by Sarah Carson

Growing up in South Central Los Angeles, Kelly Mims Glow learned from an early age just how vastly different people’s expressions of faith can be.

“My father was a practicing Baptist,” she says. “And my mother was a Lutheran. On the first and third Sundays, I would visit the Baptist church with my father. On second and fourth Sundays, I’d attend First Lutheran Church in Carson, California.”

“In the Baptist church, there were a lot of ‘Amens,’ and shouting and people running around,” she remembers. “And in the Lutheran church we joke that there’s a lot of standing up and sitting down.”

But even as a child, Kelly was struck by the power of music to bring people together. “I was always drawn to the connection people made in worship through music,” she says.

When Kelly was in high school, her father was ordained as a Lutheran pastor. Like many children of pastors, Kelly felt as if the people in her congregation expected perfection from her. As an outlet for that pressure, she again turned to music to process her feelings.

“I began to immerse myself into hip hop culture, which was kind of the rebellious outlet for youth at that time,” she says. “The premise of authentic hip hop culture is peace, love, unity and having fun,” she recalls. “I found myself interacting with people of different backgrounds, different ethnicities and different faiths.”

FOLLOWING GOD’S PLAN

Kelly dreamed of becoming a hip hop star, and in her early 20s, she landed one of the most prized opportunities an aspiring artist could dream of at the time: a contract with a major recording label. But it was during a meeting with music executives that she found herself torn between her Lutheran upbringing and her dreams of stardom.

“The day before signing, we had a marketing meeting, and we’re sitting at the table with executives, and I’m sitting there, and they’re speaking of me in third person,” she remembers. “They’re saying they’re having
trouble deciding what they should do with ‘her.’ ‘We like her skill. We like her ability, but we don’t like her look.’”

The topic of plastic surgery came up. The executives also wanted Kelly’s lyrics to be more aggressive. The moment was a pivotal one for Kelly.

“I could see very clearly, this really was a business, and in their eyes I was a possible commodity,” she says. “I didn’t feel comfortable at all, and knowing what I know about God and God’s love, and God’s promise for us, I walked away from that opportunity. I decided that God had a bigger purpose for me.” Kelly turned down the record contract and forged her own path.

Since 2002, she has released four albums, including “Back to My Future” which earned her a Gospel Choice Award in 2015. She has also performed at three ELCA youth gatherings. When she’s not performing, she works as an educator. In fact, she earned her doctorate in education by studying how hip hop music and culture can be a tool for learning.

“I view myself as a preservationist of hip hop culture,” she says. “My mission is two-fold…I want to preserve hip hop as culture, but I also want people to know Christ.”

Kelly knows many people have a negative perception of the hip hop genre, but she says that’s based on a misunderstanding of the culture.

‘A WAY OUT OF NO WAY’

“[Hip hop is] about confidence and self-expression, being unique, being creative. It’s about finding a way out of no way,” she says. “Negative images are out there, but there’s equally positive music in the hip hop genre and artists that are doing amazing things.”

One only needs to listen to Kelly’s lyrics to get a sense of how seriously she takes her mission. To commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Kelly released a hip hop version of Martin Luther’s Small Catechism that included songs about the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and Holy Communion. The album also included a hip hop version of “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”

In August 2021, Kelly will bring this experience to Women of the ELCA’s Gathering in Phoenix, Arizona. She will be the Gathering’s first-ever hip hop artist-in-residence.

“I know that I represent many things,” she says. “I was born in the 70s, so my particular generation, we’re that strange generation that has that unique connection with the baby boomers and with the millennials.” She sees her age and background as assets when it comes to building bridges across the diverse range of experiences in the Lutheran church.

“I’m never afraid to do my thing regardless of who is in the audience,” she says. “I always try to be true to myself and represent hip hop culture well and represent women well and represent Lutherans well.”

Sarah Carson is managing editor of Gather.

This article is excerpted from the July/August 2020 issue of Gather magazine. To read more like it, subscribe to Gather.

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