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Holy Hip Hop

St. Louis’ Christian rap scene is on the move. But can it endure its toughest critic—the church?

Photo illustrations by John Fedele

The beat’s bangin’ when I walk in the door, forking over a $10 bill. (The club largely relies on covers because of its ban on booze.) At first glance, I notice the regular night-life staples: strobes, pounding music, tilted Cards caps. Then I see something’s…different: a jacket with a rhinestone-studded cross on the back; teens wearing T-shirts that say “Young, Fly, and Saved”; the club’s slogan, “Where Christ Is the Head.”

Here are five commandments, in the likely event that you’ve never visited a Christian nightclub:

1) The gin-and-juice is served sans gin.
    (Forget packing a flask.)
2) Dress down. It’s a nightclub,
    not a church service.
3) Scope the bathrooms—the ones with
    “Adam” and “Eve” on the doors; way cleaner
    than those at so-called secular
    clubs (see also Rule 1).
4) Grinding is discouraged, so mind
    the moves.
5)  Listen to the lyrics. That pounding
    beat sounds the same, but the message
    is saying something.

Tonight is the club’s one-year anniversary, and the owners are doing it up big, throwing the inaugural Body STL Awards. The attendees include some of St. Louis’ most notable rappers: Thi’sl, J.R., J’son, Cho’zyn, Divine-Truth, Rio, Forever, Titus, Nethra Denise…

OK, so we’re not talking Nelly, Murphy Lee, Chingy, et al. We’re talking rappers whose lyrics are devoid of cars and cash, Air Force Ones and the Holiday Inn. If it’s gettin’ hot in herre, it’s most likely the Master of All Ceremonies fueling the fire, and all clothes should remain on. But for a certain segment of St. Louis, including the 200 or so souls crowded around this diminutive stage on a Friday night in January, this holy hip-hop thing is where it’s at.

“Good evening, everybody!” shouts the evening’s host, climbing on stage. “This is a crowd participation thing, so let’s make some noise tonight for Jesus Christ.”

The crowd goes crazy before the MC opens with a prayer: “We come to magnify and glorify you through various forms of expression—through song, through dance, through various interpretations, God… We pray, Father, for a flow from the beginning to the end.” When he says “Amen,” the audience shouts back “Amen!”

Then the beat drops.

A week earlier, the club’s co-owner,   Leonard Foxworth Jr.—known as Fox to most—strolls into Gelateria Tavolini, a couple of blocks south of The Body. He wears a brown stocking cap and a HIS DEATH GAVE ME LIFE leather bracelet on one
wrist. Without hesitation, he acknowledges the club has a ways to go. “I think we’re still underground,” he says. “A year in, we’re still approaching a grand opening. Financial stability isn’t where it should be. Still, with that said, the impact’s been
real good.”

The 31-year-old East St. Louis native is a veteran of the city’s relatively young holy hip-hop scene. After being saved more than a decade ago, the one-time rapper gave up the night life and switched his flow. “When I started, me and a friend of mine thought we were the only people in the world trying to rap and incorporate Christianity within it,” he says, laughing. He hadn’t yet heard of most of the groups he now knows on a first-name basis.

“Around that time, the late ’80s or early ’90s, the thing was about being a ‘studio gangsta.’ People came down on you hard, like, ‘Hey man, you’ve never lived in a bad neighborhood. Why you rappin’ like that?’ So they would label you ‘studio gangstas,’” explains Fox. “So in our sense, we were like, ‘We’re Christians, so we’re gonna be livin’ this or we’re gonna be studio Christians.’ It’s a lifestyle. We went into it with that type of mind-set.”

After moving across the river, he married another MC, Tanisha Brand. Her group, Lyrikal Lovelyz, had broken up when fellow singer Dawndia Crump was saved—but in 2004, the two reunited to form a Christian group they called Cho’zyn. The divine duo brought new swagger to St. Louis’ Christian hip-hop scene, with synchronized dance moves, battery-powered LED belts that scrolled “Cho’zyn Chick,” and backup dancers in tow—“not just being knickknack paddywhack, actually having skills,” says Fox, who served as the singers’ manager.

Cho’zyn performed at churches, block parties, and Christian conferences. Along the way, they met other righteous rappers. Yet something was absent. “After coming to know the Lord, I started to miss the
camaraderie outside the four walls of the church,” says Fox, explaining the Christian club’s origins. “We would find ourselves after the shows at IHOP at 2 in the morning, and it spawned up in me, ‘Where is that
fellowship spot?’”

