Carmen Hicks, national Christian rapper: A hip-hop story

| June 21, 2016

Carmen Hicks spreads the Gospel through rap. [PHOTO: Bridget Jones]

By William Bryant Rozier

Editor’s Note: William Bryant Rozier, on behalf of the African/African American Historical Society Museum (AAAHSM), is writing a series of articles about Fort Wayne hip-hop. The stories will lead to a hip-hop history event from the museum, with funding help by Arts United.

Carmen Hicks, owner of Hicks Caskets, Monuments & More, can rap. Check that. I’m doing her a disservice. Carmen Hicks, owner of Hicks Caskets, Monuments & More, can spit; her daughters even say so. “My kids would brag on me to their friends: ‘My mom can spit.’ Kids are brutally honest. My husband would say that if our kids are proud of you, they’re not going to let you embarrass them.”

Carmen showed me a five-minute video on her phone, of her rapping at New Zion Tabernacle, her church. At first, she’s hard to see, standing still in the aisle’s middle, wearing a matching beige skirt and suit coat. “Normally, I don’t like rapping in skirts, but I did that day.” A “hype woman” to her right, Carmen’s daughter Christina, sings, imploring the assembled to get on up.

Carmen Hicks’ rap is effortless. It’s a command performance with creative synchronizations; at one point, she dips down the aisle, on beat, as the bass descends. Her lyrics tell the history of the church, with its multiple moves across the city. After her performance, “I just sat back down”—like it never happened.

“I gave my life to the Lord at an early age. I was 20,” Hicks said.

Back in mid-80s, Hicks attended Calvary Chapel Church, led by Pastor Willie Bolden; the church was full of young people. Pastor Bolden wanted to serve and encourage them. A Christian comedian was brought in, “and that was out of the norm for many churches at the time,” Hicks explained.

Pastor Bolden also asked for a rap; Hicks stepped forward.

“I had always written poetry since I was like 12. I loved writing poetry. I could write poems, and I can talk fast enough, so I figured I could do something.” Hicks didn’t buy the praise that followed.

The raps kept coming.

“It was one of those things when I gave my life to God, I said, ‘use me however you see fit.’” But, Hicks was never really a fan of mainstream rap. Not at all. Not even a little bit. “God’s got jokes. Rap, for real, of all things?”

Using rap as a “vehicle to witness to people, to talk to people about salvation and the Lord,” Hicks performed across the country, in coffee shops and youth rallies in Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin, and (at the other end of the spectrum) maximum-security state prisons in Illinois and Indiana.

Christian hip-hop, Christian rap has its founding fathers, it’s DJ Kool Herc’s, it’s Sugerhill Gang’s, it’s Run D MC’s. They were MC Sweet, Stephen Wiley and S.F.C. (Soldiers for Christ). Nashville, Tennessee (for the most part) stood in for the Boogie Down Bronx as the hip-hop and rap epicenter. DC Talk performed at my Zion Lutheran Grade School.

“I like LeCrae [who has a deal with Columbia Records]. Trip Lee [also a pastor] is another. There are a few artists that I like, on the highway, to keep me awake,” described Hicks, who recorded four songs herself with Frost Illustrated’s own Michael Patterson. “Craig Harding owned a studio at the time, and he and Mike worked together on the project.

“I have a hard time telling you exactly [what I want], but if I hear a beat, I can [tell you]. I like bass. I like a lot of bass. So Mike was a perfect fit.”

Her cousin Valerie Oliver, also a Christian rapper, who rapped as a duo with Carmen over some Paul Hardcastle-instrumentals, made the intro.

Hicks is a poet, so her sentences are naturally lyrical. She talks fast. So it’s conceivable for her to write a rap without a beat, or adjusting her words to fit the perfect sound. Her words don’t sound the same, she confessed, if she’s the one conjuring the music first.

Hicks started when mainstream rap blew up. Yo! MTV Raps debuted in 1988; so popular the show became that MTV promoted the weekly to a daily. Hicks toured prisons around the time that Fort Wayne hip-hop legends like Meaty & Bone began marking their territory (see: the Tray Brookshire hip-hop article). So nascent was Fort Wayne’s hip-hop scene in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s that Carmen never even heard of those guys. (I asked Tray, and he never heard about her.) And that’s incredible because, as Mike Patterson explained, “Carmen was probably one of, if not the first local rap act to go national, out of all of those guys. And, I remember her cousin and Valerie being featured on a national Christian television program.” (Valerie also rapped with Christian hip-hop pioneer Stephen Wiley down in Florida.)

Hicks said she learned to rap without a mentor, without watching rap videos, so she couldn’t steal from the best.

“I probably should have listened to different styles. But, because I did not like rap, it was hard to listen to it. When I rapped, I was just my own style. It was who I was, it was me.”

She does respect the craft, though. I asked her to listen to some mainstream stuff, picking some Hicks-approved artists and tracks that weren’t too trashy, that had substance. “I’m big on lyrics,” she said.

Hicks applauded my range: Digable Planets, A Tribe Called Quest, MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, LL Cool J, Eric B. and Rakim, Slick Rick, Kendrick Lamar, Jay Electronica. It’s pretty bad that she had to be reminded of about half of them, from the previous night’s perusal. You could tell she wanted to rewrite some of the Queen’s “U.N.I.T.Y.” lyrics, but she stopped herself.

Slick Rick and his lullaby “Children’s Story” stuck.

“Someone else could have said the same thing, and it would have been gloomy and dark. I think his delivery [eased it]. And the music was upbeat,” explained Hicks.

Hicks said she is thinking about doing some spoken word nights somewhere. But rap, anywhere outside of the church?

“I’m older. I have adult children. My husband keeps saying that’s irrelevant,” she said.

Her niece and nephew rap; they are the Chrome Cats (they’re on YouTube).

“They’re really good, and although their lyrics aren’t Christian rap, they are positive and uplifting,” described Hicks.

Some of their videos are filmed at Carmen’s residence. They just recently asked her to film another video, to rap again in her house. She said yes of course.

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Frost Illustrated is Fort Wayne's oldest weekly newspaper. Your Independent Voice in the Community, featuring news & views of African Americans since 1968.

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