Mike Rimmer talked at length to Mark Mohr, the visionary musician fronting gospel reggae pioneers CHRISTAFARI.
Every year I take a trip to Nashville for the Gospel Music Week which sees the great, the good and the not so good of the American Christian scene gather together for a convention. One of the regular occurrences at the week is that I bump into Christafari's Mark Mohr in the hotel lobby while I'm rushing somewhere else and we cram a year's worth of news into 180 seconds and he hands me the latest pile of releases from Lion Of Zion Records and we head on our separate ways.
But not this year! With the latest release from Christafari, 'To The Foundation', providing the band with their strongest, most commercial release since 1996's classic 'Valley Of Decision' album, it's time to corner Mark in an interview room and ask a few pertinent questions. He's a bundle of energy today and he will stand up for the whole interview, moving around as he speaks, sometimes breaking out into very loud singing and generally enjoying himself. So, I ask, was it a deliberate decision to move in a more commercial direction? "Actually the opposite of that," confesses Mohr. "I set out to do something that was timeless. That would be timely for today but was timeless. Some of the last few albums we'd used drum programming on some of the songs, or sequencing and that kind of thing. Digital sounds. This one, I said to the band, 'Okay, we're not using a single sound after '83.' For me, the Golden Era of reggae is '73-'83. That's when Bob was doing his stuff. That's when Black Uhuru just popped on the scene and all that kind of stuff like Bob Marley, I guess you would consider him pop/reggae if you will but he was traditional. All live drums, the live bass, the live keys. He didn't do digital dancehall - that'll be outdated in a few days - and that's kind of what we shot for. A live horn section on every song. We're touring with the horn section now so it's just insane! So we went for that. All the synth sounds and everything, you know, Clavs and wahs and all kinds of cool stuff. We actually set out to record an album that sounded like it was recorded 25 or 30 years ago but will sound good in 30 years."
Is Mohr prouder of 'To The Foundation' than he is of previous albums? "You know what?" he ponders. "It's like a father when a new baby pops out and you're proud, but in a different way you are proud of each one of your children. But I will say that I am proud of this one more than any other because I've been more involved. I did it from ground up. In the past I've had vice-presidents and others involved in the company or the label did a lot of the work. Here, I did all the legwork, from the artwork to the type setting, to the typing of the lyrics, to the mixing, to the recording, engineering. Everything was recorded in my home studio so it's a hundred per cent me. Some of the other ones have had other people's involvement."
Does he feel that the previous recordings have been compromised in some way? "It doesn't compromise the integrity, it just gets filtered, and when it gets filtered through other hands and other people's ideas and concepts it may not be as pure as my initial concepts. So what you hear on this album, when you hear it, it's the exact thing I heard in my head when I wrote the song. That's the coolest thing! It's like it finally got out of my head and into your speakers. The album is called 'To The Foundation' because we've gone back to our roots and not just that but also it alludes to the parable of the builders basically. One built on sand, one built on stone. The stone; we're talking about the chief cornerstone. It's Christ, his Word, his crucifixion, his resurrection, his ascension, and ultimately his indwelling in your heart. So it's the foundation of. . .back to the basics basically."
A while ago when I first talked to Mohr, he was actually planting a church in the Caribbean and working a lot there. But that is something that he's no longer so involved with. He explains, "My wife and I lived in the Caribbean for six or nine months. We started a ministry there called The Gathering that was a post-modern church if you will. There's still somebody there, still somebody running it. I handed it off to somebody else. I got to the point where I had to make a decision. Am I going to spend seven days writing a sermon for 30-100 people, or am I going to spend those seven days writing a song for an infinite possibility of people? You know, I'm glad that I had the experience. Having gone to Bible college, having already been an ordained minister for over 10 years, I'm glad I had the pastoral experience. It's quite an interesting one and it gave me a huge amount of respect for pastors for some of the drama that they have to go through. The congregational banterings and all of the different issues of the body. We're all one body but sometimes a foot stinks! And you still gotta deal with it. So it was quite a learning experience for me. It gave me a huge amount of appreciation but I don't know if I would jump into a lot of traditional churches today. I prefer visiting and not having to deal with the backbiting and backstabbing and the inward fighting that can often take place behind the scenes."
