Arthur Hatton is a connoisseur of music and the founder of Linescratchers, a site that highlights LDS musicians who play music other than LDS-themed music. We’re pleased to have him as our guest for a special series of posts.
Last time, I featured the first in my series of the Top 10 LDS Musicians You’ve Never Heard Of, delightfully eccentric violinist and songwriter Roxy Rawson. This week, I continue with my personal favorite rap star. But maybe I’m a bit biased in his favor.
When I was a missionary in West Texas around 2005, I went on a companionship exchange with one of my favorite zone leaders. The Spirit just leaked out of this guy into everyone he came in contact with, and when he bore his testimony, the stones would almost cry out. He and I went knocking doors in the Texas heat one day, and halfway down one street, we knocked into a woman who was familiar with the missionaries. We gave her the spiel, but she cut us off pretty quickly. “I already have a Book of Mormon,” she said. “It’s in my bookshelf somewhere.” She admitted, however, that she never actually read it.
My temporary companion gripped his Book of Mormon in his hand, and in a powerful, dignified, yet conversational tone he said, “Ma’am, you may not be aware of this, but you have a pearl in your home.” The woman and I were taken completely aback, and after a moment to compose herself, she muttered a confusing, “Well, thank you.”It is with that story in mind that I introduce to you that same zone leader, who later went on to be an expressive, smooth, and dare I say fashionable rapper.
Simeon Lawrence Jr. has a long, beautiful, and interesting story. The first time he ever really shared it “for the World” was on an early Linescratchers podcast, and I believe that in order to truly appreciate Sim’s music, you need to understand where Sim came from. I corresponded with Sim and received input from both Sim’s father and his mother to make sure the facts are accurate.
Sim was born in Liberia in 1984. Four years earlier, his father, Simeon Lawrence Sr. (hereafter called Simeon Sr.) was working for Adolphus Benedict Tolbert, the son of the president of Liberia, when a military group called the People’s Redemption Council led by Samuel Doe violently overthrew the regime. Doe was a merciless and cruel dictator. Many members of the old regime, including the president and his son, were ruthlessly executed. Sim’s father feared for his life, but he decided to turn himself in peacefully in order to gain leniency. He was surprised when the new regime chose him to be the special assistant to the Secretary-General of the PRC. However, when Sim was an infant in 1985, a second coup broke out to overthrow Doe’s government. This coup attempt failed, but one morning Simeon Sr. went to his office to find a group of men holding semi-automatic weapons. Simeon Sr. was immediately arrested and sent to prison, on charges of conspiracy and treason. In prison, he was surrounded by despair, and many prisoners were being executed.
“That’s the thing about this jail, my Dad was telling me. He said he remembers being in the jail and people were singing songs and spirituals and praying, but the scary thing about the prayers was they weren’t praying to be free, they were just praying that their ends wouldn’t be slow… that the Lord wouldn’t make them suffer.” – Young Sim, Linescratchers podcast.
When soldiers went to the Lawrence home to tell them Simeon Sr. had been arrested, Sim’s mother went to the Secretary-General to petition for his release. The Secretary-General knew that the charges were bogus and Simeon Sr. was soon released and returned to his job and home. However, he saw the writing on the wall. He asked to be transferred to work at the Liberian embassy in Rome, Italy, and the whole family moved there. As Second Secretary and Vice Counsel at the embassy, Simeon Sr. was in charge of networking with the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, and also signing and issuing visas and passports. Being the highest-ranking official at the Liberian embassy at the time, when missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints came to visit, it was Simeon Sr. who spoke to them. He and his whole family were eventually baptized into an international branch in Rome.
Unfortunately, trouble followed the Lawrence family even to Rome. A relative of the First Lady of Liberia who was an ambassador attempted to get Simeon Sr. to take part in illegal activities. He refused. Simeon Sr. soon found himself to be the target of a plot against his life, and took the only course of action he felt he had left: to fly with his family to Philadelphia, USA, and seek political asylum there. With all his political experience and education suddenly worthless, but out of the reach of the men who sought his life, Simeon Sr. tried to raise his family as best as he could, taking jobs that were, in Sim’s words, “below his dignity,” in order to provide for his family. Eventually he earned a master’s degree in social work, and now works as a social worker in Philadelphia.
