How Jean Grae Got Drunk, Became a Minister, and Started a Church
Grae talks to Noisey about being an ordained minister six times over, and the unconventional bi-monthly church service she hosts in Brooklyn.
You might know Jean Grae as a rapper who announced herself on the hip-hop scene in the mid-'90s and proceeded to apply her advanced level wordsmithery to penning songs about the psychology of school shootings, dropping intricate rap attacks that nod to old school video games, and being called up to help soundtrack Marvel's Black Panther revival.
You might also know the Brooklyn-based Jean Grae as an artist who's followed her creative impulses into the stand-up comedy world, cut a self-produced sitcom, and become the host of a live talk show. Oh, and there's also that thing about releasing what's almost certainly the world's only collection of spoken word Tim Kaine erotic fan fiction.
Now it's time to get to know Jean Grae as an ordained minister.
Yep, having passed the appropriate ecclesiastic tests, Jean Grae now runs a twice-monthly Sunday afternoon get together called The Church Of The Infinite You at Brooklyn's Union Hall. The next one is coming up on April 9. The official agenda is based around "sermons, drinks, food, music, being amazing." If you show up, you might witness Minister Jean and her flock of like-minded musician and comedian friends delivering motivational speeches and aspirational anecdotes interspersed with musical accompaniment from the Intersectionals Choir. Although don't expect to find yourself singing along to any of the traditional hymns you trilled in school—a recent gathering featured a version of potty-mouthed '70s soul singer Millie Jackson's "Fuck You Symphony" accompanied by back-of-the-house dancing inspired by '80s boy band pioneers New Edition.
With all of the life-enhancing good work that's being done by the Church Of The Infinite You—and with the world officially approaching a less-than-amazing fuckery level 3000—I spoke to Jean about the shifting role of religion in modern life, growing up in a household where her two jazz musician parents split their faith between being a cosmic free spirit and a Muslim, and her own church's vital stance on bacon.
Noisey: So is it true that you're an ordained minister?
Jean Grae: Yes!
How did that happen?
I became an ordained minister online when I found out you could do that in about 2012—oh, the wonders of the Internet!—and I'm pretty sure I was just really drunk and found out a fact. Usually what happens to me when I find out you can do something is I ask myself, "How much does it cost? And can I do that right now?" So I did it online and I got the certificate in the mail. I was like, "Great, I can totally marry people now, I can do what I want now, I can live my life tax free and start a church."
I'd actually been wanting to start a church for a very long time but I had to change my views on being an ordained minister when one of my long way back friends asked me this past summer if I would marry him and his bride. I found out New York has extremely strict rules about what online church you are registering to become an ordained minister with, and I found that out really late in the game so I couldn't be like, "Oh, shit, you have to find someone else to go and marry you this weekend…"
So one night I was panicking and going online and doing a bunch of research about New York's laws and I ended up registering with about five churches in the hope one would send me the full package that I could take to the city clerk.
So I'm actually an ordained minister six times over.
Did you have to pledge allegiance to a specific church?
Not really. They're very cool about it. I'm not sure what the game is here. I know the Universal Life Church is the one that worked for me and I found out a lot of celebrities use this in case they have to marry people I guess or start a church, like Lady Gaga and Stephen Colbert. I also joined the Dude Bros Church.
What powers do you have as an ordained minister?
Well first and foremost, my mission was to make sure my friends' union was completely legal. That's it, kind of. There's definitely more things you can do after that and if you start a church and have a congregation and want to start living your life tax free—hello!— that's a big draw. I always thought of that when I was halfway joking I could start a church and then I found out about the tax thing and thought that sounds great. I wouldn't be one of those ministers or pastors who has a church and turns into Creflo Dollar and I'm spending the collection plate money on my private jet.
What would you call your church?
I'd call my church The Church Of The Infinite You.
Like the event you've started?