Fox provided an answer. Last January, he opened The Body and slowly transformed the dingy space, painting the walls crimson and gold, and bringing in padded benches and a bar near the stage. He banned smoking and alcohol, piped out solely Christian tunes, invited local holy hip-hoppers to perform.

As for “secular” night-life seekers, Fox breaks it down like this: “Nonbelievers are one of two ways: ‘This is corny’ or ‘Wow, I’ve never seen this before.’ It’s good both ways. We get a chance to follow with the question, ‘What’s corny about this versus what’s down the street?’” On this point, he’s particularly passionate. He prides himself on providing quality entertainment, often from MCs who were doing hip-hop long before being saved.

“Nobody was like, ‘Man, I like this rap thing now that I’m saved,’” says Fox. He laughs. “Well, not many started like that. Some did, and you can tell.”

When Christian rap was born, you certainly could tell.

Nearly a decade after hip-hop’s Bronx beginnings, Stephen Wiley’s 1985 “Bible Break” was among the first gospel rap tunes. The song mixed Kurtis Blow–style beats with elementary lyrics: “Praise the Lord, for goodness’ sake / We’re all gonna take a Bible break.” Other rappers, like Michael Peace, followed, but for years holy hip-hop remained in a netherworld somewhere between gospel and rap as it struggled to find its voice. Not until Nashville’s dc Talk released its self-titled 1989 debut did the genre receive critical acclaim, with the group winning the Gospel Music Association Dove Awards’ first-ever Rap/Hip-Hop category two years later.

“Word is born” found new meaning during the ’90s, with a wave of new record labels and artists mirroring the style of rap in their respective regions. There was D.O.C. (Disciples of Christ) from Oklahoma, G.R.I.T.S. (Grammatical Revolution in the Spirit) from Nashville. At the same time the Notorious B.I.G. and 2Pac were waging war between the East and West coasts, other Christian hip-hop artists emerged: L.A.’s Gospel Gangstaz and Philly’s The Cross Movement. With a harder edge than previous efforts, the groups preached beyond the choir, looking to give urban youth the antithesis to gangsta rap.

Marcus Gray, a.k.a. Flame, a rapper who grew up in St. Louis’ inner city, recalls hearing The Cross Movement for the first time. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, what is this?’ I just lost it,” he says. “They exposed me to a brand of Christianity that I hadn’t been exposed to.”

Beginning in the late ’90s, the Internet provided a new avenue of distribution for independent rappers. Yet for all of its progress, Christian hip-hop rarely attracted mainstream exposure. Blame it on the message or the marketing, but venues and radio time remained limited. Not until 2007 did the Grammy Awards add a “Best Rock Gospel or Best Rap Gospel” category. Among last year’s nominees: Flame.

“I never imagined that I would be rooting for a friend of mine doing Christian rap to win a Grammy,” says Fox.

Synthesized bass reverberates through the club as the first rapper of the night, J.R., takes the stage. Apart from a red belt, his attire is all black—black jacket, black shades, black leather gloves. “Y’all gonna clap with us?” he says, as a catchy hook comes in. He skips across the stage and claps to the beat, singing:

It’s Friday night.
The weekend’s here, and I feel all right.
We’ve kept the faith through the longer fight.
Now all I want to do is breathe, breathe,         
fall back, and rest in you…

With the crowd swaying back and forth to the music and the horns kicking in, it takes a minute for me to realize he’s talking about Jesus.

Two weeks later, on a freezing February day, hundreds pack a North County Denny’s for free Grand Slams. Outside stands J.R., a.k.a. Courtney Peebles. The stage persona is gone, replaced by a stocking cap and oversized glasses—geek chic meets hipster. After glancing at the line into the restaurant, we decide to walk next door to Quiznos.

Digging into a chicken carbonara, J.R. recalls how he first met Flame. “We were 18 or 19, and a young lady I was dating started to date him,” he says. “So we had that animosity, but we didn’t know each other.” That changed when they roomed together at a church camp in Atlanta. Both were MCs; J.R. had even worked with Nelly and the St. Lunatics, he says. Like Flame, J.R. was saved and discovered The Cross Movement, and his career took a new direction. The two began to collaborate at a time when Christian hip-hop was practically nonexistent in St. Louis. “We didn’t have anybody telling us how to do this thing,” remembers J.R. “Cross Movement discipled us from afar.”

