Mike Rimmer met up with St Louis-born Courtney O Peebles, better known as J.R.
It's after midnight and the hotel where we are sitting is still buzzing. This is the headquarters for the GL Live gig which has just happened in Birmingham, UK, so musicians and management and various people connected to the event are milling about. Courtney O Peebles is sat opposite me and is in enthusiastic form after headlining tonight using his more famous name J.R.. "Courtney Peebles doesn't sound cool to me," he confesses, "especially as I didn't like it. I thought it was a girls' name when I was younger, but having a nickname is like 'Wow so cool'." The nickname came from a restaurant where he worked and a co-worker called him Johnny Red which was then shortened to J.R. He remembers, "All my friends have nicknames, your parents gave you nicknames when you were younger so Johnny Red was something, it had a little ring to it, then J.R. was like OK. Although some people think I'm a Junior."
J.R. was raised in Missouri and grew up listening to a diverse selection of music. During the course of the conversation, one of the things I discover about him is that he hates to be known just as a hip-hop artist. He is primarily a singer although being signed to Cross Movement Records and hanging out with their stable of rappers, it's easy to see why he's often spoken of as a rapper.
Growing up in St Louis, J.R. was raised in the church in as much as his parents made him go with them but the family's lifestyle wasn't fully pursuing Christ. He laughs nervously, "You've got to be careful what you do with your children. I was in my parents' bathroom and I saw a magazine, I opened it up and saw all these pictures of naked women and stuff and I was like 'wow.' My father came in and took it from me while I was reading and asked me what did I see. It was a very scary moment. But that day a seed was planted, I ended up losing my virginity at 14 years of age, I would say I was a man whore, that's what I was. I won all the trophies and in the circle of friends I hung around with, it was the same for them. So not being discipled by my parents played a huge part."
The sinful areas of his life were a powerful pull. As a kid he says he didn't really care about Jesus. "I was thinking about women, baseball and music but when I got older, about 17 years old, I started thinking about my life more and about my decisions. At this time I'd been through an abortion with a young lady, I had an STD from another young lady so I was like, 'Man, it's time to slow down.' So consequences were making me slow down, not really my faith, but in the midst of that I started to look at my decisions and say, 'Am I really a good person, am I a bad person?' And I was like, 'I'm going to church.' I remember saying, 'I'm either done with church or I'm going to be real about it. I'm going to this religious structure every Sunday, I really need to find out what this stuff is about, or I need to leave.'"
The experience of contracting crabs was embarrassing for J.R. and he remembers, "My friends laughed at me and I had to go to the doctor and get this medicine called Red and it was a horrible experience. Going through the abortion, even at 16 years old when It happened, I was just thinking about getting out of the consequences of my actions. I didn't have the guilt on me because it felt like a release, but I do remember going to the place and seeing these people outside with the signs 'Abortion is a shame, God hates this.' I was just a boy, I was going into this thing that was a medical procedure and it was all on her. So I was just looking at the breakdown of my morality and that I knew what wrong and right was and it had me thinking that I really need to get a grip on this."
Looking back, J.R.'s decision to stay in church and make his faith real was a good one. The song "Beautiful Light" on his first album is about the first time he was able to look at the Gospel. "I was able to see my life in the scope of the Gospel and say 'Wow I'm a sinner.' I remember the first time the lights came on. I had heard the Gospel so many times but this time the light came on and I was like, 'Wow, man, I am a true sinner, I need this salvation, I need this pardon,' and that light that I saw was the freedom of Jesus."
He was 18 when this happened and he remembers, "It's funny how God uses the breakdown in events in our lives to show us how much control we don't have and that scared me. I thought I was going to be this big musical producer, big musical prodigy having tonnes of money, a big house by 18, 19. So on top of a bad relationship with my father and my mum at the time and not being where I wanted to be in my music career and other personal things, I was just like, 'Man, this sucks, I'm nowhere with my life.' And that was enough for me to start thinking well maybe God is in control of my life, maybe God is for me. For some people it takes a near death accident, a car accident, an overdose, to get shot or something. But for me, just not being able to direct my life into the way I wanted it was enough for me to say I need help. My life changed immediately. Immediately it seemed some things I just didn't want to do any more. It wasn't simply a morality change, it was like God had come into my life and uprooted everything."
There were some things, however, which continued to be a pull away from God and it took J.R. a while to figure them out. "Having different women and being promiscuous still continued because they were the strongest things in my life. I was thinking if I want to live for God these things, like my temper and ladies and lust and my cursing, need to stop. That took a while. I didn't understand the battle with lust until I was 24 or 25 and I'm only 29 now, and I was writing songs. I remember one time having sex with my son's mother and going into the next room and feeling so broken, I wrote a song, called 'Holy Spirit' and it was just about 'I need you Lord, speak to me.' That's where the song "Not A Slave" came from, and on 'Life By Stereo', I revisited that whole experience."
At the same time as becoming a Christian, one of J.R.'s friends, Marcus Williams, also known as the rapper Flame, had become a Christian too and they were immediately discipled by the church they joined. He had new role models to help him understand how the faith could be lived out in everyday relationships and says that these days things have changed for his own parents. "They are both a strong beautiful man and woman for the Lord. My father's a minister of music and my mother is a minister and they both love God, but watching them go through what they went through and still come out and be people that fear God and are dedicated to him, I think they're strong people."
The connection with Christian hip-hop pioneers The Cross Movement started when J.R. was producing Flame's debut EP. They looked up to The Cross Movement and Gospel Ganstaz as artists who had combined their faith and music in a radical way.
