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Harry Williams spent his youth performing hip-hop music in New York City under the name Incredible Mr. Freeze but eventually left music to use his oratory skills as a Baptist minister. He initially dreamt of being the kind of preacher who wore a nice suit and gave sermons to the masses from the comfort of his pulpit. A year-long stint as an adjunct professor at SUM Bible College & Theological Seminary in deep East Oakland in the early 2000s, however, steered the reverend towards a decades-long career in violence prevention and youth services.
He has long tried to connect with young people by meeting them where they are, rather than preaching to them as an authority figure, by writing books, recording music, and holding activities that speak to them.
Williams currently serves as a board member for Homies Empowerment, a community organization serving youth and other residents in East Oakland. He’s also getting ready to run his own church, Ground Game Ministries.
Oakland began experiencing a rise in gun violence last year that claimed the lives of 102 individuals, a disproportionate number of them Black men, Williams felt called to pick up the mic once again. “I realized that to reach people that you love, you’re going to have to find a new way to do that,” Williams said.
Under the name of OG Rev, the reverend has recently put out songs with notable hip hop artists— Hip Hop Rebel featuring Mistah F.A.B, and When You Squeeze That Trigger featuring Sadat X of Brand Nubian. His music addresses the consequences of gun violence and religious leaders failing to connect with young people involved in the underground economy.
The Oaklandside recently spoke with Williams to learn more about his new music and his community work.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You’re originally from New York. How did you end up ministering in Oakland?
I’ll take you back to the beginning. I went to seminary school [Palmer Theological Seminary in Wayne, Pa.] and my dream was to be a middle-class Baptist preacher that was more upscale.
That was the church I came out of. Everybody wore a suit to church. It was very formal and it was profitable, so that was my goal. I was a pastor in Modesto for two years when a friend of mine told me there was a position opening up here in Oakland at a small Christian college. She worked for the dean and invited me to come and work as an adjunct professor.
I thought I’d be there for about a year and then I’d go move on to something else, but when I moved into the community, something happened. I was teaching a class and I gave my students a break. I said go and get a bite to eat then come back in 15 minutes. When I began to leave, one of the students asked me where I was going. At first I thought that was kind of intrusive. I said, “I live about a block away from here,” and he replied, “Don’t go, please — don’t go walking.”
He was so insistent on driving me home the distance of maybe a little more than a block, and he began to tell me how dangerous the neighborhood was. Well, I had lived in Harlem, New York at the height of the crack epidemic. I went to seminary school in a small city called Wayne that was on the border of west Philadelphia. So I’ve lived in some challenging neighborhoods. I said, “What could be different about this one?” I was living there about a week before I realized why he didn’t want me to walk home. I was watching television one night and all of a sudden I heard gunfire—not one or two shots, I’m talking Fallujah at the height of the Iraq war—outside.
After a while you could see police cars zooming down the street and a police helicopter shining a beam down on the courtyard of the house I lived in. The next morning, I got up and walked outside because I wanted to go to the store, and somebody had already set up a shrine to the deceased who had died that night in that incident.
I began to realize that Oakland had some very unique problems. The school made me the professor of evangelism, which meant that I would lead students out into the community to share the gospel and just connect with people.
What year was this, and what part of Oakland were you ministering to?
This was 2002 in Sobrante Park, and I lived nearby in Brookfield village. There were some young men there involved in the underground economy. I walked up to them and said, “Young fellows, you’re here and a jacker could hop out of a car, put a nine millimeter up against your forehead and say, ‘break yourself,’ and if you hesitate, they could shoot you. An undercover police officer could roll up here, purchase something from you, and the next time I see you, you’d be wearing jumpsuits because you wouldn’t get a light prison sentence. Why are you risking your lives out of here?”
And they told me, “Rev, the only way I can put pampers on my baby’s bottom is to do what I’m doing out here.” It changed my entire life because even though there are churches all over East Oakland, there wasn’t a push by the faith community to go out and embrace these young people that were considered pariahs.