Flame and J.R. recorded a demo, drove to a Cross Movement concert in Chicago, and handed it to the label’s CEO. To their surprise, they received a call two weeks later; the CEO liked it. They toured with the band in 2002, and Flame released his self-titled CD two years later. “He kind of became the poster boy for Christian hip-hop in St. Louis,” says J.R. When Albert Pujols went to bat, it was one of Flame’s songs that blared over the loudspeakers at Busch Stadium.

For J.R. and Flame, the beats clicked—not always the case for Christian artists. “The sad thing is, some people get into the music industry thinking they have it, and they don’t,” says J.R. “What tends to happen in Christian music is that because it’s for the love of God, we forget that God is still a creator and everything that he made was good—was excellent. So we tend to allow just crap.”

What sets J.R. and others apart? “We work hard to make music the same way we would if we were talking about chicks or guns or drugs—but talk about what life should be in the eyes of faith,” he says.

“Even now, many of the examples I learn from aren’t Christian entertainers. For me, it doesn’t matter. You can be a devil worshipper; I look at your art form and say, ‘How do you deliver your art?’” He cites Dr. Dre, Pharrell Williams, and Timbaland among his influences.

Of course, Biblical references and secular music weren’t always mutually exclusive; there was M.C. Hammer’s “Pray,” 2Pac’s “Black Jesuz,” and later, Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks.” (“It doesn’t stand firm to me,” says Fox. “We wouldn’t have a Kanye West or R. Kelly at the club. Not because they’re subject to sin, but I don’t even see the attempt; it’s different when you slip, but not when you’re running like it’s a Slip ’n Slide.”)

Like his musical muses, J.R. has branched out beyond Christian venues, playing at nightclubs and opening for
local band Fundamental Elements. “When I first got into it, I never saw myself performing for just Christians,” he says. “I just
saw people.”

J.R. says that’s a point of contention for some of his fellow Christians—though being at the center of controversy isn’t new for a holy hip-hopper.

While mainstream music critics mostly ignored Christian rap for years, churches weren’t shy about offering their opinions.

“One hundred percent of the resistance came from the church,” says J.R., “because older people were saying, ‘You can’t rap about God.’ They equated hip-hop with being
sinful, just like how the generation before us looked at rock as evil.”

No critic’s been as vocal as EX Ministries’ G. Craige Lewis, who argues on his website and in his sermons that the
culture of hip-hop is an “organized religion” with secular roots that have no place in the church. It’s a sentiment many pastors in
St. Louis and around the country share, says David Baker, pastor at New Directions Christian Church in north St. Louis “A lot of them think it’s demonic. They’re like, ‘God and rap don’t mix.’”

Baker recalls his own initial reaction. “My first thought was, ‘My God, what are they comin’ up with now?’” he says. “I thought it would never work. But then I began to see a lot of these guys had a strong message. The message is what drew me in.”

After some reluctance—and a little discipline (“The last thing you want is to have your spouse on the floor gyrating with someone else”)—Baker allowed Christian rappers in his congregation and throughout the city to perform. “They really had a strong message,” he says, “not just to minister to young people, but to anyone.”

Yet local rapper Kyle Hubbard, a.k.a. Future, says a lot of resistance remains today. “As much as people try to act like we’re a big city, we’re still very conservative,
especially when it comes to church,” he says. “The reality is, the way traditional churches allow music to be done today wasn’t the way it was back in the Old or New Testament days. The way they sing music now has been heavily influenced through blues, jazz, and other art forms that have come along in the past century.”

Future says he’s seen recent progress, though. “It really started to make a lot of headway in 2008 and 2009,” he says. “Even some of the big names like [evangelist] John Piper didn’t really accept our music for a long time. But through other ministers who were vouching for our music, he’s had three or four artists come out to his church to perform.”

At Future’s own congregation, Grace Bible Church in Florissant, he has performed a number of concerts—though it took some convincing. “Sometimes when you hear the terms ‘Christian’ and ‘hip-hop,’ it puts a question mark there,” says pastor Roderick Walker. “I understand it’s the language of the culture, but I’m kind of progressive. Back in the old-school days, you wouldn’t have even looked at it.”

After conversations with Future, Walker allowed concerts at the church and saw a positive reaction from the youth. What would he tell skeptics like Lewis? “Don’t paint it all with a broad brush,” he says. “God always leaves a ram in the bush.”

Among the big winners of the night at January’s Body STL Awards: Thi’sl, a stout rapper who takes Best Album of the Year for Chronicles of an X-Hustler, which debuted as the No. 4 hip-hop album on iTunes, among names like Eminem and
Lil Wayne.

