Martin Luther’s writings have been compared to a half-century of renowned scholars, reformers and religious leaders. But it’s likely that until now no one has ever compared the author of the 95 Theses to artist Kanye West.
Enter Andy Pokel, lifelong Lutheran, musician and producer, follower of Luther—and hip-hop fan.
Pokel, like millions of others, was entranced when he heard Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. It motivated the St. Olaf College graduate-turned elementary school music teacher to try his hand at injecting new spirit into a historic figure by turning his life into a hip-hop odyssey.
HERE I STAND, an 18-track album that Pokel finished earlier this year thanks to several collaborators and a Kickstarter campaign, had its first public performance in May in Wittenberg, Germany, as part of the Luther500 Festival. The event, the first of three this year, celebrated the 500th anniversary of Luther posting the 95 Theses that led to the Protestant Reformation.
Though he created the entire project in about six months, Pokel has been thinking about it since hearing Miranda perform part of Hamilton at the White House in 2009.
“He had this mischievous sparkle in his eye when he was saying he was going to rap about Alexander Hamilton, but then he shifted and started being serious and passionate about it,” recalled Pokel, who lives in Minneapolis with wife Elise, a seminary graduate awaiting her first call to an ELCA congregation. “I had this deep reaction to it. Since then I’ve been doing more producing and I’ve become more of a student of hip-hop.”
Pokel thought Luther fit the hip-hop world well because, in many ways, his work was reminiscent of one of his favorite current artists, Kanye West. He said West shares Luther’s way of being rebellious but also thoughtful.
“They are similar in how they bear themselves in public,” he said. “Sometimes they step up to that public figure and relish in it, and other times they have public meltdowns that can be really embarrassing. There’s a lot of language in Kanye’s writing, like Luther, about being a sinner and a saint, and they both talk about God a lot. Both struggled with fame and being in the public eye, but they also wanted to take advantage of that.”
Pokel added that Luther, like West, has parts of his life that many find objectionable, including anti-Semitic views. Pokel opted to avoid that part of the reformer’s life in his project.
Though he liked the album idea, Pokel put it aside for several years and concentrated on other projects, including recording yearly Christmas albums with his wife, learning more about hip-hop and increasing his producing skills. In October he finally wrote the first song. He shared the track with a few musical professionals, including Lutheran artist David Scherer (perhaps better known by his stage name AGAPE*).
“He was really complimentary of that first track and he passed it on to Michael Bridges of Lost and Found, another Lutheran musical star who I had seen at a National Youth Gathering,” Pokel said. “It turned out Michael was a co-coordinator of the Luther500 Festival. He floated the idea of me performing.”
But Bridges said he had to hear more, which prompted Pokel to get serious. He began soliciting friends and collaborators to help with the music, and he got support from Elise, who pointed him toward a book that helped begin his Luther research.
“My primary source was Luther the Reformer: The Story of the Man and His Career by [James M.] Kittelson and [Hans H.] Wiersma,” he said.
Pokel discovered parts of Luther’s life he didn’t know much about, particularly his alter-ego, Junker Jorg, and the intensive writing he did during this period when he was living at Wartburg Castle.
To help pay for the cost of producing the CDs, Pokel started a Kickstarter campaign—his goal of $650 was practically doubled.
Of the several musicians he brought into the mix, one key contributor was Joe Davis, who has served as artist-in-residence at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn. Davis, a spoken word poet and teaching artist, was intrigued by the project and agreed to help. “I was excited about his energy. It was contagious,” Davis said. “I said, ‘Sign me up.’
I had never seen anything like this before.”
Davis said he appreciated the interaction between the two artists, and he liked how Pokel trusted him with the lyrics to a key song, “Nothing More,” about Luther and his wife.
It’s Pokel’s wife who has served as his biggest supporter. They met online in 2014 and were married a year later. Music and finding fun in life are two things they share, she said.
Elise believes Here I Stand could serve as a ministry tool for her pastoral work. “These stories about Martin Luther have been told and retold year after year,” she said. “This would allow me to present them in a new and fresh way, and in a fun way too.”
Pokel agrees: “I hope to brand this as an educational resource with a track-by-track guide that would have discussion questions and historical sources to make the experience more rich and useful.”
Excerpt from “RE:” off the album HERE I STAND
By Andy Pokel
I’m the reformer, a former friar, steppin’ to the pope, new hope
against the Empire.
Strike back, all you commonfolk,
you are not dirt, you are not a joke.
The yoke of Jesus releases and frees us and casts out demons both small and behemoths.
You don’t need to have money or power—just turn to him in your darkest hour.
And your faith will save you, while on earth you languish, and your prayers are heard, spoken in any language.
You can call me a heretic, a lunatic, a liar, a crier of wolf, but no matter what you call it, a violet is blue, so say what you gotta but respect the truth.
For more information or to download a digital file of the album, go to andypokel.bandcamp.com.