By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
1. In the beginning, the devil created heavy metal.
2. And it made white men and women worship him, causing them to eat bats, kill cats and carve pentagrams into their flesh. And the devil saw that it was good but that it had no impact whatsoever on black folks.
3. And so he created a new form of music just for them. It had a catchy beat and infectious, hypnotizing rhymes, and the brothers liked it. It made them sag their pants and smoke weed and shoot each other from low-rider Impalas. And they called it hip-hop, and the devil saw that it was good.
The venue is Full Gospel Holy Temple, a black mega-church off of Interstate 20. Outside, the parking lot is filled to near capacity. Church vans and buses full of youth groups from all over Dallas have come this November night to hear Lewis share a message so dangerous, he says, it could get him killed.
At the door, security guards wave metal detectors over kids in cornrows, baggy pants and Rocawear, Jay-Z's clothing line. Ushers guide the visitors down the sloping aisles of the sanctuary and pack them in among the buttoned-down believers. Tonight's sermon is being videotaped, and the cameras will show a full house.
After the choir has finished singing and the plastic buckets containing offerings have been collected, a man steps to the pulpit and introduces Lewis: "He don't care who like it--he just loves to tell the truth."
And with that introduction, Lewis, 36, takes the stage. He is bald and short, no more than 5-foot-6, with a thin mustache and a round, freckled face. He is dressed simply but stylishly in a sports shirt and dark trousers. As Pentecostal preachers go, he is somewhat subdued--he rarely raises his voice. His style is conversational and direct: "Can I just be real with you?" he'll ask. Once he gets going, though, he is a commanding speaker, and he never fails to bring a crowd to its feet.
This is the third time he has come to Full Gospel Holy Temple to tape a sermon, and most of the audience know what they're in for. It's a hard-nosed message, he warns, and he doesn't care what anyone thinks of it.
He chastises women who come to church dressed immodestly. "What you sexy for in church?" he asks. "Who you sexy for?"
He shakes his head and scans the crowd with a scowl.
He mocks the effeminate mannerisms of a popular gospel singer, implying he's gay. And then he sinks into the meat of his message: Hip-hop is the devil's work. It can make you do things you otherwise wouldn't.
"The devil always uses music to promote an anti-Christ agenda," Lewis says. "That's the original weapon he had, so he always goes to music."
As the crowd shouts their amens, he paces the stage floor, returning to a Mac notebook perched on a music stand to cue up his audiovisuals. Images of rap's pioneers flash across two huge screens on either side of the stage: KRS-One, Afrika Bambaataa. "The false prophets of hip-hop," Lewis declares.
He speaks for nearly two hours. When he's finished he calls those with tattoos--emblems, he says, of the occult religion of hip-hop--to approach the altar. They kneel before him, and he prays to God to save their souls before it's too late.
Contrary to popular belief, Christian rap didn't die with dc Talk, who went platinum in the early '90s with songs like "Word 2 the Father" and "Jesus is Just Alright." Instead it went underground, and for the last 10 years, holy hip-hop, as it is now called, has been gaining steam.
Today there's a Bubba Sparxxx clone in Atlanta, an Eminem knockoff touring the Bible Belt and a Wu-Tang-inspired crew out of Philly, all spitting rhymes for Jesus. There's a holy hip-hop awards show, two festivals (one in Tampa, the other in New York) and a slew of hip-hop preachers, some of whom perform in biblically inspired throwback jerseys. There are even hip-hop churches, a growing trend most recently celebrated by USA Today, Vibeand Vanity Fair.
On the other side of the aisle stands Fort Worth's Lewis, quietly creating a movement of his own. Every weekend he is on the road, bashing hip-hop before congregations of 1,000 to 2,000 people. This year alone, he has traveled as far as Japan, England and the Cayman Islands to share his message. He has been to Detroit eight times in the last year, Los Angeles 12 times and New York three times. He says his self-produced DVDs--The Truth Behind Hip-Hop volumes 1 and 2, and What Every Church Needs to Know About Hip-Hop--sell at a rate of 100 copies a day.
"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.'"
"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."
Shortly thereafter, God visited Lewis, then 18, in his bedroom.
"He literally revealed himself to me as just light, and he took me out of my body and showed me what I would be doing now. I saw the congregations. He took me from church to church, city to city, country to country; he showed me the audiences and told me I'd be helping in something that was going to be happening in the End Times."
Hip-hop, God told him, would rock the world, just as heavy metal had. And the church's elders, blind to its power, would let it creep in like a poison, unaware that it was not only a form of music but an occult religion with its own temple, its own prophet (KRS-One), its own Jesus (Biggie Smalls) and its own John the Baptist (Tupac Shakur).
Its doctrine was violence, sex and worship of self. It advocated piercing the body (a symbol of slavery), branding the skin (a mark of Satanic worship) and tattoos (a mark of Cain). And there was no place for it in the church.
