At last it seems gospel hip-hop is getting noticed outside of its small band of devotees. Tony Cummings reports on the slow but steady rise of America's Christian hip-hop scene.
The staggering American record industry statistic that in the crucial 16 to 24 age group, it's hip-hop /rap that accounts for 30 per cent of "music bought in the last 12 months" (compared with rock - 16 per cent, alternative - 11 per cent, pop and dance - 10 per cent, and R&B - 8 per cent) will hopefully be a wake up call to the sleepy insularity of America's CCM industry. As one record industry executive, who preferred to remain anonymous, told Cross Rhythms, "Today a lot of what passes for youth culture Christian radio here is totally irrelevant to the current generation of young people. They're listening to Eminem and Ja Rule and we're trying to feed them Point Of Grace and Audio Adrenaline."
Christian rap has been around for a long time. Although the recently published Encyclopaedia Of Contemporary Christian Music identifies the release of 'Gospel Rap by the RapSures (a jokey Terry Scott Taylor and Rob Watson concoction) as the first major label Christian rap release, a more informed musicologist would have pointed those hunting rap's origins back to the "straining preachers" of the '20s and '30s as evidenced by the fascinating album release by Yazoo Records of pre-war blues and gospel, 'The Roots Of Rap'. In more recent times, the late '80s saw a number of old school Christian rappers like Michael Peace and Stephen Wiley make recordings though Christian rap really began to find its creative feet in the early '90s with such acts as SFC, PID and the sadly martyred D-Boy Rodriguez. By the mid '90s various mainstream CCM companies attempted to capitalise on the huge growth of rap/hip-hop (Forefront Records even had a subsidiary, Yo! Forefront, for a brief period). And when dc Talk emerged they were initially considered a pop hip-hop group. But somehow, despite brave but ultimately unsuccessful attempts by companies like Gene Eugene's and Ojo Taylor's Brainstorm International Records to break more authentic forms of rap into Christian radioland, it took streetwise independent labels like Grapetree, 7th Son, Syntax and Universal Funk to reflect the music of the growing band of rappers, deejays and MCs determined to use the new sound of the streets as a vehicle for Gospel proclamation.
Although hip-hop got its start in black America, today a staggering 70 to 80 per cent of hip-hop albums are purchased by whites. In fact, a whole generation of kids - black, white, Latino, Asian - has grown up immersed in hip-hop. With the genre continuing to show record breaking numbers on the sales charts, it's hard to ignore the impact its messages continue to have on the youth culture. "I think a lot of it comes down to relating," says Uprok recording artist KJ-52. He told U magazine, "Realistically, I don't care what background you're from, you're going to relate to the person who's the most similar to you. Eminem had one of the highest debuting records. He tapped into a market that wasn't being touched before. Suddenly all of these white kids said, 'I can relate to him. He's one of me.'"
So if it's relating to kids of every race and culture, why does hip-hop still struggle so much for visibility within the Christian marketplace? "I think we've made some big strides, but there are many more to be made," says Grits' Teron "Bonafide" Carter. "We've got to learn the business ourselves. Many of us have been doing this for a long, long time and I believe God is doing something in our little part of the industry. We had to go through a time of funnelling out, and I think that's almost at an end. I think now we're actually starting to see the people who can make the moves to help take this thing where it needs to go. We have to be about forward movement and not just regarding the music, but regarding the ministry."
"One of the struggles is that you never see any of these young guys in business positions within our industry," Out Of Eden's Lisa Kimmey adds. "Mainstream labels will hire young guys in A&R positions to keep in touch with what's going on out there, but the Christian market doesn't do that. We haven't seen a lot of hip-hop people in business or in positions of power, so there's an ignorance and a lack of education there. I think hip-hop will really have to do within this industry."
"I think it's a better day today than it was five years ago," says dc Talk's Toby McKeehan (aka TobyMac). "We're starting to see the major labels show some interest. It's been a slow process, but we have to continue building bridges, not making valleys - meeting people halfway, taking them by the hand and loving them into this thing. It's growing right now and I can tell you from a corporate end that the walls are coming down."
