Hip-hop's Public Enemy

Minister G. Craige Lewis has one goal: Get hip-hop out of the church. Forever.

Christian rappers, Cross Movement included, have few venues to play outside the church, mostly because Christian labels won't sign them and Christian radio doesn't play them. It is in the truest sense an underground movement, with no distribution and no marketing behind it.

As a result, most Christian MCs have to work side jobs to support themselves. Cross Movement is one of the most commercially successful holy hip-hop groups around, and their albums only sell between 70,000 and 100,000 copies on average, peanuts compared to someone like Eminem, who sold 10 million copies of his last album. Christian rappers don't expect that kind of success, but they know they should be moving more units.

"R&B and hip-hop are the number one musical genre, so it makes sense that churches would be catching on," Padilla says. "But Lewis is really having a negative impact."

Minister G. Craige Lewis preaches against the evils of hip-hop culture all over the country and through his popular DVD series.
Tom Jenkins
Minister G. Craige Lewis preaches against the evils of hip-hop culture all over the country and through his popular DVD series.
Lewis grew up with Kirk Franklin, the superstar who melded hip-hop to gospel with the 1997 smash hit "Stomp," but believes Franklin has compromised his Christian message.
Lewis grew up with Kirk Franklin, the superstar who melded hip-hop to gospel with the 1997 smash hit "Stomp," but believes Franklin has compromised his Christian message.

It's about more than selling records, though. Branch says Lewis is hurting the mission of the church. "The mission of the church is to make disciples of Christ from every walk of life, and that doesn't just mean geographically, that means people from every culture," Branch says. "The hip-hop society we live in still qualifies as a group that needs evangelizing."

Branch says he reaches people through his music and style of dress that otherwise wouldn't want anything to do with the church.

Stephen Pogue, a pastor at Greater Hood Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church in Harlem, New York, has been holding a hip-hop service for the past year featuring Kurtis Blow, who had the first certified gold rap single in 1980 ("The Breaks"). During the Thursday-night service, gospel rappers perform with a hip-hop choir while Blow, sometimes dressed in a white suit and a gold chain, mans the turntables.

"It's been absolutely incredible the way kids have responded to this," Pogue says. "Some don't go to any other church. That's their church. You ask them what church they go to, and they say 'hip-hop church.'"

Pogue says it's judgmental to assume that someone wearing a 'do rag and baggy pants is a thug or wants nothing to do with the church. In his experience, hip-hop gets them inside the church, and the Holy Spirit keeps them there. "A lot of my critics have never been to hip-hop church. They've never seen kids crying at my altar, touched by the Spirit. We can't reach kids the same way we did 10 years ago. The world has changed, and to remain relevant, the church has to change."

It is an age-old debate: should the church change with the world or should it stand apart, impervious to outside influences? In the end, this is the question that underlies the debate concerning hip-hop's place in the black church.

"There's always been a tension between church culture and the culture at large," says Michael Hawn, a professor of church music at Southern Methodist University's Perkins School of Theology. "On one hand you don't want to be totally monastic, totally separate, but at the same time you need to be able to distinguish between the culture of the church and the culture at large."

Keeping the sacred and the secular apart has long proved difficult, especially when it comes to music. Some of Martin Luther's hymns were sung to the tune of German drinking songs. The early music of black Pentecostals, often called shouting music, came from the surrounding juke joints.

Gospel has influenced secular music as well. Pioneering soul singers such as Sam Cooke made their careers selling gospel songs to secular audiences. Many of today's biggest hip-hop stars also came from the church, an influence that is evident in their work. R. Kelly, DMX and Kanye West all sing or rap about Jesus between tracks about murder, drug-dealing and sex.

To some, mixing the sacred with the profane is blasphemous. Ray Charles was vilified for playing gospel songs in bars. Thomas Dorsey, widely considered the father of gospel, was told his song "Precious Lord" was too bluesy. The most influential gospel stars of the last 35 years, in fact, have all been lambasted for bringing worldly sounds into the church--from Andrae Crouch in the 1970s to Kirk Franklin and Yolanda Adams today.

"There is a history of resistance to new forms of music within the African-American church," says Phil Jackson, a pastor who runs Tha House, a hip-hop church in Chicago. "It was that way with R&B, jazz, every musical genre. Over time, these churches will come around to hip-hop. If they don't, they're going to lose a lot of kids."

But Lewis doesn't care about kids who want nothing to do with the church. "The Bible never told us to 'reach' anybody," he says. "It's not in there. It tells us to be a light unto the world. But if you're not living a light life, you got to trick them to come to church with some kind of gimmick."

It is an unusually warm day in November, and Lewis has come to downtown Dallas for a photo shoot. He is standing in the shade against a concrete wall, looking slightly menacing. That's his public face--although his wife and his family say he's easygoing, affable and, above all, funny. When the camera stops clicking, Lewis steps away from the wall and chuckles into his hand, as if he's laughing at the sight of himself--a short man dressed in a blue track suit--posing for a photographer.
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