Yes, it is an actual church gathering and some people are like, "That's a cool show." I'm like, "It's not a show—it's church." I've been wanting to do it for a very long time and it's one of those things I kept saying. Every time I went out I'd meet people and after five minutes in the conversation I'd be like, "You should come to my church." I didn't have a place to do it, I wasn't actively doing it, but I'm one of those people who I'll tell people ahead of the time it's happening and then it makes me have to do the thing. So it's every other Sunday at Union Hall which is funny because I had not spoken to anyone at Union Hall about doing a church there.
What inspired you to start the church?
It came out of a need to put what I was doing in one place. After shows or appearances or just going out I'd start talking to people and have long conversations and I called it Tyler Durdening. There's that scene in Fight Club where he takes this guy outside in the alley and he asks him what his passion is, what he's supposed to be doing. He's got a gun to his head—I don't do it with a gun! But I would—and the dude's like, "I wanted to be a veterinarian." He's like, "I'm taking your ID and if you're not on your way to becoming a veterinarian in a year I'm gonna come back and kill you."
So I would have the less threatening version of that conversation with people. Basically just asking what is your thing, what do you really do? And I'd have these amazing conversations with people who were afraid, like they'd say, "I'm supposed to be living out this dream and that passion." People would write me back later and I'd say "Hey, I haven't spoken to you in a while and I'm actually doing the thing."
That was so beautiful to me but I realized it would be more effective if I could just get everyone in the room and say this to a bunch of people instead of having to do this individually.
Is what you do at The Church Of The Infinite You very different to a traditional sermon?
No, it's not. I grew up with my father [Abdullah Ibrahim formerly known as Dollar Brand] becoming a very strict Muslim and for him it was I guess a transference of alcoholism and then transferring that into being obsessed with something else. For some people that's kinda what they need and what works for them and I don't knock anyone who feels like they need to do that. But I feel that a lot of religions are giving up your power to something you believe is higher than you and a lot of times people are like, "Give it up to God!" But I'm like, "What about you? You did that! That's good!" It's important that you value yourself and your own power.
So it's not different in the sense that it's everybody together in the room with the same energy, but the focus isn't on another being or another entity or another energy—it's about everyone saving themselves first and finding their own power.
Do you think the idea of saving yourself and being self-aware is more relevant than ever these days?
I think it should be promoted all the time. I had another conversations with someone and I feel like I answered him a couple of times but he kept asking me, "Why do you think this is important now?" I was like, "Yeah, but the point is if we had been doing this it wouldn't have to be important now." It's important all the time. I think there are a lot of people specifically now who are just waking up to the fact that they need to get their own shit together first and coming to a full realization of who the fuck they are before we go and deal with anything.
It's not healthy in any situation or in any revolution or whatever it is to go talk to everybody else and talk to your shit and your shit isn't together. I think in that sense it resonates because it's like you've got to check yourself first and then we can all get together in a group and fix it—because this is what got us here in the first place, everybody not living at their 100 percent.
Is this more important than ever with the Trump presidency?
I think it is; I think it really applies to white people. It's been a very interesting thing to watch and to see and then to also explain: I want you to be here and I want you to realize that, yes, you do have to fight and these things are detrimental to your rights and your families' lives, but also we've been here for a long time and it doesn't feel as different to us. That's wonderful that you're here now but don't come to the fight, don't come to the revolution, don't come to anything without the understanding that you're getting here late and without the understanding that we've been doing this for a very long time, and if you need to have the conversation with other people to realize that we don't all need to have that conversation all over again because we're kinda tired of having it.
So it's a very interesting thing to watch and talk about and I see it happen a lot in church. I also see people not coming much when there's not a lot going on in the news. But I guess it's the same for all churches and all religions? People are like, "Oh, shit I need to start going to church again 'cause shit is fucked up." I'm like, "Yeah, but kinda like do it all the time…" It's the complacency that I find really interesting.
You mentioned your father being a Muslim. What was it like growing up with religion in the home?
Were both your parents Muslims?
