuree: Wooo! Yeah
Alex: I would say that it’s all about listening to God, but also watching and trusting him—having faith when you get those invitations to lean back into who you are.
Shuree: That’s awesome—redemptive experiences. I feel like as youth workers, we have the opportunity to do that all the time—to bring youth to a space where we can reframe things that have happened [to them] and [for them] to have a redemptive experience—calling them back to who God has called them to be. That’s awesome. I love that.
Alex: Yeah, yeah, yeah
Shuree: Who is your favorite poet and what’s a line from that poet that you love?
Alex: So my favorite poet right now—if we’re doing all-time—is Kahlil Gibran. He’s an amazing poet. He has this [collection of poems] called “The Prophet.” [In this book, he has] a poem about children, where he says that the mother and father are but bow and string, and their willingness to hold each other and also hold tension, will dictate how far their child or the arrow flies. [B]eing a father of two, with one on the way, I hold that poem tightly, especially in moments of tension—you know married life and ministry life. I acknowledge that me and my wife are the bow and string that hold each other in tension, trusting God in whatever situation that we’re in, [which] will dictate how far our kids will fly…[N]ow as I am pastoring, I realize there is another part of my heart that God is kind of activating [with] the same mentality for the young adults that I get to serve [and] the youth we get to serve. The way you trust God in handling the tension of their moments, their emotions, their crushes, and all that jazz
Alex: The way we handle and respond—in a lot of ways—will dictate how far their arrow flies.
Shuree: I feel like there’s something there too, with activism. You had mentioned that you used to do poems and just go and tell people all the things that were wrong with them. But then you learned how to say, “Hey, here are all the things that are wrong with me, and here’s what I’ve learned.” The elephants in their rooms were exposed, and it caused them to either deal with the elephant or not…[I]n social justice, I wonder if we humble ourselves in that way, how much further our arrow would [move] toward change?
Alex: I have a poem called “Malpractice.” Essentially, the poem tells a story of me doing my best to minister to a co-worker of mine, back when I worked at Chili’s. This girl finally came to church after four years of praying in the cold freezer because she didn’t want her friends to see her pray. So she finally comes to my church. She calls me the night before and says, “Hey what should I wear?” [I said], “It doesn’t matter. Don’t worry about it. God’s going to meet you there. I’m so excited.” And so she came. This is from the poem,
“She came in a dress shorter than her self-esteem and heals higher than what she thought of herself. She looked at the church doors, like the wreckage of the Titanic, like this was going to keep her from ocean of depression that she swam in for years. But unfortunately—before my eyes caught hers—theirs did. She was assaulted by people who thought they were salt and blinded by people who were convinced they were light. She learned, that sharks had learned to grow legs, wear suits and ties, in church hats. And they bit her. ‘Why you wearing that, baby?’ ‘Take out those piercings.’ ‘God don’t want you to look like that.’ And when she finally saw me in the pulpit, from the back of the church, she just threw up the deuces…and never came back to my church again.”
Alex: The poem is called “Malpractice” because doctors have to take this oath to do whatever it takes to save a patient’s life. I’m like, “What if Christians had to take an oath…that you had to preserve the life and get the best quality of life for that [other] person listening? Quote/unquote, “Church believers” would be in jail right now for malpractice, for not properly caring for other folks. So when I think of like social justice, I think that it’s important when you share stories of honesty like that and say hey, “This is a real person’s life that we’re talking about…There are moments where you just need to speak truth to power and to be able to bear the consequences of that…[I’ve written] tons of poems about racism, about how I’ve felt mistreated, and things like that. But the poem that got the most traction—that dealt with [injustices] differently—[was a poem] I wrote about the movie, “Black Panther.” Essentially, the poem is excited, like, “We finally did it, we got our movie, here is a television screen that reflects us to the kings and queens that we always were. [But] the poem makes this turn where it says, “And then the next day…”
Shuree: “And then the next day…”
Alex: “…I saw my dashiki hanging in the dirty clothes hamper, and I thought to myself, ‘when am I ever going to wear that again?’” [The poem dives into] how “Black Panther” for me, was this moment of “Black History [and] Black everything. I wore my dashiki to the movie theater and I got my “J’s” to match, like black power…! But then I was like, “alright cool, it’s just a fad.” [T]hen the poem makes this turn and goes, “Why did it take a CGI rhino for me to love my culture? And why did it take a social media hashtag for me to be proud of Africa…? Why did it take a film about a fictional character for me to go back and learn about who made the Super Soaker, who made the stoplight, who made the air conditioner? Like why did it take that?” So…this poem is about appreciating Black contributions to culture. But instead of saying, “Hey all you guys need to know this and about this,” I invite you into this interrogation of myself and I’ve found that in doing so, folks are almost forced to see themselves at the same time. That material tends to get way more traction than the finger-pointing stuff.
Shuree: Alexander James, at UYWI, we do appreciate all of you—all of you! To our UYWI fam, if you are wondering, “Why we put so much light on Black History Month?” It’s because of people like Alexander James, who is a part of our community, who is a part of our family. You’re going to see when you view his poem, “The cost of a Black Hallelujah,” what it costs for [Alex] to be able to continue to minister as a Black man [and] as an artist with all the cultural complexities that comes with being in America. This is an invitation for you to lean in—to your brother [and] to lean into his life—all of his life, talent, his culture, and his awesome personality. This is an invitation to learn from each other and the diversity of our culture…[while] learning about ourselves and how to be better [toward] on another.
ABOUT FEATURED ARTIST: ALEXANDER JAMES
The featured artwork for this ARTicle is Alex’s no-holds-barred, fiery spoken-word piece titled, “A Black Hallelujah.” Alex is a Young Adult Director, social activist, youth advocate, and full-time spoken word artist, who has a strong Los Angeles fan base, some national acknowledgment, and many university partnerships.