By Dylan Garner | Photos by Griffin Harrington and courtesy of Ojo Taylor
Music professor Joseph “Ojo” Taylor gave his songwriting class a fairly simple assignment: write a one-part song. The class obliged, but they had one challenge for him, they asked him to write one as well.
He retreated back to his office in the Music Building and began to write. He contrasts his own style to that of legendary writers like Bob Dylan, who are able to create entire worlds through their lyrics.
“For me, my songwriting seems to have been about documenting my life, which sounds a little bit pretentious,” Ojo says. “I document my life through my songs, whether that is good or bad.”
To get inspiration for the assignment, he read a poem called the “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” and decided to loosely base his song on the prose, which is approaching its millennial anniversary. The poem was pulled from “The Portable Atheist” by Christopher Hitchens, a well-known advocate for atheism. Ojo describes the book as “required reading” for anyone.
It took him just one day to write his song, “Be Still My Child,” which he dedicated to the “promotion of the human condition and those human experiences.” His songwriting career up to the recording of this anti-“ism” ballad took him through journeys both spiritual and physical.
And it all started with the Rapture.
Ojo and his childhood friend, James “Gym” Nicholson became enthralled by the preachings of pastor Chuck Smith, the conductor of the Calvary Chapel in Southern California. In his words and in his texts, Smith was predicting the end of the world. Ojo and Gym, along with many young adults at the time, did what they had to do to save themselves from the inevitable. They were born again.
“We had this sense of urgency. That’s why we did it,” Ojo says.
Gym wanted to start a band — he knew Ojo had played a little bit of piano growing up — so that became their outlet for their Christianity.
After middling success playing free shows in lumberyards and parks, their small band moved from ’70s rock influences and became a band that matched the life and times of early-’80s Los Angeles: a punk band called Undercover.
“That’s what you did. You went for it and became a born-again Christian, started a band and started playing, spreading the good news. After all, that’s what the Bible commands Christians to do, go out and make disciples of all nations,” Ojo says. “And then you add in that sense of urgency from the impending apocalypse: There’s your mission from God right there.”
Southern California was a tumultuous yet electrifying location for the growing youth population and its music. Within just a couple of years, the city erupted with loud guitars and angsty screams with a new breed of punk music. Black Flag and the Circle Jerks laid the foundation for this L.A. hardcore scene.
Undercover thrived on the speed and style of these bands but didn’t preach the anarchy to wild, moshing audiences like the others did. Undercover, instead, preached the gospel. The band’s strange blend of hardcore punk, new wave and Christian lyrics was difficult for the church to accept.
“The churches are just getting over the idea of people having long hair and singing with their acoustic guitars, and here we come with mohawks and chains,” he says. “It was another big shift; probably before the church was really ready for it. It really was kind of a cultural revolution all over again among young church-goers in Southern California. And then, of course, it spread from there across the country.”
Ojo recalls playing on the Sunset Strip, a block away from the famous Whiskey a Go Go, where Black Flag was playing. He describes the scene as “mayhem,” with people — ranging from “12-year-olds” to “skinheads” — pouring into the streets. Through the chaos, Ojo found inspiration in an odd place.
“On the side of the building … there was a bunch of graffiti,” he says. “Somebody had written with a black marker, like a Sharpie, ‘Mob Rules,’ which was a record by Black Sabbath. And it just immediately came to me, blinding, flashing the obvious.”
“I went home that night and wrote ‘God Rules.’ It literally took me one minute, and I’ve been paying for it since.”
At 1:07 running time, “God Rules” is indistinguishable from the blistering pace of other bands at the time. The guitars are incredibly loud and distorted, the drums are relentless and the vocals are shouted into the mic in a tone just calmer than a scream.
The tempo was similar to Metallica and Red Hot Chili Peppers, but the lyrics couldn’t be more different.
“The devil lost the fight; Jesus won with power and might.”
Regardless of the lyrics, his ties with the hardcore punk scene put him on the same stage as bands like Black Flag. This includes the riots that these bands would routinely create in the early ’80s.
“I remember playing at the L.A. street scene the year of the riots, and it was our stage that caused the riot. We were playing with Fear and the Minutemen and Minor Threat — Circle Jerks were there — all these great bands. And there we were, this Christian band,” he says. “This whole division of the Christian world and a secular world never made any sense to me. There’s one world, we all live in it. I was never one for saying, ‘No, I can’t go into that place because we’re Christians.’ That doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Despite growing teen angst, the ideas of anarchy and counterculture were not sought after by all teens. Ojo describes the “cultural revolution” that was happening at the time among the younger generation. They wanted music to grasp onto that still reflected their values and culture.
As both Ojo and the band progressed, they grew more popular but also grew more mature in their style and lyrics. Ojo was becoming a father of four — and would soon be a divorced father of four. Undercover’s 1986 album “Branded” was Ojo’s outlet for discussing this time in his life, but it didn’t have the direct religious tones that his previous writing had.
