(Photo courtesy of Identify Creative Group)
Artist on the Move
An Interview with Naomi Raine
By Sarah Komisky
Naomi Raine is one of today’s leading women in the music industry. Collaborating with top creatives and worship leaders like Upperroom, Elevation Worship, and primarily, Maverick City Music. This artist is not to be boxed into one stereotype. In fact, she defies them by taking her music to the next level culturally, tearing down existing barriers in both the CCM and Gospel music industry. Additionally, this multifaceted musician has resonated with people around the world, skillfully crafting lyrics and music that she says is for all people. Her aspiring passion since her youth has been to develop more space for women and men of color to be represented well in the songs of the church. This April, Marked Ministry had the pleasure of sitting down with Naomi for our new issue entitled, “Loved.” Here is a look at our candid conversation on music, love, diversity, and more with the artist on the move.
Sarah: Getting started, share how you got started with music.
Naomi: I grew up in church. It was super non-denominational, not traditional. My mom and dad were worship leaders. My dad is a pastor now, and my mom is a therapist. So, I feel like all of what they’ve done, I’m literally doing now. I got into music by singing praise and worship and singing in choirs. On my 9th or 10th birthday, my parents got me a keyboard, and I think that’s when songwriting really started because I had an instrument. It solidified music for me. And, I think I’ve always been a singer, and people will comment, ‘oh you’re a good singer.’ But I think what I lean into is being able to craft a song that kind of shapes my heart, my experience, and what God is doing in me. I feel like it informs the singing.
Sarah: I love that, and I think it kind of relates to what I was going to ask you with your songwriting because this month, our theme for our magazine is God’s love, and I think it’s laced in so much of your music. As a songwriter, maybe talk about how the topics of both love and mental health are intertwined in your songs.
Naomi: I believe that music is really essential to our mindset, our mental state, and I believe that because God commanded Israel to sing. When we begin to sing, it changes us, it shifts us, it focuses us, it redirects us, it engrains things into our heart that we may not remember if we don’t sing about it. We know if something gets stuck in our heads, we’ll sing it forever, so, I think that music is really related to that and singing really shifts your mindset. So, I think it’s important. As a songwriter, I know God has called me as a prophetic voice, so when I’m writing, I’m thinking, ‘what does the church need, what does this group of people need, and what does the world need?’ Maybe it’s pushing back some of the darkness. Maybe it’s exposing some things that aren’t right, maybe it’s highlighting this aspect of the Lord that we may be missing or we may just need to hear or see or think about again. And in that way, I think it’s one of the most loving things we can do is to remember Him. You think about communion and how Jesus said, “do this in remembrance of me.” And I think sometimes we think of memory as this sweet lovey thing, but it’s really what you’re focusing on and the bringing together. The members. We are members of the body [of Christ. So I think there’s so much more intertwined with our mental health, what we’re focusing on, joy, positivity, and some of these words are buzz words, but it’s like, they’re not taking anything that God hasn’t created for our benefit, for our good, because he loves us and he’s created us in His way. Thinking on whatever is good and beautiful and what is lovely. This is the instruction that we’ve been given. Paul is saying, keep out of godless chatter. This stuff is good. So, to me when it comes to songwriting. I try to write songs that help us stay in a place of remembering who Christ is and seeing God. And I think that that is actually one of the most loving things I can do for people.
Lastly, what I want to say on this is, I think sometimes love is just like this mushy feeling and it’s so much more than that. It’s discipline. It’s honesty. It’s truth. It’s rebuke. It’s encouragement. It’s this real thing and I just don’t know if we can ever capture the greatness of love. We can say things like, “all you need is love” and it seems like such a trivial statement and, “oh just love them,” but love is really complex, huge, and amazing. Something so big we can use trivially, but when you really know love, it’s like, ‘this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.’ I love that there is so much that unfolds when you decide to love someone or love yourself, or obviously, just love God. There’s so much that unfolds. It’s a lifelong pursuit and everlasting journey, but I think it’s worth it.
Sarah: That’s beautiful, just like you said, “It’s a life-long pursuit, the journey of love.” And I think, especially for those who have grown up in the church or church culture, we can get in our head about the love of God. We know what it means and all of that, but heart connection is so important. So, what are some ways – you said remembering, that is definitely one of them – but what are some other ways that you cultivate your heart relationally when it comes to the love of God?
