Christian Hip-hop Artists Find Tunes Still Suffer a Bad Rap

( [email protected] ) Jul 14, 2003 12:04 AM EDT

Christian hip-hop artist Doc Harrill, aka 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, Contra Costa Times reported.

"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. It becomes an evangelical tool to praise God and keep a word that was made flesh fresh. But to others it is the devil's handiwork leading youth into a worldly things that praises violence and murder.

Jon Hanna, editor of the Northeast Ohio evangelical publication Connections, says it is very contraversial.

How to use hip-hop music to reach youths without appearing to give their blessing to a contentious secular art form is the fine line that churches are trying to navigate, he said.

In June There were 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.

The participants proclaimed "this music can and does glorify God."

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."

Todd Neal, a youth minister at Mt. Sinai Baptist Church in Cleveland, said "at that time, they said Thomas Dorsey was too bluesy. What church people need to realizeis that there are all kinds of rap. There's social conscience rap. There's love rap. There's gospel rap. There's Christian rap, too"

"When it's done right, Christian hip-hop fulfills the biblical exhortation to make a joyful noise unto the Lord."

On the other side, some say that hip-hop has the brutality of many of the most popular forms of the music, which glorify killings, rape, prejudice and hatred.

The Rev. Larry Macon, pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Oakwood said "the church definitely ought to stay away from hip-hop lyrics. 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?""

Also the fear of church youths 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 don't 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, we have to speak a certain language that the youth can understand today," Harrill says.

In a concert 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. she said other hip-hop has a good thing which is the beat. They have a meaning with their beat.

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. He also pointed out that youths need an alternative to negative rap.

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."

At the conference, participants' 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 said 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. It is weird for some preachers saying rap is not of God."