By Steve Beard
“Every dime I get, no matter what it is, I give 10 percent to the church,” rapper and actor LL Cool J recently said. The interviewer from Hot 97, a hip hop radio station in New York City, said that she had first heard LL Cool J (born James Todd Smith) testify about tithing at Greater Allen African Methodist Episcopal Cathedral in Jamaica, Queens, New York.
“I mentioned earlier longevity, versatility and originality,” LL Cool J said about his success. “What I didn’t mention was spirituality and believing in God.”
His commitment to faith in God and tithing has been highlighted in interviews over the last several years. “I tithe. I’m a life-long tither,” he told Hot 97. “For many years, I’ve been a tither. I believe strongly in giving. I believe you got to have that faith. And I’ve seen it work in my life, because as much as people in the world like to take credit and claim to be geniuses, at the end of the day there’s a higher power than you, and you’ve got to answer to that power. And you have to recognize that power.”
As a rapper, LL Cool J’s first record deal with Def Jam was in the early 1980s. Today, he is co-star of “NCIS: Los Angeles,” one of the most popular TV franchises. With songs such as “Mama Said Knock You Out” and “Goin’ Back to Cali,” LL Cool J has sold 20 million albums, with Grammy Awards and platinum albums gauging his success. He had his own sitcom in the late 1990s, and has been in more than 20 films.
“I’ve been blessed to be able to transcend eras,” he said. “That’s like a blessing. I’m kind of an anomaly. I’m unique in that way. Sometimes the stars line-up. God gives people favor in different areas, and in that particular area he’s just blessed me to be able to relate consistently to all different generations.”
This was a very similar message that LL Cool J passed on when I first met him several years ago with a handful of journalists while he was promoting Last Holiday, a romantic comedy about how a church-going store clerk (Queen Latifah) who thinks that she is going to die spends her final three weeks. LL Cool J plays her romantic interest in the film.
Gospel music and faith are a strong part of this film. Can you talk about how you relate to that?
LL Cool J: First of all, I am Christian. So for me, faith is a huge part of everything I do on every level. And I mean from salvation to tithes to offerings to every other level and every other dynamic that you can think about.
I think that the film obviously shows you that there are many types of blessings. Obviously, health is a major kind of blessing. Living life, abundance in life, is a major blessing and obviously the type of abundance that [Queen Latifah’s character] was after was not only material abundance, but abundance of joy, happiness, and freedom.
Jesus said, “I came so you would have life more abundantly.” So, she obviously got to experience that. And I think that’s beautiful. Well on my end, I think that the fact that [his character] was continuously and constantly searching for love, the fact that he was loyal, the fact that he was willing to sacrifice and commit—those are all Christian principles.
Obviously Christ gave the ultimate sacrifice. But you know, willingness to sacrifice your life, your job, everything you know and love, to go around the world and follow someone is extremely important. Everyone knows here that true sacrifice and your level of commitment always dictates what you’re going to get. If you’re not willing to sacrifice in the hot sun and sow those seeds and go out in the field and really sacrifice your body and your time and your energy to sow those seeds, you’re not going to reap the type of harvest that you’d like to reap.
He did that. She did that. She was willing to sow the seeds of taking risk, of crossing the bridge, of fear, and dealing with fate. You know, she wasn’t fearful anymore. She operated with faith. And I think that it turned out well for her. She looked past materialism. She trusted—in the movie they don’t say God—but in reality, she trusted God more than money. Instead of taking the riches and trying to find a cure, she took the riches and tried to live life and just enjoy her last days. She was willing to detach from the money and anything worldly on certain levels, and I think that’s a pretty powerful message.
Have you ever thought about being a preacher?
LL Cool J: I believe in God completely. And it’s always refreshing to me to be able to talk about it freely with people who are on the same page and on the same wavelength. I mean, I don’t often get that opportunity.
You’re in an industry that does not nurture that faith. How difficult is that for you?
LL Cool J: It’s kind of interesting. Sometimes you have to let your life be the testimony. Sometimes you have to let your life and let yourself be the example. If I can be successful in the secular world and give God the glory, then it’s not so difficult. Because ultimately, he gets the glory, and the proof is in the pudding. If I can go out and claim a victory for God, and if I can go out and do incredibly exciting things and take my life to new dimensions and to new levels and then turn around at the end of the day, when I’m standing in the end-zone, and give God the glory, then I’m doing my job.
You have that crowd in the industry and the entertainment world that when you mention God, they want to giggle. Or you want to say religion and then they sort of peer at you with this weird face. Is it okay? Is it not okay? These are weird vibes that people have because they fear being looked upon as different from everyone else. But you know, for me, I love God. I’ve never had a problem with going out in front and saying that it’s because of the tithes and the offerings and because of the faith and because of the fact that I’m willing to step out of everything worldly that I’m able to be in this position. I don’t have a problem with saying that. It doesn’t bother me, you know.
Who nurtured you in your faith?
LL Cool J: I was raised in church. I read the Bible constantly. I stayed in the Word constantly, on every level, you know. Because I think that ultimately we need that strength. You need that power in your life, you need that wisdom in your life, you need that discernment in your life, and you need to constantly nurture the potential that God placed inside of you by watering it with that Word. You need to get it in you so that you can deal with the industry, so that you can deal with the trials and the tribulations and the temptations that come your way because of film, television, and music. For me, it started off just as a boy and here I am.
You went through some pretty tough stuff as a child. Was this the reason that you became a believer?
