The Light That Shines Farthest Shines Brightest at Home
"I'm a catalyzer. I'm a forward thinker. I'm looking at how to disrupt and create waves,” Lecrae said.
The whole world is experiencing serious disruption right now due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Here in Atlanta, right as people were forced indoors during a time of isolation and social distancing, the weather largely decided to buck the old “April showers” tradition and become almost devastatingly sunny. All this time indoors and not spent in traffic, at the gas station, in line at a restaurant or on our way to appointments might provide a respite from our until-recently busy lives, but are there different ways we are being productive?
How are the creatives of our industry responding to this disruption? As soon as we can start working again, will we see more finished screenplays? Richer stories with more polished writing? Will ultra-low-budget, home-grown indie film have a resurgence?
Two Atlantans who are using this disruption to make some moves are two-time Grammy Award-winner Lecrae Devaughn Moore (better known simply as Lecrae) and his business partner Adam Thomason (also known as A.T. “Lumkile”). Together, they have created 3 Strand Films, a new production company intent on driving the perspective of society.
You’ve no doubt heard of Lecrae. Since releasing his first album in 2004, the mononymous star has been pushing boundaries in the hip-hop, gospel, Christian and indie music scenes, blurring the genre lines to degrees previously unseen. He first conquered the Billboard Gospel Albums chart in 2008 with Rebel, conquered the Billboard Christian Albums and Independent Albums charts in 2010 with Rehab and earned his first Billboard Rap Albums #1 two years later with Gravity. Dubbed by some critics as the most important album in the history of Christian hip-hop, Gravity went on to win Lecrae his first Grammy Award. It was his follow-up, however, that earned the now-mainstream artist his first ever #1 on the Billboard 200 Albums Chart and a gold-certified record from the Recording Industry Association of America.
Lecrae did all of this through Reach Records, a label he co-founded in 2004 and where he still serves as the president. To date, Lecrae has released nine studio albums and three mixtapes, with his tenth album set for release this summer. He also produces much of his own music and many of the releases of other artists on the Reach roster. The new album will be released solely on his label, which also reissued the Set Me Free single independently this spring, following a break with Columbia Records.
In 2012, Lecrae made his film debut in A Cross to Bear, an Atlanta-lensed television production. Since then, he has appeared in Believe Me (2014), SuperFly (2018) and Breakthrough (2019), a film that grossed more than $50 million worldwide and garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song.
While music has been Lecrae’s bread and butter for the better part of two decades, his foray into film shouldn’t come as a surprise. He first attended the University of North Texas to study theatre. It wasn’t long, however, before the musical culture ingrained at UNT began to lure him over. With famed alumni like Roy Orbison, Don Henley and Norah Jones, it’s easy to see why Lecrae speaks so fondly of his time at his alma mater.
“I was there on a full theatre scholarship, and I had a spiritual transformation and got involved with a group of students who were very adamant about expressing their faith and culture simultaneously. It drew, probably because of the leadership, a lot of artistic expression,” Lecrae said.
It was there that Lecrae met Thomason at one of the campus meetings of the UNT Plumbline Ministry in 2003. Thomason had recently moved to Texas after earning a degree in fashion/apparel design and marketing and a minor in architecture at Savannah College of Art and Design.
“Adam, being a SCAD graduate, found a place where he could kind of express his culture, his faith and his artistic leanings as well,” Lecrae said. “We had stage performances. We had skits. We had music. So, if you were a young, Black person of faith, it was probably the place you wanted to be, especially if you were creative.”
While their careers quickly went in different directions, the two friends stayed close over the years. Lecrae founded Reach Records and released his first album in 2004 and rather quickly became a hip-hop superstar. Thomason earned two Master’s degrees, worked for Collision Records, preached and taught as a professor before making his way into film.
“As you get older and progress through certain subcultures and God gives you favor, you start to ask the question, ‘Okay, what can we pivot into that can create a lasting change?’” said Thomason. As he began to contemplate steering towards a full-time career as a filmmaker, Thomason also took note of the rise in popularity of streaming content. When asked about why he started with documentaries, Thomason credited the advice of an expert.
“I'll tell you the reason why I started there,” he said without any hesitation. “Ava Duvernay said if you want to learn film and know how to maximize budgets to where people can trust you, she said to start in documentary work. It's such an unknown and if you can get your hands around that, then when you get into scripted, you are in more sterile places where you can control the places that you're shooting, you can control the budgets and then people will tend to trust you because they'll see that you can control this volatile work.”
In 2016 and 2017, Thomason was commissioned to make several documentaries, travelling to France, Ghana, Italy, Malta, Nepal, and along the Colombia and Venezuela border.
“Because of the success there, God opened up doors,” he added. “Obviously we’re friends, so I'm sharing those stories with Lecrae. You know, he's killing it in the music scene, and just as people are wanting him to be involved in film for his name and stature, not knowing he actually has a theatre background, and not wanting to be taken advantage of, we just started having conversations. And so it was like, why not make this pivot together?”
