When he goes to church, Josiah Williams has taken note of a 5-year-old kid in the St. Paul Baptist congregation.
The 5-year-old plays air drums during the musical interludes of the Mass and has told Williams that he wants to be a rapper and a drummer when he grows up. It all sounds familiar to Williams.
At age 2, Williams could recite the entire script of "The Lion King." At age 4, he was acting in the community theater in Milwaukee. By 10, he was a novice at the drums and moving on to writing poetry a few years later.
If the 5-year-old at St. Paul Baptist is charting a course akin to Williams', his future appears bright — and busy.
Currently, the 25-year-old Williams works in U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos' office in Peoria as an outreach coordinator and emcees Bradley basketball home games in the winter. Somehow he finds the time to drum at the Contemporary Art Center on the first and third Fridays of the month and leads a Bible study on Tuesday nights. He'll also attend town hall meetings and community functions.
"I don't like to be bored, and I don't like to feel like I'm wasting time," Williams said.
But he's also in the midst of an ascendant side job as a Christian musician. Earlier this month, Josiah was informed that his music had received more than 200,000 streams on the streaming music service Spotify. That doesn't sniff a mainstream musician's numbers, but it's a noteworthy feat for someone who works in a congresswoman's office by day.
The easiest categorization for Williams' music would fall under hip-hop, though that doesn't entirely encompass his repertoire.
"I define myself as a Christian artist who dabbles in hip-hop or rhythmic soul," Williams clarified.
His path to hip-hop began as a novice tinkerer with a new laptop in the latter stages of high school and then as a freshman at Bradley University in 2010. However, the seeds could be seen much further back. His early background in percussion lent him an ear for 808-style drum beats, and his dalliances in spoken word and slam poetry in his high school years established a base-level comprehension in lyricism and flow.
The Christian aspects weren't immediately present in his songs, either.
"A lot of my music before focused on the R&B elements of taking out girls, sexual themes, partying, drinking — just living the fun life," Williams said. "Of somebody that wanted to be accepted."
But he almost instantly felt adrift from those early recordings, seeing them as efforts from a talented artist who was trying too hard to impress people or project a different persona onto the music. Williams also felt one of his biggest strengths — his broad appeal, as evidenced in his work at Bradley basketball games — was diminished in those days.
So he pulled back, focused on honing his songwriting chops and sidestepped those earlier hedonistic themes in his lyrics to concentrate on a Christian message. The new direction put Williams at ease creatively.
"I'm comfortable with who I am," Williams said. "I can share a positive message that I can bring to a church or a street or a bar."
"He has lyrics that encourage you, that build you up," said Jimmy Bridgeman, the founder of Rock Solid Studios in Chillicothe, where Williams recorded his last two albums. "He's an awesome guy, and I think that shows in his music."
A series of breakthroughs further propelled Williams into a larger audience, especially his work on the "One More Night in Peoria" project in 2013. The song, which was written by Williams with a music video produced by marketing students at Bradley, highlighted the finer points of Peoria. It caught the attention of many in the area and even reached the desk of a certain congresswoman.
"It was very clear to me that we had a guy with a lot of talent," said Bustos, who hired him straight out of college in 2014.
Conventionally, Christian hip hop artists find themselves on the outskirts of notoriety and relevance, but that paradigm has dissolved in recent years by the work of hip hop emcees such as Lecrae. The movement has swelled to a bigger stage in the past year with the emergence of Chance the Rapper, who took a hip-hop mixtape drenched in gospel influences all the way to the Grammys last month.
Williams has a direct connection to Chance — he opened for the then 19-year-old Chance at a Bradley concert in 2013. Chance's rise has only emboldened Williams to continue his current trajectory, though it has not opened every avenue to him. He's frequently submitted his work to music blogs, radio stations and television programs, who have almost universally rebuffed him.
"It's discouraging when people turn you away," Williams said.
But the music industry is a more egalitarian marketplace in the present day and Williams has found success on streaming platforms. His inclusion on Spotify-generated playlists has brought his music to new and unlikely ears. The beats are indistinguishable from most contemporary hip hop artists, and Williams' voice and flow conjures a cross between Vince Staples and Kendrick Lamar.
Maybe some people skip the song once he starts rhyming about God, Williams concedes. But the streaming numbers point to a substantial number of people who dig his songs and stick around to the end.
"There are some people who don't like my message or don't understand it," Williams said. "But I make music that literally anyone can listen to. From a 5-year-old child to a 70-year-old woman."
In quiet moments, when his days slow down, he sometimes recalls a phrase his mother would say: "jack of all trades, but master of none." There are times when Williams hears those words and wonders how it applies to him. Is he fulfilling his potential through his daytime career and his music? Or is he spreading himself too thin and only creating an incremental influence?
"It's a blessing and a curse," Williams said.
For now he's taking the short view and taking life a small chunk at a time. He's not seeking out record deals. Plus, he's getting married in May and that's more of a priority than anything at the moment. A few years ago, he never would have imagined working in a congresswoman's office, emceeing college basketball games and starting a meaningful music career. Where will Josiah Williams be 20 years from now?
"I can't wait to hear that answer," he said.
Thomas Bruch can be reached at 309/686.3262 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ThomasBruch.
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