“I’m a child of hip-hop, that’s how I found myself at 13 years old,” said Julian DeShazier, the 29-year-old pastor of the church at 5655 S. University Ave.
DeShazier, with Anthony “BreevEazie” Lowery, rap together as Verbal Kwest, melding the social justice message of A Tribe Called Quest and Common with the spirituality of the church to create a sort of holy hip-hop.
“We took all the good from everything around us,” said Lowery, who met DeShazier at Rich Central High School in Olympia Fields and takes credit for teaching him the craft.
In their songs, the two offer vivid depictions of Chicago’s violence and pray for love and hope, which is where their Christian message enters the music.
“The idea of love and hope, the church doesn’t own those, but it speaks them freely,” DeShazier said.
That DeShazier and Lowery don’t pitch salvation as a solution to the world’s ills has attracted critics in the Christian music community.
“I am critiqued in my own genre because I don’t do that,” DeShazier said. “I can’t be dogmatic — I just can’t — it doesn’t feel like me. Sermons are where you preach, music is a time to do something else.”
DeShazier still preaches every Sunday at University Church, where he was installed in 2010 at 27 years old. At the time, he was a recent graduate of the Divinity School at the University of Chicago.
DeShazier said that after years of touring and being only a visitor with no permanent connections he was searching for a community — he was on a quest.
“That’s how I view my music,” DeShazier said, hinting at the origins of the J.Kwest moniker. “The real goal is for people to connect with themselves, and then they will connect with their God.”
He has found a home in Hyde Park not far from where he grew up at East 51st Street and South Martin Luther King Drive in Grand Boulevard. Lowery said the young DeShazier was still a shy nerd when he moved to Olympia Fields for high school.
“I was kind of like the cool kid,” Lowery said, adding that he took DeShazier under his wing as a musician. “I had just started going to church and I was this ex-thug guy trying to do good.”
Lowery taught DeShazier what he learned from battling other rappers, and DeShazier brought new perspectives and new structures to Lowery’s music.
“He turned from this shy kid, to this super-charismatic kid,” Lowery said. “By the time he was a senior, everybody loved him.”
That charisma carried DeShazier as a student to Morehouse College in Atlanta, where his father was president, and back to the University of Chicago. It carried him musically to the Taste of Chicago and from coast to coast in the United States and to Hiroshima, Japan.
When he slowed down, he landed at University Church, where as senior pastor he has helped expand the congregation and build a music studio for youth struggling to express their experiences with violence. The church now has about 200 members, up from about 150 when he started.
“Every week we hear a young person come up and say, ‘I don’t want to be next,’” DeShazier said, referring to the violence on the South Side.
Music has slowed for the duo after DeShazier started at the church, and they haven’t released an album since 2011’s “Batman and Batman,” which was praised for its nuance on songs like “Crazy Street.” They include a plank in the video for the song, which references the 2009 beating death of Fenger High School honors student Derrion Albert.
“In ‘Crazy Streets,’ we see two intelligent emcees combining hip-hop with social activism, but instead of only rapping in the street, J.Kwest and Breeve Eazie rap in church as they express their verses like a heartfelt prayer,” wrote fan Imade Borha after the album was released. “With expertly used metaphors in the plank, symbolizing Derrion Albert’s gruesome death, and the drug buyer, symbolizing inbred corruption, director Raphael Nash makes you feel the weight of Chicago’s brokenness while not losing hope.”
The song's message must have struck a chord with others — the Rev. Jesse Jackson makes a cameo in the video mouthing the song's hook, "It's crazy in these streets."
DeShazier, who has rapped at Operation PUSH headquarters, calls Jackson a "friend" who is a fan of the song's powerful message.