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A Bad Rap? Churches Debate Hip-Hop as Bridge to Youth

  • Published Jul 01, 2003
A Bad Rap? Churches Debate Hip-Hop as Bridge to Youth

Christian hip-hop artist Doc Harrill, a k a D.J. Doc, is working the turntables, setting up beats for the open-mike portions of his Tuesday afternoon show at radio station WCSB.

As he listens through his headphones, D.J. Doc nods his head to the music and urges his guests to "Rock it all the way through the whole beat." In a delicate balancing act, he also reminds guest hip-hoppers to avoid vulgar language. "Keep it clean, baby" becomes his mantra at one point as he is forced to disconnect rappers who veer into R-rated waters. And that -- straight up, dog -- is part of the problem in the latest generational battle between religion and evolving forms of youth culture.

Even as Christian rappers grow in numbers, and more churches use MCs, break dancing and graffiti art in youth ministries, many congregations still draw the line at hip-hop in their contemporary services. Religious radio stations are wary of giving it airplay.

To some it's an evangelical tool to honor God and keep a word that was made flesh fresh. To others it's the devil's handiwork leading youth into a world that glorifies rape and murder. "It's very controversial," says Jon Hanna, editor of the Northeast Ohio evangelical publication Connections. How to use hip-hop music to reach youth without appearing to give their blessing to a contentious secular art form is the fine line that churches are trying to navigate, he said.

At a national gathering this month in Oakland, Calif., rappers, gospel singers, record producers, ministers and radio executives got together for an open discussion on the controversy. Traditional gospel and hip-hop advocates encouraged churches to challenge their musical routines and personal preferences and distinguish between the "indecent" rap practitioners and the "holy hip-hop" artists who they say are the evangelistic voice of a new generation.

"This music can and does glorify God," read a proclamation signed by a group of conference participants.

It is a musical struggle between the sacred and secular that goes back to gospel great Thomas Dorsey, who used the popular music styles of the 1930s to write what are now church standards, including "Take My Hand, Precious Lord." "Back in the day, they said Thomas Dorsey was too bluesy," said Todd Neal, a youth minister at Mt. Sinai Baptist Church in Cleveland.

What church people need to realize, he said, is that there are all kinds of rap. "There's social conscience rap. There's love rap. There's gospel rap. There's Christian rap." When it's done right, he said, Christian hip-hop fulfills the biblical exhortation to make a joyful noise unto the Lord.

However, some say what makes hip-hop different is the brutality of many of the most popular forms of the music, which glorify killings, rape, prejudice and hatred.

The Rev. Larry Macon said he worries about sending mixed messages to kids. "I think the church definitely ought to stay away from hip-hop lyrics," said Macon, pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Oakwood. There may come a time when the culture can easily separate Christian and secular hip-hop music. Until then, his question is, "Are you causing anybody to stumble?"

The fear of church youth crossing over to gangsta rap is frustrating to many Christian hip-hoppers, who can see only lost opportunities for reaching young people. Name one kid who has gone from Christian hip-hop to violent secular rap, say Harrill and other Christian hip-hoppers.

"It's ridiculous," said Harrill, who attends New Song Church on the Heights and whose radio show is on WCSB-FM. "Actually, it's the other way around. Most Christian kids grow up and start listening to gangsta rap."

Harrill, 26, who has done more than 200 hip-hop shows around Cleveland, said he and some 50 other local Christian rap artists speak for their generation. "If you want the average young person in this culture to listen to what you have to say, they speak a certain language," Harrill says. "We speak a language the youth today can understand."

The introductory message on the Web site of the Akron-based Divine Soldiers tells visitors, "Our main objective is to intercept the enemy communication in the hip-hop culture by adding a fifth element -- Jesus Christ." In a concert last week at the parish festival at St. Barnabas Catholic Church in Northfield, the group entertained a multigenerational audience with break dancing and fast-paced lyrics praising God.

Erika Zganjer, 15, a member of St. Barnabas, said she could have listened to Divine Soldiers all night. "Other hip-hop, the only good thing is the beat. They have a meaning with their beat," she said.

Jason and Brandon Wallace, the lead singers in Divine Soldiers, said secular radio stations are reluctant to play gospel rap because they fear it is too soft. So it is particularly frustrating that Christian radio stations hesitate to give it airplay for fear that it is too hard-edged.

Meanwhile, youth need an alternative to negative rap, the Wallaces said. "Kids, they're looking for it. They're actually starving for it," said Brandon Wallace, a youth minister at Calvary Temple in Akron who goes by the stage name S.O.L. (Servant of the Lord).

Tim Loney, the group's manager, laments that, "I just believe, as usual, the Christians are five years behind the time on all this stuff."

There is some evidence the tide seems to be turning. At the Oakland conference, participants signing the proclamation encouraged ministers to stop calling holy hip-hop sin, and to develop relationships with artists in their churches for the benefit of their own youth ministries.

The Rev. Kyle Early, who wants to start a nontraditional church by the fall in East Cleveland, plans to have hip-hop Sunday once a month, featuring local artist LeBaron Simpson, who goes by the stage name 7 Complete. "Jesus inspires us. And that's what this music does. It inspires us," Early said.

Neal says the rhythmic use of words is what legendary black ministers have done for generations to keep congregations spellbound. "Some of the best black preachers are hip-hoppers," Neal said. "I laugh when I hear preachers say rap is not of God. Well, you do it every Sunday, preacher."

© 2003 Religion News Service