Don’t Look Back
Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” Luke 9:62 (NIV)
Eleven years ago, I was in denial of my fears. I would mask them with vulnerability and humility. I wasn’t humble, though. I was scared. Self-deprecating statements and transparency were my smoke screen for emotional immaturity. Although twenty-eight years old with adult responsibilities, I was in many respects a man-child. Plainly, I didn’t believe in myself—far from the ideal makings of a budding performing artist.
I was a founding member of a church plant in gritty Lynn, Massachusetts, where I was the full-time youth pastor/resident rapper. During the week I directed our street-outreach, and on weekends I was consistently booked to perform around the Northeast, usually with a van full of my youth group kids in tow. My pastor and I had successfully “fused” my rap ministry with our church’s youth street outreach so that concert events away from our neighborhood became a deliberate and purposeful extension of our youth ministry. This undoubtedly enhanced the credibility of the music, and it diversified the experiences of our youth group members outside of Lynn.
I was a community mentor to many. My pastor often called me “Lynn’s Pied Piper,” as people, particularly teenagers, readily gravitated to me. In hindsight, I believe the altruism was overcompensation on my part, but I was nonetheless effective in Lynn. This fusion of music and ministry was intentional, and we were impactful.
I’ll never forget the day I received a request to submit a song for Todd Collins’ label upstart, Beatmart. I turned over my feature in a matter of days, a tongue-in-cheek gem that stood out. This led to another punchline-filled feature, and after many conversations and my insistence that I was a flagship artist, I was granted a recording contract. The next eight months were a dream, as I traveled back and forth to Nashville from Boston and prepared to release my major-label debut, Government Name.
Government Name was devoid of the punchlines and lyrical dexterity of those initial attention-grabbing submissions. It lacked the intensity of the descriptive street tales that I had become known for as an independent artist.
Most reviewers agreed that I was an undisputedly nice guy with an uncanny enthusiasm and dedication to my neighborhood, but that was more or less where the compliments ended. My personal struggles had undoubtedly surfaced as I cultivated a relationship with my record label, particularly after disappointing reviews and sales sent me into a tailspin. An arguably tumultuous past not-yet-unpacked had resulted in an intense thirst for affirmation, and I’m confident this self-doubt interfered with my creativity, execution, and overall vision for a cohesive project.
Ironically, many artists possessing these traits flourish. Some channel their difficult history into their writing and performances. Others overcompensate, masking their deficiencies with tenacity. I, however, had a tendency to overthink everything.
The one attribute that kept me afloat was my determination in the cultivation of relationships. I was booked solid, nationally, for the better part of two years, but my hustle didn’t trump my longing for acceptance. Although live audiences could not necessarily identify this “wall” between us, I’m confident that my preoccupation with crowd response absolutely interfered with my ability to genuinely entertain. Granted, in a room of fifty people, I was arguably brilliant in engaging the audience. When that number hit eight-thousand, I became self-conscious and desperate.
In short, I was a sincere and decent entertainer, but I never became prolific. Don’t get me wrong: I had some definitive, shining moments, and Government Name had some bangers. After all, a platinum selling producer was behind the boards, but it was a commercial disappointment.
In my mind, this made me a disappointment. I was convinced I had missed a significant opportunity, and this haunted me for years. More importantly, my preoccupation with this building feeling of failure diluted my impact.
It’s now 2015. I still make music, and I never fell out of love with Lynn, Massachusetts. I presently investigate child abuse as a social worker, which inevitably lands me in some hairy situations. No parent reacts well to the accusation and investigation of child abuse and neglect. My role is a “front-door” position, in that I’m often the initial “face” of the investigative experience. I’ve (hopefully) honed my people skills and I’ve squared off with my fears. Although my job is often a thankless one, I take it very seriously and I believe in my abilities.
I was recently assigned an investigation of alleged physical abuse and neglect of a six-year-old little boy. I will spare you the details, but the accusation was serious. Once I viewed the address, I knew it would be necessary for me to use caution, as it was a notorious residence.
I was scheduled to visit the reported family in the afternoon, but I chose to visit the building unannounced that morning in order to familiarize myself with the “landscape.” As expected, I observed heavy foot-traffic in and out of the side door. As I entered the building, an exchange abruptly halted, and several people scrambled into the first-floor apartment. A man appearing to be in his mid-twenties followed me into the building and up two flights of stairs, right on my heels. As I knocked on an apartment door, he “nonchalantly” continued up another flight. I received no answer at the door, and left a note indicating that I planned to return that afternoon.
Later that day, I returned to the home and immediately observed the same pattern of activity in and out of the building. I committed to my plan, and ascended the stairs to the second floor, again closely followed by the same individual. As I knocked on the apartment door, he stopped and moved within six inches of my face, not uttering a word. I broke the silence, confirmed his identity, and somehow convinced him to allow me into the apartment. The next ten minutes (or was it hours?) are a bit of a blur, as this father made his best efforts to intimidate me. He refused to sit with me at the kitchen table, as he paced back and forth, repeatedly peeking through the blinds and signaling out the window. His affect went from agitated to somber, as one moment he was screaming and the next he was entirely silent. I somehow managed to extract information from him in the midst of this chaos, and I conducted my interview accordingly.
The apartment’s conditions were deplorable. I could hear the door at the entrance to the building continue to open and close as “customers” arrived and departed. After physically viewing and interviewing the children, my suspicions were confirmed regarding the safety of the environment as well as that of his children, and he knew it. He again approached the window and whistled.
In no time, several men appeared on the landing outside the apartment, clearly attempting to look as intimidating as possible. I was outmanned and outgunned (since I didn’t have one). I resumed my visit and maintained my game-face, but my mind was racing regarding an avenue to escape unscathed. Pulling out my phone would lead to an inevitable altercation. Attempting to nonchalantly slide out of there would mean having to turn my back and descend two flights of stairs. I was genuinely at a loss.
Suddenly a voice came from the landing, from one of the gentlemen summoned to intimidate me:
“Is that Bobby Bishop? It’s been like ten years, man! You were my mentor, remember? He’s cool, he’s cool, really, man; we need to let him leave. Wow. Government Name. That was my joint! I loved that record. That was real talk, Bob.”
Government Name was his joint. Government Name. The missed opportunity. The very representation of Bobby Bishop, the disappointment. That Government Name.
I smiled at my friend from the past, gave him a hug and a dap, exchanged phone numbers, and swiftly made my exit down the stairs and to my car. I was fine; I made it out of there thanks partly to a history of relationship cultivation and partly to my artistic “misstep,” Government Name.
In reflection, I’ve realized that Government Name has figuratively saved me in more ways than one. It forced me to grow as an artist and face my demons. That season of life thickened my skin for the next, and I’ve grown from the experience. I’ve realized that growth, however painful, is essential to impact, and we are called to press forward and never allow our past to dictate our future.
That day in Lynn, however, Government Name may have literally saved my life.