LL Cool J: You know what? Everybody has gone through a lot. The most God-fearing people in the world have gone through a lot, even in order to achieve victory. When Joshua was leading the Israelites and they were fighting their way through those lands that were promised to them, they were going through a lot. But they were on their way to victory. So going through a lot doesn’t necessarily mean that you didn’t believe in God, or because you went through a lot, God wasn’t with you. Even though the Israelites had to go through all those battles and all those trials and tribulations, God was with them.
I went through a lot, but it was no one thing that made me want to love God because I was going through a lot and he was with me, too. You see what I’m saying? There were a few times where God cleared certain towns and villages for them and they didn’t have to raise their swords; but not all the time. Sometimes he said, “Hey, you want those mountains and you want that promised land up there? You feel like what you have is not enough? Then you guys gotta go up there and clear the trees yourselves.” Sometimes you gotta go through things yourself. It’s not always easy, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not correct. You know what I’m sayin’? I didn’t have to be in a jail cell or be in solitary confinement or lay in a hospital bed in order to understand that God is with me. I didn’t need that.
Since family-friendly films are the ones that do well at the box office, why doesn’t Hollywood make more of them?
LL Cool J: C’mon, because a lot of people don’t believe. I mean, for every Chronicles of Narnia, which obviously, is what it is. We know what it is when we look at it. You know what that is—the resurrection of that lion! For every one of those types of things that come out, there are a lot of people who don’t agree, who aren’t on that page. Everybody doesn’t believe. While certain people are serving the one true God, there are people who are serving Baal or you have people who are serving other gods. So, that’s why. Not everybody’s serving the same God. And everybody doesn’t want to promote a product—that’s really what it is—that speaks to those principles because sometimes it doesn’t have to be direct. Sometimes those principles can be enough to promote the Spirit. Because God will come like a thief in the night as well, right? Sometimes the Spirit gets promoted without it being obvious.
In Last Holiday, you portray a working class man making a living selling barbecue grills, and you make that very believable. How different is that world from your world?
LL Cool J: Well, it rains on the rich and the poor, right? The foolish and the wise both die, right? First of all, I am a regular guy. I am a normal guy. I’ve done some things and got a name out there and had some success in the world, but I am a human being and I do have normal feelings. I have normal people in my family to think about. My lifestyle isn’t average; people know that. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t relate.
You know what, it’s a stretch. I mean, I want to do different things.
With Christ, the script came and he was able to be weak, even though it was the ultimate show of strength. When he laid on the cross it was the ultimate weakness and the ultimate strength at the same time. So you don’t always have to be the heroic guy with the gun, jumping up, flexing your muscles in order to be strong.
You played a sensitive guy, a wounded man, in Kingdom Come, with Whoopi Goldberg. Is that the kind of role you’re talking about?
LL Cool J: Being a rap artist and making the music that I make and doing the things that I do, there’s a certain preconceived notion that just comes with what I do. When I walk in the room, it’s already understood, people have an understanding in their minds of who they’re dealing with just based on my profession. But your profession is not you, that’s what you do. What you do is not you. There’s more to you than what you do. So these types of roles give me an opportunity to become someone different, to touch people in a different way. And even to actually be more relatable to people. It actually works better for me to have a make-down, than a make-up or a make-over. It works better for me to strip down and go the opposite direction. I think people can relate to me more when I get on a bicycle as opposed to jumping in a big, white limousine—especially in this capacity. You know what I’m sayin’? I mean, the blind can’t lead the blind. I’m not saying I want to be poor. I want to be as wealthy as possible and be able to fund the Kingdom and help as many people as possible. But at the same time, in order to relate to the people, it’s better for me to be considered one of the people.
You’ve got kids. How should families view the music industry and rappers?
LL Cool J: There’s that old Christian cliché that you don’t want to be so heavenly-minded that you do no earthly good. And then there’s the flipside of that. Jesus was eating with the tax collectors and he had ladies of the evening washing his feet and kissing his feet, and all different kinds of people judging who he was with and where he was at and what he was doing. And he was shining light in the darkest places.
He said, “I came to save sinners.” Not saying that I started on rap to do that, but what I’m getting at is this: There’s nothing wrong with being a part of the rap industry, there’s nothing wrong with watching videos or listening to music. You just have to keep God in your heart and have a true understanding of where your place is at in this world.
[Jesus] did not put blinders on and ignore everything that went on [while he was on] the earth. He wasn’t a monk, and he wasn’t like the Pharisees or the Sadducees who would try to be perfect and sit in high places in the synagogue and ignore all the regular people and be uppity and uptight.
I say this about rap music and hip-hop: Enjoy it. But, if you’re a Christian, you want to make something people can relate to and enjoy, but add some God in there, too. It’s alright, like on my new record. I have a song I did with [Christian recording artists] Mary, Mary. That’ll be attached to another film that’s coming out. This is how you do it—with balance. And other than that, I don’t mind if my kids watch the videos. But we’re not going to overdo it. The videos are not going to raise you; but you can watch them. If you were a young lady, like one of my daughters, and you see the girls, like what they do in the video, I’m gonna talk to you about it. But I’m not going to not expose you to it.
You have to be prepared for [spiritual] war. I mean, war. There’s swords, battles, blood, and horses getting hamstrung. There’s everything that goes on in war. So to raise your kids by themselves, isolated from everything. They’ll never be able to handle the war when it comes. We have to be prepped. And we have to be prepared for those types of situations.