Words: Matt Innes
At the curious nexus of hip hop and religious faith, John TeOp Riley is building a thriving and diverse international community.
One half of Aussie hip hop duo Fonke Knomaads, John is also heavily involved with the Krosswerdz group, which brings together people of all religious denominations under the banner of sharing their love for hip hop in all its shapes, forms and styles.
“The catchphrase we use is ‘where faith meets hip hop’,” John says of Krosswerdz.
“So it’s hip hop heads and hip hop lovers from locally and abroad, internationally and nationally, who come together and celebrate hip hop – the love of music and commonality and diversity we have there.
“Also the common faith that we share; it’s a Christian-based thing but it’s also quite broad in the sense it’s multi-denominational. It’s diverse in the sense there’s people from a lot of faith-based beliefs coming together.”
For the past seven years, Krosswerdz has culminated in the Uprock conference, which provides a central gathering point for the community to share, practise and indulge their mutual passions.
“Uprock is the conference that is the one time we can all get together and we can make that extra effort, pool our resources and share our knowledge, both in the hip hop sense and in the faith sense as well, and the life sense,” John says.
The eighth Uprock conference was held in early November and John says that the event has grown in popularity over the years to the point that guests who were previously invited to attend are now returning by their own accord, on a sort of pilgrimage quite unlike any other.
“Because it is a unique annual event it does draw people internationally, so we have a lot of great ties particularly in Asia and across the Asia-Pacific,” he says. “There’s a real family vibe, a real connectivity that happens over this weekend.”
In a previous interview with MADCAP records John spoke extensively of his struggles to reconcile his lifelong passion for hip hop with his Christian beliefs, which were formed later in his life and can often come in direct conflict with some of the themes prevalent in hip hop.
John explains how he came to understand the profound influence spiritual and religious beliefs of all denominations play in the fundamental principles that lie at the core of hip hop, and that the two need not be mutually exclusive.
“You look at the history of hip hop – the influence of Islam and the Five-Percent Nation of Islam back in the day particularly – it was very strong and powerful,” he says.
“Some of my favourite albums are around that theme of people who believe in that form of faith, and at the same time I think hip hop has the ability to transcend a narrow view in that we can come together around the music and around socio-political and social justice issues as well. I think that’s an awesome thing the hip hop community has done, and in a sense Uprock is similar very much so.”
Outside of Krosswerdz and Uprock, John also commits his time to Musicians Making A Difference (MMAD), a charitable organisation that works to change young lives through music and mentoring.
Along with his partner-in-rhyme, fellow Fonke Knomaads John ‘DJ Soup’ Blake, John participated in this year’s Sleep Under The Stars event in Sydney, which raises funds and awareness for youth homelessness.
“I believe they had over 650 people sleep rough that night to raise money for the charity and they raised over half a million bucks,” John says.
“People were really into it; it was set up under the [Sydney] Harbour Bridge, and they had all these cardboard boxes for people to configure and create their homeless home away from home – that was an interesting component.”
Whether on the mic or behind the decks, handling rhymes or just lending a hand, John has a firm belief in the power of hip hop to enable real change in the world.
“Hip hop is very well-known historically for being a voice for something,” he says.
“The opportunity you have with hip hop is that you have a platform to speak… There’s so much you can say in hip hop whereas in other genres of music it’s actually quite limited. Not that other forms of music don’t speak, they do, but I think there is something special and unique about hip hop where you’ve got a real platform to be able to speak broadly and very intentionally.”