One Christian musician has had two number 1 albums in the past year but has gotten almost zero notice in the press and even less play on Christian radio. Their name is Semler, a.k.a. Grace Baldridge, a 30-year-old former pastor’s kid from South Carolina whose folksy songwriting, punk-country guitar riffs, and resonating message of pain and hope took their 2021 EPs — Preacher’s Kid and Late Bloomer — to the top spot on the iTunes Christian charts.
The queer-identifying Baldridge (all pronouns; “I really have no preference”) grew up listening to CCM, or contemporary Christian music, counting bands like Relient K, Thousand Foot Krutch, Stellar Kart, Switchfoot, and Audio Adrenaline among their favorites.
But if you told her she’d one day be topping the same chart these big names appeared on, she wouldn’t have believed you. As a queer Christian, she thought if she were going to be writing and singing CCM, it would mean she was hiding who she was and participating in an industry that doesn’t want her to exist.
Baldridge knew from an early age that he wasn’t like other girls on the playground. He liked to play pretend as the husband, hated long hair, and would throw “biblical tantrums” when made to wear church dresses. Luckily, his parents were very open to letting him try new things and figure out who he wanted to be. Things really clicked into place when he watched Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 classic Moulin Rouge! “Nicole Kidman, and when she comes down on the diamond swing? I was like, Oh, I’m gay,” he laughs.
Knowing she was different didn’t cause her to lose her faith. Instead, the newfound knowledge freed it. “I think once I embraced my queerness as not a burden but as a divine gift, it really opened up everything for me about how I understand divinity,” she says. “And all these very rigid and authoritarian constraints that I had on what a person’s relationship to God should look like just burst wide open.”
“It’s brought me a greater sense of peace, a greater sense of wonder when I surrender to the mystery of God and not the ‘Sky Daddy’ the world has condensed God into,” they continue. “Allowing myself to have room for doubt actually creates space for me to believe.”
It’s also allowed him to be his absolute best self, which recently included shaving his head into a bleach-blond buzz cut, something that has been a sort of visual “point of no return” marker for some of his Christian acquaintances. The change in their appearance is more than just surface level. “I know that I might have been presenting in a way that made [Christians] feel comfortable, but I was the least healthy and most toxic version of myself that I’ve ever been when I was looking the way that you wanted me to look,” they say. “And you meet me now, and I know that visually I will be jarring to some of you and that I will challenge your perception of this binary that you’ve been assigned, but you can meet me now and see that I’m the healthiest and most whole I’ve ever been and that there’s a correlation there.”
“Please understand that the divinity within, that’s who you’re experiencing today,” Baldridge continues. “The reason why I can write this music, the reason why I can show up for my family, for my wife, for my brother, is because I am no longer burdened by that regressive system that I was born into. I know it seems like, ‘You got a knife tattoo. You’ve fallen,’ but it’s really, ‘No, I haven’t. I found myself. I am not stumbling anymore.’”
Still, despite her two chart-topping albums and her faith being stronger than ever, the only piece of mainstream Christian press she received was when The Gospel Coalition, a religious publishing network, called her album Preacher’s Kid an “intrusion” on the Christian charts.
“I think it’s really, really sad that there’s an entire genre of music where people are purportedly serving their faith, and yet it doesn’t inform them to be very bold about human rights,” Baldridge says. She loves to tag CCM artists like TobyMac on social media asking them to say the simple phrase “gay rights.” None ever bite.
“That’s crazy to me, that you wouldn’t stand up for human rights, and yet you’d be like, ‘I believe in the inherent divinity of every person. Every person is an image-bearer. And also, it’s important that I say nothing about this community’s rights.’ What? That’s absurd,” they add.
They don’t see that ending any time soon, but still, they’d like to at least have a seat at the table. “I don’t think that I make music for every single person,” they say. “I’m just saying that I do make music for a community who has been othered by church establishment, and I include the Christian music industry as a part of that. And I just want people who can relate to find my music and have a good time.”
There are some in the industry who have reached out, including Jennifer Knapp, a former CCM artist who came out as a lesbian in 2010. “She’s been so kind and supportive,” Baldridge says. Another is Kevin Max, a former member of legendary Christian rock band DC Talk. She’s been most encouraged by Relient K, one of the few CCM artists to cross over to mainstream success, who are taking her on tour this year. “They’ve been super supportive. It’s just beyond,” she says.
And Trey Pearson, the former lead singer of Everyday Sunday who made waves in Christian music when he came out as gay in 2016, recognizes Semler as a game-changing and “beautifully subversive” figure in the genre. The pair recently collaborated for a recording of Pearson’s “Hey Jesus,” a love letter to LGBTQ+ people of faith. “It is a new world, and she is taking the opportunity to help people in progressing to a place of acceptance and love,” Pearson says.”
But even if Semler never gets welcomed into the mainstream Christian music industry, she’s going to keep on with her mission to “praise and rage,” a phrase she often uses and includes on merch. “I think of praise, I think of unbridled joy, those moments where you’re like, ‘Being alive is incredible, I can’t believe I get to do this,’” she says. “And the rage part…when you look at the world as divinely created, and then you see a lot of things that are happening that break your heart, you should feel angry and rage.”
Her next project, an EP called Stages of a Breakdown, is due in April and was written about a recent fight she had with the same friend who inspired their hit “Jesus From Texas.” The friend reached out again after that song, “and we had it out again, I suppose,” Baldridge says. They needed to process what happened, so they wrote songs as catharsis for herself and others.
“I don’t have any answers, but if someone could listen to an expression of mine or music of mine and felt some degree of comfort, I think that that’s all you can hope for as an artist,” he says.