By Ashley Zimmerman
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Gospel Gangstaz? That's the oxymoronic name of a hip-hop group -- a Christian hip-hop group. If it seems strange to reconcile gangstas and Jesus, travel to the low end of the radio dial some Friday night for the Jam Session on Palm Beach's WAY-FM (88.1). The jams in this session, hosted by a DJ named Proverb, sound like regular rap. But the lyrics don't. Consider these by Philadelphia's Cross Movement: "The shots pierced through his wrists and feet, into the wood/He took it like a savior, like a thug never could/Like a god, like a king, like a soldier at war/Who knew the cost of dying and all that it was for!"
"Christian hip-hop is really no different from secular hip-hop," Proverb says. But there is something different -- Christian hip-hop maintains an evangelical, proselytizing goal. The question is whether Jesus should be retooled for hip-hop's bling bling environment to attract a larger following. Proverb, who is also a member of the local hip-hop group 1Way, wants to find out. As president of Souljourn Ministries, he, along with other ministries, has organized a multi-artist Christian rap event this weekend in West Palm Beach called Evidence that they hope will draw up to 900 people.
So where do you find holy hip-hop in these parts? Visit Inspiration House, the local Christian music shop in West Palm Beach. There, you'll find nationally known groups like Cross Movement, 12th Tribe (who had its 1991 debut with Knowledge Is the Tree of Life), and T-Bone (1993 debut Redeemed Hoodlum), and a number of South Florida Christian hip-hop groups like West Palm Beach-based Descendantz, Rawsrvnt, JDub, and Iron Temple.
Christian hip-hoppers often talk about secular vs. holy music, terminology rarely used by artists not self-described as "Christian." As it goes for any other music subgenre, there are open mic and club nights, but these also double as church events. Since rappers are, literally, preaching to the choir at these church events, more public events like Evidence help out with exposure. "Evidence is a good opportunity to pull together and have a nice bash where we can really catch some souls," says Rawsrvnt, who also heads Soul Deep Ministries, a group that helps organize events along with Souljourn Ministries. "We've done enough church gigs." So out of the pews and into the streets they go.
As for the street cred often associated with the hip-hop community, Christian rappers like Rawsrvnt see a different type of cred in their connection with a past life before personal redemption. "I used to be out there selling drugs and smoking weed until my eyes were all red," says Rawsrvnt, who released his first album, Representin', in 2003 and Gone Fishin' in July. "I understand that life."
West Palm Beach isn't alone in offering hip-hop ministries. Over in Tampa, Christian rap groups have organized under the auspices of the Flavor Alliance, including rappers named Legacy and Urban D, the senior pastor of a growing hip-hop church. In late August, the Flavor Alliance released a ten-track, self-titled album and in November will sponsor its own multi-artist concert, Flavorfest. And there are larger national congregations. Rawsrvnt just got back from New York City's Christian Rap Fest, which boasted the tagline "26 Rap Ministries, 8 hours of music, all for 1 God, Jesus Christ."
What does the existence of Christian hip-hop mean? Is it a way to channel the fashion of a certain culture (sometimes assumed by the mainstream to be destructive) into something that leads to traditional salvation? The answer is yes, as evangelical groups like Souljourn Ministries and Soul Deep Ministries focus on the intersection of urban youth ministry and hip-hop culture to sponsor youth activities, such as basketball camps, that are alternatives to what they see as dangerous obsessions with money and violence.
"When you go to any other hip-hop event, there's this aura," says Richard Vasquez, a promoter for Souljourn Ministries. "They present themselves as being tougher and harder. They would come in and see elements of hip-hop that would allow individuals to become comfortable. They feel more at peace with walking into a location. That's the hook for building a relationship."
The object of Christian rap is to use the outward elements of hip-hop -- breakdancing, MCing, graffiti, DJs -- to draw in kids. Yet, the mainstream Christian music community is slow to accept this type of music. "Christian radio is often afraid to take a chance on Christian rap even though rap is considered mainstream," Proverb says. As for the rap world, perhaps in a culture where street credibility is considered the norm, holy hip-hop is a radical and dangerous enterprise. However, says Rawsrvnt, "I feel in my heart that things are starting to come around for Christian hip-hop to be recognized in the world and in the Christian community."