Hip-hop isn’t sports, and sports are not hip-hop, but nowadays, it’s hard not to find the two attached at the hip.
Steph Curry’s name might evoke memories of the NBA’s most incredulous three-pointers, but his name is also one of his generation’s most popular rap lyrics. Drake is as much an entertainment icon as he is a bandwagon sports fan. (Snoop Dogg isn’t far behind.) The reigning Super Bowl champions made a Meek Mill song their anthem and now have the artist narrating their hype videos. It’s an unwritten and fully embraced urban-culture mashup.
With Christian hip-hop, there is no exception.
The genre’s “Christian” name too often elicits eye rolls, surely suggesting preachy, watered-down and poorly produced hip-hop to anyone outside the faith. But in 2018, rappers who represent Jesus are about as distanced from those stereotypes as they’ve ever been. And there might not be a clearer example than what’s going down on NBA courts during the opening weeks of the 2018-19 season.
Drake may be sitting court-side to cheer on Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors this year, but it’s another man who’s been tapped not only to welcome basketball’s return this year but to maintain hip-hop’s role in sports.
His name is Gabriel Alberto Azucena, and he goes by GAWVI.
Fans of Lecrae and the Grammy-winning rapper’s Reach Records label likely know of him by now. A five-time honoree at the Gospel Music Association’s Dove Awards, GAWVI started as a producer before becoming his own artist in 2016. Among his claims to fame: He made the beat for Andy Mineo’s “You Can’t Stop Me,” a single that became one of MLB’s most popular walk-up songs and preceded every Indiana Pacers home game in 2017-18.
And he’s getting even bigger.
On Oct. 20, the day after his second studio album, “PANORAMA,” released, the Bronx-born artist hosted what amounted to an hour-long pregame party at American Airlines Arena, home of the Miami Heat. The same night Dwyane Wade returned to Miami with the Heat for the first time in two years, GAWVI was tasked with hyping South Florida before tip-off and again at halftime of Miami’s game against the Charlotte Hornets. Less than a week later, he did almost the same with a private event at Toyota Center before the Houston Rockets’ Oct. 26 showdown with the Los Angeles Clippers.
For the 30-year-old GAWVI, raised in South Florida by an El Salvadorian father, Dominican mother and Latin American culture, the NBA gig is part-Wade tribute, part-hometown hangout.
“South Florida is home to me, so I’m always looking to support home,” he told us over the phone. “When I found out Dwyane Wade was coming back, I was definitely still a fan of D-Wade, especially that era of him and Shaq and then of course when him and LeBron teamed up. It’s Wade County over here, that’s what they call it.”
Whether he’s too humble to admit it, GAWVI’s opening-week hype job with the Heat was also validation for his subculture of hip-hop in a sports scene with no shortage of rappers who’d give anything for an NBA association. It’s proof that people who make music about pain and purpose — not just money and women — have a platform. It’s proof that people who proclaim Christ can also, you know, make good music for everyone.
“As believers, we should do everything with excellence,” GAWVI says, “so whether it’s for church or the radio, it should always sound up to par or even better for anyone to listen to. You make stuff people love, and then when they find out the true story about you, they go, ‘Oh, wait, this is a Christian guy?!'”
GAWVI grew up a Los Angeles Lakers fan, captivated by Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson, but he admits he’s not Reach Records’ biggest sports nut. (“KB and Andy Mineo, when they’re together,” probably take the cake.)
Yet he’s not ignorant of how much playing fields intersect with hip-hop and how much both of them can spotlight faith.
The New York Yankees’ Andrew McCutchen is a big proponent of Reach Records, and he’s brought Jesus into plenty of baseball conversations. Some of the NFL’s biggest names, from Russell Wilson to Carson Wentz to Kirk Cousins, are outspoken Christians — the latter even teamed up with Lecrae for a Billy Graham-esque outreach this year.
So for GAWVI to represent the latest collaboration between sports and his favorite type of music is simply another opportunity to showcase his art, plus highlight his faith in the process.
“I’m a normal human being just like anybody,” he says. “I’m just living with purpose. We all have questions, but the greatest thing about my relationship with Jesus is that I have purpose and I have value.”
Not every NBA fan that sees GAWVI light up the court may relate. But when they hear his Optimus Prime-like “GAWVI … get ’em!” tag at the start of a thumping pop song and allow his melodies to marinate, his mission is that they will relate. Jesus may be his answer, but good music is what he offers first, and emotions are what he shares, from the thrills of a club dance to the tears of a melancholic solo.
“David, in the book of Psalms, his emotions were everywhere,” GAWVI says. “At one moment, you see David yelling out to God, saying, ‘I’m going to praise You,’ and then the next, he’s saying, ‘Why have You forsaken me?’ He gets super depressed and kind of goes through a bipolar thing. There are so many ups and downs. It’s like us, that tug-of-war with emotions. We get stuck in those small pockets and seasons of depression or anxiety or failure or fear, but if we could just step back and view the whole panoramic view, you see a great story.”
GAWVI’s own story is no different. He’s hit highs, like getting a CD of his beats into Lecrae’s hands after a concert at age 17. He’s hit lows, like depending on alcohol after his parents divorced. He’s hit highs, like learning from Pharrell and producing albums for Trip Lee. He’s hit lows, like almost breaking off his own marriage.
It’s Jesus that allows him to see the panorama, but like so many others in hip-hop, GAWVI is most often just a vessel for words and sounds of both triumph and heartbreak. And he’s found another willing audience — that inexplicably strong embrace — from the arena of sports.
A basketball court, to be exact.
GAWVI’s “PANORAMA” is available now and can be ordered via Spotify, Apple Music and more.
– Lecrae, Vikings team up with PULSE to fill U.S. Bank Stadium for Jesus
– Albert Pujols, fellow MLB players honor God through their walk-up music
– Athletes turn to Christian rapper Lecrae for inspiration