They wore their pants sagging, they had dreadlocks, they cussed a lot and smoked weed which is considered an anathema to many people of faith. I started realizing these young people never had any guidance. They don’t have anybody telling them that they could be anything—nobody’s coming in here telling them that they are somebody.
That was the beginning of the journey that led me to urban ministry, instead of becoming the pastor that I spoke about with the 1,000 member church and the Mercedes. I fought to be the pastor who could meet those young people and give them an opportunity. And my next job wasn’t as a traditional pastor. I got a job working with formerly incarcerated people [via Allen Temple Baptist Church] returning to society to help them get housed and connected with their families.
Then I worked at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco for 16 years. That was the trajectory of my life, and then I came here [to Homies Empowerment].
You’ve recently released songs with well-known artists like Mistah F.A.B and Sadat X. How do you see these works as supplemental to the ministry work you do to help stop violence in Oakland?
I’m a believer [in Christianity], and if you look at the gospels in the story of Jesus, he spoke to people in a way that they could understand.
So he went to people who today would be the hood folk—the people who would be gangsters, thugs, gun runners, pimps. He spoke to them in a way that they could understand—not judging them, but speaking through parables and stories. One of the things I learned was that if you go out to the corner with a bullhorn and shout at people, that’s not going to work.
The first thing I did to try to reach people was write a book. A lot of young people—especially if they’ve been incarcerated—read urban fiction books. So I wrote a book called “Straight Outta East Oakland.” I put that book in DeLauer’s [Super Newsstand], and one day I walked into the store and the owner said, “I’m not going to take any more of your books,” I said “why not?” He said, “Because people steal your books, it’s the only book that they steal out of here.” When you see the book, it’s got a guy with a shotgun pointed out, and the cover says, “If you don’t know, you’ve got to ask somebody.” That was my first foray to finding a way that I could reach young people in a way that they could understand.
The second thing I realized is that they all loved hip hop music. In 1977, I was walking the streets of New York City and I walked past a guy outside with two turntables, and he was talking [on the mic]. I asked my cousin about what I saw, and he goes, “Oh that’s the new thing.” Well, the “new thing” turned out to be hip hop, and soon I became a recording artist under the name of Incredible Mr. Freeze.
I was affiliated with the early days of hip hop and was one of the pioneers. I recorded with Daddy-O, one of the members of Stetsasonic, one of the first Brooklyn based hip-hop groups to break through [the music industry].
Later on, I just kind of put that aside. But when I came to Oakland, I’d walk down the street and see young people listening to hip-hop. A few years ago when the level of violence began to really grow in Oakland, I saw these political figures who have some respect in the community try to say what should happen, but none of them could ever reach the shooters.
I realized there’s only one way to do it, and I picked up the microphone. [Earlier this year], I went to [hip-hop artist] Mistah F.A.B] and said, “I got an idea for a song,” and he said, “Let’s do it.” I made this song called “Hip Hop Rebel” and he did his verse first.
The song was about religion. That was not my idea for the song, but he talked about his problems with the church and how the church had shunned him as a young person and wasn’t there for him. He didn’t know what to make of the institution.
Then I had to follow through with my verse:
Preachers are scared of me because I’m hardcore
They’ve been known in the past to lock the church door
They say, “OG Rev, how can you preach the cross then sit down for soul food with a mob boss?”
But for me, ministry is do or die. They got the nerve to ask me, “Where’s your suit and tie?” When the bullets fly and the hearts are cold, I am the preacher man, living out the role
I’m talkin’ peace in these streets, whether in strife, somewhere along the line I might’ve saved your life
When I wake up in the morning, there’s a life to save, fast money only leads to an early grave
So I tell young people, “Before you flip a rock, you better count the cost,” because a year locked up is a year lost
Tell me what can be sweeter than being free, Rev is the born again version of Eazy-E
How did the collaboration between you and Sadat X for your new song When you Squeeze That Trigger come about?
