Rap vs. Rapture

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

It's not too late, Mommy

If he really do love you he can wait, Mommy

He should be happy with a dinner and a date, Mommy

Thi'sl's name stands for "This House I Shall Live." He used to record with Ebony Eyez, who says his message is "on point."
Jennifer Silverberg
Thi'sl's name stands for "This House I Shall Live." He used to record with Ebony Eyez, who says his message is "on point."
The road to Hell is paved with secular rappers, warns emcee/preacher Jason "J-Son" Watson.
Jennifer Silverberg
The road to Hell is paved with secular rappers, warns emcee/preacher Jason "J-Son" Watson.

Just be patient and let God chose your mate, Mommy

It's not too late, Mommy

Holy hip-hoppers draw thousands of local fans to events like barbecues, poetry nights and, of course, church services. The fan base is largely composed of middle-class African Americans from north city and county -- some of them Christian, some secular. Black churches use Christian rap concerts as an outreach tool to swell membership. And, according to the some clergy, it's working.

To its detractors, though, holy hip-hop's likeness to its secular cousin makes it the devil's music.

"I don't accept [the music] at all," says Bishop Dwight McDaniels of north county's San Francisco Christian Assembly. "I don't feel like you have to change or do nothing modern to get the word of God over to people. I don't think we have to cater to the world to get the world to come to church."

Jason Watson folds his hands and silently offers grace at the Goody Goody Diner on Natural Bridge Road. The prayer complete, he pours syrup across his steaming plate of pancakes, hard-scrambled eggs and bacon and talks about the first time he ever squeezed a trigger.

"I was twelve or thirteen years old. It was a .38 -- what we would call an 'eight' -- and I was just shooting in the air. It had a little kick. The first shot was a little scary, but after I shot it a couple of times it was more exciting."

Before he was a rapper named J-Son and a preacher, Watson was caught up in north-side gangland life and addicted to heroin. As a teen member of the Gangsta Disciples, he says he shot at people a half-dozen times. "It was just beef," he gives as an explanation, before adding, "I haven't killed anybody; I'm almost pretty sure of that."

Watson pauses to take a bite of his concoction and washes it down with a frosty glass of milk.

"My best friend was shot by the person he was robbing," he recalls. "All my friends except a couple are dead or locked up now. It was all pretty rough, but now that I look back I don't regret it. It helps me relate to people in ministry. I got a passion for people who're in the midst of that."

Though not ordained, Watson has been preaching at different churches around town for nearly a year. His preacher presence is much like his stage presence: slightly slouched, with long arms constantly extending like a bird of prey. His pulpit vernacular is injected with hip-hop phrases like "Paul doesn't just say 'Be reformed, I'll holla at you,'" and "He doesn't expect us to have this on lock."

His primary evangelistic targets are teens and twentysomethings who remind him of his former self.

"He speaks their language," says David Baker, Watson's pastor at New Direction Christian Church in north St. Louis. "I have three teenagers, and they oftentimes comment on some of the words he uses, like 'tight,' 'let's pray out,' or 'spit the Gospel.' They relate to all those terms."

Though only 24, Watson's rhyming skills, organizational acumen and religious commitment have propelled him into the role of elder statesman within the local Christian-rap network. He's performed before thousands at an arena football game halftime show at the St. Charles Family Arena, and he recently led a half-dozen holy hip-hop artists on a five-state tour called Da BLING (Believers Leading Idolaters Near God). Most important, his "rap ministry" is successful enough to support himself, his wife and two sons. "It ain't a lot. I ain't rich or nothing, that's for sure."

Once known as Lil'-G, Watson's rhymes have the smooth, focused syncopation of someone who's been honing his craft since he was fourteen. His lyrics stray far from the bland, predictable praises of gospel music and instead pick up where his sermons leave off:

So why you reject the passion of Christ?

The fashion is tight?

Things that are perishing and only last in this life

Cash and the ice

It all is only grass in his sight

When He slashes the atmosphere

You'll meet His wrath and His might

Watson's says he's on a mission to warn people of the hedonistic and sometimes violent themes conveyed through mainstream black music.

"We're being taught through secular music that it's cool to go to jail," he says. "Women are taught to dress provocatively as possible so men will like you. You got dudes killing each other to get 24-inch rims, Bentleys, Lexuses and Girbaud jeans.

"Secular rappers say, 'This is what we been through. We're not tellin' people to do what we sing about.' But they aren't giving the solution. Their solution is usually money and things. But the more things men consume, the more things they pursue. Once you get kicks and those kicks ain't no good no more, you need more. Once you have been pleased sexually, you want to provide yourself more pleasure.

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