Rap vs. Rapture

Christian hip-hop is on the march, but some say it's the Devil's music

Their set just minutes away, hip-hoppers Cho'zyn briskly make their way through the throng of 700 eager concertgoers. The striking duo is clad in pink and yellow tank tops, camouflage pants and battery-powered belts scrolling the message "Cho'zyn Chick." An entourage follows: their managers, who happen to be their husbands, followed by the back-up dancers.

The crowd at this north-city venue is almost entirely African-American. Guys in white-collared shirts are decked out in their Saturday-night best; the women are gussied up in oversize earrings and plenty of makeup. The Beat (100.3 FM) DJ Dwight Stone gets everyone psyched with two turn tables and a microphone, and the congregation bellows as Cho'zyn is introduced. In a flash, the girls -- all glitter, curves and sass -- mount the stage. Their first number is down-tempo, but the second one brings on the crunk beat, and they take turns spitting their message:

It's hot as Hell in Hell's kitchen

Cho'zyn is Tanisha Foxworth and Dawndia Crump. They aren't afraid to get rich and famous, so long as it's OK with the Big Guy.
Jennifer Silverberg
Cho'zyn is Tanisha Foxworth and Dawndia Crump. They aren't afraid to get rich and famous, so long as it's OK with the Big Guy.
Flame's song "When Everybody Screaming Jesus" blasts at Busch Stadium before Albert Pujols bats.
Jennifer Silverberg
Flame's song "When Everybody Screaming Jesus" blasts at Busch Stadium before Albert Pujols bats.

I hope you're listening closely,

Payin' attention when I mention the consequences

You gettin' from the sin you in

In true teeny-bopper fashion, the music is piped in and the mics are nearly silent, permitting the girls to save their breath for dancing. This is just fine with the crowd, who go wild for their aggressive-yet-sexy steps. A cornrow-coiffed male back-up dancer drops moves somewhere between b-boy style and the Robot. Ten minutes later the set's over, and the group exits to ecstatic screams.

Cho'zyn is just starting to hit its stride, with a rampant preteen fan base in St. Louis, and Tanisha Foxworth and Dawndia Crump, both in their mid-twenties, are the Cho'zyn ones. By day, Tanisha takes orders for prison care packages, while Dawndia cares for her two young children. By night, they tour all over the Midwest and South.

"They have the complete package to me as far as entertainers," gushes Warner Aldridge, another DJ for the Beat, awash in orange for tonight's show. "Their music and talents go far beyond words for me. They can sing and rap, and that shows a true artist right there."

Like every other act jockeying for a record deal, Cho'zyn may or may not hit the big time. If it happens, it happens, says Tanisha, but the whole thing, she believes, is out of their hands.

"If the Lord wants us to get rich," Tanisha muses, "he gone get us rich."

Until then, the two of them will just keep doing what they're doing. Which is to say: performing before the screaming masses at churches just like this one.

Two years ago the farcical newspaper The Onion featured a parody of the Christian rock scene. Titled "Bassist Unaware Rock Band Christian," the piece discussed the travails of one Brad Rolen, who found himself "the only member of Pillar Of Salt open to 'hot groupie action.'"

Christian rap also finds itself in an identity crisis. When acts like Stephen Wiley and Gospel Gangstaz introduced the holy hip-hop scene in the late '80s and early '90s, the music was dominated by cheesy rhymes and cheap Casio beats and lagged behind its secular counterpart, which was quickly gaining credibility and fans.

But in recent years, Christian rap's production values have improved dramatically, and its image is now virtually indistinguishable from mainstream rap: jangling jewelry, tilted ballcaps and five-foot-tall T-shirts are now the norm. But perhaps the most startling similarity is the choreography. Female rappers ape Beyoncé, and male emcees scowl and gesticulate aggressively. The guy talking about JC appears no different from the cat talking about dumping bodies in the river.

"People used to say that if it was Christian, it must be a few years behind the times," observes Nikki Cantu, music director of Columbus, Ohio-based RadioU. "But now, sound-wise, if you like a particular [rap] group, there's probably one that's Christian that you'd enjoy just as much. They make music so people will like it, and then the idea is that later, they'll hopefully get the message."

RadioU reflects Christian rap's rising popularity. With two traditional radio stations and satellite service, it plays hard-edged Christian music for a young audience coast-to-coast. When RadioU was founded in 1996, holy rap didn't even register on its playlist. Today Christian hip-hop makes up about 20 percent of its programming. Overall, only about 30 percent of RadioU's audience is Christian, estimates Cantu. "People tell us: 'We're not into that [Christianity] at this point in time, but we still like the groups.'"

Despite an emerging national audience, gospel rap has no platinum-selling breakout artist -- and certainly nothing on par with holy rock & rollers Switchfoot or P.O.D. (Payable On Death). But this might change soon. Artists such as Grits have sold hundreds of thousands of albums under the auspices of Nashville-based Gotee records. Another top label, New Jersey's Cross Movement Records, includes local artist Flame on its roster. Flame has moved some 30,000 albums, tours as far away as Alaska and has one of his songs blasting on Busch Stadium's loudspeakers each time Albert Pujols comes to bat.

Other artists on the thriving St. Louis scene include Cho'zyn, J-Son, fish.AMEN, KRy, REdNOTE, Future, Born 2 Di and Thi'sl. The artists use urban vernacular to infuse Biblical messages into songs like Thi'sl's "Not 2 Late Mommy":

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