J.R. recalls, "We heard Cross Movement's first record and kept up with their work and we saw their second record 'House Of Representatives', and the video on BET and after that we heard that they were having a show in Chicago. So we drove up to Chicago with some friends, took Flame's EP, went to the show, gave it to them. They called us back two weeks later and said, 'We love your music, we want to build with you, fellowship with you.' They invited us on the Platinum Souls tour back in 2002 and that was the start. They signed Flame first, then they signed me."
He continues, "I always talk about foundations and that's so important. They gave us a foundation in ministry that helped us not to get swallowed up in fame and having an idea of success that's different from the Lord. They taught us how to be servants, excellent musicians, excellent producers, excellent writers, but yet servants, they have a heart. Now my personal ministry, my desire is to be among sinners and among the body, and I can only do that because they gave me a foundation to be among sinners without being tempted and being missional with my music. So they definitely gave me a foundation of serving Christ with my music and from there the sky was the limit."
Of course even amongst all the creative musical ideas and desire to minister, there were still issues in J.R.'s personal life. He has a son by a woman he didn't marry and now is happily married to a different woman, Coco. Does he look at those things with regret? I imagine that having a son must be really great, but does he have regrets looking back at that stuff?
"I love my son," he replies honestly, "but I'm just always reminded that he's like an Ishmael, he wasn't born in a proper context of a marriage. I've paid a price for that, he's paid a price for that, no matter how many times I see him during the week, I can't disciple him like I want to. He's with his mum and she phones me up saying, 'Canon's playing up again, will you talk to him.' That kills me. If he was around me and I could see that stuff I'd nip it in the bud, like a shepherd of a home should be able to do, but I can't do that. I spend so much time with him and pour into him so much, but that's a couple of days a week unless he's staying with me and it's harder when I'm on the road so I regret that. If I had my choice I would have stayed a virgin till I got married. I know that [sounds] weak and you'll think I'm telling a story, but if you've been through what I've been through, losing your virginity just one time with that consequence, I would rather my son not be born, that he could be born in the context of a marriage. His mum went through hell, we had times where I didn't like her, she didn't like me, she tried to get people to fight me. It was so horrible because of our sin. It was blinded by sex and lust and it was just crazy, it was not what God intended for a relationship and for a baby to be born in. I could write a hundred songs, just of experiences as a young man dealing with having him at such a young age and the relationship me and his mum had."
The reality is that God still uses those experiences. The grace of God means that God can use the bad things that we've been through and turn them around and use them for good. For J.R., one of the things that he can communicate is the whole lust issue because he is someone who's been through all of that. So how did he actually conquer it in the end? "I was a bachelor in my own house and I was about 24. I remember having total control, total freedom and total secrecy. I knew I wasn't going to bring women into my home because I was scared. I said, 'Lord, I'm not bringing women into my home, I'm not breaking women's hearts by having sex then leaving them alone.' So I said one thing that can keep me satisfied while I want a woman is porn, and while I wasn't addicted every single day there was something that I couldn't say no to when I did want to do it. I justified it by saying it wasn't as bad as having sex with a woman. I said I'm not breaking women's hearts, I'm not having babies, another person's not involved, but yet that was breaking down my own spiritual walls. I remember sitting in my basement at the computer and hitting enter and I just stopped and thought, do you have to do this? But everything in me was saying, 'Yes, you can do this, you have to do this.'
"In that moment, the decision to do whatever was going to make me feel the best in the whole world meant that I opened up the Bible. I opened up to Romans five and ended up reading to chapter seven. I remember Paul talking about how we were born, we died with Christ and we rose with Christ and we rose to newness of life and he went on to talk about all this stuff about the things I want to do I do not and the things I don't want to do I do, so evil is always present. But yet this new life we have in Christ makes us a slave to righteousness and not a slave to sin. When I saw that I said, 'I know this Bible is true, I read it every day but yet I've got this feeling in me that's saying this is something that's going to be a part of my life I might as well get used to it, so I'm saying, it's my lie or the Scriptures are a lie, am I lying or is the Scripture a lie?' So I chose to just believe the words that were in the Scriptures and I had the power to choose not to do this anymore and it was like a light came on. My resolve was that when we give in to our temptations, whatever it is, it's not that we are chained to it like this thing is our master because God is our master when we're born again, but Paul says don't make these things a bondage again. And that's what I was doing, I was taking something that I had the power to say no to but letting its effects feel like I was a slave to it. So that day I saw clearly like a contract. I saw what I couldn't do and what I could do and it was clear that I could say no to it, and that changed my perspective on temptation from that day."
Whatever you do when you talk to J.R., don't even whisper that he's a hip-hop artist. He hates it! "I hate it with a passion. I complain all the time to my wife, to my management, saying, 'I'm not a hip-hop artist.' One of those things doing music and appealing to Christians is that it's geocentric in its nature that Christians seem to find something to describe something. They'll say he's the Christian John Legend or something. So people see me in Cross Movement and they automatically group me as a hip-hop artist. I was looking at Daystar Television and they're airing my performance on there and they had me on the website as 'Don't miss hip-hop artist, J.R.'s performance.' And I'm like, 'Doh! I'm not a hip hop artist.'"
J.R. calls his music urban alternative. The next album 'Liberation' will see him creating a mix of John Legend, Coldplay and U2 sounds but with a lot of soulful vocals over the top. He says, "Hip-hop is my influence because that's what I grew up producing and listening to, you can hear it through my music, you can hear it through my rhythm. I look at it like this. . . If the radio stations don't want to play my type of record, my philosophy is, make a record that they will play but at the same time not compromising yourself as an artist. Some people would criticise me but I've been blessed with a sound. So it's a tough challenge for me that I like because I'd hate for anyone to think they can't play me on their radio station because I'm too this or too that. In my brain I'm saying, 'I'll show you'."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.