On any given Sunday, Erick Bradley, 42, can be found sitting at a large desk behind the last pew of The Cross Baptist Church in Tyler, hidden in a sea of media equipment: a computer, soundboard and video camera all in use as he makes sure the worship service runs smoothly.
This unassuming man in a pinstripe suit seems comfortable working behind the scenes, but it’s the stage where this minister’s talent is most obvious.
As the worship service nears its end, the congregation is in for a treat. The Rev. Erick “Jest-E” Bradley hits record on the video camera, turns the volume up on the sound board, grabs a mic and starts spitting rhymes about Jesus Christ as he walks to the front of the pews. The church members respond, clapping hands swaying and giving up cheers of praise to God.
His music used to not be so nice, but a change in personal taste led rapper Jest-E to alter his image and lyrics to encourage others to live a Christian life.
“I was a hardcore gangster rapper,” Bradley said.
A Dallas native, Bradley began his music career at age 16. He was signed to an independent label called Blackjack Records before starting his own recording and production studio called Nuttin Nice Productions.
Success came quickly, and as Bradley became an adult, his lyrics followed suit. Jest-E, short for Jester Erick, found himself performing at bars and topless clubs.
Today, Jest-E frequents churches and community events performing a genre of music known as gospel rap or Christian hip-hop. The music often sounds like secular rap, but the lyrics attest to God’s love and salvation through Jesus Christ.
“It was kind of strange the way it happened,” Bradley said. “I just lost taste for the type of music I was doing. I gave my mom my last secular CD, and I told her not to listen to it. She said, ‘Well if I couldn’t listen to it, why did you do it?’ That stuck with me. She had a point.”
In 2003 Jest-E quit his career as a secular artist. In 2004 he received his calling and became an ordained minister in the Baptist church following the footsteps of his uncle, the late Rev. Bobby Glenn Bradley.
After his secular music career came to an end, it took some time for Jest-E to gain the courage to re-emerge as a Christian artist. He did not know if he could come up with Christian material to write and rap about.
“It’s like God opened my eyes and the lyrics just started coming,” Bradley said. “Then I realized there’s a whole book of things I can rap about or say.”
He has since drawn inspiration from the pages of the Bible and credits his favorite song as “Amen,” a song he wrote about giving praise to Jesus.
After his transformation into Christian music, Bradley’s life continued to change. In 2005, he moved to Tyler to marry his wife, Patreshia. They became core members of The Cross Baptist Church. They have two children, Bobbie, 9, and Jesse, 2. Mrs. Bradley is the children’s ministry director at The Cross.
“It was kind of destined to be; he’s a minister and I’ve worked in a children’s ministry since I was 15 years old,” Mrs. Bradley said. “When I was a teenager I started teaching Sunday school at my home church.”
As a former co-worker of Pastor Steven D. Young, Mrs. Bradley became a part of The Cross Baptist Church at its inception.
Young’s vision of a church focused on missions and Christian education has been easy to implement with the help of church members such as the Bradleys.
Erick Bradley helps with day-to-day operations at The Cross such as running the sound system and graphics during worship services, filling in on the drum set and helping serve Communion when needed. Mrs. Bradley is growing the youth programs and spearheading projects like the Christmas play, the fall festival and Super Saturday youth fellowship events.
Jest-E knows the influence that music can have on young adults. Growing up, rap music appealed to him and earned his love and passion despite the often negative message rappers gave. He feels that today’s youth have it better because there are more Christian artists and rappers who create appealing songs centered around God.
“He has a connection with young adults that oftentimes we miss out on,” Young said. “He mentors the upper teens and sister Bradley catches them as itty bitties and nurtures them.”
Within the church, Christian music is seen not only as entertainment, but also as a mission field to reach people with Christian messages.
“I set out to try to right some of the wrongs I did,” Bradley said. “Kids were looking up to me when I was in the secular field. I’m just trying to change that whole mentality and show them that there is an alternative.”
Bradley uses his music to reach people in multiple ways. His passion is performing at church and community events, but when he’s not at church, he is often found at his home recording studio preparing for his daily Internet radio show, “The Jest-E Show” on Piranha Radio.
The weekly broadcast streams online through the XiiaLive app for Google Play and features Jest-E’s music as well as songs from other gospel rappers, scripture readings and worship service broadcasts from The Cross.
“When you get people who are committed, they start looking for ways to serve,” Young said. “That’s a desire a lot of pastors wish was fulfilled. I count it a blessing. If every church could have two or three families like the Bradleys, they’d have something.”