Sir the Baptist is a Chicago native with soul on the brain – soul music, soul saving and soul-searching. He's a preacher's kid with a love for music that derived from life in the church choir (thanks to his father) and the location of his family's “jazz heaven home” in the Chi's Bronzeville neighborhood.
But that love didn't truly develop as early as some would like to think.
Like many preacher's kids, Sir, formally known as William James Stokes, was often torn between the secular and spiritual worlds. Instead of immediately securing a position in the church and hitting the studio the first chance he got, Stokes went to college for a day – literally – then landed a job in advertising with the successful Chicago ad firm Leo Burnett. There, Sir maximized his marketing and branding potential, giving billion-dollar companies grandiose ideas to leverage their name and product. But during that time, a then charismatic 26-year-old realized, "I’m giving them free stuff and they can sort of take all the trademarks that come with it."
In other words, Sir wanted the rights to the work he was producing, and he wasn't going to get that in advertising. So, on a hope and a prayer, William James Stokes left Leo Burnett and endured a six-month stint of homelessness, crashing on friends' couches, showering at LA Fitness (because he could afford just enough for the membership) and driving a Lyft to make ends meet. But none of that mattered because he had soul on the brain.
Influenced by the greats like Ella Fitzgerald, Smokey Robinson and Whitney Houston, Sir turned his focus to music, creating sonic stories for those who pine for a good song with substance. Now, two years later, Sir the Baptist is signed to Atlantic Records and is awaiting the release of his debut album, PK: Preacher's Kid.
He sat down with ESSENCE in Atlanta, Georgia, the night before he attended his first BET Hip Hop Awards. “I feel honored,” Sir tells ESSENCE about his excitement to join the list of various hip-hop artists who have thrived from Chicago over the past decade. When asked what made him decide to leave a fun, steady paying job in marketing, the soul singer says, “Because you can do [marketing and advertising] in music.” He continues, “When we go and do marketing and advertising, we look for an artist. It’s easier to become a spokesperson when you’re an artist. The types of things I wanted to lead and put into the culture…music would pass the listening stage and give a deeper connection.”
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But let’s face it. It’s 2016. And leaving a stable career for a unguaranteed gig that has thousands feining for the number one spot isn’t the path most followed. Sir remembers the moment that put him at his tipping point.
“There was this thing for McDonald’s called Jukebox, and it broke a few artists. I was like, ‘If I’m doing this for them, then I might as well do it for myself.’ So, I took all of those pieces [branding, marketing and advertising] and put it in my career.”
Unable to find an artist to produce or manage, William James Stokes took on the task of becoming the artist himself and transformed into a singer that spreads the gospel to a generation of musically lost sheep.
“I had no other choice,” he says. Sir, who has no problem preaching while he’s singing, is not your usual gospel artist. In fact, he doesn’t classify himself as such at all. While allowing his music to be “that connecting piece between our spirituality and our day-to-day world,” and “constantly making [it] blend between our spiritual world and our reality,” Chicago’s next rising artist thinks he’s much more vulgar than other artists in the gospel genre.
“I’m constantly trying to blend the spiritual world with our reality. I think those walls have been separated, and we don’t know which side to choose from. [You can be] in a relationship and want to have sex, [but] you don’t know which way to go,” Sir tells ESSENCE. “I like to play the storyteller."
Ready to depict Chicago’s history through moral-driven music, Sir the Baptist explains his need to tell a story with substance.
“Right down the street from my dad’s church is Louis Armstrong’s house, and then Nat King Cole’s house and Ella Fitzgerald performed at places [nearby]. The historical inheritance has not been spoken of, and I get a chance to talk about it. Like Kanye samples everything, but you don’t really know what he sampling unless you dig deep to go look it up. It’s that sort of thing where I’m really glad to be coming from Chicago because I get to connect those to our inheritance musically and historically.”