Naomi: Well one of the ways is just by spending time with Him. In the morning I try talk to Him and just be like, “Lord I’m thankful, thank You.” I think where I am in my life, I’ve experienced so much change and transition rather quickly. Sometimes, I’m managing children and work schedules. I have a lot of opportunities to complain, but I’m choosing to wake up in the morning and be grateful. I feel like the Lord tapped me on the shoulder recently, like, “umm, you’re actually living everything you asked for. Everything you dreamed and everything that was prophesied to you, you’re actually living it out. What are you upset about?” And I was like, “OK.” I had to come back and be like, “Man, God you’re faithful. You’ve done everything you said you were gonna do and I had to refocus, but I think it’s that – it’s being grateful in the mornings, it’s hearing and being sensitive so that when He does tap you on your shoulder, you’re like, ‘oh, OK yes,’ and to me, that’s the love of God. It’s having good communion with good people that you love and having good conversations and just letting people in. Which, isn’t always easy, but it’s always necessary.
Before my answer would’ve been, “get on your knees and pray for an hour.” That’s not what it is for me right now. Now, it’s, as I go, constantly staying in communication with him. Talking to Him. Considering Him. Acknowledging Him. You know that scripture in Proverbs 3:5-6, it’s like, “trust in the Lord with all your heart, lean not unto your own understanding, in all your ways acknowledge Him and he will direct your path.” I think that’s a better pattern for prayer than what we’ve often seen. I think it’s trusting him, leaning on His wisdom and not your own. I don’t have that time anymore and now is a different season and I find myself following Jesus model and leaving to go pray and leaving to go retreat. It’s so vital to have a moment because you’re working. And actually, doing work, I find myself experiencing His love in that way especially when it seems like in an industry where everything is performance based. Everything is being graded. You can’t post anything without there being a metric on how many people you’ve reached or how many impressions were made or whatever. And I’m not interested in that, but sometimes, it can become overwhelming and feel like I’m always on a scoreboard. And when you get with the Father and He’s like, “I just love you and I don’t care if 150,000 people liked your video or 3 people liked it. I love you,” that to me is just connecting with Him and staying centered in that place. It’s the love of God.
Sarah: I appreciate you sharing your vulnerabilities because I think that’s human. That’s all of us.
Naomi: Well it’s just more energy to try to pretend that you’re something that you’re not.
Sarah: I think that authenticity is so relatable and important for us. And as you mentioned, you are involved in so many things. Maverick City Music, Elevation, Upper Room. All these different projects as so you mentioned, but, maybe we can go further in talking about how you experienced the love of God through team setting, through team atmosphere.
Naomi: Yeah I love it. Okay, so I experienced it two ways. First is personal. It’s for me and then how I see God loving other people, and using other people. And I told you pretty much my whole experience is, “God why would you choose me to be a part of something that’s bigger than me?” Because some stuff can just be about you. I think a lot of artists and creatives or anybody really can get like that. You know, like, you’re the star of your own life. And it is in many ways it is about you and your decisions, it’s how you handle and emote. But when you get to be a part of a team, it’s not so much about you, it’s about what’s best for the whole group. And it’s how you contribute to something that’s bigger than you. How you love people and you see the love of God through that. It’s like, ‘oh man God you chose me to be a part of this thing and I’m blessed because it’s not only something I get to pour into, but I feel like you’ve made me for a purpose.’ I’m seeing how you’ve made me, I’m recognizing the purpose you’ve given me that I’m able to contribute to this. But also, as I put in something, it is coming out and I’m receiving and I’m fulfilled. And I feel like I’m doing what I’ve been called to do.
I get to see my amazing friends and just people, even some I’ve just met, and see the gift of God on them and how he’s blessed them and how that is able to fill and satisfy and spark things. We hear a good song that our friends have written and were kind of like, ‘man I wish I wrote that song.’ And I’m like, ‘man I would have never thought of that. I would have never sung that.’ But if I was by myself, I wouldn’t be able to experience it. To me that is the love of God. It’s His grace that we get to be in partnership with one another and really walk out and do life together. It’s bigger than just a stage because the conversations, meals, laughs, jokes and the time that we spend together is life changing. And I think, I feel blessed because I know I am in the will of God. I’ve found my space. Yes with Maverick, but even with Connect and with Upper Room. Those people are dear to us. And Elevation. We have lifelong connections with people and this is what church is about. You know you can go to church and everybody’s like, “community, community, community.” But when you find your community, even my church home. Like I love these people and when we’re together, I never want to leave. When you’re with a group of people where you feel the love of God, it’s just so real.
Sarah: Oh I love it! And I think as were having this conversation, diversity is one of those things that overlaps with so many groups that you’re with and different people that you’re with, which is beautiful. That’s the love of God connected with diversity. So maybe speak into that.
