Mission through (rap) music
A new ministry in north London is connecting with gang members through rap music. Interview with pastor and rapper Denzil Larbi
‘There have been times when I have had to stop some of them from going out to hurt their enemies,’ explains Denzil Larbi. ‘The reality is they’re on the verge of being stabbed or going to prison.
‘God has been amazing by bringing these young people to us – and we’re building relationships with them.’
Denzil is the associate pastor at Willesden Green Baptist Church and is spearheading an exciting new ministry. Since he joined the church last year he has helped to develop a music studio there. Denzil is a rapper himself and knows that music connects well with young people.
In recent months interest in the studio has grown. Initially only young people from the church were using it. But during a prayer walk Denzil spoke to a young guy with an interest in music and invited him to the studio. He came – and brought others too. In the space of a few weeks the number of non-churched youth using the studio had grown to around 25.
‘It’s just exploded,’ says Denzil. ‘We have never publicised it. And now we’ve had to open at different times.’
Around half of those using the studio, who are part of a local gang, are into making the music. The rest are content to have soft drinks and play pool in another room. Over time relationships have begun to develop and good conversations shared. Each week, Denzil says, he communicates the gospel. There’s disbelief that he’s a pastor, which has led to opportunities for him to share his testimony. He asks them questions about their lifestyle and values to make them think.
It’s a relaxed set-up and they’ve responded. He’s found among them an openness to Christianity: many might have been taken to church when they were younger, but have had misconceptions about the Christian faith. There is a willingness to ask questions and find out more.
‘One told me he believes Christianity is for the white man,’ says Denzil. ‘So I’ve been able to give them a bit of context, a basic background.
‘They are definitely open. For most, it’s the first time they’ve been able to ask these questions.
‘I throw in questions to make them think. I talk about dangers. We’ve spoken about drugs. A lot of them smoke weed. I ask them why – what do they feel.
‘It’s made many realise they do it because they’re bored.’
Rap music is a common denominator, and is another way Denzil can help impart a different message about life. Denzil says they’re all into rap music, as it’s a music they’ve grown up with that taps into and connects with their emotions. More recently drill music, a lyrically more violent sub-set of British rap, has hit the spotlight over questions about its potential relationship with crime. Denzil raps, and says his music has the same beats, but a completely different message. ‘The message is my lifestyle.’
He’s seen lots of talent. ‘There’s one guy who’s just amazing at rapping.
‘But he’s money driven. He doesn’t see this as making enough money, so he’s not putting that much into it.
‘There’s another who wants to produce. He’s very screwed on. He’s studying at college. We’ve invested in business cards.’
So this is not a ministry in isolation. Not only is Denzil is making connections with agencies working gangs, he’s also introducing workshops and courses, such as how to produce and sell, to help give the young people tools about how to make a living from the music they love.
Above all, he’d love to see lives transformed – many live in precarious situations in keeping with the worrying picture of growing knife crime in the capital. One has committed his life to Christ and Denzil prays for more. As such, he has prayer requests:
Prayer the young people themselves. For their protection (the reality is these guys are on the verge of being stabbed or going to prison) - and that they know Christ and begin to turn their life around.
Prayer for the wider church family at Willesden Green, as it embraces these new ways of engaging with at times challenging people
Prayer for more volunteers who have a heart for these young people.
‘God placed me in the right church for this to happen,’ says Denzil.
‘Each week we communicate the gospel. We’ve had some powerful conversations. We’re more connected in the community, as they’re often on the street.
It’s allowed me to connect with them in the community. They’re often on the street.
‘We value all your prayers.’