Susanne Martin reports on the holy hip-hop artist from South Florida, CANTON JONES.
South Florida's singer, songwriter, rapper and producer Canton Jones is a success in the world of holy hip-hop. In the last four years the American Arrow /EMI Gospel artist has recorded four albums, performed to over 300,000 people at concerts in 2005 alone, and works as a part of 25,000 member World Changers mega-church in Georgia. But the aim of his music isn't fame and fortune, it is a ministry to preach Jesus to youths on the streets. "When you think of hip-hop, you think of gangstas, girls and guns," said Jones. "When you think of Christianity, you think of Grandma, church and hymns. I'm showing people that these worlds can collide."
Canton started his career in music when he was just five years old. With a family who were keen music lovers, Canton started singing in a local quartet founded by his father. From the age of 16 the talented youngster was producing his own tracks and those of other local artists. But it was when he left his home in Peerfield Beach and went off to Morehouse College, Atlanta that his first big opportunity came to show off his vocals. He joined the school's world-renowned Glee Club and began singing and touring over the US, Europe and Africa. The Morehouse College Glee Club sung for the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Stevie Wonder, Dr Bobby Jones and the late Ray Charles, not to mention performing at high profile events such as the opening ceremony of the 1996 Olympic Games and at the first gospel concert ever held at the US Pentagon. This established the foundation for a promising career and opened the door to a wide range of opportunities.
Despite growing up in a Christian home, Canton admits that he didn't fully commit his life to God until he started attending the church World Changers, which is headed up by pastors Creflo A Dollar Jr and Taffi Dollar. "I grew up in the church," Canton told The Call magazine. "We were born and raised in the church and we were always in church. But, you know, I was real sneaky. When I got out on my own I kind of lost focus and really got out there dealing with gangstas and dealing with thugs and doing stupid stuff. My wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, took me to World Changers and I started getting the word. I was going to that church for like three years before I really rededicated my life to Christ. I was there from probably like 1998 or 1999 until 2001 before I really started getting on track. That's how much word I needed to just say, 'Man I've really got to do this [salvation] thing.'"
As well as a music artist, Canton also considers himself a businessman. In 2001 he launched his own gospel record label CAJO International. The Atlanta Business Journal reported him as saying, "Being that music is five per cent talent and 95 per cent business, I had to get behind the music. I had to take myself out of the artist standpoint and to listen to my music as a businessman and not an artist."
Canton then released his first independent album '20 Years, 3 Months & 28 Days' in 2003, which chronicles his path to salvation. He said to Image magazine, "I became best friends with Wal-Mart because I was in there every other day buying blank CDs to burn copies of my first album." 'The Password' followed in 2004 and that same year, he wrote, produced and performed the song "You And Me" which appeared on the Grammy-nominated compilation 'Holy Hip-Hop: Taking Gospel To The Streets'.
The focus for Canton's music is bound up with his desire to reach young people from 13 to 25 years old with the Gospel. His style is aimed at those who can relate to the culture and hip-hop sound. He explained, "There are people my age and younger that like the type of music I'm doing, that need this kind of music. When I was young the music of the church did not connect with me. I'd come to church and listen to praise and worship music but I won't ride down the street bumping it in my car. I told the Lord that I want to make everyday music; something that speaks to the things that go on throughout the week when we're not in church."
As a youth pastor, he always tries to write songs about issues that he feels need to be addressed. The song "Cute", from 'The Password', especially stands out as it tackles the problem of lust. "That stuff is so strong. Anytime you get into that situation you aren't going to win. So you have got to start building road blocks by planning your escape five, six, seven steps ahead. Once you get to the house or once you get to the bedroom it's over! Man, you try to fight her then and it's too late. So this is what young people, old people and everybody that's coming up in this walk have got to do: When you try to resist sexual temptation you have got to cut off the friend that's going to lead you to the girl or guy - you know what I'm saying. All of your hook-up buddies? You've probably got to cut them off. You've got to stop watching certain movies and you've got to prevent lustful thought. Why? Because those seeds are getting into your heart and out of the heart are the issues of life. So you're going to live out what's in your heart. If you've got all kinds of lusts in your heart, that's what you are going to live. So you've got to start working on it. When God delivered me it was a step by step process to get out of that mindset. You think you can do it alone, but you can't. You can't just get up and start speaking in tongues when you and the girl have just taken off all your clothes and all that in the room alone. It's not going to work right then. You won't be speaking in tongues or reading Scripture in that room. So, I have to teach people what's real. They know it's right to stay out of that situation but why do we keep getting caught up in that? Because there are steps you've got to do to keep yourself out of that - it's not just going to happen. You're not going to have the preacher lay his hands on you and the spirit of lust is going to come up out of you. You've got to stay away from it, you've got to flee it."
