'Everybody Got 2 Suffer' Says Rapping Friar

When he is not serving the poor and needy as a Franciscan Friar of Renewal in the South Bronx, Father Stan Fortuna is making music.

On his 18 albums, he sings a variety of styles including contemporary Christian, jazz, folk and reggae, and is perhaps best known for his rap music. His recording company, Francesco Productions assists the poor. On Oct. 4, the Feast of St. Francis, Father Fortuna had the world premiere release of his new music video DVD, “Everybody Got 2 Suffer.” He spoke with Register staff writer Tim Drake from New York.

Where are you from originally?

I was born in 1957 and grew up in Yonkers, N.Y. I have a younger sister who is married and has two children. She is a school teacher. My father worked in construction and my mother was a mom. She worked in a bank prior to having children, and after we were grown she became a vice president at a bank.

Have you been playing music all your life?

Yes, I've been doing music my whole life long. In second grade, my father purchased a red electric guitar for me for Christmas. That's when my music started. I took some private lessons, but that didn't work. I noodled around with the piano and tried to start a band. Later, I asked my father to get me a bass guitar. That was my main instrument. In seventh grade the music went deep into me.

What led to your vocation?

When I was a kid I wanted to be a priest because my parish priest was my hero. At the turn of the Second Vatican Council, he left the priesthood to get married. After that, I didn't want to be a priest any more. Many years later I had a powerful conversion through the Word of God. I was a Catholic pagan. I went to Church every Sunday, but it had no connection with the rest of my life.

I had just graduated from high school and got involved in a parish-based Bible Study. In the course of my conversion, St. Francis came after me. It was the design of Providence. The Lord put St. Francis in my face and had me trip over him to get my attention. I became a Capu-chin Franciscan in 1979. Then, in 1987, I left the Capuchins and was one of eight founders who started the Franciscan Friars of Renewal.

You're well known for your rap music. How did that come about?

Rap is one of the styles of music that I sing. The rap music began while I was a young friar in formation. I would go into the inner city parishes in Manhattan and would hear this stuff before it became a cultural phenomenon. People were using it as a genre to express different expressions of life. It wasn't infested by the violence and vulgarity that infests the majority of it now.

Me being a jazz musician, trained in improvisation, I could see the spontaneity of the lyrical form, and I would bang out beats on the hood of a car. With time, my reputation preceded me. The brothers would provoke me to get on a “rap attack.” They would tell me, “Do one of those things that you do.”

The brothers were fascinated by it. I was freestyling it, talking about God just for the fun of it. However, when I read a quote from Pope John Paul II from a colloquium on secularism and the future of the faith, it put the whole thing into another place. The Holy Father was encouraging everyone to act with boldness of thought in bringing the Gospel to the heart of the culture in a way that is intelligible. At that point, this lyrical expression and genre of rhythm and rhyme took on a whole new significance. The Pope was encouraging young people in Poland to catechize with rock music because they did not have the freedom to openly and publicly evangelize. He wanted people to put sacred content into that context. He called it the Sacro Music movement. When I heard that, I realized that I needed to start taking my rap music seriously.

At that point I started singing about issues that the young people in the culture were suffering with – abortion, suicide, the deterioration of the family, the lack of mercy, and hope and prayer. These things became the target at which I aimed my word-gun. I was trying to hit them with the Gospel. That led to songs such as “Never Been Born” about abortion and “F.A.M.I.L.Y. — Forget About Me, I Love You.”

Tell me about your new music video.

The music video is for my song “Everybody Got 2 Suffer.” The video has a very professional, MTV style, but the content is very Catholic. It contains footage of President Kennedy and Senator Kennedy being assassinated, scenes of the racial wars in the 1960s, President Reagan's assassination attempt, the falling of the Berlin wall, the World Trade Center, the war in Iraq, and the assassination attempt on the Holy Father.

How have young people reacted to the song?

When I first came out with the song, I was performing at a lot of youth conferences. When the youth knew I was going to do a rap song they would get excited. Then I would sing the lyrics – “You think that you the only one that got 2 suffer? Everybody got 2 suffer.” I'm talking about the necessity of suffering. You would think that the audience would want to throw fruit, but when they heard the song and the contrast between the rich and poor, the reaction is strong.

The confession lines after that song are just swamped. The priests have told me that they've heard confessions unlike anything they had heard before. The youth tell me that the song helps to make sense of things that haven't previously made sense to them. It helps them to see that the faith is not an insignificant thing that is superimposed upon them, but that it can have a dominant place in their life and that Jesus can help them to get through difficult things. One young man told me that the song helped him to stop thinking about suicide.

Tim Drake writes from Saint Cloud, Minnesota.