Rap vs. Rapture

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

"[Christians'] joy isn't wrapped up in things, it's wrapped up in God and our opportunity to have a real relationship with Him. Our joy stands through the test of time."

Watson believes that you can't be a Christian and a secular rapper at the same time.

"Secular singers and rappers claim a faith in God, but faith produces change. We don't have a God who says, 'I will save you, and you can stay how you are. We have a God who says, 'You will change. You will transform to my likeness.'"

Antha "Terrell" Rodgers goes by REdNOTE when he's on the mic. Behind the turntables he's DJ WanablesU.
Jennifer Silverberg
Antha "Terrell" Rodgers goes by REdNOTE when he's on the mic. Behind the turntables he's DJ WanablesU.


Still, despite Jason Watson's best efforts, many local African-American pastors have no love whatsoever for holy hip-hop.

"The average pastor thinks, 'It's the devil's music coming into the church, and I'm not going to allow this,'" says Bishop John R. Johnson of New Straightway Family Worship Center, located near Fairground Park in north city. "That the music is centered on gyrations of the flesh -- making the flesh feel good -- and not spiritually motivated."

Some ascribe the local preachers' antipathy for Christian rap to one man: G. Craig Lewis.

Lewis is an influential minister from Fort Worth who travels the world, encouraging kids to burn their hip-hop CDs in bonfires.

"750,000 CD's Destroyed and Counting. To God be the Glory!" is the tagline on his Web site, exministries.com. The site contains a section called "The Watch," which cautions that "hip-hop is a culture and lifestyle from Hell!" and as proof, features selected lyrics from nearly every mainstream hip-hop and R&B singer in the business -- from DMX to Erykah Badu, Nas to Whitney Houston.

Lewis says on his Web site that he has nothing against Christian rap, yet his vitriolic attacks on secular rap have convinced Christian preachers that he's opposed to rap music altogether.

"G. Craig Lewis didn't differentiate between Christian hip-hop and secular hip-hop," offers Pastor David Baker. "He did not embrace Christian rap music. It left Christians wondering if they should even listen to any kind of rap music."

"[Lewis] is not a hatemonger as people make him out to be," says East St. Louis preacher Levi King. "He's very well-versed in what he talks about. People who think he's against true gospel rap misunderstand him." King is a gospel singer and is well-acquainted with Lewis. In fact, Lewis used King's basement recording studio to produce The EX Chronicles: Audio CD Drama, one of his many popular recordings.

Paying lip-service to Christ in popular songs is nothing new, but Kanye West might have taken the love-fest to new heights with his hit 2004 single "Jesus Walks." Even traditional gospel artists like Kirk Franklin have begun bringing the message to the masses by adding hip-hop beats and collaborating with secular artists like R. Kelly and Mary J. Blige.

But to Lewis, they are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

"God showed me that the enemy would not only pervert the secular music, but that he would even begin to involve these perverted artists with Christian music," he says on his Web site. "God showed me an outburst of Christian music that would promote these sinful artists by including them on Christian albums, by using these same secular producers and artists to produce Christian music, and also by these perverse artists using Christians on their albums to validate them and their lifestyles!"

Local emcee Travis Tyler used to be a secular rapper, playing on bills with the likes of Juvenile, Too Short and Bravehearts. Now he devotes all of his rhymes to the Big Guy. Tyler says that Lewis' message -- misinterpreted or not -- has made it difficult for holy hip-hoppers to land gigs. He says north city's Kennerly Temple recently put him through the wringer.

"After the whole G. Craig thing, they didn't allow people to rap at first," says the Christian rapper, who goes by Thi'sl ("This house I shall live"). "But one of the people at the church talked to them and said, 'It's not what you think.' So now they want to hear my stuff upfront, to make sure the lyrics are OK."

Tyler says he's heard that some churches have formally banned hip-hop and recalls one incident where a group's equipment was unplugged mid-set.

"It don't be that bad no more," says Thi'sl. "Now they'll let you know upfront: 'No, we don't want that.'"

The anti-holy-hip-hop attitude threatens to alienate the next generation of black Christians, argues RadioU DJ Jimmie "Big Jim" Bell.

"For so long, especially in a black church, it's been gospel music or none," Bell says. "You get a lot of artists, good Christian kids, but they're not necessarily called through the gospel thing. So they have no choice but to go outside the church to release the purpose inside of them. That's where you get the Beyoncés, the Kelly Rowlands -- because all of those girls grew up in church. But now they lap-dance!"

Roderick Walker regularly features rap in Sunday services at Hazelwood's Grace Bible Church, where he is a pastor. He says it's an important part of his outreach.

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