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Their infectious blend of pop, soul and hip-hop brings to mind Maroon 5, Michael Jackson and Bruno Mars. But the heart beating within Royal Tailor beats for Jesus Christ and a generation of young people distracted by empty pursuits and the media's misplaced priorities. In fact, the band spent an entire year mentoring youth full-time at a church in Granite City, Illinois. Lead singer Tauren Wells and his bandmates—barely out of school themselves—taught kids to sing, play instruments and lead worship services. Just as the guys were releasing their debut album, Black & White, I spoke with Wells about Royal Tailor's musical commentary on pop culture, personal identity, and challenges weighing heavily on students today.

As you look at the issues facing young people, what did your year in Granite City teach you? What are kids struggling with right now?
We had kids coming in dealing with low self-esteem and depression that resulted in cutting. Some are dealing with the party culture and trying to fit in, going to these extreme lengths to do that. I think the biggest issues facing student culture right now are the symptoms of a visionless life. They all stem from two things we need kids to capture a vision of: who Jesus is and who they are in Him. That includes what He can do through them. Once they begin to see the opportunity that exists and the world that God has created for them, that's when we're really going to see change.

One obstacle to that is addressed on your Black & White album. In fact, it's the same core issue that leads people to rely on us here at Plugged In. It's how the voices of pop culture can shape us. What can you tell us about your song "Control"?
"Control" is an upbeat anthem we wrote calling believers together, calling dreamers and creators together to a place where we can understand that we don't have to be imitators of the culture. Rather, we can be influencers of the culture. Because, right now, we have on Top 40 radio so many messages coming from artists that are poisoning our culture. It used to be that the word of God was the compass for things that are moral, for things that spiritual. But now pop culture has become the compass, and it determines the direction our students are taking. Quite frankly, as someone in a band who works in student ministry, and as an older brother to a younger sister, I don't want some of these artists' messages to be the directional point for all of these kids.

You even call out specific celebrities speaking into the culture, such as Kanye West.
In the verses of these songs, we actually use song titles, record titles and lyrics of some big artists like Ke$ha, Lady Gaga, and Katy Perry to speak against their messages. A lot of parents may not necessarily realize all the references, but if you've got a middle school, high school, college-age student in your car, they're going to quickly identify with those lyrics.

You bet. You know, when I taught high schoolers, I encouraged rebellion. Not against their parents, not against God, but against the Pied Pipers of the culture who wanted to lead them in the wrong direction. Listening to "Control", it sounds like that's what you're saying.
That's exactly what we're saying. We're not trying to take control for ourselves. We're trying to put control back into the hands of the God who created everything in the first place, who created this whole music thing in the first place. And make it into something that inspires people to live for something greater than themselves.

There's another great song on Black & White called "Wannabe". Very bouncy and upbeat. Tell us about that one.
"Wannabe" is just a simple message: You don't have to be a "wannabe"; you can be who you want to be. And I think once we get a clear perspective of who we are in Christ, that is when we can begin to operate at our full potential. The problem a lot of times is that we don't realize what we have. And if you don't realize what you have, it's impossible to realize what you're worth. When you realize that you have a relationship with Jesus Christ—that He's given you gifting, and abilities, and talents—you begin to realize your value, because that is who Jesus has called you to be and what he has called you to do. So with that song we're saying you don't have to fit into the mold that culture is creating, or even maybe that your church is creating. You know there's a lot of pressure growing up. If you want to be involved in ministry you have to be a preacher, a worship leader or a missionary. You know, it's those three categories. But really, it takes thousands of different people and different occupations to effectively communicate Christ to the culture.

So how did this issue become so important in your life, personally?
Well, from second to seventh grade I went to Christian school. And then in eighth grade I went to public school, a big inner-city junior high school. Coming from Christian school, I had my shirt tucked in and my khakis ironed and all that kind of thing. And I realized very quickly that I was visibly different from the people around me. I had to come to a place where I was ok with that. Of course, I'm not saying you can't be hip, cool or whatever. But you know, wearing my pants down around my ankles isn't going to be the way I show who I am just to fit in. One thing my dad always told me was, "Don't be scared to play alone." Out on the playground. Doing anything, really. That has resonated with me throughout the years. Even if you're the only one standing for what's right, you still gotta stand for it, regardless. So we just want to encourage other kids to have the boldness, be brave and do that.

Tauren, there are a lot of moms and dads who share your concern. Specifically, they worry about the effect entertainment is having on their kids. But their kids, on the other hand, are a little slow coming to the party. They think it's no big deal. What would you say to encourage parents in that situation?
For parents I would say, stay involved and listen. My Dad told me something just a couple weeks ago that really spoke to me as a man now. He said that, a lot of times, if I was dealing with an issue, he would try to give me wisdom and insight and all these things. And although they're valuable to me now, back then it felt like, "You're not really identifying with the issue I'm having because you're talking and telling me all of this stuff." Well, he told me the other day, "What I needed to do in those times was listen to you." If we would open up the lines of communication to more of a dialogue, as opposed to the parent giving a monologue, you'll be able to identify the things your kids are really dealing with. Then you can offer them an alternative and come to that place together.

I have a daughter and a son, and I know from experience that we dads tend to be "fixers". As men, we see a problem, we want to go in there and solve it. But especially with our daughters, sometimes the best thing we can do is simply listen to what they have to say.
Absolutely. I think it's a trait that is so undervalued. If we would just take the time, we would know the proper response to things. Something else would be to trust bands like ours or other bands with a similar message. A pastor told me the other day that he was driving to school with his kid, and he was telling him all these things, trying to impart wisdom to him. The kid was like, "OK, Dad," and then put on his headphones. It seemed to the pastor nothing got through. But when he listened to the music that was playing though the headphones, it was a TobyMac song talking about not gaining the whole world for the cost of your soul. So there are moments and windows when we can speak to your student, and parents may not even realize it's happening.

That's good to remember when the earbuds go in. Speaking of which, the opening line of "Wannabe" says, "I was just walking home, iPod and my headphones on, thinking 'bout who I wanna be." I bet there are a lot of kids making similar decisions about who they want to be, never realizing that what's playing in their headphones is actually shaping that decision.
Yup. That's why the next line is "TV, magazines and the billboards all say I'd be cool if I had more." It's like there's this sickness in all of us that wants more, craves more. More acceptance. More popularity. More money. More success. But we should become less so that Jesus can become more. So with that song, as young people are trying to identify who they are, they can't look to Ke$ha, who is saying "We are who we are." We can't look to Beyoncé or any of these other artists, because they are not giving us a proper representation of our value. The only place we can find that is in Jesus.

Published August 2011