Tony Cummings quizzed London rapper S.O.E. about his past and his hot 'Chase The Dream' album.
One of the best hip-hop cuts on Cross Rhythms radio is "Hold On" by S.O.E.. The moniker stands for Son Of Encouragement, the nom de disc chosen by Earnest Evwarage, a London-based rapper and half of pioneering hip-hop duo Set Free who have been a fixture on the UK holy hip-hop underground for many a long year. "Hold On" comes from S.O.E.'s scorching debut solo album 'Chase The Dream', released independently. I pitched a batch of questions at this most encouraging of rappers.
Tony: Can you give me some background?
S.O.E.: I was born in South East London (Lewisham to be precise!), where I spent my early years. I'm the youngest of six children (four of whom have sadly passed away). I actually grew up in Nigeria because my parents returned back there. I didn't have a Christian upbringing but did attend a Catholic church during my boarding school days. By the world's standards I was an okay dude that didn't get into trouble with the law, etc. I was about having lots of fun (which to me meant girls, clubbing and alcohol - in no particular order!). I didn't become a Christian until years later (summer of '86) after months of strong inner conviction. It was a close friend's conversion that had a lasting impact on me and that God ultimately used to get my attention. I'm in no doubt that it's his wonderful grace that saved me and has kept me to this day!
The first music that I can remember listening to was from my dad's collection. He was really into jazz, blues, soul, country, reggae and traditional Nigerian music (lots of it!). It was really my older brother's music taste that had a bigger impact on me musically. I started listening mainly to soul, R&B and reggae music (hip-hop came much later!). Among my favourites were artists like Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Fela, Bob Marley, and the Mighty Diamonds.
My entrance into hip-hop was really via dance. I lived and breathed dance! The whole rap thing for me came later. I started to actively get into it around 1988. I would recite other MCs' rhymes because I never thought I could actually write my own! When I started out I listened to a lot of American gospel rap artists such as SFC, Dynamic Twins, Freedom of Soul and I.D.O.L. King.
Tony: Tell me about the formation of Set Free.
S.O.E.: In 1991 I started rhyming with my old school mate's younger brother - Colin aka Jubal. I credit him as being the person that really encouraged me to take MCing seriously. We first performed our rhymes during a street evangelism trip to the Isle of Wight in the latter part of '91. We went on to form the group Set Free in early 1992. The group was originally made up of four members. We were all friends that hung out together as well as prayed together. We had come to a point where we really wanted to use our creative talents more to serve the Lord. Our first live gig as a group was in March of that year. Also on the bill that night were Limit X and Anne Swinton (remember them?). It was a real hot show and it served as a good spring board for us. Set Fre recorded a number of really good songs (but then again I would say that ha! ha!). We always tried to make our style diverse and avoid monotonous lyrical delivery. Notable songs that became fairly popular on the then gospel music circuit were "Rock", "Crazy", "Nu Song" and "Shalom". Unfortunately we didn't release any of these songs (maybe one day!). We did however release our debut single "In Dayz Like These" which was a double-A side single that also featured the song "Gotta Be A Father To Your Child". The single was well received by our fan base and was also supported by mainstream and Christian radio.
When we first started MCing we wrote our lyrics in a way that made it clear to other Christians that we were believers! 'Gospel' rap was a strange idea to many, so we made sure that in our music we used expressions Christians were used to (even if it meant little to the non-Christians that we were reportedly trying to reach!). A turning point came in 1994 when we wrote the song "Shalom". In it we attempted to portray more of Christ's love in a way that non-Christians could identify with. It was the first song that we had written that was compassionate and in our opinion could not be seen as judgmental. After a particular performance of the song at a concert, a Christian lady came up to us to say how much the song had encouraged her. She went on to tell us that for most of that week she had been struggling with suicidal thoughts! From that point we were determined to make music that expressed some thing of God's love and deliver it with compassion.
Tony: What was that World Cup football project you were involved in?
S.O.E.: The Nigeria 1998 World Cup Songs project was a real fun experience! I learnt a lot about the business side of the music industry. It all started from an almost casual conversation that I had with an old University friend about the World Cup that year. We had both performed together as part of a dance troupe in Nigeria so were used to working together. We went on to record the songs "Whole Nigeria's Coming" and "No Stopping" under the moniker Alpha Select. We released them independently on our own imprint, Alpha Productions. We performed at shows and got some exposure in local press and radio. Later we got international coverage on radio and our story was covered on ITV's London Tonight news. As things picked up and as Nigeria progressed through the competition, we started looking for an investor to expand things. However, when Nigeria crashed out of the tournament in the quarter final (lost to Denmark!) it spelt the end of the project. To this day I'm grateful to God for the experience because I learnt a lot from it.
Tony: Tell me about your work with disadvantaged children and young people.
S.O.E.: I have had involvement in youth work since 1989 really. Back then I helped to lead the youth group in my local church. My work with Set Free also involved youth mentoring in London and overseas. In 2001 I helped to set up a range of youth-focused community projects in South London. The initiatives were designed to provide support and mentoring services for disadvantaged youths that were at risk of social exclusion or involvement in criminal activity. This involved working in schools with pupils that were at risk of exclusion or that need help to make the transition from primary to secondary school. It also entailed working with young people in after school settings. We used the arts and self development training workshops to engage young people with a view to helping them to fulfil their potential. I went on to executive produce four short films which included an innovative short film, Ralph Rules, that featured youths from one of such community projects (Heartbeat Academy). The piece aimed to help reduce bullying and drugs misuse among young people. I also successfully produced an under-21 talent competition Strictly Muzik aimed at showcasing and helping to develop young talent in London.
In 2005 I set up my own non-profit organisation, Reconstruct Community Initiatives Ltd to carry on this type of work. We have worked with hard to reach youths in South London at risk of involvement in gangs and gun/knife crime. Again we employ the arts to engage and mentor them.
Tony: I understand that Set Free are still going. What made you decide to record the 'Chase The Dream' album?
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