By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
"He's God's mouthpiece," says Lennell Caldwell, a Detroit pastor who recently hosted Lewis. "He's the only one God is using to bring balance back to the church."
When Lewis came to Caldwell's church in November, he concluded his two-day seminar as he always does: by destroying hip-hop-related merchandise brought in by the audience. Caldwell guesses they must have burned $100,000 in product, from CDs to posters to a $2,000 leather jacket embroidered with the names of dead hip-hop artists. To date, congregations Lewis has visited have destroyed nearly 1 million hip-hop CDs, usually on the stage, sometimes with sledgehammers.
It may seem like a lost cause. Hip-hop cannot be stopped: Its slang, its braggadocio, its appeal to teenagers of all races, influences everything from sports to entertainment to fashion. But Lewis doesn't care about the world, which he believes is already lost. His fight is to keep it out of the church.
"You have the kids who say they're ministering," he explains in his documentary What Every Church Needs to Know About Hip-Hop. "But they're throwing gang signs, grabbing their crotch, acting all crazy, and then the kids break into a frenzy and it's no better than what they were doing at school."
Lewis doesn't stop there. He denounces gospel artists who use hip-hop elements in their performance, employ secular producers or even stand on the same stage as mainstream acts. He directs his most vicious attacks at gospel's biggest stars: Kirk Franklin and Yolanda Adams, two of the most revered names in black gospel, are sellouts.
"Yolanda Adams is on tour with Gerald LeVert, one of the most sexually explicit artists in the business," Lewis says. "She's gone from being a churched-out singer to a sold-out singer to, 'Well, I'm not really a gospel artist, now I'm an inspirational artist.'"
He continues: Hezekiah Walker is a "fag." And Bobby Jones, who hosts a gospel show on BET and whose gestures Lewis had mocked, he's gay, too.
"The church, they want everything to be politically correct, they don't want to offend anybody. But I'm not worried about being politically correct, because I just say what God tells me to say."
In his willingness to name names, which he does with a lusty abandon, Lewis has made a name for himself. But he has also made enemies. They range from the rich and famous (celebrity pastor T.D. Jakes) to the obscure (underground Christian rappers) to some people, Lewis insists gravely, who want him dead.
Much of Lewis' early life there revolved around the church, and from the beginning he seemed destined for the ministry. His father, a second-generation Pentecostal minister, would often stand him on a chair at home and let him practice preaching. "It was like that from the time I was 5," he says. "And whenever a visiting preacher came they'd always tell me God had something special for me to do. It got to the point where I would literally hide in church because I didn't want to hear it."
Lewis' father served as pastor of Hopewell Church of God in Christ in Vernon, a three-hour drive from Fort Worth. Most Sundays, Lewis made the trip. It was there he discovered his love of music, which his dad, himself a musician, encouraged. At the age of 4, Lewis learned to play the drums, and by the time he was 8, he was already writing songs.
His father warned him of music's ability to manipulate a crowd. He deemed his three-week tent revivals a waste of time. People were entertained, he told his son, but they didn't change.
"My dad grew up in an era where if you didn't holler and preach with an organ behind you and get the people excited, then they'd say you didn't preach, they'd say you taught," Lewis says. "And my dad was excellent with it, I mean as far as what they call whoopin'--preaching with the music--my dad was the best. But he didn't like it. He felt like he was being used for his ability to get people excited. He would always tell me, 'Be yourself. Talk. Reason with people. Make sense.'"
Good advice for an aspiring preacher, but Lewis wanted to be a musician. And it seemed he was well on his way: He played drums in the marching band, keyboards in church and, for a short time after graduating, he says, he performed in a group with Kirk Franklin, who would go on to become the first gospel star to appear on MTV. Then in the summer of 1992 Lewis turned on the TV and saw a music video that would change his life.
"It was Dr. Dre, 'Nuthin' but a "G" Thang.' And it had this catchy little beat that just got in my head, and I could not get it out," he says on one of his DVDs. "I dreamed about it."