When Rob Wilson and his wife Sheila North arrived in Los Angeles on Feb. 8, 2004, they found themselves in the company of Christina Aguilera, Eminem, BeyoncÈ, Coldplay and Sting. It was the celebration of the 46th Annual Grammy Awards, and Wilson had been nominated for a Grammy for his hip-hop project, Red Letterz.
Otherwise known as Fresh I.E. — that is, Fresh ‘In Eternity’ -- Wilson refers to his nomination as “a miracle.” Released on the little-known Red Sea Records label, the album, which is “mostly hip-hop with a gospel rock flare,” made it to the top five out of 150 albums considered for the Rock Gospel category. Though Red Letterz lost to Christian rockers Audio Adrenaline, Wilson says it was encouraging just to be recognized for something he feels God has called him to do.
Yet Wilson’s calling has never been just to make hit records. Instead, he is driven to reach out to “youth, the fatherless, prostitutes and people looking for hope,” as he puts it. In fact, when the 31-year-old first began his rapping “career” in 1998, he simply used a karaoke machine with mute vocals to provide a beat, so he could rhyme out positive ‘God messages’ to youth at a local mission.
North laughs when she recalls her husband using the old machine. Despite his limited technology, the message Wilson preached made an impact -- even on her own heart.
“Meeting Rob caused me to reach out to God even more. We [became] stronger, started reading the Bible more, and started trying to follow the Bible’s principles more. When you do that, life just gets better,” she explains.
Today, North works as her husband’s
publicist and manager. “My wife
and I are a team,” Wilson says. “This [Grammy nomination] is both of our
Before he began rapping at the mission, Wilson also carried the message to bars, clubs, and even parties. His work caught the attention of Tom Bee of Soar Corporation out of New Mexico, who encouraged Wilson to record his music. Bee is responsible for entering Red Letterz in the Grammy competition.
Wilson’s interest in music was catalyzed in his teen years, working as a dancer for Winnipeg’s own 2 Def Crew -- who eventually became platinum-selling artists. However, Wilson became so heavily-involved in street life that he no longer made music a priority. Rather, he saw it as simply a means of making money.
Freshie (the name he goes by) admits he did “whatever it took” to stay alive on the streets. As a teen, he committed robberies and home invasions, and even became involved in a Vancouver drug cartel. The Globe and Mail (Feb. 7, 2004) reports Wilson as pimping out his teenage girlfriend at age 18.
“With one girl came more girls,” he commented. “I wanted the fast life, the night life.” By 24, he was working at a bar in Kenora, ON, and had developed an addiction to alcohol.
One night Wilson was driving intoxicated and hit a rock cliff at 90 km/hour with such impact that the car was crushed. Amazingly, he pulled out the four passengers before collapsing into unconsciousness. One of the rescue workers later told Wilson he was shocked anyone had survived, because the car’s engine was resting on the driver’s seat.
Wilson returned to Winnipeg, nearly-sobered, to begin reading the Bible and volunteering at the local children’s mission -- where he would later use the karaoke machine to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Though the rapper’s life had started to change, he continued with his drinking and other destructive habits. “I became a Christian, but never really understood what it took to make a stand for Jesus,” he says.
Then one night, he saw a blind man walking in the middle of the street. Wilson recalls yelling a warning to “Come off the street, you’re going to get hit by a car and die, man!” Following Wilson’s voice, the blind man made it to safety.
Later that evening, four Neighbourhood Watch citizens appeared at Wilson’s window. Heading outside to see what was wrong, the Neighbours pointed their flashlights at the blind man, sleeping on Wilson’s steps.
Asking God what this incident implied, he heard, “That’s you, walking blind in the streets.” Wilson knew then that unless he followed God’s voice to safety, his life was in danger. From that day on, Wilson devoted his heart and music to his Heavenly Father.
Today the rapper and his wife, along with their three children -- Sonny (12), Tricia (14), and Ethan (9) -- live in Winnipeg, MB, where Wilson serves as a youth pastor at Waves of Glory Full Gospel Chapel. He also works with several ministries, including an inner-city mission in downtown Winnipeg called Living Bible Explores, and his own nation-wide ministry, Life Inc.
So, while the Grammy Award nomination was a pleasant surprise for Wilson, it wasn’t the attainment of a life-long goal.
“I’m happy for the Grammy nomination, and I know what it means to men,” he states. However, Wilson says, he doesn’t want to get caught up in hype and media, because pride makes it easy to get spiritually off-track.
For now, Wilson is content to take his message to the ghettos, and any other place God leads him.
After all, “I’m a testimony that you can make it out of this [type of] life, and that you can find real life in Jesus Christ,” he says.
photo courtesy Avante Records
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