No, when I was born my dad had just converted and we hadn't changed our names yet so I was born with his last name—Brand—and then probably about at two-years-old we got a name change and he was very strict about raising a Muslim family and prayer meetings in the house and praying five times a day and my mom [Sathima Bea Benjamin] was very much a free spirit. Her favorite things was, "I can curse a lot 'cause I'm really spiritual!" She would say over and over again that we all come from stardust. That didn't gel well with them and there was a lot of fighting over her being just like, "I want to do my own thing; I'm not part of any organized religion." So it was a very interesting dynamic to watch.
I think I take very much from my mom's side of things but also understand what it is to grow up Muslim. And I'm really mad that I missed bacon for that long. All throughout my childhood, no bacon.
Growing up in a musical family, were there any specific songs that imparted life lessons on you or helped form your beliefs?
A lot of Insane Clown Posse... I think for me it's really different because I listened to so many things. I spent a lot of my time in ballet classes so it was a lot of classical music so it's just instrumental and it's your body becoming the lyrics or it's my dad—which is again a lot of instrumental music—and then it's my mom creating and penning her own original music. She would write down lyrics as these songs were coming to her and post them around the home even if it wasn't done yet. I didn't realize how awesome that was. Sometimes it works for people, like I need to make a list for myself just to write it out in front of me and understand where to go from there. So I think it was a lot of her doing that and being brave enough to write these poems about liberation and multiculturalism and all of these things that would pour out of her randomly and she let them live in their own space. So all of her compositions were really inspiring and I didn't really understand at the time what was happening for them to be inspiring.
You talked about the fear factor in many religions. Do you think some people need that in order to get through life?
I don't think that anybody needs fear. I think people have been conditioned to be like, "I need some sort of fear to make that happen." But I'm a huge believer that fear isn't real—it's just you reacting to that thing and you can fix that thing and you don't have to feel that way. It's like being able to realize what is this thing that made me be afraid of heights or like I fuckin' hate waterbugs. They're horrible and I am deathly afraid of them but I want to get over that because when it comes to the apocalypse there's probably gonna be a lot of waterbugs. [Pauses] I've got to fix that.
So I don't believe in letting that fear go on so a lot of my church is currently preaching to not look to being afraid: Fear shouldn't motivate you, it shouldn't be something that drives you. In ways of linking religion in music or artists in general, that's a big thing—people expect from artists that if you're afraid of something or if you're in deep misery, that's where the best art comes from. That's not fuckin' true. You can be in a good place and make some good art and you can be in a good place in life without fear and live a better fuckin' life.
Do you have any sort of written down commandments for the Church of Infinite You?
The general guide is I don't feel like things should be that strict because things change, times change, people change and sometimes you can't just adhere to a list of fuckin' shit that you're supposed to do. Generally, the most important thing to me is the golden rule that you're taught when you're very young and then I'm like, "What happened to that? It's called the golden rule!" It is: Don't do shitty shit to other people that you don't want done to you. And that takes care of so many things, like if you just do that, that's great.
I'm also realizing that a lot of the other things I talk about come from emergency manuals on airplanes. The first is put your oxygen mask on first because you can't save anyone else unless you're okay. That's incredibly important whether it comes from self-care or whatever it is in your life.
Those two rules are really important. There's not a list other than don't be a fuckin' asshole, just don't do that, and be the best you you can be.
You weren't allowed bacon at home growing up. What's The Church Of The Infinite You's stance on bacon today?
If you would like to eat bacon that's fantastic! We're gonna have a food sermon with Sunny Anderson coming as guest pastor, especially with her leaving a life in radio and pursing her other passion. When I asked her, she immediately sent me back, "Can it be about bacon?"
We're open to all. I don't care if you're a vegan or a vegetarian or you eat bacon for every meal—although probably don't do that—but the idea is everyone comes in to a space to get their shit together and to not push their beliefs on anyone else, except to say you have to think that you are awesome. And if bacon is what makes you feel awesome? Fuckin' fantastic.
Phillip Mlynar is a writer in NYC. He considers himself the world's foremost expert on rappers' cats. His work has appeared in Deadspin, NYLON, RBMA and Catster. You can find him on Twitter.