McKeehan's own label, Gotee Records, joins Uprok, Syntax, BRx2, Grapetree and a handful of other independents as some of the primary producers of hip-hop music within the Christian market. Representative from these labels have worked hard to nudge open the doors for their artists at radio and retail over the past few years.
Despite pioneering albums like TobyMac's 'Momentum', by and large Christian media particularly radio has been extremely slow in giving the flood of excellent Christian albums airplay. Comments Josh Niemyjski of Uprok Records, "God is using hip-hop to reach youth culture. It's perplexing that the Christian market isn't falling head over heels with it since it's so huge in the mainstream. I hope it continues to change and get better because we risk losing an entire generation of youth to Eminem, Jay Z and others. I'd rather see kids listening to all the dope stuff out now like Tunnel Rats, The Cross Movement, LA Symphony, Grits, Ill Harmonics, John Reuben, KJ-52 and all the artists serving at Syntax, Shabach, Uprok, Gotee, 7th Street. Everyone seems to be coming into their own."
One of the problems facing Christian hip-hop artists is the tendency for conservative evangelicals to attribute "guilt by association" in exactly the same way that they did decades before when pioneering Christian metal bands emerged only to be treated with suspicion and antipathy by a religious sub-culture taught that "Satanic" bands like Led Zeppelin and ACDC were truly the Devil's spawn. Now, with the violent and misogynist outpourings of mainstream gangsta rap as their evidence, many churchmen are again confusing music form with content. Bobby Hill, founder of Vanguard Ministries, a church-networking group in Chesapeake, Virginia, sums it up well. "We often confuse the content and the wineskins," says Hill. "We should be conservative fundamentalists when it comes to content and liberals when it comes to containers."
Another problem is the ignorance of many youth group leaders who cut their teeth on Petra. Says Gotee's John Reuben, "I think youth pastors have some control over what the kids listen to and those pastors aren't familiar with hip-hop. They want the safe, happy music that's not that challenging. That's all they present to their kids. I meet kids all the time at my concerts that come up to me and say, 'Man, I didn't even know there was any (Christian) hip-hop out there. I've been looking for something to listen to.' And there's a ton of other hip-hop music they could listen to, but we're going to have to learn how to educate them."
"Christian kids listen to rap music, but they're paying attention to those (mainstream) artists because that's all they're exposed to," says Kimmey. "I mentor young girls and see them at shows all the time and they can sing every word of (Jay-Z's) 'Big Pimpin'. And these are suburban family-serving-in-the-church kids, but they are just not exposed to Christian hip-hop and they're trying so hard to be like what they're seeing on MTV or BET."
National youth conference speaker Efrem Smith, youth pastor for Park Avenue Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, addressed this exact topic in an article he wrote for a recent issue of Youthworker Journal. Smith directed his comments specifically to youth ministers. "Now urban, hip-hop and black youth culture often has an influence on the whole youth culture - white teens far from the inner city streets are influence by the slang, fashion and music of the 'hood," Smith says. 'I've heard it said in many hip-hop articles that if white suburban teens stopped buying rap music, the industry would go out of business. If this is true, we must change the way we minister to young people. If this is true, we can no longer put up with divisions between urban youth ministry and so-called 'mainstream' youth ministry. If this is true, we need to question why most Christian music festival line ups usually include 100 rock and alternative bands and three urban/hip-hop groups."
Smith continues, "Though kids today are being influenced by a black, hip-hop, multiethnic and urban world, they too often walk into homogenous youth groups that are led by leaders who, in general, don't seem to be paying attention to the coming multicultural youth revolution and the influence it's already having on their students. Youth culture is changing in many ways because the new radical voice of ministry comes from the 'hood/ The voices of rappers in the inner city aren't just influencing the hearts and minds of urban youth, the voices have found their ways into the soul of youth leaders will take the time to pay attention, be real and catch up."