“What we do is ministry, which is all-important to me. I don’t care if the album doesn’t sell one CD,” he says. “If it’s done to the glory of the Lord, then that’s what we do it for.”

Later that evening—between a spoken-word poem titled “I’m a Sinner” and a pint-sized female rapper named Divine-Truth, who belts out lyrics like “God is a gangsta, in case you didn’t know”—Thi’sl climbs back on stage to present another award.

“Before we announce these awards, I would like to sing my new song,” he says with a deadpan expression. “It’s called ‘Pants on the Ground.’” The crowd laughs and sings along with the tune made famous by American Idol: “Lookin’ like a fool with your pants on the ground…”

Travis Tyler definitely wasn’t always this light-hearted.

He grew up in poverty, his mother a crack addict and his father gone. His first job was selling drugs, while rapping on the side. “That’s all I did all my life, was hustle and be in the streets,” he says. “So that’s what my music was about, growing up in the hood and reacting to my environment.”

“Hood theology” is how he refers to his concept of faith back then. “It was like, God’s real, God knew I was gonna be born in this neighborhood, God knew my mother was gonna be doing what she was doing, my daddy wasn’t gonna be around,” he says. “So if God’s real, and he knew all this, he knew how I was gonna respond to my situation. So God has no problem with how I’m livin’, because he put me here to do this. ”

What changed that viewpoint was when a former friend murdered his cousin. He recalls visiting the hospital and seeing the deceased teenager lying there: “For the first time, I looked at myself and said, ‘How is God gonna look at my life?’” Around that time, Flame and J.R. visited the neighborhood. Hip-hop provided them with common ground.

“When Flame met me, I was in the hood, like braids, nappy hair, smoking weed, getting drunk, clubbin’—I was 100 percent thug, and they saw that transformation take place,” he says. “Before long, I looked up and I was like, ‘I’m a whole other person now.’”

What remained was rap, the way Tyler had always vented his emotions. “Even with my music now, it still holds that same kind of edge, but it addresses those same kind of people with hope, like, ‘Yo, I’ve been there.’” He spits songs like “I Hate You (Crack)” with raw emotion and a raspy voice:

You took so much, and I could never
    get it back.
That’s why I made a vow that I would        
    never take you back.
Yeah, I was doin’ good, when I was
    hurtin’ people.
I thought you were so pure, but you were         
    pure evil...

“There’s something about when you put something to a beat. It tones it down a little bit; it’s easier to take in,” he says. “Christianity’s message is offensive to nonbelievers... But if I talk to you in a language like music, the same way you take everything in—how a store or Pepsi advertises to you, with a spoonful of music—it’s easier for them to say, ‘Ah, I feel that.’”

As Thi’sl shares his testimony with others, using the same terminology he learned on the streets, he often hears the same reaction: “Man, I’ve never heard nobody say that like that.” When he draws a parallel between his typical attire (baggy jeans and a T-shirt) and the New Testament, for instance, he puts it in these terms:

“You had the priests, who were dressed a certain way with the robes and lived only amongst the other priests. But then here you come with Jesus, and he walkin’ with a group of fishermen, and these dudes are obviously not the best-dressed dudes in the world, and he lookin’ like the common dude. So that was a lot of people’s issue with Jesus, like ‘Nah, this dude ain’t the Messiah.’”

Other St. Louis rappers followed. As J.R. lists their lineage, it begins to sound like the first chapter of Matthew: “Thi’sl led to J’son to Future to Mike Real to Rio…”

Jason Watson, a.k.a. J’son, can relate to Thi’sl. His father died when he was 3, and his mother was a drug addict, “so I was intrigued to do what dudes in the street did,” he says. He’d squeezed the trigger of a .38 by age 13, and rapped with the nickname Lil’-G; developed an itch for heroin; joined a local gang, Gangster Disciples, and robbed; and was in jail on drug charges by 18.

While in prison, Watson witnessed certain events that pushed him toward Christianity. “I got put in the hole for 18 days for fighting, and in the hole, you don’t got nothing but the Bible and you by yourself,” he recalls. “So I started reading, and I was intrigued.” At one point, a fellow inmate who was a Crip stood up and declared his faith. But once J’son got out, it wasn’t until his girlfriend—now his wife—convinced him to go to church that he became a devout Christian and parted with his former friends.