Basically I suggest that he'd rather be a grandparent than a parent! He agrees, "Yeah. I'd rather be the one that comes in, visits, sows a few seeds, harvests a lot and makes a change by one night's event, or being there for a week, or playing worship in their Sunday service than actually having to be there every single week. I'm more of a nomad. I'm more of a vagabond. I get antsy. Even during this interview I'm standing up! I gotta move, you know what I mean?" he laughs. "We've been to 35 countries so far and I want to make it 40 this year. There's more that need to hear."
So how does Mohr sum up the ministry of Christafari right now? "It is growing more than it's ever done before. I think a good portion of that has to do with the Internet. It's really helped us. With gospelreggae.com we've pretty much created this grand Central Station where 300 different gospel-reggae albums are available in one place. You can download 'em, you can buy 'em, you can hear 'em on our 24hr radio station. It's made Christafari accessible to anyone. Before, you had to go into a store and if the store didn't have it you couldn't get it. And now if the store doesn't have it, you order it and we ship it out to you that day, you know? So it's changed. The whole industry has changed. And now with downloads you don't even have to wait for a day or for a week till you get the package. You can go to iTunes and you can get it tomorrow or right now. It's changed a lot and it's levelled the playing field. We don't have to be under Word or Gotee or Epic in order for you to be able to hear the music. We don't have the marketing dollars that they have but we have a heart for doing what we're doing and we're keeping it pure."
Reggae has always been a grassroots kind of music. One of the things about it is that artists always had albums coming out and then you had dub remixes and all kinds of fiddling around with things, which is something that Christafari haven't been able to do very often. I wonder whether the download era will let him play with songs and do dub versions and release more singles? "For this album I don't think I'm going to do a dub version. But I've heard a lot of people talking this week about how the industry is changing. Some people are saying the CD is going to be gone in five years. I've heard of artists who are saying, 'We're moving away from the album and towards singles every few months.' And if that happens I can imagine a lot more remixes. The ability to do the acapella, the instrumental, all those things that come with a single to be added to iTunes or whatever format you're using is overwhelming. This album has 15 tracks on it. Six months of my life were taken. If I just took six days here and there it would be a lot more to swallow. It's a pain to get the whole band in there, set up the drum kit and do everything. It's kind of nice to be able to knock those out one at a time. But I don't know if it's worth it anymore?"
My favourite song on the album is "Prodigal Son" which is another one taken from a parable of Jesus. Mohr explains, "Man, I loved the way that Jesus taught! I believe that if Jesus was here today, if he came today instead of another time he'd probably have a sitcom or a 30-minute TV show every week. I mean, he was a story teller and he told these stories. Some were entertaining, for others it was the profound Word of God; 'Those who have ears to hear...' That song is about the Prodigal Son but it's really about me. I wrote it, I sang it, because I was one. I was dead to my parents but now I'm alive, I'm found. I ran away from home as a youth. I did pretty much everything that you could do. Reggae was my gateway drug. Reggae got me into 'Legalise It' by Peter Tosh, got me into weed, into growing weed, into dealing weed, it got me into cocaine eventually. I even sampled crack and opium and really got into LSD and crystal meth and everything that comes with it. So I was a real, real rebellious youth. I ran away from home at 15 and lived on the streets and that was me. But my parents; always at the bottom of the driveway, figuratively, with their arms wide open, and ultimately, my Saviour, with his arms so wide open."
