Going Smart for Jesus

Evangelical hip-hoppers harness the hyphy sound in an attempt to counter its amorality.

When 38-year-old Pittsburg resident Rodney Washington, aka the Wizzz, raps about getting hyphy, he isn’t talking about thizzin’, going dumb, or ghost-riding his whip. Co-opting the hip-hop genre for evangelical purposes, Washington is using hyphy’s lingering street popularity in an attempt to lure kids away from the very things its songs espouse: drugs, crime, and premarital sex.

“What it is, is showing the young kids that there is a choice, there is an alternative to the hyphy you see in the streets,” said Washington, who has performed gospel hip-hop since 1999. He and his wife Lorane also run Spiritual Flow Productions, a nonprofit that distributes food and clothing to the homeless, and may soon venture into artist management. Washington was Web surfing when the idea sparked last year. “The secular hyphy was going to take off,” he explains. “‘God, we need something to counter this.’ Kids in church were getting into it. It was spilling over into the sideshows. I told my wife, ‘We should start a hyphy for Christ.'”

The result was a series of concerts in the Bay Area promoting gospel hip-hop artists. And lo, Hyphy 4 Christ — aka “Having Your Personal Hallelujah Yell for Christ” — was created. “We take it to the streets, but we do it in a positive, Godly manner,” says Ramon Jackson, aka DJ Born Again, Hyphy 4 Christ’s honorary DJ. “We’re not promoting sex or drugs or violence. We take that all out of the equation, and it’s going to be pure and clean. But you still have the heavy basslines.”

Since May 2006, Washington has hosted four Hyphy 4 Christ concerts featuring dozens of Bay Area gospel hip-hop artists, such as Oakland’s Agerman of 3 X Krazy, and Turf Ministries. The Wizzz single “Hyphy 4 Christ” is the unofficial theme song of the events, which, he says, have drawn crowds of up to seven hundred.

Although Christian music often gets a bad rap for being inferior to its secular peers, Washington aims to prove that gospel rappers are legitimate artists. With its professional production, hyped-up beat, and punchy rhymes, “Hyphy 4 Christ” could easily fit on commercial radio — except that it’s about JC. Got kids pulling triggers and figure it’s all good/But God said it’s time to bring Christ in the ‘hood, he snaps.

Washington started his career as a gangster rapper called Rated R. In the ’90s, he toured with artists like Suga-T, JT the Bigga Figga, and San Quinn, recorded songs for Rick Chase’s show on KMEL, and even had interest from a major record label. But at his sister’s urging, Washington attended church one Sunday, where he saw Agerman perform. A discussion with Agerman (who lists Jesus and TV evangelist Benny Hinn among his top MySpace friends) inspired him to devote his life — and rap career — to God.

Demand for gospel hip-hop appears to be on the rise, Washington says, pointing to the popularity of Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks.” This year, the Grammy Awards recognized its first category for gospel hip-hop or rock, and sites like HolyHipHop.com are strengthening the genre’s fan base with digital downloads, cellular ring tones, and television licensing.

But religious artists still face barriers in the secular music industry. For now, Washington’s songs are sidelined to KMEL’s gospel show, which airs early Sunday mornings. “They don’t play it because they don’t want to offend anyone,” he laments. “Ninety percent of the hip-hop you play now is offensive to people. It’s an excuse, and they’re getting away with it.”

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