Fiti Futuristic doesn't look like your ordinary super-skilled, quick-witted rapper. He doesn't have the clothes, for one thing; there's no playa stylings in his dress. He's not all iced out. And he certainly doesn't have any gold fronts on his teeth. What he does have is a rhyming skill, free-flowing and frenetic, that allowed him to walk in as a last-minute replacement at the Patio's Battle of the Bands in May and walk away with first place, beating punk and metal acts in the process.
This Friday, he'll have a prime-time slot at the latest Indianapolismusic.net Showcase at Birdy's, along with many other prominent local bands.
Fiti (real name: Zach Tranehill) is not only the only hip-hop act on the bill, he's the only Christian artist on the bill.
But he doesn't hit the listener over the head with a Bible; Fiti's lessons are more subtle than that. He talks about choices in life. He talks about taking responsibility. He talks about breaking the chain and not ending up like your parents did.
He does it in a contemporary hip-hop style that could be mistaken for a secular sound akin to Eminem or his Kulture Entertainment stablemate, OriginAl.
But ask him about his goals for the Friday show, and he says, 'To go there and show them that they have an alternative to the lifestyle that they're living. I can go there and have all of me emptied out and have God fill me up, so people can see Jesus in me. My mission is to effectively minister to people. Plant a seed. If I bring somebody to the Lord through my music at a secular venue, that's wonderful. But my goal is to let them see that if they want to change their lives, Jesus is there.'
Unlike some local rappers, Fiti is a full-time musician who plays shows all across the Midwest and beyond. As a musical missionary for World Renewal International, an international ministry, he spreads the Gospel as far and wide as he can, including secular nightclubs such as Birdy's and the Patio.
'This is what I've prayed to God for my ministry to be about, to be able to go out to the bars and to the places where Jesus would be today. He wouldn't be in church, I don't believe. Jesus would be at the Patio. Jesus would be at Radio Radio, talking to people. He'd be at the Alley Cat, talking to the people coming out. He'd be there telling people, 'Hey, man, you don't have to live like this if you don't want to.'
His new album, All in a Day's Work, is a masterful collection of beats and rhymes, all of which contain a positive message. Like Eminem, Fiti didn't grow up in an ideal family. Unlike him, however, he's taken his message in a different direction.
'I grew up with a dad that drank and a mom that allowed that and stuck up for him,' he says. 'I couldn't understand why bad things happened to good people. It made me a harsh, callous person. I saw my sister following the same path, getting drunk, getting high all the time. I saw a pattern there and I chose not to follow it.'
He says, 'There are so many people that get turned off by God, because whenever they got in trouble as a kid, their grandmother made them sit down and read a Bible verse. I just want to let people know through this music that there's more to life than getting drunk, getting high and making as much money as you can.'
He knows about the limitations inherent in a Christian performer trying to reach secular audiences. 'There are a lot of people who blame Christianity for a lot of the world's problems, and I think Christians are to blame for that. They've done such a poor job of showing Christ to people. The life that I live on the stage is the same kind of life I live off the stage. I don't talk about church and then go to the strip club after the show.'
At the same time, he asks to be judged on his music like any other performer. 'There's no reason someone can't put on one of my CDs and then put on Eminem or OriginAl,' he says. 'It's just a different viewpoint. I'd like people to be able to have something positive in their library. I'd like it all to be positive, but I can't try to tell people what to listen to.' Although his friend, DJ Type A, guests on the album and at live shows, Fiti creates almost all of his beats and does his recording at his Greenfield home.
'I work at my own pace,' he says. 'I'm not just a sample-based producer. I know that I'm not the best rapper in the world, but God's going to take me as far as He wants me to go.'
All of his songs, whether the prophetic 'End of the World,' or the more acerbic 'Ummm,' contain the same message, Fiti says. He encapsulates it this way: 'When you wake up in the morning, it doesn't have to be the same drab, dreary routine. If you take one step towards God, He'll take a step toward you. If you're dealing with something in your life, there's nothing He won't forgive. I want to let people know that they can look past the hurt they've maybe felt in church before. There's people out there who care about them, and there's a God out there who cares about them. All they have to do is ask for it.'
He's not afraid of criticism, either from audiences or other musicians. 'No matter what you do, people are going to talk about you,' he says. 'I lost almost all of my friends when I became a Christian. So if an audience boos me, I hope others will look past that and keep their minds open.'
And while Fiti can hang with rappers at bars, and accept people with an open mind, he asks the same chance be given him and his music.
'I think it's funny because a lot of people say, 'I don't personally believe in God, but that's cool if you want to,'' he says. 'Then two minutes later, they're bashing God. If they would honestly take a chance and try to understand God, and not just go to church and listen to the pastor, they will find the truth. A lot of people went to a boring church, or got molested by somebody or whatever, and that's all it took for them to abandon religion. A couple bad apples have ruined the bunch.'
As a rapper, he's been stylistically influenced by them all, from Tupac to the Furious Five and even Too $hort. 'There's a history to it and a culture that goes beyond grabbing a mic and writing some lines. I had to learn the culture and the history.'
And as for his almost-legendary Battle of the Bands show in May, Fiti was called around 6 p.m. the evening of the show and asked if he wanted to play. He showed up to play around midnight, caught part of Render One's set, and figured he didn't have a chance. 'My goal that night was honestly not to get beat up,' he said. 'I figured there was a good chance I might get beaten up. And after I was done, I just walked off the stage. I was going to leave.' Convinced by Kulture Entertainment's Chad Horton to stick around for the results, Fiti was convinced he'd finished dead last. When the Battle's Josh Baker started reading off names, Fiti says he figured he'd been disqualified, that he wasn't even considered good enough to place.
Instead, he won first place and will play later this month in the semi-finals.
'I didn't realize it was such a big deal until I started reading the IMN and the NUVO Web boards,' he says. 'Now I'm much more aware of the local music scene and making friends.' Playing a high-profile gig like the IMN Showcase is another step in that direction.
Ironically, when he took the call to play the Battle of the Bands that night, he was teaching Wednesday Bible study. The topic? David and Goliath, which he sees as an apt metaphor for his own career and struggles.