“Both of us have been storytellers,” Thomason said. He lists a number of Lecrae’s music videos as very cinematic stories, but he also laments that often many of the narratives that are distributed through entertainment aren’t always truthful.
“Fashion was always about selling a story, telling a story, but most of the time the story wasn't honest,” he added. “I think being in the music industry, fashion, and entertainment always preps you and gives you that poise to come into film.”
For Lecrae, it was a relational move as well. “I just kind of got tired of walking the entertainment road alone and my friends not being able to kind of breathe some of that air. So, I just thought it would be great to get my friends involved,” he explained. “You know, I did that in music and as I was trying to transition into film and television, it's just always better to have your friends involved. Partnering with Adam was relational and just a part of making sure that I stay authentic because I think when you do stuff with your friends, you can't fake it. You won't put out terrible work because the friends won't let you!”
As these two men found themselves looking in new directions career-wise and for opportunities to partner together, 3 Strand Films was born. “There is a need for honest narratives that deal with vices and virtues and don’t over-glamorize or sanitize,” Thomason said. “I feel like we've always been studiers of that. This is an unmet need in the film and television space. That’s what 3 Strand is going to be. We never tire from seeing the great virtues and vices get recycled in stories, and that's something that speaks to the soul of who we are as humans.”
Once Lecrae and Thomason decided to set up shop together, the next logical move was to get in the same place. For Lecrae, Atlanta has been home for over a decade, and it doesn’t sound like he’s got his sights on anywhere else. “My cousin went to school at Spelman in the ‘90s and she would come back and tell us stories of Atlanta and I just was itching to be here,” Lecrae said. “I was like, ‘I've got to get to this city. I got to live here,’ and it ended up being able to be a reality ten years later.”
After moving here in 2009, Lecrae quickly became a prominent fixture of the community and a frequent sight at Atlanta Hawks games. “Atlanta is like having the girlfriend you always wanted,” he added. “It's the place I've always wanted to be. I’m an Atlanta Hawks fan. I’m an Atlanta Falcons fan. I love Atlanta, you know, and I'm not one of those kind of opportunistic people who just said let me get what I can get out of the city and get up out of here. I am an Atlantan.”
“A Tribe Called Quest talk about how their great albums came from when they were living in the same city, and then when they weren’t in the same city, they just weren’t as good,” Thomason explained. “We both felt like being in the same city would help with what we were trying to do.”
While the tax credits that spurred the exponential growth of the state’s film industry were passed right before Lecrae made Atlanta his home over a decade ago, there’s still a lot of undeveloped resources. “If you remember back to the wild, wild west, that's when you could just stake your claim on land and establish yourself. Atlanta is that for film,” Thomason said.
Still aglow with love for his city, Lecrae goes on even further. “The city has shown me such great love and has adopted me in so many ways that if there wasn't a thriving film industry here, I think we would be fighting to make it thriving. That's what we were doing in Texas. There was nothing special about Denton, Texas, but we made it our place and we created something there for us. Atlanta, we're here together, all of our closest friends that we grew up with moved here. We call it the ‘Texodus’ because we all moved from Texas to Atlanta. We love it here. We're thriving and it's just a great opportunity for us to add to all the elements that the city already has.”
Lecrae and Thomason know that even with a strong partnership and a great community already in place, their work is cut out for them. “I think my music background has prepared me for the consistent inconsistency of the entertainment industry,” Lecrae said. “It has prepared me for the opportunists and the sharks and the consistent disappointments and the ‘nos’ that you hear consistently. We know it’s going to be a road of perseverance and hard work.”
While Thomason has built up a lot of experience in different roles behind the camera, Lecrae’s film work thus far has mostly been in an acting capacity. He sees that changing, however, and shifting more towards writing and producing. “I'm a sociologist, so it's important for me to find stories, to champion stories that are genuine pictures of what's happening in society, and also what needs to be said in culture,” Lecrae stated.
Many creatives might be encouraged to know that Lecrae, even with all his successes, doesn’t see himself as a technically-minded person. “Even in the music industry, I have never been the technical person. I've always been creative and keeping the technical people on the side of me and saying, ‘How do we flesh this out?’” he said before going on to champion Thomason’s technical strengths. It’s clear that the two have very complementary abilities. “That’s the beauty of the diversity.”
This is indicative of their general outlook on filmmaking: it’s all about partnership.
“One of my mentors early on said that you have to have the ability to write great stories and also partner with people who have written great stories to bring those stories to life,” Thomason said. “God has gifted us to know what a good story is and know how to write it. So, we have original IP (intellectual property) but at the same time we have favor to connect with others to bring their IP to life.”
One exciting partnership that 3 Strand Films already has in place is with Pinewood Atlanta Studios. “We have some very close connections with the Pinewood community and they are fighting to not just make it this major motion picture playground, but to find ways to make it a landing place for younger, smaller creatives in film,” Lecrae explained. “That's the type of stuff we love.”
