By Colleen Hogan
God don’t want my prayers, if it’s only on the mic
God don’t want my words, if my lips and heart divide
God don’t want my service, if my neighbour’s who I like
God don’t want the worship, if I don’t give Him my life
Mike Martínez, SJ — better known as the “Jesuit Rapper” — has been spitting rhymes since he was 9, when he first heard Eminem’s “My Name Is” on the school bus and decided that he wanted to be a rapper. His lyrics have matured since the third grade, and his hip-hop dream has become a calling within a bigger calling.
Currently studying theology at the Faculdade Jesuíta de Filosofia e Teologia in Brazil, Mike is completing the final stage of formation before priestly ordination. Jesuit-educated since the sixth grade, Mike first “heard the call” — or, as he puts it, “the invitation” — to a religious vocation during a 10th-grade retreat. While in confession, the priest asked him if he had ever thought about being a priest.
“It was a question,” Mike reflects, acknowledging the freedom inherent in choosing one’s vocation. “An invitation. It wasn’t imposed. And it was in the context of a confession where I was sharing my sinfulness. Being a Jesuit is being a called sinner, a loved sinner.”
That invitation — bolstered by the love of his family and spiritual formation by his Jesuit preparatory school — prompted ongoing discernment at Fordham University and helped lead to his decision to join the Jesuits after graduation.
After his two-year novitiate in the Dominican Republic, Mike completed master’s degrees in social philosophy and digital media and storytelling at Loyola University Chicago. It was in Chicago that he started more fully integrating his gifts for music and language into his Jesuit ministry.
Mike volunteered to run a hip-hop media lab after-school program at Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation, a restorative justice center on Chicago’s South Side. He primarily worked with young people on parole and in recovery, intentionally describing them as youth “at-promise,” not at-risk. Mike is always thoughtful and purposeful with his word choice.
He primarily worked with young people on parole and in recovery, intentionally describing them as youth “at-promise,” not at-risk. Mike is always thoughtful and purposeful with his word choice.
Mike helped the young people who came to the media lab write, produce, record and perform their songs. At the time, “drill hip-hop,” a genre often associated with gang violence, was popular with Chicago’s youth.
Mike shares, “We started producing drill beats to meet them where they were, but I said, ‘What if we go against — not each other — but something in our world that we would like to see ended? What if we went against racism or poverty or even hatred itself? What if we flipped the script and, instead of using music for violence, we use music to promote justice?’”
“What if we flipped the script and, instead of using music for violence, we use music to promote justice?’”
One afternoon in the studio, Nate, one of the young men Mike supported, began freestyling. As his words escalated in violence, Mike stopped him and asked why he continued to rap in a way that contradicted the center’s mission to promote peace and justice. Nate answered simply that he didn’t know peace or justice, so how could he rap about them?
Mike paused and asked for the Holy Spirit’s guidance before responding, “You’re right, Nate. You don’t know peace. You don’t know justice. But that is what we are here to do: to discover and experience that peace and justice together every time you walk into this lab and are loved as you are, every time you speak your truth prophetically into that microphone and share your story.”
Speaking prophetically and from his own reality is how Mike writes his songs. He doesn’t use curse words, but his messages are raw and powerful.
In 2020, Mike released the first Jesuit hip-hop album in history, Worship Real. Inspired by his faith and influenced by the Cuban, Latin American, and African American cultures he grew up around in Miami, the 12-track album features creative rhymes and fast beats, as well as Scripture verses, social commentary (check out tracks 6, “Xenophobe,” and 9, “Quarantine Fools”), and reflections on his vocation.
“Sometimes they’ll say Mike is a Christian rapper or a Catholic rapper,” Mike comments. “Yeah, because I’m Catholic and a rapper. But I don’t like to pigeonhole myself. I rap about what’s in my heart, and what’s in my heart is Jesus.”
“I rap about what’s in my heart, and what’s in my heart is Jesus.”
He says this shift in framing is important. Leading with the heart begets authenticity — sharing who we really are, not whom we wish to be — which is critical in our relationships with God and others, and it’s what Mike strives to do through his music.
“We don’t have to organize everything for it to be blessed. We bless the mess!” Mike says. He offers his life to the Lord “as it is, maybe not as [he’d] like it to be, but as it is,” recognizing that God is present in and loves us amidst the messiness.
This authentic communication of ourselves enables us to listen to and connect with others, which creates opportunities for what Mike’s ministry is all about — communion.
“Communion is having people experience peace, experience justice, experience love. That threefold union — God, others, and self — is so important for the kingdom to be a reality. And that’s really what my ministry is about — communion — so that we can experience a little bit of the kingdom that is to come.”
Right now, Mike is building that communion with his theology classmates and in the community where he serves in Belo Horizonte. Despite only recently learning Portuguese, he leads the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises in his new language at the local faith and culture center. He may mix in Spanish words now and then, but he knows he is still communicating what’s important: the Gospel message of radical love.
Poor, chaste and obedient
These the main ingredients
For speeding the Kingdom in
This is what I mean my man
Whenever we say “Amen”
It’s not just a word I’m saying
But a way of life though (life though)
More than on a mic though
Mike’s newest track, a collaboration for the Jesuits’ Ignatian Year, was released on April 22, 2022. To learn more about Mike’s digital ministry and to listen to Worship Real, visit www.mikemartinezsj.com.