Naomi: I mean, the diversity piece is so special because, well, I’m from New York City, so I’m used to a lot of different types of people. But, still we’re super compartmentalized and we can kind of get in our own corner. People just run to whoever is like them. But, in my experience, I love diversity because we’re all musicians, we’re all singers and songwriters and I mean, above that, we’re all believers. We have many things in common, but our backgrounds and our cultures are so different. And so, it’s been really dope being able to connect with people that are different from you and learn their culture. And if I’m honest, when I first got connected with Mav, I think the thing that hit me wasn’t the diversity first. It was the all the amazing different people. I didn’t realize that we were diverse until someone really said it. Like, do you notice, there’s like whites, there’s blacks, there’s an Indian girl over there, a Chinese girl over there and, we’re different, but we’re the same. And I think, in me not recognizing how different we were, I was realizing, ‘oh this is how diversity can be done well.’ I’m seeing what’s similar about us more than what’s different. And now I get to learn about your culture.
I’ve gone to MJ’s house [that’s MaryAnne]. I’m eating Indian food and enjoying it and loving it. I get a lot of Dominican food because I live in New York, but I’m like, ‘I can’t wait to be with Aaron, and when I talk to Brandon, I get to hear about his upbringing, and his church life.’ It’s just interesting to me. We just go back and forth and its fun. I love how God is using so many different people in the same way. It’s like, he’s the same God. There’s only one Holy Spirit and I say that all the time because I feel like we miss that. There’s only One and He’s not just doing something different over here because we’re different. He’s doing the same thing. It might be a different expression, but He’s speaking the same thing. He wants the same thing for His house [church] and His body [believers].
Sarah: I love that and it should be that experience. I think that’s what God intended for us to appreciate each other’s differences. That’s what I think we need and I that’s so much of what you’ve done with Maverick. You talked about breaking down these walls, these stigmas, these barriers that are in culture, CCM, gospel, all these different things. In the Christian music industry, what does it mean to you to break down barriers?
Naomi: Again, I’m super grateful to be a part of this. When I was about 16 or 17, the Lord told me that He was going to use me in a sort of a Civil Rights Movement in the gospel music industry. That’s what He said to me. And I was like, what? So, I remember telling my friends and to me, it was weird because it’s 2003. What civil rights? I’m just like, ‘everything’s great!’ Like, ‘we’re black and things are amazing’ because I was that person that was just blind. I didn’t watch the news, I was in high school. And I couldn’t see this coming, so when I got connected with Maverick, He [God] really made it happen. I didn’t make it happen. They asked me if I would sing for this little house worship thing and they were gonna record. I said, “yep.” [“I am loved” video]. Mind you, I had been invited out for a Black History Month set at BSSM [Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry] for their first year school worship moment. So, it was a black history thing and then I was asked to do this other thing and we recorded it and that was Volume One of Maverick City Music. It wasn’t even Maverick City yet. I didn’t know what I was saying yes to, but God knew and I was scared. I was gonna say, “no, I’ll just sit in the back, you don’t need me to sing,” but I said yes.
Fast forward to when all of this stuff started happening. I knew when I spoke to Tony who is the visionary behind Maverick that his heart was to do something different. He wrote, “Good Good Father,” and had written with all of the top writers and really said for the most part, they were white men. And that bothered him. I’m like, ‘wait, it’s just white men writing most of the songs for the church?’ And what’s being pushed mostly and we haven’t even talked about the gospel music side. We’re talking about CCM. Mind you, I love white men. I have great white male friends, but I realize the church looks so much more than white men. And how does that make sense that only this one voice is singing and writing and speaking for the church that looks like so much more? That didn’t make sense to me, and I felt like the Lord was like, “well this is why I am calling you into this space.” And I realized what was burning in Tony’s heart was to have some of these other voices. They’re singing some of these songs too. These songs are changing their lives. It’s shifting a whole bunch of other people, but representation matters and singing it from the perspective of what God has actually brought us all through, matters. Not just one group of people. So much of what we see in the industry is a result of the colonialization of America and our slavery, our history. It has infiltrated its way into every single field, and we felt the songs that you sing actually help shift and create what you’re going to see.
We have to talk about it as an industry and if there’s only one thing that’s being funneled through here, then that means the church is not getting everything that it could get. Because this is an industry and we’re producing something for the consumption of the church, but our diet is limited and the church doesn’t look like that. I just feel like it is important that the music that we sing is for every type of person.