The way it turned around for Mohr might surprise you! "I went to a Christian camp," he confesses, but if he was doing weed and stuff, why go to a Christian camp? The answer to that question is even more surprising! "My parents bribed me!" He laughs. "I was a surfer and they said, 'We'll give you a board and give you a trip to Hawaii if you go to this Christian camp.' They did anything they could to get me! This one was different from all the other Christian youth camps that I was used to and bring drugs to because this one was eight hours away and I knew nobody that was there. I latched onto this one staff member though. He was having his week off and we'd sit down and we'd listen to Steel Pulse all day long and just talk. As we did I came to realise he had been in the same gang I was in, he was doing the same drugs, he got busted for coke by the cops around the same time as me. We had so much in common - favourite kind of music and everything. But when it came down to it I noticed that there was something different. So one day I looked at him and said, 'What's the difference between you and I?' He didn't give me a five-point sermon, he just said, 'It's the love of God.'"
Mohr continues, "That night at the gathering the pastor gave a modern-day rendition of the Prodigal Son and I WAS that guy. This version, the guy went off and did drugs. I WAS that guy. I fell to my knees at the end of that message and with tears in my eyes I fell before. . . there was this giant rock that the pastor was standing on. I remember it today. . . and in a lot of ways that's the foundation for me - coming before that rock. I just repented of my sins and asked God to change my life. And he did. He did. And that is why I'm the Prodigal."
How does he feel that the ministry of Christafari has changed over the years? When he started he obviously had a vision of what he wanted to do so I wondered how that had been refined over the years. "Wow! That's a deep question," he replies, "and I'm not sure where to go from it. . . I just knew I wanted to get gospel reggae to the world. At that time we called it Christian reggae but now we've kind of accepted the fact that it's gospel reggae. I didn't really have a lot of plans, I just wanted people to hear it. How it's evolved throughout the years? Back then we started doing our very first tour, the Sunsplash Tour, which was a major secular tour. I don't know if those channels are as open to us anymore because they know what we're about and the gospel part is still offensive to a lot of people!"
He switches gear, "The CCM side; we did the whole Gospel Music Week in Nashville, the whole GMA thing. I remember the first few years being the novelty there. Years later, I still am. Don't know if they're 'getting it'. I feel like a fish out of water." He theatrically demonstrates the action of a goldfish out of water gasping for air, "Sometimes it's like I'm a fish just flappin' around trying to figure out where the water is. It's not here, and we don't know where to go. We're like nomads in certain ways."
Sometimes when you hear Christafari's music, it's like the gospel part of their approach means that they don't fit into the reggae scene and because they're reggae they don't truly fit into the gospel scene. "Amen!" agrees Mohr, "And not just the reggae part. There's a Westernisation that's going on in the CCM industry and what we're doing is that we're exporting Steven Curtis Chapstick. . . I mean Chapman!" he laughs. "If it comes from Australia, if it comes from America, if it comes from the UK, it's acceptable and it can go out to the rest of the world. Even Canada, we'll throw that one in too. But if it comes from Africa, if it comes from the Caribbean, if it comes from South America. . . We don't import music in the Western world we export it. You guys, over in the UK, are more open than we are. Far more open. But over here it's really frustrating, man. So we've been trying to break into this bank for a long time but we're doing our best."
Perhaps the UK's openness to the Caribbean has had such an influence on the culture in the UK since the '40s, so that's part of the reason. As well as reggae, there is also an issue with hip-hop in the Christian industry in America, because that isn't supported. Mark agrees, "Exactly! It's clear! There are two sides to this industry in America; there's the black gospel side. And if you don't have a giant choir behind you and a few hundred pounds on you, you won't get anywhere! And if you're on the CCM side, of course occasionally they let in a Kirk Franklin or an Out Of Eden or this or that. But for the most part man, these guys like Pettidee, they're still scrounging for the scraps and they're still fighting and kicking and screaming. Grits, man for years they got more props in the general market than they ever did in the Christian market and it's just dumb. These Christian industry higher-ups are not even looking at what's going on in the world. They're not even thinking to themselves, 'Okay, hip-hop's the best-selling music in America. Maybe we should do it?'"
Mark Mohr isn't quite a lone voice in the wilderness when it comes to talking up Christian music in a reggae style but more than a decade on from starting his band, he continues to be a pioneer and he just happens to have delivered the best album of his career.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.