Guitarist and rapper Mike Wright is better known to lovers of righteous rap as MIKE-E. Tony Cummings dots the i's and crosses the t's.
In Britain the idea of Christian rap is likely to give a Daily Mail columnist apoplexy. In the home of rap however, the US Christian music scene has developed its fair share of righteous rappers and outside of the phenomenon that is DC Talk, none has established a better groundswell of popularity than Mike-E. His albums 'Mike E And The G-Rap Crew' and 'Good News For Bad Timez' have been sizeable US sellers helped hugely by the promotion the Detroit born rapper has received touring coast to coast with top CCM star Michael W Smith (both Mike-E and Michael W record for Reunion Records).
The 33 year old rapper/guitarist is not some closeted subculture hero living the safe life of Dove Awards and church hero-worship. He's active in street ministry along with pro-football buddies Philadelphia Eagle Reggie White and former New England Patriot Art Moore. Joining their street evangelism efforts to gang-plagued neighbourhoods throughout the States are up and coming rap artists like Reggie "Brother Reg" Harris (the wheelchair-bound friend of Ice Cube in Boyz In The Hood). Mike-E explains the realities of street ministry.
"To be able to do (street ministry) takes a certain amount of wisdom in being able to put your raps together. You can't fool these guys. If you don't come legitimate with what you're doing, it'll be hard for them to listen. The thing is to get their attention first. If your stuff is weak, they're not going to stay long enough for you to tell them what's going on. They'll leave in the middle of your song," says Mr E of some of the more hardened hearts he reaches with his art.
So when playing to the toughest areas of cities like San Francisco and Camden, New Jersey, you had better feel a calling to do it. Says Mike, "A lot of people sit at home saying, 'I want to be a street minister'. If God makes arrangements for you to go to these places, it's not a joke, y'know? Sometimes you wonder, 'Well, I did want to, but I wanted to do this out in the suburbs'."
The suburbs of Nashville, his adopted hometown after moving from Detroit (where he did some time with Commissioned), are where Mike-E does a good deal of his recording. It's a wholly different feeling to rap, dance and play a mean guitar for urban gangsters than it is to record a Dove-winning debut, his latest 'Good News For Bad Timez' or his copious cameo appearances on projects ranging from Angelo And Veronica's debut album to the recent 'Handel's Messiah: A Soulful Celebration' album project.
Though he has toured with the estimable likes of Michael W Smith and BeBe & CeCe Winans, there is one arena of the Christian media where the E-man would like to see more respect given to his musical and poetic skills. "I was disturbed that the major Christian radio station in my hometown dropped rap from their format totally. I was at home and was really excited about coming by the station to do some interviews or just to see everybody, and they're not playing rap anymore!"
After he has gotten his dander up over the situation, he can't help but get it all out of his system. He hopes that soon Christian radio will be more open to hip-hop, even the more pop-accessible brand Mike-E offers, because there are "...millions of kids missing out on a message that could possibly change their lives, because they can't relate to what Sandi Patti is talking about."
Mike thinks he knows why some factions of the Christian media have been slow to warm up to rap, and it's not racism. "It's a bigotry more toward the lifestyle (of rappers) than the colour. I think I'm more palatable to them because I'm older, and I don't necessarily live the life of a rapper."
A scene of what he perceives as bigotry of a different kind illustrates the need for positive, Christian rap to penetrate a broader listenership. "I looked at the news one night here. They found a crack vial in the suburbs in front of somebody's house. It was a major story. I was like, 'Give me a break! Why don't you cover where the crack vials are coming from?' I can take and show you piles and piles of crack vials no-one's even caring about. That's where our street ministry comes in. I picked up a couple of crack vials the other day at the park we were in. That's what life is all about, right there."
Mike-E sees a lack of understanding and sympathy for rap and its primary audience as a barrier to getting a full-scale tour going, too. "As a rap artist, you always have to hook up with somebody who's accepted on the mainstream to be able to tour. I'd like to come and bring everything I have, which I think is a new dimension to concerts. No-one has ever seen the fullness therein (E laughs a bit) of a Mike-E concert. It could be something phenomenal."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.