I’m grateful to God for CCM music because I think it’s some of the best written music of all time, in my opinion. It’s always been amazing, but I think that it’s been limited in the sound. It’s only been one expression that’s kind of like a pop, rock kind of thing, and we deserve more by way of sound. Songwriting is more than just lyrics. It’s melody, it’s rhythm, it’s syncopation, it’s syntax and how we place words and it’s using, like, cloak realisms and slang and experience.
What I love the most is that people in Africa are singing our songs. People in India are singing our songs. People in China are singing our songs. People in Ireland are singing our songs. People in Russia are singing our songs. And to me, it’s bigger, and people would always ask, “what are y’all doing? We wanna write these songs. We wanna be a part of Maverick.” And I’m like, “you don’t need to be a part of Maverick. You take what we’re doing. You go and write your own songs.” If there’s anything that we want people to do, how can you get more or less marginalized than that? You write your own songs. Sing them to the Lord. That’s the point if we’re not here to push an industry. We’re here to push the agenda of God which is that we would sing unto Him a new song. We would sing psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs and encouraging each other and remember the hope we’re holding onto that Jesus Christ died; He was raised from the dead, for the sins of the world. Because God loves us and He’s coming back. And so, it’s important that the church knows we have a hope and a future, we are not lost out here. He’s coming back. We serve the actual Lord of everything. And so that’s the point. But in order to get a lot of that stuff out, we’ve had to infiltrate industry and business and mess with people’s formulas, their perspective, and how they think things will go and it’s been difficult, but is has been one of the most rewarding processes of my life because to me I feel like I’m in purpose.
Sarah: Those are the best interviews, when you can feel what other people believe in, so if you can convey that, I think it’s incredible. And we didn’t even get to the gospel side! I was listening to interviews and reading an interview that you did with Relevant Magazine and you were talking about how your voice within gospel was something you felt didn’t fit into that industry. Talk about that.
Naomi: Yes, it was difficult because, I think they always honored my gift, always honored me as a person, but I think they just were like, “we don’t know what to do with her.” Not that my voice was bad, but my style was different. I think when you are called to two places, it’s hard to just fit into one. So I’m not mad at them, but I did feel this, “there’s no space for me,” even when these are my people, you know? Or the sound that they were releasing was not my sound. I grew up on Hillsong. I grew up listening to Commissioned and the Winans, which were a more contemporary sound, not so much traditional gospel. And although I respect it, I think the first time I was in a gospel choir was 14 or 15-years-old. So, imagine all those years going without real gospel? Then, being told that’s the only place you can kind of fit in, but I didn’t! But what I’m grateful for is that the gospel community right now is embracing us [Maverick City Music]. We just got considerations for some Stellar Awards…
Sarah: I saw that! Congratulations!
Naomi: Thank you. They have really honored us and I’m grateful. I can’t front. I can’t deny that I’m representing a people. I’m representing a sound and I do have a bit of a gospel sound in me, I can’t deny that, you know what I’m saying? And, I rejoice over the fact that I’m able to bring that, but, I want to honor those that have paved a way for me to even be considered. I’m watching this Aretha Franklin documentary and I’m looking at how she came out of the church and there are people that have paved the way so that our voices are desired and people want to hear us. I can never deny my roots, my people, and those that have labored and even set things up for me to come through. Before anybody in the CCM world was thinking of me, those in the gospel world were. And so, I love them. I’m super grateful and I want to make sure I’m clear on that.
Sarah: That’s amazing. And ending our conversation, in a world of increased hate, dive deeper into what’s on the horizon concerning your music and mission? What’s on your heart for this year in context of what’s going on in the world right now?
Naomi: I’m working on a project called, “Journey.” I released a project called, “Back to Eden,” as a part one, and this is part two. I’m super happy and proud of it. It’s personal worship. It’s living in His love. It’s forgiveness, freedom, and joy. I just wanna give people more language, more music that feeds their souls. There’s a lot of music out there that’s really nice, but it’s not necessarily feeding our souls. And, I think that’s going to help us get our mental health together and help us to live a life toward Christ. My prayer is that people will listen to “Journey” and love that and also keep listening to the Maverick stuff. And, I’m probably going to come out with another worship project as well. I think worship music is bigger than the genre of it. How we’ve even categorized it, and we just need to give people music to live by.
Sarah: I appreciate that. And thank you for what you’re doing because I think its inspiring a lot of people, including myself.
Naomi: Thank you. I’m so glad.
Find out more about Naomi visit www.naomirainemusic.com