“So fast-forward, I didn’t know much about Christian hip-hop at all,” he says. “I thought it was wack.” The turning point came when his brother gave him The Cross Movement’s Holy Culture CD. “I used to listen to that mug every single day,” he says. After dabbling with Christian rap, he met J.R., Flame, and Thi’sl. “I spit a rap for them, and they looked at me like, ‘That was cool, but you need to chill out for a minute and get to know the God you rappin’ about.’” He took their advice, studying Scripture and going to church. He’s since released two albums and performed from New York to Indonesia. But don’t get it twisted, he warns: “We don’t want to be superstars. We’re servants.”

Today, J’son’s kicked the heroin addiction and works for World Impact St. Louis, a ministry reaching out to inner-city youth. He’s also setting a positive example at home. “My son is 6 years old, and he’s never heard me cuss,” he says. “My 13-year-old doesn’t listen to anything but Christian music.”

J’son’s experienced the music’s influence firsthand. “Christian hip-hop is a medium that can reach a generation that may feel somewhat detached,” he says. “But we don’t believe it’s the primary medium; it’s just a side dish.”

Thi’sl explains it like so: “Church is presented to people in the wrong way. People have always perceived church to be a set of rules or a weekly thing,” he says. “For the average teenage kid, it’s like, ‘What does God have to do with me Monday through Friday?’ He has everything to do with you. God wants to be on your iPod, your Twitter page, your Facebook, your Bebo. He wants you to use all the things that you love to communicate.”

As The Body’s anniversary show winds down and J.R. takes home the Pioneer Award, several men carry prop cages onto the stage. Cho’zyn has taken a 1-year maternity leave from performing, but reunited as the final act of the night. They stand in the cages, miming drinking and smoking, before busting through the bars. The symbolism is a bit over-the-top, but the hook sounds good and the lyrics are faith-filled—though tough to make out over the blaring bass.

Fox closes the evening by thanking the entertainers and staff. “We ain’t trying to corner the market by saying we’re the only Christian club,” he explains. “Nah, we’re trying to say, ‘This is the first Christian club—let’s do more.”

At noon on Valentine’s Day Sunday, on the second floor of the Regional Arts Commission, about 30 people—mostly twenty- and thirtysomethings—sit in rows and nod their heads to the music. At the front of the room, near flashing lights and a table set for communion, DJ G, a.k.a. Gerald Peoples Jr., spins Christian hip-hop records.

Liberation Christian Church hosts “Soul Force” here, bringing in a DJ and a local artist on the second Sunday of each month. Today’s guest is Theresa Payne, a local R&B singer and young single mother who admits to making mistakes in the past, but being forgiven through God’s mercy.

After “DJ G’s Praise Party” and two numbers from Payne, Pastor Dietra Wise, a 34-year-old in jeans and a black blouse, stands to deliver the sermon. She speaks passionately, sprinkling in phrases like “Check this dude out,” referring to Jesus.

For Wise, a native New Yorker who attended seminary in Webster Groves, integrating hip-hop with worship services made sense. “The DJ does the call to worship—that’s how it goes down,” she says. “Hip-hop is, in a way, part of who I am. So when I’m in a church, you’re asking me to be something else. You’re asking me to engage God in a way that is really unauthentic to who I am.”

Like local rappers, she hears criticism from other Christians—not just because of the music, but also because of her theological stance as a female pastor who’s accepting of homosexuality. “I hear people like, ‘Oh, that’s that hip-hop church,’ and they dismiss it or minimize it,” she says. “I go back to Genesis 1 all day every day, like God created the heavens and earth, and God said it was good—culture is good.”

“The challenge is being culturally relevant and Biblically centered,” says pastor Walker. “We can’t become all culturally relevant.”
Bishop John Johnson, the 68-year-old shepherd of New Straightway Family Worship Center, has allowed Christian rap at the church for years, after seeing young people leave when they turned 15 or 16. After some initial reservations, he allowed rap concerts at the church—though he’s since drawn a distinction between hip-hop and rap.

“Christian hip-hop is an oxymoron,” explains Johnson. “Hip-hop is a lifestyle. So to say ‘Christian hip-hop’—there is no such animal. To say ‘Christian rap’ is more correct. Christian rap is to say I’m conveying Christian information as a rhythmatic discourse.”

Over the years, he’s made changes at the church: “We draw the line with the hip-hop culture, such as wearing hats cocked sideways or any which way, pants sagging. None of these are in the realm of Christian attire.”

But as he’s watched the congregation’s youth grow excited about coming to church, he’s decided to allow Christian rap.

“Jesus said, ‘I will make you fishers of men,’” says Johnson. “You use different bait for different fish, different strategies to draw different souls.”

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