With its often-explicit lyrics and themes, rap isn’t usually considered the most wholesome choice of music for Christians. However, one local Catholic rapper is proving that rap is a genre of music that can promote virtue or vice, depending on how it is used.
Dominic Bertino, a Lockport resident and member of Fit Shepherds at St. Mary in Mokena, has experienced both sides of the rapping coin. His journey from being an artist who glorifies vice to one who glorifies virtue mirrors his journey back to the Catholic faith after being fallen away. It represents what he might call a mini death and resurrection, made possible by God’s grace.
Dominic the Joker
Bertino’s interest in rap began during childhood. “I always liked how rap offers the ability to tell a more complete story and develop a concept in greater depth than you can in other music genres, due to the sheer number of words in the lyrics,” he says. Listening to rap legends like Eminem and Jay Z helped Bertino cope with the anger he felt at the time. “Eminem had such a captivating underdog story that really spoke to me.”
This fascination carried over into adulthood. However, like many young adults, Bertino felt lost once he graduated from college. “I had a desire to be a rapper and started making freestyle videos on the internet,” he says. “One day, someone invited me to enter a rap battle in Milwaukee, and I accepted.”
According to Bertino, engaging in the rap battles brought out the worst in him. “In the battles, I dressed up and performed as the Joker and tried to say the most villainous, twisted things possible.” Reflecting on this time, Bertino compares it to living in darkness. “I was in a place where I didn’t accept the truth of Catholicism and wasn’t even sure I believed in God,” he admits.
While he originally thought the rap battles would provide a sense of purpose and direction after college, Bertino began to realize that they were only causing him to feel even more lost and angry.
Everything began to change when his mom invited him to Eucharistic Adoration one day. Having grown up Catholic, Bertino knew what Adoration was, but he didn’t really believe in its power. “I accepted the invitation because I thought the idea of sitting in a room alone with your thoughts for an hour and being forced to confront them was courageous,” he says. “I didn’t actually think that talking to God was possible, though.”
His experience at Adoration was transformative. “A surprising peace came upon me, and I started going every day,” he says. “I began to accept the reality that I was in communication with someone external to myself. I felt like the peace in there was granted to me, that it was a grace.”
After that, Bertino’s interest in the Catholic faith reignited. At one point, he was even considering attending seminary. One casualty of his reversion was rap. “When I started to come back to the faith, I thought God wanted me to give up rap, and I intended to do that. I thought it had been a negative outlet for me and that I was channeling some dark emotions.” As Bertino soon began to believe, God seemed to have other plans.
After joining a Catholic sports league, Bertino met a friend with an at-home music studio who encouraged him to continue pursuing his rap career. His rapping talent could now be used for good to spread the truth of Catholicism.
Since then, Bertino has never looked back and now has his own at-home recording studio. He took on the name “Mandala” and began recording and giving live performances. Why the name Mandala? Bertino says it sprung from a lecture he had heard. “The speaker said the mandala had a deep meaning and represented many things, including the universe and the ‘self,’” he said. “It didn’t matter to me so much what it represented, what mattered to me is that it had meaning. Mandala represents something like my full potential. Mandala is the Christ-filter put on myself.’”
Mandala’s current music is a far cry from the anger-filled lyrics of his past. Rather, it explores the personal struggles and “inner turmoil” he endured on his faith journey, as well as the challenges of being Catholic in today’s secular society. “My music is a form of prayer for me. It’s sometimes hard for me to go to God directly, so I use music to help me,” he says. His single “Evolve,” for which he just completed a music video (watch below), speaks to his path from darkness to light with the help of God’s grace.
“Evolve” is part of Mandala’s debut album, American Pope, where he explores the search for God in the modern world and his own perceived mission of spreading the faith through rapping. The song “American Pope,” for which the album is named, starts, “Catholic boy rappin’ in the middle of America. They try to tear me down. They can denigrate my character. But I never cared, I’ve been sayin’ more the merrier.”
In a certain sense, Mandala views himself as an “American Pope” trying to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to others, even though they may initially think he is a little cheesy or strange. This theme is well-captured in his single, “Tarwater.”
As Mandala explains, “Tarwater is a character in a Flannery O’Connor novel, The Violent Bear It Away. Mason Tarwater is a crazy old man who thinks he’s a prophet and has a special call from God. Everyone else thinks he’s crazy, but the end of the story vindicates him. The song is inspired by him because I identify with the character.”
Mandala’s rapping ministry has taken him to performance venues across the Chicagoland area, including the ROXY Lockport and at Catholic young adult events, which is where he believes he can make the most impact. “I hope to find bigger venues to perform in and be able to influence more Christian people and get in touch with local young adult groups,” he says. For this local Catholic rapper, the journey is just beginning.