The Block Beat multimedia series is a collaboration with The TRiiBE that roots Chicago musicians in places and neighborhoods that matter to them.
Everything about Chicago rapper Ric Wilson is rooted in the Baptist church. As a teenager, the 22-year-old began working as an organizer for Black Youth Project 100 and We Charge Genocide, and his drive to fight for black lives arises from his upbringing in the black church—placing his activism in the tradition of the civil rights movement, also born from the black church. At the same time, his desire to stitch messages of black power and black inspiration into the fabric of his music connects him to the likes of gospel legend Mahalia Jackson, whose omnipotent voice helped soundtrack that fight for racial justice—and who lived in Chatham in the late 50s and throughout the 1960s.
“It’s interesting, because now church music is blending into secular music with Kirk Franklin, and him making music with Kanye West and Chance [the Rapper],” Wilson says. He also mentions Sam Cooke, another Chicagoan famous for crossover success—in the 1950s, already established as a gospel singer, he experimented with pop and R&B, alienating his sanctified audience but in the process helping invent the new genre of soul music. Wilson’s most recent release, the 2017 EP Negrow Disco, has a bit of soul in it too, though it’s clearly inspired by disco and driven by pop. He’s still exploring what he wants his sound to be, and to do it he’s still listening to the church.
“People can learn something from church music. It’s authentic,” Wilson says. “Look at Elvis. He used to go to church and watch black people and then appropriate them. He literally stole all of his macho from the Baptist church in the south.”
To teach us about his artistry, Wilson takes us to its birthplace: Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church, at 45th Place and Princeton Avenue. It’s where his family’s history in the north begins—his maternal grandmother, born in Brownsville, Tennessee, took the Great Migration train to Chicago at around the same time another relocated Brownsville native, the Reverend Clay Evans, founded Fellowship Missionary Baptist in 1950.
Wilson’s family have been members of the storied church since arriving in the city. As it grew, it became a cornerstone of its neighborhood and a powerhouse in the gospel-music world—the Reverend Evans’s distinctively raspy voice not only led the way on some of the church’s most beloved songs, such as “I’m Blessed” and “It Is No Secret (What God Can Do),” but also became a Sunday-morning staple in black households via weekly radio and TV broadcasts of the program What a Fellowship Hour. Grammy-nominated gospel singer Anita Wilson served as the church’s choir director from 2005 till 2012.
“When I was younger, we used to go through those doors right there,” Wilson says, pointing not to the main sanctuary doors but to an entrance on the other side of the building, to the northwest. “We would park on that side and enter through the basement, because after service they would serve food in the basement.”
Wilson still attends Fellowship Missionary Baptist, though not with the same regularity he used to. When we visit with him, it’s a frigid Tuesday, with no services and just a few people around. He instructs us to close our eyes and imagine the sounds of the church on a busier day, guiding us on a tour through his nostalgic vision: Outside, a lady sells cookies and kids slow up their parents by begging for money to buy a treat. Inside, before the service, he says, “You gon’ hear a black woman probably checking somebody on something they doing that ain’t right. Then you gon’ hear another black woman probably preaching to somebody about what they should be doing, and how you doing, and somebody asking somebody, how’s your mother, how’s your son?”
Wilson jokes about how often he arrived at church late—before he got inside, he could hear singing and the sounds of praise coming through the windows and doors. “We start service off with music,” he says. “There’s a lot of times when we’ll start with music, and the music would just keep going because the Holy Spirit just be so [real].”
Music Everywhere: Foundations of Music benefit concert with Ric Wilson
Thu 3/22, 6:30 PM, Subterranean, 2011 W. North, $25, 21+
Most important, Wilson took to heart the stories of activism shared by the church’s elders. Reverend Evans, who’s now 92 years old and retired in 2000, is revered as a civil rights icon in Chicago. He cofounded Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH in 1971, and when Martin Luther King Jr. came to North Lawndale in 1966 to energize the Chicago open housing movement, Wilson says, Evans was among the few pastors in Chicago who defied threats from Mayor Richard J. Daley and welcomed the civil rights leader into his church.
“When King moved here, [Daley] told all the preachers and pastors not to let King come speak at their church,” Wilson explains. “They tell the story in church all the time. Daley made sure that the sanctuary we’re in now, that was being built in the 60s, wasn’t finished till the 70s.”
Black congregations are no longer so reliably at the forefront of the struggle for justice, and Wilson thinks that change began when church folks backed away from the Black Panthers in the late 60s. He knows his history, though, and he’s honored to carry on the tradition. In 2014 he traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, with a delegation from We Charge Genocide, and they spoke about Chicago police violence at the 53rd session of the United Nations Committee Against Torture.
When Wilson sits in the pews of the church that Daley couldn’t stop, he sits proudly. “The sanctuary we’re in now is like a historic artifact and, I want to say, a symbol of resistance against white supremacy and white capitalism and structural racism,” he says. “Because [Reverend Evans let] King come here to speak to folks in the church.” v