Brandon Farris—better known by his rap stage name, YB—has always been half-artist, half-entrepreneur. He grew up in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. As a school kid, he would buy chips and candy and resell them at school. The distance between his house and the shop measured two miles; Farris used the long walks to work on his rap bars. “The entire two miles, I was rehearsing lyrics and making lyrics up on the spot,” says Farris. “The people riding by were looking, like, ‘Man, that kid talks to himself the entire time,'" Farris, now 24, says. “But literally I was creating my craft, and building it.”
Farris’ combination of business acumen and creativity has served him well. He now lives in south Sarasota with his wife, Tammy, and 1-year-old daughter, Kylie, and has self-released 10 hip hop albums, with a new LP, God Still Has Soldiers 2, set to come out March 7. He’s achieved what he has while steering clear of traditional rap subjects like the drug trade. His early work was inspired by the bawdy rhymes of rappers like Ludacris and Eminem, but at age 21, Farris underwent a dramatic spiritual “revamp” at a gathering for young Christians held in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome.
The event was one of a series of Christian festivals called Passion Conferences. On the first day, he focused on being the life of the party. On the second day, he woke up feeling terrible. Bumps had broken out all over his face and neck. He says he looked like a “monster.” At the festival, he sat with his head in his lap. He wanted to hide. “I looked at 60,000 people standing to their feet and this woman beside me was just souled out,” Farris remembers. “I’m like, ‘I’m here worried about me. She’s here carefree and enjoying herself. What’s the difference?’” He decided that he was letting his ego stand in the way, while she was yielding to the moment—and to God. Farris wanted that feeling, too.
At first, he wasn’t sure how music would fit with his newfound faith. “I told God, ‘I’ll give you everything but my music,’ because I was afraid He was going to take it from me,” Farris says. “But He was like, ‘I gave you the gift.’ I wrestled with that idea; I tried to write my first Christian song.” He shakes his head and chuckles. “Ooh. It was bad.”
But in the same way he rehearsed lyrics while he was walking to the candy store and back, he worked at it and, sure enough, he got better. “Expressions,” the first single from his new album, marries Farris’ elastic flow to a bouncing trap beat accented with blaring sirens and chiming church bells. The lyrics tackle the difficulty of moving on from past mistakes (“As I’m burying the old me, I can’t help but to dig up dirt”) and the challenge of surrendering to God (“Don’t let me lean on me or anything I can do / I’m just fighting in Your army, I’m just one of Your troops”). Farris’ vocals are melodic and gentle one minute, forceful and staccato just a few lines later. The music video for “Expressions” has been streamed almost 12,000 times on YouTube since it was released in September.
Christian pop tunes have long been perceived as corny derivatives of mainstream trends rather than original styles, but Farris’ tracks are strong enough to banish that stereotype. He works with a variety of producers from around the country, and the detail and depth of their soundscapes rival that of mainstream music makers. Farris doesn’t mind the tag “Christian rap,” but he’s conscious of appealing to people who aren’t faithful. “They won’t be slapped in the face with a Bible,” Farris says. He crafts his lyrics so that the Christian themes become clear only after repeat listens.
Farris and his family moved to the area because of a job opportunity for his wife; Farris is concentrating full-time on music now. He’s an artist, but also a self-directed manager. His albums come out on his own label, Bold Records, and he books tours that include churches and Christian youth gatherings, as well as traditional live venues and open mics. His current rap name, YB, is a shortened version of his original moniker, Young Brand, which gives a sense of his business savvy. He turned to the acronym at the suggestion of one of his brothers, who pointed out that at some point he’d have to change his name to Old Brand.
“Why be normal?” his brother asked. “Why be content?”
Farris’ face lit up. “YB. That’s it.”