LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP) -- A Grammy, four-time Dove Award and two-time Stellar Award nominee, hip hop artist Flame credits his time at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary with strengthening the theology in his chart-topping songs.
Flame -- whose actual name is Marcus Gray -- was introduced to Southern by happenstance when he and a friend took a road trip from St. Louis for a conference at the seminary in Louisville, Ky. That visit is where Flame met R. Albert Mohler Jr., Southern's president, who made quite an impression on him.
"We really enjoyed the preliminary session and the breakout sessions, and Dr. Mohler just meshed well with the prospective students, the conference attendees," Flame said. "[We] got a chance to sit with him, and it was like, 'Wow. This guy's really intelligent.... He's very witty, funny, but focused on Christ and centered around the cross and the Gospel.'"
Little did Flame know that God would pull him back to the seminary.
His wife landed an internship in Louisville during a time when he was trying to further his education. Because his visit to Southern Seminary left such an impression, his wife looked online and suggested Southern's undergraduate program at Boyce College. So Flame transferred from Missouri Baptist University in St. Louis and moved with his wife to Louisville.
Since graduating from Boyce, Flame has continued his studies at Southern Seminary in biblical counseling. But he has been doing much more than just hitting the books.
Earlier this year, Flame released his sixth rap album, aptly named "The 6th." In it he uses rap music, which usually is associated with sex, gangs and violence, to teach others about the Gospel.
"It's my sixth album but it's also a deeper meaning," he said. "Obviously God created both male and female on the sixth day.... I wanted to talk about us. It's really an album focused on anthropology, the study of man, and thinking about our strengths, our weaknesses, our personalities, our flaws, our accomplishments, and ultimately pointing towards God's original purpose for us."
The 6th debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's Gospel albums chart in March, claimed the No. 2 spot on the Christian albums chart and was No. 8 on the Rap albums chart. It immediately shot to No. 1 on iTunes' Hip-Hop chart.
Flame said his purpose for rapping also was something that drew him to Southern Seminary: showing the relevance of the Bible.
Although he had been using music to spread the Gospel in prisons, juvenile detention centers and the streets of St. Louis before attending Boyce and Southern Seminary, Flame said his mentors in Louisville helped him better communicate the Word in his music.
"They've really helped me catapult the Gospel message, but also in particular the way it fleshes out in rap music reaching the hip hop culture," he said. "So I would just say that they strengthened something that I was already developing for myself."
Flame acknowledged that rap music is not traditionally known for being Christian, but he said that because hip hop has roots in the Islamic faith some of his listeners are more open to listen about religion in general. Even so, apathy and a lack of commitment to any religion are obstacles he faces when trying to reach out to fans of rap.
He continues to try to break down barriers with his music, gain their respect and most importantly share with them the story of Jesus Christ.
"Our generation really values pleasure and fun and just kind of checking out and having a good time, and that makes it sometimes difficult to talk about weightier issues," he said. "But thank God we have the music that plays a role in making that connection with people."
Flame's music did not always proclaim the Gospel. As a teenager his material consisted of benign topics –- staying in school, hanging out with friends. But then he began to run with an older, tougher crowd.
"I was torn between trying to fit in, trying to be normal and do what was regular in my neighborhood and then at the same time having the conscience that said, 'Hey, this is wrong. You shouldn't do this. You shouldn't taste this. You shouldn't say this, shouldn't feel this.' But then I resisted God's will." Flame said. "I fought Him, and He allowed me to get in a lot of trouble."
He even had to change schools at 16 and on the way home from his orientation, a terrible car accident involving an 18-wheeler and more than 10 cars changed his life. Shortly after the accident he asked his grandmother why this had happened, and she told him God was trying to get his attention. Just a few weeks later, she died and Flame was devastated.
After about a month of resistance, Flame finally went back to church where he better understood the Gospel message.
"[God] understood where I was, but He was calling me to submit and just surrender to Him and have life and become a new creature, a new creation, and that message finally resonated with me and settled in my soul," he said. "And I remember just crying like a baby, asking God to forgive me for my sins, forgive me for my wrongs.
"He saved me. I was 16, and He took away most of my vices instantly. Like the major hang ups in my life, I completely lost the desire for them, and I just started going Jesus crazy after that."
Flame's passion for Jesus has not fizzled since then. He continues to reach out not just in the United States but all around the world with his music and with an acting debut this year. Flame was part of the original play "From This Day Forward," which aired in May on GMC (formerly the Gospel Music Channel).
Whitney Jones is a writer with Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).