A year after moving to Philadelphia, the Lawrence family moved out to a township bordering West Philadelphia called Upper Darby. Simeon Jr. (thus, Young Sim) grew up there with his four siblings, and watched at a safe distance while civil war again broke out in Liberia in 1989, and Samuel Doe himself was captured, tortured, and executed. The Lawrence family was not without turmoil even in Upper Darby. When I was talking to Sim about this article, he wanted me to make sure I didn’t leave out his mother in all of this. Sim describes his mother in saintly terms, as the spiritual backbone of the family. Though she endured great hardship in Liberia, Italy, and in Philadelphia, and the loss of two children as infants (one in 1983, one in 1989) she kept the family together with her faith in Jesus Christ. As you can probably imagine, these experiences were all very formative for Sim, and once he began writing music, he used his lyrics to display a passion for life and an understanding of the human condition that transcends what many in the United States have experienced. However, what Sim learned the hard way, he gives away freely to those who pay attention to his music.
“…as i reflect on my life and that of my family a desire to follow the Spirit and accomplish my dreams engulfs me. It’s crazy when you feel like you should not be alive, it gives ya a feeling of purpose. Thanks for being such a good friend and telling this story.” – Young Sim, personal email to me
Sim’s story is beautiful and compelling, but he makes my list because his music is just as good. I admit, I’m not an expert in rap and hip hop as I am in, say, prog rock (I have a genuine autographed Close to the Edge LP, just so you know), but I know good music when I hear it. On a superficial level, Sim’s beats are tightly produced and he has an ear for good song structure and chords. Sim’s voice is both emotive and soothing, and his lyrics are expressive. But when one listens deeply to his words, they will find a deep implicit spirituality. Sim’s strength lies in his deep conviction that he is on his Father in Heaven’s errand. He raps about life, love, having the courage to be himself, and his relationship with his God and Savior.
“I’ve never cared about fitting in with anyone. I use the word coward a lot and this is a perfect time for me to define what it means to me. A coward is a man that is afraid to act and think for himself.” – Young Sim, email interview with Linescratchers.
Rap music has a poor reputation for its language and its depictions of sex and violence, and Sim realizes that. However, he has committed himself to writing music that doesn’t use vulgarity. In fact, he has started a music label and promotions organization called Feel Good Music Coalition that promotes good music “minus the vulgarity.” He told me that he wants to promote music and artists with integrity, and if anyone has the ability to get these gears turning and really change people’s hearts, it’s Sim. I saw it when we were missionaries and I see it now.
“Hip Hop is a culture that started in the inner cities. The music within the culture is a reflection of the harsh reality within those inner cities. Rap music has its issues that individual artists need to be accountable for. I also believe that the corporate structure that controls the art form definitely promotes and markets that side a bit too much. Music I believe should always be a reflection of self. The way I write and express myself is based on my experiences. As a man first and foremost I can only be real and honest with myself and my God. I choose to use clean lyrics because that’s what I’m comfortable wit, and mama and grandma like it! “YA DIG!”” – Young Sim, email interview with Linescratchers.
Sim has recently joined up with fellow LDS hip hop artist Definit to release a wonderful album called My Life. It’s a tight, well-produced album, recently reviewed by Gregg Hale at Linescratchers. It’s a great place to start if you really want to hear some of Young Sim’s rapping skills. Definit is a talented artist with a story, as well, and the two of them together make an excellent team.
Sim now resides in the Salt Lake area, and if you really want to experience the full Young Sim, you really need to see him in a live performance. I was able to see him perform here in Kentucky, when Sim flew out to play at an LDS concert for the singles of the state. It was a great night, and Sim wowed everyone with his personality, his music, and his commanding yet humble stage presence. For more information about Young Sim, you can find him on MySpace where you can find a recently recorded track, Testify, on which I played guitar. I also recommend that you check out the Feel Good Music CoalitionFacebook page so you can keep updated on all the great music coming out of Sim’s circle of talented friends. Above all, Simeon has a vision of changing the world with his music, and I truly believe that he will.