While his love for Atlanta is no secret, it’s still encouraging to hear that Lecrae seeks to invest in creatives and storytellers right here in his community. “I think the way I feel about it, the light that shines the farthest shines the brightest at home. So, you want to shine bright locally and then be able to expand globally,” Lecrae said. “You don't want to neglect your own backyard in your pursuit of global work. You want the world to see what you're doing locally so that they want to get involved.”
"We think Atlanta is a hot-bed for storytellers and creatives."
“We think Atlanta is a hot-bed for creatives and storytellers. We [also] think the financing is here,” Thomason added. “A lot of people talk about how things still get financed from California. We think a lot of these things are here. It's just a matter of people just coming together, bringing it together.”
While Lecrae and Thomason have already specified a desire to tell authentic stories and showcase vices and virtues realistically, the question is posed as to whether their content will fit under the label of “Christian.” Despite the industry’s insistence, Lecrae has consistently rejected the label of “Christian” for his music, deeming the word a much better noun than it is a descriptor. He credits visual artist Makoto Fujimura, who helped advise Martin Scorsese on his Oscar-nominated film Silence (2016), with assisting him in developing his viewpoint.
“‘Christian’ has always been a terrible adjective because, what does that mean it entails?” Lecrae asked. “Nobody wants to go to a movie to get a message. We want to go to a movie to see a story and if there's a message within the story, that's great. But if it's all about a message, if you're trying to force a message on somebody then you can just post that message across the screen and they can walk out. The goal is to tell phenomenal stories and if there's a message within the story, so be it. Christianity is ultimately a story and so it's not a message as much as it is a story of creation, of redemption, of reconciliation and of brokenness. Those are human stories. What we want to do is to tell the human story.”
“You’ve got to be able to tell a story to be a great communicator,” Thomason added. “People always want a good story. Those things are never going to go away. Though we want to be relevant in the moment, what's the long game? We think about the story.”
With Thomason’s filmography so far filled with mostly documentary work, that seemed to be a good place for 3 Strand Films to start, but not to get too comfortable. “The plan has always been to get into scripted and non-scripted,” Thomason said. In fact, 3 Strand already has a pretty stacked slate of projects in the works. “We have a feature documentary that we're working on.
We have a feature film. We have a music video that addresses mental health. We also have another documentary that we partnered with Reach Records for Lecrae’s story,” Thomason explained.
“Even down to producing YouTube content,” Lecrae added.
“We have a pilot that we’re trying to bring to life. It’s already written. So we were actually in the process of that when the whole COVID thing hit. Literally, we were about to shoot the actual full pilot,” Thomason said.
When asked about how COVID-19 has impacted their plans beyond just the delay of shooting the pilot, Lecrae held his hand open. “Here’s our plan,” he said before bringing his other hand crashing down. “Here’s the pandemic.” Thomason shared, “We were actually getting ready for a pitch meeting for one of these feature documentaries. We were supposed to start production in the summer or fall, so that technically could still happen, but we don't know.”
“It was more so that some of the screenings we had coming up were for the documentary. Those things are kind of out the window,” Lecrae said. But he is remaining optimistic. “There’s still a lot of momentum. One of my buddies who is in prison, I always tell his story because it's inspiring to me; he got to a place where he realized he couldn't change the situation, but he could be changed in the midst of his situation. I think that's what it challenges us to do.”
They both seem to be keeping busy. “I've seen Adam sit at home during the pandemic and learn animation, which is something he didn't do prior to this,” Lecrae said. “I just feel like [the pandemic] has tons of negatives, but you know, there are some positives that can come out of it.”
Regardless of when exactly the world will get back to work, it is obvious that Lecrae and Thomason are getting ready to create waves in the Atlanta film community and beyond. “Like Lecrae said, letting that brightness shine from here,” Thomason said. “There’s still that allure of California and other places, but I think the ingredients and the recipe are here in Atlanta.”
This article was initially planned for the May/June issue of Oz Magazine, but publication has been delayed until now due to COVID-19. A lot has happened in the two-and-a-half months since I interviewed Lecrae and Adam. On May 25th, George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis and by May 26th, protests had been sparked across the globe. Atlanta was no exception. In fact, the leadership of figures like Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Congressman John Lewis combined with our city’s pivotal role in the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s put an extra spotlight on Atlanta during this time. The June 12th killing of Rayshard Brooks, just a couple of miles from the Atlanta University Center, catapulted Atlanta back into the center of attention.
Lecrae and Adam are not only artists and entrepreneurs, they are also leaders— community leaders and spiritual leaders both in Atlanta and beyond. Both of them have been very outspoken in the days since May 25th. On June 18th, 3 Strand Films hosted "For Your Soul: A Rally Celebrating Blackness" at Liberty Plaza in front of the Georgia State Capitol building.
While our conversation back in April is still very relevant to the future of 3 Strand Films in Atlanta’s film scene, life has changed for many people in the last few months. Conversations had two months ago might be—and perhaps should be—different now. Priorities change and change happens. I encourage everyone reading to follow 3 Stand Films (@3strandfilms), Lecrae (@lecrae), and Adam (@redrev) on Instagram or whatever social media platforms you are active on. These men have powerful, important things to say and I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to interact with them.