Seven years passed before Lewis shared this with a congregation of any size. Then in 1999, just as he was about to deliver a sermon at the Dallas Music Hall, God told him it was time. "I was supposed to talk about something else, but I remember being back there arguing with God because he wanted me to do the music, and I thought what I had was pretty good," Lewis recalls. "I stepped onstage, and there was this big spotlight, and I couldn't see the audience. It felt like a train was coming right at me."
The words he spoke that night were not his, he insists.
"It was weird, it was like God was literally streaming a message to me real-time, and I was sitting up there speaking it. And after I got through, I remember just wanting to throw up."
Lewis thought he'd bombed. But he hadn't. Among the many members of the audience who thanked him that night was a man who introduced himself as Kevin Thornton of Color Me Badd, the R&B group behind the song "I Wanna Sex You Up." As a result of that sermon, Thornton quit the band that night, Lewis says.
Following that experience, God told Lewis to preach against hip-hop full time. So he quit his job as a music teacher at Fort Worth's Southwest High School and launched EX Ministries, not knowing how he'd support his wife and two children. He then built a Web site (exministries.com) that explained his mission and waited for pastors to call.
"I had nothing lined up--I had walked away from money, everything--and I was just there in that spot, and it was like, 'OK, what are you going to do?'"
Within three months he was booked solid through the next year.
Hip-hop artists such as Snoop Dogg, DMX, Ja Rule and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony are practitioners of voodoo and withcraft, Lewis says. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, for example, inscribed what Lewis calls a "curse" in the CD leaflet of their classic E 1999 Eternal. The curse, which was written backward with all of the words running together, reads, in part: "I CAN DO WRONG NO MORE I SEE THE DEVIL AND HE BINDS ME BUT ARENT DEVILS MERELY ANGELS TEARING AWAY YOUR GUILT."
"That album sold 10 million copies," Lewis says. "So there are 10 million possible young people who held that up to a mirror and spoke doom to their soul."
As a religion, Lewis says, hip-hop glorifies everything that is bad, including greed, violence, promiscuity, homosexuality and devil worship. He calls it a "fatherless" culture. "Young girls want to dress like prostitutes in the school because some rap artist done put it on and said it was OK. Brothers wearing their pants hanging down in the high schools--they don't know that came from the prison system 'cause they take your belt when you go to prison so you don't hang your crazy self."
Above all, Lewis says, hip-hop teaches its followers to worship false gods. Jay-Z, for example, calls himself J-Hova. Nas wore a crown of thorns and pretended to be crucified in the 1999 video for "Hate Me Now" and later sat like Jesus at the Last Supper for the album cover of Street's Disciple. Countless rappers have compared themselves to Jesus in song or in image. "KRS-One says we are gods unto ourselves. Afrika Bambaataa says we are kings on another planet," Lewis says. "Hip-hop rests upon anti-God, false-god teachings."
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.
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."
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."
"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."
Tomorrow he is leaving for Detroit. If it were up to him, he says, he would just send videos of his sermons. He'd rather stay home with his family.
"I don't even look forward to the weekend," he says. "I don't look forward to fighting demons. You know, I stare demons in the face every weekend, hundreds of them. It's not fun doing God's work."
Nothing upsets Lewis more than suggestions that he's in it for the money. He says the proceeds from the sale of his DVDs go right back into the ministry. His family lives off the $1,000 speaking fee he charges. That may seem like a lot, Lewis says, but it's modest compared to the five-figure fees collected by super-preachers like T.D. Jakes. He says he also doesn't collect an offering when he speaks, making him a rarity among traveling preachers.
But Lewis is making good money. If his DVDs really do sell at a rate of 100 copies a day (at $20 each), he's grossing some $700,000 off that end of his ministry alone. Even with overhead, that's a good chunk of change.
"For people to say I'm doing it to make money, it's just ridiculous. So I'm like, OK, I'll do all this--risk death, have to have armed security at some of my engagements--just for money? No. I'm doing this because God called me to do it."
Lewis says he knows he's fighting an uphill battle, but he's convinced he's making a difference. "If 10 kids denounce hip-hop, thank God he called me. If five churches say no hip-hop in their churches, thank God he gave me this message. There are thousands of churches that have denounced hip-hop and millions of kids that have denounced it."
A few days later, he is in Detroit, speaking before another congregation of 2,000-plus. Not bad, especially when you consider only 3,500 paid to see Kanye West when he performed the following week in a half-filled auditorium in Dallas.
When Lewis is finished with his sermon, he asks those in the audience who've brought hip-hop CDs to bring them to the stage. They stack them in a huge pile on the altar. And then, with the assistance of the pastor, Lewis smashes them to pieces. They keep smashing until there's nothing left.