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Finally, Lewis believes hip-hop's growing influence in the church is evidence of a larger problem. As he sees it, prominent church leaders have compromised their core values for money and fame. As examples, he points to Dallas-based Bishop T.D. Jakes and gospel star Kirk Franklin.
This summer, Lewis built a Web site encouraging Christians to boycott Jakes' MegaFest--a four-day festival that mixes old-time revival preaching with BMX and skateboarding demonstrations, comedy shows and concerts--because gospel artists and secular artists would perform on the same stage. Even though MegaFest had drawn 150,000 people the year before and promised to draw even more in 2005, Lewis says Jakes' lawyers called and threatened to sue him if he didn't shut the site down. He says he refused. Jakes did not respond to a request for comment.
His favorite target, though, is Franklin, who has been called the Godfather of Holy Hip-hop for introducing the sound to gospel with the 1997 hit "Stomp." Lewis says he's still Franklin's friend, and the two occasionally have dinner together. Fame has changed Franklin, Lewis says, causing him to do things that are against his values. "I know the Kirk Franklin before the industry," Lewis says. "And I know how the industry targets people like him--that grew up without parents, that grew up without leadership. They'll take advantage of that, they'll take a poor guy like that with talent and then give him everything, and he'll become a slave to it." (Franklin did not respond to requests for comment through his publicist or his church, Dallas' Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship.)
Lewis says the only way Franklin can deal with who he's become is to compartmentalize his Christianity and his fame. "To deal with seeing the you that you see in the magazines, the you that you see on TV, to even deal with that and process that, you literally have to create an alter ego. It's just like a child with multiple personality disorder."
Since then, the threats have been more vague, usually in the form of anonymous e-mails and phone calls, which is enough for Lewis to require armed security at most speaking engagements. Lewis' real opposition comes from within the church. "It's the bishops and mega-pastors that don't like what I'm doing," he says. "Because there is money to be made off hip-hop."
Lewis' loudest detractors, though, are from the underground subculture of holy hip-hop, and they will gladly go on the record to blast him. Perhaps the most articulate of the bunch is William "Duce" Branch, a 2002 graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary now living in Philadelphia.
Branch's unholy path into Christian rap reads like a cliché--he was raised in the projects, he dealt drugs, he stole cars. Then he found Jesus. Today Branch fronts a group called Cross Movement, owns a record label and performs as a solo artist under the name Ambassador. His most recent album, The Thesis, debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard Gospel Chart.
Branch says he met Lewis through a friend when he was studying at Dallas Seminary and that he once visited him at his Fort Worth home. At the time, he says, Lewis was producing Christian music, including rap, at a small recording studio in his house. "At that point, we were seeing eye-to-eye. We were trading views on the secularization of Christian music. It wasn't until later that he took it a step further."
Branch thinks Lewis' crusade is fueled by money; others suggest he is a disgruntled musician jealous of Kirk Franklin's success. Lewis says none of this is true. He claims he was offered the same recording contract as Franklin but turned it down because he knew it would require compromising his values.
Whatever his motives are, Branch says, Lewis' message is built upon lies and distortions and that the only reason it passes for truth is because those he shares it with are already biased against hip-hop. "He has taken advantage of a very uninformed body of believers and provided them with a very skewed picture that's easy to believe because he's basically struck first," Branch says.
To say that hip-hop is a religion, Branch says, is misleading. Other critics find it mystifying that Lewis focuses on Afrika Bambaataa and KRS-One, who come from an earlier era of socially conscious, "positive" rap. His contention that they are the founders of hip-hop is simply inaccurate, Branch says. But even when Lewis is told he is wrong, he persists in delivering the same message.
"He takes things out of context," says Victor Padilla, who operates an online holy hip-hop radio station out of New Mexico (holycultureradio.com). "Like Duce will say, 'Many people say hip-hop is a religion,' and he'll take out 'many people' and just play Duce saying, 'hip-hop is a religion.'"
And that has hurt Cross Movement's ministry. Branch says the owner of a Christian bookstore in Detroit told him Lewis' DVDs outsell all Christian rap titles combined--at a rate of 3-to-1. And churches with congregations as large as 10,000 have canceled shows after listening to Lewis speak. "You have artists who were once welcome in the church who are now viewed as outsiders," Padilla says.
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