Soon, Christian missionaries will arm themselves with hip-hop vernacular when they go out to spread the Word. It’s good to know this, so you can avoid a potentially confusing conversation when it’s early Saturday morning and the fellow in the suit on your doorstep announces, “Brother, I’ve got some dope news for you!”
You, still bleary-eyed, reply, “Word?”
And he responds, “That’s right, the Word! WORD UP!”
“Well, word up to you, too.”
“And what a good Word it is, isn’t it?”
Depending on how early it is, you might not catch on until he hands you a Bible.
Thankfully, the holy hip-hop movement is subtler and more media-savvy than that. Rather, missionaries with laptops will reel in potential converts with a DVD that details Christianity’s central teachings, translated into eight different languages — one being hip-hop.
And it be, like it should/God saw everything that He made in the hood/And it was all good, raps the narrator, local MC and minister Modavador G, on the passage about creation. The recording is part of the God’s Story Project, a long-running effort to translate Jesus’ messages into as many tongues as possible. Hip-hop is the 89th so far.
“The idea is to cover the essentials of the Bible for those who want to learn more about Christ early in their walk, in words that they understand,” Modavador G explains. “Basically, I translated scripture into contemporary, motivational-type poetry for Christians.”
The buzzword in the church right now is “relevant.” (When we say “church” here, we’re talking mostly about the fundamentalist, born-again sector of it. The Pope, for one, doesn’t seem particularly concerned with keeping up with the times.) Since the Jesus Movement of the ’70s — in which long-haired Christians strapped on electric guitars in hopes of reaching the youth — pop music has served as the church’s primary means for keeping its message timely. Recently, rock groups like Creed, POD, and Evanescence have topped the charts while espousing messages that are at least tacitly Christian, and just about every church with a significant draw has a youth ministry that uses pop music in its services.
Still, churches have approached hip-hop with hesitation, especially in the Bay Area, which has a particularly conservative gospel music community. But in the last two or three years, a few local churches have started such ministries — Modavador G holds a holy hip-hop worship service every Saturday night at First Missionary Baptist Church in Marin City. Pastor Easop, a rapper with two albums under his belt, hosts Christian MCs at his Realm of Blessings church in Daly City. And Agerman, who shared tracks with E-40 as a member of 3X Krazy before giving his life to Jesus, is starting to make noise in the tiny national Christian hip-hop market.
Yes, it’s still tiny. Considering the demographics involved — millions of Christians, slightly fewer millions of hip-hop consumers — Christian hip-hop sounds like a slam-dunk on paper. But only three out-of-the-closet Christian rappers (those for whom Christianity is central to their whole personality) have sold more than 100,000 copies: T-Bone, who came up in SF’s Mission District and recently starred in the movie The Fighting Temptations; the Gospel Gangstaz, reformed gang-bangers from South Central; and GRITS, a Southern-flavored group out of Atlanta. To put that in perspective, a hot mainstream hip-hop album will sell 400,000 copies in its first week; The Eminem Show sold more than ten million overall.
Even beyond its diminutive sales, Christian hip-hop suffers from a perplexing invisibility in the popular consciousness. Most hip-hoppers, even the ones who comb the underground, have no idea it exists. As a result, Christian rappers scrape by with day jobs, self-releasing their albums without distribution deals, which means mostly selling CDs on consignment at Christian bookstores. Often, they perform at churches for small honorariums, if anything.
So why no Bible-quoting crossover rap messiah? The Passion of the Christ proved that Christians are starved — and primed to pay up — for entertainment aimed their way. So why is holy hip-hop still suffering through its forty days and forty nights in the desert?
That’s the million-dollar question that we all talk about,” says Pastor Easop, who before becoming a full-time pastor was the best-known Christian rapper in the Bay Area. “To be honest, I don’t think anyone has the answer to it. I think there are a few reasons. Number one is the message. We have to understand that a lot of times people don’t want to hear the message we have to relay. Our message is shining light on darkness, and the Bible talks about men loving darkness rather than light. Another reason is that nobody has mastered the marketing of holy hip-hop — it’s barely in the stores or on the radio. And another is that the artists’ hearts have to be in the right place. We can’t be in this for fortune and fame. Our hearts have to be in the ministry more than anything else.”
This last requirement — that Christian hip-hoppers be humble — is a significant sticking point. Egocentrism seems inherent to rapping, and some critics within the church argue that the very idea of Christian hip-hop is suspect, because proving oneself as an MC requires an un-Christlike amount of boasting. Modavador G says that even well-versed Christian MCs can fall into trouble with pride while freestyling at the open mic portion of his weekly holy hip-hop services. “It’s a challenge because open mic is a fleshly, ‘Here’s-my-skills-I’m-the-bomb’ kind of thing. So you have to balance between that and what God has done for you, and you just give your testimony.”