"If we have a conviction that God has called us to do this," says Joey The Jerk from holy hip-hop's LA Symphony, "then we're not going to stop. We'll be missionaries for as long as it takes - until that one day when Christian hip-hop does whatever it's going to do. Until then, I'm just a missionary that does rap music. I may make zero dollars, or maybe someday a lot of money. It doesn't matter."
Woody Rock recently stepped out of his role with mainstream hip-hop group Dru Hill to record his first Christian solo project. "I didn't really know what was going to happen when I did this because I didn't see a lot of people out here who looked like me. But I guess your audience is the audience God chooses to give you and I've made it mandatory that as long as I'm contractually obligated to do one more Dru Hill project, I will get 15 minutes to talk about God in each of our shows."
The ministry dimension of holy hip-hop is clearly the thing which unites the growing band of Christian rappers. Hazakim, a duo from Columbus, Ohio, are typical of the kind of go-for-the-jugular attitude to ministry. "We went to a university campus and did our song 'Book Of Books'. It was a secular university too. By the time the song was done, people were on their feet like, 'Whoa! What is this? They are shooting out information!' A lot of people came up for prayer; I am talking about tears and all. It turned into a revival meeting. We also use Jesus' name a lot in songs. It depends on the audience. Sometimes we take out Yeshua and use Jesus so the audience will understand and vice versa."
Another sign of the growing spiritual maturity in Christian hip-hop is a desire to build proper accountability structures. Rapper KJ-52 is very vocal on this point. He told Feed magazine, "I made it a point of setting up an accountability session with my pastor because I had seen so many signed Christian rappers and I was like 'Man! I don't want to be like that and I'm not going to be like that.' So, I set up this accountability session with my pastor and every two weeks we met and talked about what was going on in my personal life, musical life, everything. He was a guy raised during the hip-hop generation. He was about 29, from the projects, so he understood. And I still meet with him, not as regularly though because I'm on the road a lot, but I'm still held accountable to him. I think that's where a lot of the problems arise with many Christian MCs or artists period. There's no covering' there's no one over them. A lot of people don't know that when you get out there and you're doing shows you can learn' you can get so good at doing what you're supposed to do or saying what you're supposed to say. You can get by on talent alone; it's not the Spirit of God. It's not sincerity. I know what to say and how to make the crowd say, 'Oh!' and ask, 'How many of you out there love Jesus tonight?' It's like you learn what to do and you can really get by on it unfortunately. I saw the danger in that and I didn't want to gout like that. So, I just encourage people. It just goes back to an everyday thing; as Christians we should be accountable. But I think sometimes in the industry it's that much easier not to be. So you have to work twice as hard to make sure you are."
Another heartening move is that America's Christian hip-hop underground is at last beginning to develop female rappers. One of the best is Elle Roc, whose 'I Die Daily' album has recently been released to critical acclaim. Elle is quite clear that she has been called by God into holy hip-hop. "I'm not the first female in Christian rap, but there haven't been any who really made a great impact. I'm just allowing God to do a work in me and I find strength in him to continue pressing on. The guys have been supportive and the sistas have been encouraged. I can only be who God created me to be."
Christian hip-hop is clearly at a crossroads. The rap elements in CCM acts like Carman and dc Talk and gospel R&B artists like Kirk Franklin and Mary Mary may well have paved the way for the Christian media to finally lay aside its prejudices and allow the underground's most gifted rhyme masters access to the airwaves. Toby McKeehan summed up the situation in an interview in Christianity Today, "In the secular market many of the top artists are hip-hop. If the Christian music industry is a microcosm of the larger music industry, we should have three or four highly popular hip-hop artists, and we don't. But the Christian music industry is starting to open up more and more. They're embracing Mary Mary to some degree. They've embraced Kirk Franklin. I've been ranting about this for five years and finally the music is getting popular enough for the gatekeepers of the industry to start opening the gates."