Grace Semler Baldridge Is Bringing Queer Stories to Christian Music | Sojourners

Grace Semler Baldridge Is Bringing Queer Stories to Christian Music

Semler's EP, Preacher's Kid (unholy demos), topped iTunes Christian charts after its release in February. Photo by Molly Adams, courtesy of Semler.

When the coronavirus pandemic began spreading through the U.S., Grace Semler Baldridge had just finished taping an episode of the Refinery29 show State of Grace. In the episode, Baldridge spoke with musicians who had worked in the contemporary Christian music (CCM) industry, including those who had been ostracized for their support of LGBTQ+ inclusion in the church or for being queer themselves.

While isolated in Los Angeles, Baldridge couldn’t stop thinking about those conversations, which birthed a demo song: “Jesus From Texas.”

“The wheels were already spinning about these conversations that I’d had,” Baldridge told Sojourners. After uploading “Jesus From Texas” as a Soundcloud single in late 2020, Baldridge felt the reception to the song proved that there was support for more music about growing up queer and Christian.

But before releasing Preacher's Kid (unholy demos) under the stage name Semler in February, Baldridge had to decide how to classify the EP; taking a risk, Baldridge submitted it to the Christian charts. And the gamble paid off: Preacher's Kid spent the week oscillating between #1 and #2 on iTunes Christian charts; it still sits at #15 two weeks after its release.

“I remember thinking that I wouldn’t ever be a Christian artist. I remember when I knew that. When I was 14, I used to pretend to be on stage with Relient K at Cornerstone Music Festival,” Baldridge said.

“Raw and honest”

As a kid, Baldridge’s family was not as unwelcoming to queer sexuality as one might expect. Baldridge’s father is an Episcopal priest, and he wore his collar to Grace’s wedding in 2018. Despite this open and accepting household, Baldridge wasn’t completely protected from Christian homophobia.

“My sweet, maybe naive dad sort of assumed that some of the environments he would bring me to, or pieces of reading material that would be brought home, would be as loving and sweet as he is. And that’s not the case,” Baldridge said. “It was something I had chosen not to wrestle with until I had the time to do in quarantine, to unpack a lot of memories.”

The time in isolation led Baldridge back to the musical identity of Semler, a family name that comes from Baldridge’s maternal side of the family.

“I feel strongly about [Semler] for a few reasons: It has family history, and it’s also gender neutral, which aligns more with how I want people to experience me,” Baldridge said. “It feels like that’s who I am when I’m writing music. I hope that I’ll be doing unscripted field work and hosting things again, as Grace, but when people see me on stage I want them to see me as Semler.”

The EP is filled with warm guitars, strong bass, inquisitive piano, and the occasional harmonica;  the entire project was recorded in Baldridge's home, on one microphone. Grace’s wife, Elizabeth, also works from home, so the project was recorded between the couple's business calls. Over morning coffee, or while walking the dog, Baldridge found time to write the lyrics that meditate on the meshing of church, faith, queer identity, and relationships.

“I think there’s this beauty in how totally raw and honest you can be in a demo,” Baldridge said. “Once I started leaning into that and I stopped being so self-conscious, it really was when I started getting more excited about putting this out.”

Preacher’s Kid, while a demo, is a concept album layered with narrative. Opening and closing with the same sounds and motifs and propelled by sassy interludes, the music tells Semler’s gospel — the story of knowing and loving Christ.

The boundaries of CCM

Contemporary Christian music is rooted in the Jesus Movement of the 1960s and ’70s, and eventually became a full-fledged industry, with its own record labels, awards, festivals, and charts. As CCM expanded to include musical styles ranging from worship and pop, to soft and hard rock, and even hip-hop, the industry became defined by the religious beliefs and lyrics of its artists, rather than any particular musical motifs.

Despite the industry’s flexible approach to style and sound, CCM remains adamantly opposed to publicly affirming LGBTQ+ people. CCM artists who have come out as queer, such as Trey Pearson, Vicky Beeching, and Jennifer Knapp, have consistently been ostracized by the industry's gatekeepers. Even those who merely expressed support for the inclusion of LGBTQ+ people have faced the wrath of CCM.

In other words, the music in Preacher's Kid — which includes songs about discovering sexuality at youth group lock-ins, exchanging kisses with high school girlfriends, and celebrating a lesbian wedding — has not been welcome in CCM. Knowing this well, and as somewhat of a dare, Baldridge said she submitted “Jesus From Texas” to the Christian radio station K-LOVE.

According to the station’s website, if a song “fits our ministry format, reflects our values and tests well with our audience, you’ll hear it on K-LOVE.” K-LOVE’s values and beliefs section is completely void of any discussion regarding marriage, sexuality, or gender. Baldridge hasn’t heard back since submitting, and K-LOVE did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“I know that I’m not writing Hillsong Worship music … I’m just asking for a seat at the table, and I think there are a lot of people who are hopeful for that,” Baldridge said. “I wrote a Christian project, about my Christian experience. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be for all Christians, but I’m just saying that it is in that category of contemporary Christian music. You can’t gatekeep that just because you disagree with where I’m coming from.”

The success of Preacher’s Kid has drawn attention from The Washington Post, Religion News Service, and RELEVANT Magazine, along with praise from various celebrities.

Some of the same Christian musicians Baldridge grew up listening to are now celebrating Preacher’s Kid. Jon Steingard, Derek Webb, Trey Pearson, Josh Lovelace, and Kevin Max have all expressed their support. Even some artists at the fringe of CCM have sent their congrats; Lecrae thanked Semler for “keeping the door open for healthy dialog in the church” in an Instagram comment.

“It blows my mind that it's taken this long for someone to push that conversation onto the Christian music industry charts,” Kevin Max told Sojourners via email. “I've said it before, but my hope is that ‘CCM’ or ‘Christian Music’ would just progress into music, without the boxes and boundaries it propagates. Artists like Grace are so important to the overall growth and progress of the music scene.”

A better industry?

The hope, Baldridge said, is that this EP will prove there is an audience for stories about Christianity that don’t fit into the narrative CCM has promoted.

“I think what’s exciting about Preacher's Kid, clearly people are interested in this. Clearly there is a market for this, so where do we go from here?” Baldridge said. “I’m really hopeful that this will be an invitation for others to do the same. I will be the first person to share that record if other people want to start diving in, I think it’s so needed.”

Trey Pearson, who was the lead singer for the band Everyday Sunday, saw CCM’s backlash firsthand when he came out as gay in 2016. He told Sojourners that the decision to submit Preacher’s Kid to the Christian charts was a brave act of subversion on Baldridge's part. However, he emphasized that even LGBTQ+ acceptance wouldn’t be enough to fix CCM.

According to Pearson, many people within CCM, “are willing to sacrifice their own beliefs or not think too hard about it … just to keep the money rolling in.” Pearson said the industry was built on the gimmick of using Jesus’ name to sell records, and that true authenticity — like that found on Preacher's Kid — might never be embraced by CCM.

Baldridge agreed, and is skeptical about whether creating a better, more affirming Christian music institution is the right approach.

“Any institution built under capitalism will be corrupt, so do you want to do that again in the name of God?” Baldridge said. “I’m not saying it’s impossible, but to do so responsibly, you would want to be really careful on how you would build that up.”

But whether a new outlet rises up or CCM reforms, Preacher's Kid sent a message to the industry gatekeepers.

“I don’t know who you think I am, but I belong in the promised land,” Semler croons in the outro of Preacher’s Kid. “I don't know who you think I am, but I'll be ready at the Father’s hand.”

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