That contradiction might also cause believing Christians who rap to keep their faiths separate from their successful musical careers. Popular artists like DMX and Kanye West, though they occasionally mention Jesus in their lyrics, aren’t considered Christian rappers, because the bulk of their material addresses worldly topics, making the religious references seem like footnotes.
Curtis Jermany, an Oakland resident and holy hip-hop advocate, agrees that hubris is a big stumbling block. “Everybody is on their own I’m-a-star trip,” he says. “The number one reason why holy hip-hop hasn’t gotten big yet is that there hasn’t been an organization that has been able to unify these artists.”
A year ago, Jermany founded the Urban Gospel Alliance with just this intention: His organization is the first attempt at a national professional organization to advance the careers of Christian rappers. He has chapters in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, and Michigan that put on monthly shows; he also recently presented the Urban Gospel Alliance Awards and Conference in Riverside, with a kickoff event at Oakland’s Jack London Square. He says the goal of the UGA is twofold: raising the profile of Christian hip-hop in the secular market, and getting Christians listening to secular rap to replace it with the holy version.
“People like me, who came up on hip-hop but are in the church, we don’t know anything about gospel hip-hop because we just don’t hear it,” he says. “To be honest, my first experience with gospel hip-hop was that it was crap. I stayed away from it for years because of that first impression. But as far as the beats and the rhymes, it’s come a long way.”
Clifford Brown is program director at KDYA The Light (1190 AM), a traditional gospel station based in Richmond that plans to unveil a weekly show devoted to Christian hip-hop this month. He thinks its time has finally come as a suitable alternative to secular rap: “A lot of times, if you’re not concentrating on the content of the lyrics, there’s nothing separating it from the best hip-hop being made today,” he says. “The only difference being that instead of rapping about ‘I did this many drugs,’ ‘I shot this many cats,’ or ‘I got this many hos,’ these people are rapping about the love of Jesus.”
Some claim that a devout fan could survive on great holy hip-hop alone. No. Sure, a handful of Christian acts offer a version of underground rap so good even a Nation of Islam hip-hopper would bump it: LA Symphony, the Lifesavas, Pigeon John, and Mars ILL make the shortlist. But there’s an overall dearth of Christians who could share a stage with the Jay-Zs, Outkasts, and 50 Cents of the world, and that’s not for lack of trying — there’s a whole sorry parade of Christian knockoffs out there, from the Christian Biggie (a rapper named BBJ) to the Christian Eminem (KJ-52).
Ultimately, the secular market will never fully embrace a Christian rapper until the talent and originality in the pool increases significantly. Even then, it’s doubtful that many non-Christians will be able to stomach an overtly churchy message, as Pastor Easop suggests. Christian rock groups can make their lyrics opaque enough to slip by — is he singing about loving his girlfriend or loving God? — but rapping is too literal a medium for such sleight of hand.
The mainstream market may be out of reach, but the sheer size of the Christian community should sustain a much larger national holy hip-hop scene. According to a 2002 Gallup poll, a staggering 46 percent of Americans (about 127 million people) consider themselves “born again” or “evangelical” Christians. If every mom who destroyed her kid’s rap collection after reading the lyrics bought just one Christian CD as a replacement, a dozen of these God-fearing MCs would go platinum overnight.
One problem, holy hip-hop insiders suggest, is that many in the church establishment are resistant to the idea that the violent, salacious hip-hop they’ve seen in the media could ever be Christ-like. So most pastors won’t endorse it, and those who control the promotion of popular Christian music — primarily middle-aged white men in Nashville — won’t put it in the hands of parents.
What needs to happen, says Jermany of the Urban Gospel Alliance, is for evangelicals to realize that rap is the loudest megaphone on earth for sending kids a message. “If your goal is to reach the lost — as it should be — and you realize that on every street corner you have these kids that older Christians are afraid to approach,” he says, “then you have to realize a hip-hop minister can reach them a whole lot faster than some of these other people. If we can get people to understand that this is an evangelical tool for a certain kind of people and nothing to be afraid of, that’s when holy hip-hop will succeed. I tell everyone, ‘We’re not trying to change the message, we’re just changing the delivery.'”
Slowly, like the walls of Jericho, the older guard’s resistance is starting to crumble. Modavador G says that at his Saturday hip-hop services in Marin, “The older heads are coming out and supporting it. There’s a 65-year-old lady who gets up at open mic, and she’s up there spitting lyrics. If love is what brings hope, that’s what we’ve got to share. At the end of the day, we don’t know what they’re going to be playing in heaven.”