Sorry Taylor–John Reuben Has the Boldest Comeback of 2017

John Reuben
John Reuben is back with a new album Reubonic

For several decades now, John Reuben has been one of the most unpredictable rappers in Christian music—or any music, really. But to explain why, it’s necessary to recap his past relationship with the music industry, faith and his ongoing questions about personal branding. Originally from Ohio, Reuben moved to Hollywood at a young age to pursue his music, making ends meet as an extra for film and television (including appearances in Clueless, Melrose Place and Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Releasing his first full album at just 21 through Gotee Records, with more following in short succession, Reuben quickly became the top-selling solo rap artist on his label. And while he was initially perceived as a kind of “Christian” version of Eminem, the comparison didn’t quite hold; with his combination of traditional rap posturing, idiosyncratic humor and surprisingly serious personal reflections, it was clear from the beginning John Reuben—whose full name is John Reuben Zappin—had no intentions of being anyone but himself.

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Given how “Christian” music can sometimes mean trite CCM anthems and “Jesus is my boyfriend”-style lyrics, a white guy from Ohio rapping about religion could’ve been a hokey enterprise, but Reuben pulled it off.

Word of Mouth was an “unqualified triumph”

He proved to be a deft songwriter, coming across as an old soul despite his young age, and favored meditating on social issues or his own struggles over any kind of proselytizing. His first four albums sold over 200,000 copies, and then for his fifth, 2006’s Word of Mouth, he took a slightly new direction. Produced by Beck collaborator Joe Baldridge, the album was easily Reuben’s most mainstream work by that point, with potential to reach audiences outside his usual demographic while still staying true to his core themes and values. And, at least critically, it was a huge success. Allmusic handed it four and a half stars out of five, declaring it an “unqualified triumph” and “a party for thinking men and women,” and the animated video for the title song had a strong showing online. After one more album and a 2010 greatest hits compilation, however, Reuben left his label, at a time when his increasingly world-weary lyrics seemed to suggest a growing disenchantment with the industry. But then, after years nurturing others’ work through YouTube’s Maker Studios and Zealot Networks, he reemerged.

Reubonic is a wise, nostalgic look at the precious brevity of life and the challenges of being an artist.

Reuben’s new album, Reubonic, coproduced with Seth Earnest, is a darker, sadder, and gutsier record than anything he has released before. Notably, it also offers unflinching social critique, particularly towards aspects of contemporary religion and the music industry. He laments communities that are “brainwashed and deceived,” churches of “religious bullies foolish obedience,” and admits “lately I’ve been thinking different about the Devil.” And toward the branding-obsessed phoniness of the music business he’s particularly cutting, upset with how it wants him to “say something jarring or tug on the heartstrings,” admitting the “bullshit’s exhausting,” and calling out executives who “made taking a shit sound like a strategic initiative.” The language in particular has sparked a backlash among some fans, so much that Reuben decided to defend his choice of language on Instagram. It’s a silly controversy—there are only a few moments of strong language that never leave PG/PG-13 territory—but it also demonstrates why the album is so notable. Reuben knows his audience is composed partially of conservative evangelicals, and unlike many musicians, he’s okay with losing portions of his demographic when it means being true to himself. Wisely, the album never feels petty or bitter, and he is always as humbly willing to critique himself as the institutions he is a part of. It’s ultimately more about nostalgia, self-improvement and appreciating the fleetingness of life than it is about taking on the powers that be. But it is refreshingly, brutally honest—towards an evangelical world that really needs it, delivered by one of their own.

Now, I want to be fair to the evangelical world—some of my best friends are evangelicals, and the religion has created its share of good in the world. But it’s clear it can also be prone to harmful amounts of hypocrisy and misguided agendas. It’s a community where some people can boycott an album for using the word “shit,” even though 80 percent of them also voted for a president who openly brags about assaulting women. It’s a community that offers limited response to the president’s racism and defense of white supremacists, while convening weeks later to denounce the LGBT community (despite nearly half of evangelicals under 50 approving of gay marriage). And while I don’t want to sound like I’m patting my own affiliation on the back (we Methodists can have our own share of problems), while mainline churches often make an effort to prioritize social justice issues and activism, the evangelical church tends to avoid anything potentially controversial in their ranks, focusing instead on converting others or more apolitical charity work. I welcome theological diversity, and it’s a group with plenty of good people whom I want to see succeed at making the world a better place. But to do that, the denomination has to be open to change and to stop being the one—from their past support of slavery to their opposition towards Martin Luther King Jr.—that has consistently chosen the wrong side of history.

So the John Reuben who was once a scrappy, quirky rapper popular with youth groups across America is now among the only artists from his world willing to approach his culture with the brutal honesty it needs. It’s a brave evolution (especially considering how often singers dodge social issues to avoid alienating their fans) and one I wanted to learn more about. So here is our Q&A on the inspiration behind Reubonic, how he feels about religion today and the way a good story can resonate with any demographic, regardless of the labels and branding.

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Hi John. This album is darker than your past work, and it opens with the line “They say the best art comes from an unhealthy place.” This is an exciting direction, but it does make me wonder—how were you emotionally during the creation of these songs? Put another way, I hope everything’s okay?

Haha! Thanks for the concern. I’m good. These lyrics are a collection of short poems, pieces of lyrics, small reflections that I’ve written down over the last seven years. Not sure where I was when I wrote that line. There are a handful of things at work in that verse, though. On one end, you have the struggle of the different head spaces one has to jump in and out of when writing. There is obviously a link between depression and creativity, and it seems like there’s a lot of tragedy that accompanies so much of the music I praise.  You also have the feeling that so much greatness we see in the world comes through being uninhibited and having the freedom to explore the full range of human emotion. A little bit (or a whole lot) of reckless abandonment. As an artist, you want to be as great as you can be at all costs.

