When the conversation turns to musical influences, not many groups are likely to mention Michael Buble, Beethoven, Stevie Wonder and flamenco music in the same breath. But it’s diversity that inspires them, not to mention their unique faith backgrounds that makes new Fervent artist Group 1 Crew stand out in a crowd.
And if their hybrid of hip-hop, rock, funk, soul and even Spanish-language rhymes wasn’t enough to distinguish Group 1 Crew on its highly anticipated debut, their impassioned message of hope and encouragement can’t help but set them apart—especially in a genre of music that typically glamorizes violence, the degradation of women and the acquisition of all the luxuries money can buy.
But even more important than serving up a collection of cool songs for the masses, Group 1 Crew’s Manwell Reyes, Pablo Villatoro and Blanca Reyes (no relation to Manwell) has one, unified purpose. Unlike many popular groups where members individually vie for the spotlight, Group 1 Crew wanted its name to have a singular message that communicates the band’s desire to shine the love of Christ through the power of song.
Founded in a rather unlikely way, the group got its start when Manwell, a former solo artist and veteran emcee started a Bible study with his friends and fellow musicians Pablo and Blanca. A few years later, Manwell met Jeff Adams who would quickly become the band’s manager. Jeff set up a showcase for Fervent label execs in Nashville and the group signed a record deal not long after.
With the natural camaraderie that comes with friendship and long hours of making music together, the group shares a passion for making a unique contribution to both the Christian and mainstream hip-hop scenes. In addition, one of the group’s main priorities is reaching its peers with its message in a relevant, non-Christianese way.
Manwell understands the importance of speaking a language his peers can understand because he didn’t always connect with the words that fellow Christians often use to communicate their faith, either. “Before I became a Christian in high school, I didn’t know anything about God at all,” Manwell confesses. “I was a horrible kid. I was kicked out of three schools, did the whole crime thing—robbing, stealing, trading merchandise and all that jazz.” But after going to summer camp before his senior year in hopes of meeting a girl, he met God instead. “The first night there, God showed up at the camp. When I say ‘showed up,’ I mean to this day, I still remember it,” Manwell adds. “I could physically see The Lord’s feet; the whole room was just on its face. I saw His feet walking through the crowd, and all I could say is ‘I’m not worthy’ and ‘I’m dirty.’”
While Blanca didn’t exactly share Manwell’s tendency to get in trouble, she also didn’t grow up in a Christian family. After her parent’s divorce, however, the family was reunited for one of the first times in a while at a church play. After seeing the spiritually themed show, Blanca says that “God hit me, and I knew it was time to get right.” And from something she describes as “so simple,” she got saved and wanted to give her singing talent back to God.
Unlike Manwell and Blanca, Pablo grew up a little differently— as the son of a pastor. But like many teenagers who embrace faith early on, Pablo went through a rebellious phase where he followed the crowd instead of Christ. But when he was 19, Pablo says he “started going to church because I wanted to and not because my parents woke me up to go. My faith was becoming my own, and there was a hunger to know more.”
In addition to sharing testimonies of God’s redeeming power, the members of Group 1 Crew also take pleasure in keeping people guessing with its unconventional sound and bling-free sense of style. And a word to the wise: Don’t assume they’re just a Christian counterpart to the widely successful Black Eyed Peas.
“In hip-hop sometimes, people may look the part but lack in the originality department,” Manwell says. “I’ve never liked being compared with other artists, the whole ‘they sound like this or that particular artist.’ I want people to hear our album, and make their own decision about how we sound.”
And if there’s one thing for sure about Group 1 Crew, it’s not like anything you’ve heard before Whether it’s the pop sound of “Your Song” or the candid account of personal hardship the group addresses in “Forgive Me.” Ultimately, Group 1 Crew hopes, too, that even people who don’t normally attend church will easily be able to identify the hope in Jesus that has personally changed each band member’s life.
"We want our show to be one that everyone can come to and walk away experiencing the love of Christ in a non-threatening way,” Manwell says. “Our music isn't for one specific demographic; it's for anyone with a pulse. There’s love in our music, and it has meaning for anyone out there. I think once people see that, they’ll get what we do.”