Exploring the counterculture world of religious rap music

March 17, 2005, midnight | By Avi Wolfman-Arent | 17 years, 2 months ago

Hip-hop is more than a sound; it is the voice of a generation. It is a way of life: The beats are captivating, the words are poetic and the result is as raw as the inner-city streets from which it emerged.

Apart from the "hos," "gats" and "joints" that saturate the genre, there is a group of artists losing the bling and relying on the word of God instead of the four-letter words. This new blend of rap and religion aspires to both promote faith and openly defy the industry standard. It may seem to be an unlikely union, but the music is original, the lyrics are legitimate and the audience is listening.

Religious hip-hop is an anomaly caught between the game and the church, two starkly different entities. The movement is largely underground, finding most of its fan base in inner-city church youth groups and religious clubs. However, the genre has recently made a push towards the mainstream, with Christian rap groups like The Cross Movement releasing albums available in chain music stores.

The most visible advancement of religious rap music is the inclusion of faith-based lyrics in the songs of secular rappers like Nas, Mase and, most notably, Kanye West. It is West's hit single, "Jesus Walks," that has created a whirlwind of media attention around the rapper and his religiously charged verses. As the popularity of faith-based hip-hop grows, it reaches, teaches and preaches in ways that can transform lives.

The preacher

If there is any artist who knows about the power of holy hip-hop, it is J-Silas. The Philadelphia-based rapper's first solo album, "Soundproof," is a chronicle of his life from the streets to the church. The 28-year-old Silas remembers a time when, despite his Christian upbringing, he lived the life of his hip-hop idols. "I used to come to church with blunts in my pocket," says Silas. "I was the biggest hypocrite."

Silas points to mainstream rap artists like Run-D.M.C., Slick Rick and Big Daddy Kane as his artistic inspiration; yet, when he reflects upon his past sins, he realizes the power of the "wicked" message these rappers preach. "They have a pulpit, they do preach, they have a microphone as a spokesman," he says. "I appreciate the skill and time they put into it, but I believe the message is deaf."

In 1999, Silas devoted his life to God. Soon after, he ran into Lee Jerkins, the CEO of Christian recording label Rock Soul Entertainment. "When I re-dedicated my life, doors started to open for me," he says. Silas came to realize his rapping potential and began to record with Rock Soul. "I noticed that the bars I wrote had passion and a little wit."

In his first solo album, Silas's passion resonates in his music. Using a smooth and intelligent style mixed with original beats, his songs tackle the sins of inner-city life without talking down to non-believers. Instead of condemning his brethren for evils such as drug use, violence and abuse against women, Silas offers the love of Jesus as a remedy. Silas believes his music holds more meaning because he has lived the life he raps about. "Not only do I write life's music, I live it," says Silas. This album is his testimony.

The congregation

"Testimony 180 degrees on my knees, asking the Lord please change this wicked disease…" The words of J-Silas blast through the boombox after school in room 218. A crowd gathers around the speakers, bobbing their heads simultaneously to the beat, hoping not to miss a word of the sermon. English teacher Malik Wilson walks into the room and smiles at the students. "Man, if this were anywhere but Christian Club, I'd be scared," he says.

Every Thursday, Blair's Christian Club congregates to discuss their faith, but in the minutes before the club officially starts, the room feels more like a jam session than a Sunday School.

For senior and club co-chairman Kenneth Ankrah, the music is as impressive as it is inspiring. "It is remarkable that the word of God can be spoken in so many ways," he says.

Sophomore Thomas Dant agrees that the faith-based lyrics are what draw him to the genre. "When you listen to secular rap music, it's all about the beat," he says. "When you listen to Christian rap, it's all about the words." Ankrah, Dant and fellow club-member senior David Teshome spend at least 30 minutes every Thursday sharing their Christian-inspired CD collections.

Christian Club members say the message in Christian hip-hop is far more satisfying than the repetitive and "perverted" lyrics of mainstream artists. "There's more meaning in one sentence of Christian hip-hop than a whole secular rap song," says Dant.

Ankrah believes that the tainted messages of popular rap music adversely affect the youth culture. "If this is a hip-hop generation and [the music] talks about going to the club and smoking, what do you think the kids will do?" Dant adds, "As humans, it's our nature to take in what's in our environment."

At this meeting, Teshome has brought his CD collection and is introducing Ankrah and Dant to the wide variety of Christian rap artists he follows. The trio listens, intently focused on the verses streaming out of the stereo. They hop from artist to artist, absorbing the message of God from an influx of rhythmic reverends, as well as a few Jewish performers. They stop with a line from The Ambassador, a rapper with The Cross Movement: "Since hip-hop is the language of the urban, converted MCs must use the mic for surgery." The bar sends the group into a frenzy.

"Ah, that was tight!" Ankrah exclaims. Elaboration is unnecessary: The music has spoken for him.

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Avi Wolfman-Arent. Avi Wolfman-Arent has been called many things: super genius, mega hunk and an all around cool guy; but through the praise he has remained down-to-earth and humble. At a muscular five feet nine inches he may seem intimidating when striding down Blair Boulevard, but when … More »

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