And then on the other end, you have the struggle of trying to reconcile all these competing head spaces with a Christian record deal—which often leads to challenging conversation about art and faith and how we gauge success. For me, it felt like every time I’d write, my songs were subjected to an ideology which was full of contradictions. Over time, I’ve gotten more comfortable with the tension. I take pride in knowing that tension was a part of my artistry and it’s as valid as anybody else’s.

Your music heavily criticizes the cutthroat and often disingenuous culture of the music industry. While I know you probably can’t be too specific, could you describe some of the experiences that brought you to these criticisms and what changes you’d want to see in how the business of music operates?

Well, in order for your dreams to come true, there’s probably a good chance somebody else’s didn’t. If I critique the culture of the music industry, it’s from a place of me trying to find my way in it. I have always been disheartened by a reality that it’s not the innovators but often the marketers and exploiters who reap the reward. This certainly isn’t special to the music industry, and artists aren’t always the victims. However, I’d hoped as technology advanced we’d see more great artists being able to find a lane for themselves without having to be validated by gatekeepers. And we’ve seen this. But, we have also seen an obsession with celebrity increase. Artists have more power than ever and the need to be special and stand out has us all thinking marketing and brand first. But hey, there’s an art to that, so I’m not trying to knock it. Just an easy observation to make.

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Some of the lyrics on this album describe struggles with doubt and defining what exactly you believe. I realize all the songs aren’t necessarily about you, but that came across as a brave choice for someone whose fanbase is primarily Christian. What inspired you to explore these questions so openly and publicly?

The good and bad of Religion has been a big part of my story. From as young as I can remember, I have deconstructed it and wrestled with it. It’s a topic that fuels a lot of my writing. I feel like I’ve written similar songs since I started—it just continues to get refined and evolve. I’ve always written to work through what I believe—not to boldly proclaim I’ve got answers.  I think there are a lot of people who find comfort in this sort of processing. There is a lot of freedom in keeping it simple and not having to have it all figured out.

I’m particularly intrigued by the song “Old as Religion,” and your willingness to offer such nuanced criticism on contemporary religion as well. What changes would you most like to see in how religious institutions operate and the role religion plays in our culture?

Songs are a place to work out laments and frustrations (and perhaps be a little idealistic) and create a world you want to live in. How your emotions play out outside of music is a different thing. Certainly not exclusive of each other, but I feel there is a different responsibility art plays. When it comes to suggestions of what religious institutions should be, I have my ideals. The same goes for politics. I hope my opinions are fair. I try not to be another nagging voice in the mix on “what’s wrong with the Church.”

But, from experience, I’ve seen a lot of vulnerable people grappling for purpose become followers of charismatic leaders who are very self-serving and are good at making their agenda “God’s agenda.” As far as churches and religious institutions, I think it’s fair to question resources primarily aimed at salvation metrics and productions. Especially in the current landscape where so many people say things like “It’s not the government’s job but the Church’s job.” But, conversely, I’ve also had some great experiences where church was a pillar in the community. Where buildings acted as rec centers for low income kids, job training, welcoming committees for refugees (that supplied resources to help them get acclimated into the community), a resource to local government looking for solutions on how to fight the opioid crisis, organized efforts in the homeless and battered women’s shelters etc. And in general, an all-inclusive place that welcomes anybody and everybody regardless of what one believes about God.

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Speaking of religion, it sometimes seems as though it’s the one topic mainstream artists find most taboo. Other potentially controversial subjects, like politics, sexuality, money, etc., come up frequently, but it’s less common to see artists take positions on religion. Why do you think that is?

In hip hop there’s been a lot of artists who talk about their faith, especially as of late.

I think everything in life somehow touches religion and politics

On a broad level, I tend to think everything in life somehow touches religion and politics. Not sure we can escape our perspective on God, if we believe He exists or not, and what that means for how we govern ourselves. The easy answer to your question is, it’s very polarizing. And, in all fairness, there’s been a lot of personal and widespread devastation in the name of God, so I respect why people steer clear of the topic. To have a strong opinion on God is risky. Handle with care and humility. Obviously, coming from Christian music the conversation of religion was pretty prevalent. But I was never comfortable with Jesus as a brand to be exploited.

Much of your work focuses on the tension between pursuing mainstream success and staying true to yourself. (I imagine this is a difficult dilemma when you want to focus on more personal and philosophical subjects.) While your base seems to be mostly Christian, it does seem like a lot of your music would still resonate with “mainstream” audiences, however, and several mainstream outlets have embraced your work over the years. What do you hope a general audience will get out of Reubonic, and how will it be relevant to audiences who come from different religious or nonreligious backgrounds?

As a kid, I didn’t like Christian music (with the exception of a few camps who were putting out some really good hip hop), but I also didn’t identify with pop culture. My dream looked more like running an indie label and creating experiences bigger than just releasing music. Even though I signed a deal, I think I’ve had the opportunity to do that, and I was with a label who let me think outside the box. At this point in my career, it’s been so long that I’m not really concerned with mainstream validation as much as I just want people to think for themselves. Open minded truth seekers from all walks of life and beliefs have a way of looking past labels and stigmas and enjoying good music and stories.


John Reuben’s music can be found on iTunes or his website, where you can also view the short film accompanying Reubonic. He tweets at @JohnReuben.