“I had no intention in covering it up in some Christian platitude. I wanted to deal with it up front and in the open,” he says. “It’s — musically — a good record and lyrically it broke new ground for Christian music.”
Ojo also began his foray into record producing. In 1987, he formed Brainstorm Records, which sought to combine Christian music with what was popular at the time, much like he and Undercover did — and were still doing. Along with releasing Undercover’s albums and a solo project on the label, he found some rock groups similar to his own. But he also attempted to capitalize on the fastest-growing genre at the time.
“We had one or two of the first Christian rap albums. … They all did really well. So we kind of fell into that accidentally … We let them produce it because, you know, I was as white as the driven snow; I didn’t know how to produce that stuff.”
Ojo considers the height of the band to be around 1987, but Undercover never truly died after that. He and Gym continued to create records until 2002. But at the time Ojo seemed done with Christian music. In fact, he thought he was done with music period.
After selling his record company, and graduating from UCLA with an MBA in 1996, he received two job offers. One at a record company in Nashville. The other at an electric utility company in California. He chose the latter.
The music didn’t escape him though. He developed a passion for classical music — a world distanced away from the manufactured “shock” and repetition that he heard in popular music at the time.
A CD remains by his side on his desk that he recalls listening to years ago. He sat in his car with a great friend of his — a dancer, he notes — listening to “Symphony No. 3” by Henryk Gorecki, a Polish composer.
He told her in that moment, “If I could die having written something like that, then I would die a happy man.”
Ojo didn’t have any disillusions about become a legendary composer, but he decided to these classical arrangements and strings a shot. After the leaving utility company, he took music composition classes at Cal-State Fullerton in 2001 with hopes of getting one step closer toward this “goal.” It culminated with his second master’s degree five years later.
“I had no career objectives or anything,” he says. “It was just for the love of music.”
It ended up bringing him to JMU. He has been teaching classes such as music industry, history of rock and songwriting since he came to Harrisonburg in fall 2007.
Coming to Virginia would help him break past the final barrier of faith that had gradually eroded away since becoming a born-again Christian in the ’70s. He met an environmental scientist from Charlottesville who asked him about Hell and sin, and what he believed about these ideas. He didn’t know how to answer.
“That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he says. “The whole house of cards came crumbling down after that.”
Initially, Ojo had no intention on being vocal about his discovery. “Who cares what I believe anymore?” he thought.
“Well, somebody cared,” he says.
His revelation came in the form of a full chapter of a book dedicated to Ojo’s story. In 2009, he was approached by a writer who knew about his time with Undercover. The writer’s name was Jerry Wilson, and he was compiling interviews with pioneers of Christian music for his book “God’s Not Dead (And Neither Are We).”
To help promote the book, Wilson asked Ojo to join Facebook. He was met with a “blitz” of people that he hadn’t seen or heard from in years asking about how he was. They asked him how he was doing and what he was up to.
They also asked him where he was going to church.
“My choices were to lie or not,” he says. “And I chose not to.”
It made tremors that he didn’t quite expect. The reaction was “scandalous” from those who felt he betrayed them and their religion. But it also opened up even more doors.
His biggest opportunity came when Dan Barker, the co-president for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, contacted him. Ojo was invited out to become a speaker at a convention the foundation was holding discussing atheism. Barker was also in the process of making an album inspired by free-thinking ideas titled “Adrift on a Star.”
Barker came from a similar background as Ojo. He became an evangelist as a teenager in Los Angeles and was an ordained minister for 19 years. He also helped compose and produce traditional Christian music. Barker asked Ojo if he had any music that might work for his album.
Ojo’s composition for his class, “Be Still My Child,” was his contribution to the record.
“I had all these songs written from the Christian perspective,” Ojo says. “This was the first song I had ever written from an unbelieving perspective. From a skeptical position, if you wanna call it that. As a free-thinker.”
What was once an undercover sense Ojo had to come to terms with, his “unbelief” is now being vocalized. He blogs about it now on his website, ojotaylor.com, to help discuss and understand the idea of agnosticism and atheism with the assistance of others.
His posts explore parts of his past and beyond. Just like his music, he is documenting his life but in the context of his religion, or current lack thereof.
“Gods, Cigarettes and Sadness” is his latest entry. Ojo’s external struggles trying to fight off cigarettes in 1990 was the landscape for his internal battle with his beliefs at the time.
“ I had no context for what life would be like without religious belief anymore than I had a context for a daily routine without cigarettes,” he writes. “Smokers and former smokers know what I mean. Former believers know what I mean too.”
Music such as “Be Still My Child” is the next step for Ojo’s journey from religion. He plans to release an album full of similarly inspired songs on Bandcamp in the future.
To continue his music is to avoid one of his two “death-bed regrets.” His second:
“That I didn’t love aggressively enough or assertively enough — my kids mostly,” he says. “I want to know that I loved deeply and boldly.”
You can follow Ojo’s inner-adventures at ojotaylor.com.