Soon after he recorded 'The Password', Canton signed to Arrow Records, an affiliate corporation of World Changers International created and operated by Pastor Taffi Dollar. Canton then made his national debut in the summer of 2005 with the album 'Love Jones'. The album is named after his daughter Love, "and of course, God is love and I'm the Jones," he explained to The Call. The year proved to be a time of great success for Canton as in November came the re-release of Canton's second album dubbed 'The Password: Access Granted'. The CD received two Grammy nominations. His success also meant a more profitable outcome for the business side of things. The Atlanta Business Journal included Jones at number 19 in their 40 Under 40 chart of Atlanta's rising stars in 2005. The magazine reported him as saying, "I've been working here on my own at World Changers under Pastor Creflo Dollar for one year full time and it's been very lucrative. He's a wise businessman and operates in excellence in everything and I was able to apply the skills that I learned with him to my own business." Later that year Canton also won Gospel Choice Awards and a Holy Hip Hop Award. Despite the accliam, he is determined not to rest on his awards and achievements. "I don't want to get relaxed or get lazy because of one accomplishment," he said. "Yeah, when we win a Grammy, the next day I'll be on the road ministering to some people. Why? Because that's what it's all about. I don't want to celebrate over the last victory too long. I want to go and keep fighting until Jesus comes because there are souls at stake."
Concerts have also played a big part in Canton's work, and in 2005 alone he managed to perform to 300,000 people over 200 nationwide performances. The biggest audience was at the MegaFest '05 in Atlanta where he performed to 150,000. The Miami Spring Fest was also a highlight for him as he was the only gospel artist among a bunch of mainstream artists. "God has given me that opportunity," he said. "I just thank God for it." Britain welcomed him in 2006 when he came and performed at London's Notting Hill Carnival in August. He played as part of the Urban Mission's Christian witness at the carnival, a section which was recently nicknamed The God Corner by police and carnival authorities.
Canton's popularity has really grown over the last few years, but instead of letting it throw his focus on ministry, he sees his success as another stepping stone to point people to Jesus. "I believe the popularity has come because God is making me popular," he said. "I try to stay away from that type of stuff because it's not about me getting my head swelled up, it's about continuing the mission. I mean the popularity is cool - you've got to be popular so people can know you so you can have a voice to preach Jesus. I believe that the more popular you are, the better you will be able to voice your opinion about God. So, you know, that's the focus." And his work for God seems to be paying off, as he says his greatest accomplishment in the music industry "is the fact that there are souls getting saved at the end of concerts and people are coming to Christ. I have a lot of people telling me, 'Man, I never would have listened to gospel if I hadn't heard you.' That's not something I can take credit for but I believe God has given me that opportunity. I just thank God for all the opportunities he's given me. But, the greatest, to me, is always the souls. It's always about somebody getting something out of your songs to better their life. Yeah, we're going to have fun, yeah we're going to do the bling-bling, yeah we're going to do this and that. But I believe when it comes down to the souls the more albums you sell the more people you'll reach. So, that's what it's about - it's about reaching people."
Canton is hoping to carry on his ministry, getting involved in more youth projects and producing more albums. His vision is to get more people and older generations to support his work that has already reached many young people. He told The Call, "I'm trying to love on the grandmothers and the Church and say, 'I know you don't like hip-hop but I need to do this so I can reach your grandsons or your granddaughters because they may not relate to certain music and methods.' I want the Church and the old school to help me impact the youth. After we all reach heaven we can ask Jesus about the methods we used while we were here. But let's at least get them there. Everybody just expect God to do his thing. We have a responsibility also. Everyone may not understand it now but they are going to grasp it. It's going to be lovely and we're going to grasp it."