When gun violence began to rise last year, I reached out to Sadat X who is really one of my all-time favorite rappers. I wrote to his management company and he wrote back.
I had written to two other people. One was a famous Christian rapper, only people in our circle would know who he is, and said, “I want to create this song that could convince young people out here to put down their guns and think twice before you squeeze the trigger”. He didn’t write back.
The management company for another Christian rapper—very well known—said, “He ain’t doing it. He’s retired, lose this number.”
So I wrote to Sadat X, who’s a Five Percenter, and his management company wrote back and said, “Not only does he want to do this, but he’ll do it at a reduced rate because he believes in what you’re trying to do.”
I would’ve never been able to afford what a verse from him costs, but he made it. When he sent back his lyrics I was floored because it was amazing to me. It’s like some of his best work ever is on that song. Then I said to him, “I want to come to New York and make the video with you.” We made the arrangements and I found somebody to film it.
Now that you’ve made the song, which is about the consequences that come from gun violence, how do you plan to spread its message further?
I’m spreading the word face-to-face. I’m going to be going out with community violence interrupters at night to talk to young people who are gang impacted. While I’m there I’ll show the song to them on Instagram. All it takes is for one individual to see that at the right moment, when somebody is getting ready to commit an act of violence that they will never be able to come back from.
I’m asking people in the community now to listen to the song, to like the video, to share it, and to write a comment so people know that others care about this issue.
A lot of people are saying, “What can I do to stop the violence, what can I do to stop the bloodshed?” You can help me get this song to the right people and promote it. Everybody can do something, and we have to start with what’s at your fingertips. At my fingertips is hip-hop music.
What do you make of the rise in gun violence this past year?
First of all, it’s the pandemic. People were locked inside for so long so that’s definitely had an impact.
It’s also hunger. People are hungry. People don’t realize that in Oakland, not only do we live in a food desert, but there are a lot of people who don’t have resources to put food on the table. That’s why if you came here [Homie Empowerment’s Freedom store] yesterday, you would see a line of people trying to get food for their families that went past two blocks. Hunger will create all kinds of things inside people.
Young people don’t have employment opportunities, and the school system is not gearing them to work in the tech trade that exists right here in this area.
Then you’ve got a gang problem. You have people who have retaliatory issues that go back generations.
Finally, there’s no hope. There’s nobody. When I was young, the ministers would be going out into the community and telling people there’s hope. The words that you hear out here now are devoid of that. There’s nobody going out and telling young people that there’s hope in the 21st Century.
There are those who want more resources toward police, and others that want money directed at community initiatives like violence prevention, food programs, education, etc. Where do you stand on this issue?
I was at the lake the day those people got shot. There were police everywhere. The police could not stop that shooting. You have to start violence prevention at another level, and it has to be tackled from a lot of different fronts.
Just having more police has never worked. The problem of homicide is not just an Oakland problem. It’s a nationwide problem, and it’s not something that will change tomorrow.
There’s got to be other resources, because many young people I talk to have never been out of Oakland. There’s got to be more investment in youth. Homies Empowerment is starting a high school, and we have after school programs for violence-impacted youth. You’ve got to really invest in young people at a distance.
There’s so much animosity between the police and the people here in Oakland because of systemic issues that will be very hard to heal.
I think real money has to go into funding resources, and the faith community also has to come from behind the walls of their churches, mosques, synagogues, wherever you worship, and bring hope to people.
Those things will knock down the violence.
What’s next? Do you plan on reaching out to newer Oakland artists to create more music?
I’m right at the beginning of this part of my journey, and I’m going to be doing a lot of music with a lot of different artists. Maybe some of those artists will read this article and reach out to me to hear what I’m doing. But, this really is the beginning of my desire to use this music for healing. Back in the 1980’s, there was a song called “Self Destruction” where all the great rappers of that day came together on one track as a call to stop street violence. On the West Coast, they had the song “We’re All In The Same Gang” [by West Coast All Stars]. I see music as a healing element, and hip-hop as a healing element, so I’m gonna embrace this mindset in the coming days.