On the surface, Trip Lee has it all together.
The acclaimed hip-hop artist has five hit albums under his belt, including two that have debuted within the Top 20 on the Billboard 200.
Last December, Lee—born William Lee Barefield III—released The Waiting Room, a 10-song mixtape meant to tide fans over until his sixth proper full-length is ready for release. It contains some of his strongest work to date.
The 29-year-old is a successful author with two books to his credit: 2012’s The Good Life and 2015’s Rise Up: Get Up and Live God’s Great Story.
As if the music and writing career weren’t enough, Lee is also the teaching pastor at Cornerstone Church, a congregation in Atlanta, Georgia.
Lee has been married to his wife, Jessica, since 2009, and they have two children, Q and Selah.
It’s a seemingly enviable life, but one that Lee is quick to point out has its challenges.
Sitting backstage during a tour stop in Orlando, Florida, Lee says that if it weren’t for his Christian brothers and sisters, he wouldn’t be where he is today.
“I never want to paint a picture like my Christian life is ever like these beautiful, long sprints of perfection with these perfect strides,” Lee says.
“Any time I’m on the right path, I’m limping on the right path, often being dragged by Jesus down the right path through lots of other means and other Christians helping me. (That’s) been one of those things that has helped me limp along the path, and that’s the same stuff I need if I’m going to stay on the right path for the rest of my life… This isn’t a journey you go on alone.”
The albums, the tours, the critical acclaim, the books, the church ministry—those are just the highlight reel, Lee says.
While Lee’s ministry does require him to have a certain amount of spiritual maturity, underneath the surface, there is brokenness, sin and hurt in his life, just like there is in everyone else’s.
“The highlight reel” just doesn’t show it.
“I’m a complete person with things that the Lord has grown me in and things where I’m still weak and the Lord needs to grow me (further),” Lee says. “My hope is that people never see any public figure, anybody who’s a believer that you know of, and assume that they have it all together and they’re perfect.”
Knowing that no one is flawless gives Lee inspiration.
“When we make people perfect heroes, I don’t think it’s even as inspiring that way,” he says. “When we paint a more accurate picture, like no, here’s a broken man who the Lord has brought a long way, that’s way more inspiring. That seems like something I can aspire to, or that the Lord can do in me.”
Lee’s greatest challenge is living with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). It’s a disorder characterized by extreme tiredness that doesn’t go away with rest, and can’t be explained by an underlying medical condition.
It’s something he’s suffered from since the fall of 2007, when he was a freshman in college.
When it’s particularly bad, as it was the week before this interview, Lee can be in bed for more than three quarters of the week.
Chronic fatigue costs him time with his family, and it can make him unreliable when it comes to work-related deadlines because he’s never sure how he’s going to feel on any given day.
To make matters worse, many people don’t know what CFS is, and when it’s explained to them, they still have a hard time fully believing that such a disorder exists.
Lee expresses his frustration explicitly on “Longer,” the ninth track on The Waiting Room: “I’m sick of the pain, I’m finna complain / My doctor is lost, man, illness is lame / ‘07 it came, and it’s never the same / It’s killin’ my job, it’s been killin’ my name / My label is mad, and I’m feeling shame / They not hearing back when they call me, and man / My new book overdue, and my brain is a mess / So what I’m-a do? ‘Cause my publisher’s stressed / I’m shepherding too, I keep letting them down / ‘Cause my body can crash, then I’m never around / Nowhere to be found, but I’m in the bed / That’s for weeks at a time, and it’s dead in my head / My wifey she hurt, the pain in her eyes / She trying to be strong, and just take it in stride.”
The verse ends with Lee saying to God, “I’m asking today / How long will it be ‘til you take it away?”
“It’s been the hardest part of every part of my life,” Lee says of CFS. “It’s been 10 years of praying that the Lord would heal me, and it’s been 10 years of asking for the strength to get through things, and it’s been 10 years of… there being many more bad days than good days.”
“What that can do is slowly chip away at your trust in God, or it can chip away at your trust in yourself and make you trust God more,” he continues.
Although it’s difficult at times, Lee chooses the latter option.
“There are some weeks where I do great and I fight for joy and depend on God, and some weeks where I’m just dragging myself around, pitying myself,” Lee says. “I feel like with every year, the Lord gives me more grace to kind of navigate stuff in better ways, more godly ways, to be better at trusting him in the midst of it.”
“It’s very clear that he’s using this to refine me, to make me more like him, to make me trust him more and to show himself to be the strong God that he is.”
Lee’s 2014 album Rise ends with the song “Sweet Victory.” In the chorus, vocalist Dimitri McDowell sings, “I feel thorns where my crown was / I be weak, but I’m alive / From the dusk until dawn, yeah / I’ll survive because I got sweet victory / Nobody can take it from me, sweet victory / ‘Cause I got sweet victory.”
The song deals with Lee’s illness. In it, he attempts to describe what life feels like, loss after loss after loss, but remembering that there is victory in Jesus.
“Jesus defeated all my enemies for me, he defeated sickness for me on the cross, he defeated death, he defeated the grave—Jesus defeated all that for me,” Lee says. “I think I would be hopeless and just under a dark cloud of death if I didn’t know that.”
Asked what he would say to young men today if there was one message that he could impress upon them, Lee responds that he wants them to know that they were created for a purpose.
“You were made by God to make much of God,” Lee says. “There’s a story God is telling about himself that is the greatest story ever told, and you get to play a role in it.”
Sometimes our fallen nature leads us to want to tell our own story in which we’re the star. Lee can relate—that’s often how he felt as a young man.
At the same time, he says, living for anything other than God is like using a Ferrari for target practice.
“That’s what we’re doing with our lives when we’re spending it on stuff that’s so much lower than what we were created for,” Lee says. “That Ferrari was made to go fast, that Ferrari was built for the specific purpose—that’s why it has that engine… (Similarly), the Lord made you in a specific way for a specific purpose.”
“The thing that we were made for it is actually better, it is more fulfilling, there’s greater joy, it’s life in abundance,” Lee adds, pointing to Psalm 16:11, which reads in part, “At your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”
“We’re out here chasing pleasures that last 15 minutes or, at the most, last 70 years,” Lee says. “At the right hand of God are pleasures forevermore, and that trumps 15 minutes or 70 years every time.”
Just because there’s abundant life in Jesus doesn’t mean we won’t experience hardships in our lives, Lee adds. His own imperfect life is proof of that.
What we do know, though, is that God is with us in the midst of our trials, and God will not let them destroy us.
“If I put my hope in him, build my life on him, even as that hard stuff comes, it doesn’t take away those joys,” Lee says. “There is abundant life in Jesus that cannot be stolen.”
AARON EPP is a freelance music journalist who lives in Winnipeg.
THE ARTICLE ABOVE WAS FEATURED IN THE MAY 2017 ISSUE OF SEVEN MAGAZINE.