Jesus Christ Rap Superstar

Phoenix is the unlikely capital of Christian hip-hop – leading to the not-so-immortal question, Who Would Jesus Diss?

But what sounds like apocalyptic hyperbole actually plays out as a fairly pertinent criticism of today's mainstream hip-hop industry. When Py-Diddy's artists wax poetic over "Benz, endz, rims and Tims," they could be on any No Limit track, and the business model followed by Hellbound -- getting rich by spreading messages of depravity -- is common practice for real labels.

You don't have to be Christian to endorse "The One's" satire of rap music 2004.

The show's creators don't just intend to lambaste secular hip-hop, though. They're in it to save souls, to bring people to Christ through rap music. As the musical program ends and the applause fades at the February show at the River of Life, Stewart, who played Satan and has a burgeoning real-life rap career as Big Wo, segues into preacher mode to deliver the night's real hook.

Top: As the show ends, Stewart morphs from Satan into preacher and makes his altar call. His first two takers come forward to accept Jesus. Above: In the parking lot at the River of Life after the show, kids assemble to caravan to Mill Avenue for freestyle witnessing.
Top: As the show ends, Stewart morphs from Satan into preacher and makes his altar call. His first two takers come forward to accept Jesus. Above: In the parking lot at the River of Life after the show, kids assemble to caravan to Mill Avenue for freestyle witnessing.
Top: On opening night of "The One," Christ's resurrection and Satan's defeat prompt a standing ovation. Above: The world's first holy hip-hopera drew young Christians of all stripes, from hip-hoppers to punk rockers.
Top: On opening night of "The One," Christ's resurrection and Satan's defeat prompt a standing ovation. Above: The world's first holy hip-hopera drew young Christians of all stripes, from hip-hoppers to punk rockers.

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Photography by Jackie Mercandetti.

"If you have not accepted Jesus Christ as your personal lord and savior, you can accept him tonight," he says. "If you have been unsure about being saved in the past, run down to the front right now."

This is the altar call, something each of the four recording artists who performed in "The One" also asks for at the end of their own shows. Tonight, 20 or so young teens and parent-age types come to the foot of the stage. A church worker explains that Usher Phil is available in an adjacent room for anyone who would like further counseling.

"They just made the best decision of their life!" Stewart proclaims as the applause rises.


After the Friday night showing, the actors mingle with the audience in the River of Life's capacious foyer, exchanging hugs with well-wishers and taking turns manning the merchandise table.

In addition to "The One" tee shirts and CDs available, each of the four musicians has music for sale. Potential customers have a broad array of styles to choose from -- Stewart's Big Wo debut single "What's Your Desire?" sounds like one of P. Diddy's rap/R&B hybrids; the live CD-R Bryan Kilgore Saved offers acoustic neo-soul in the mode of a male Lauryn Hill; Manjarrez's album I Still Hold On, released under the name Reborn Disciple, is in the aforementioned West Coast vein; and Malone's Notebook Nomad is shaped by the playful underground vibe that peaked in the early '90s. Business for their stuff isn't jumping tonight, probably because all four artists are fixtures at the church and the hip-hop fans in the congregation have had ample opportunity to purchase already.

As the crowd dissipates, Malone gathers a group of about a dozen twentysomethings, among them his wife, Nicole, who also had a part in "The One," and DJ Cre, who produced many of the beats for both the musical and Malone's album. Everyone accounted for, they caravan to the Exchange, a Tempe church that allows them to park in its lot. After waiting until a little after 9 for another dozen or so hip-hoppers to arrive, some with their young wives and children in tow, Malone circles them up and says a brief opening prayer. Then he explains the night's ministry work, which he calls freestyle witnessing.

"We're not here to battle anyone or diss anyone," he says. "That's not what we do. We're here to tell people about Jesus and have a good time. If someone you meet wants one, I do have Bibles in my backpack."

The talk is mostly ceremonial since Malone's been doing these evangelical hip-hop sessions for three years and everyone in attendance has participated before. Malone founded his hip-hop ministry, Urban Artists United (UAU), in 2001 as a "para-church, semi-official thing" that he wanted to be "more like a movement than an organization, almost like how being a Minuteman was." The UAU's action plan is threefold -- education, which it does through Bible studies; expression, manifested in offerings like "The One" and a compilation CD of area hip-hop; and evangelizing, which the ministry does once a month on Mill Avenue.

After Malone's directive, the crew walks the two blocks to Mill and then snakes through the weekend foot traffic to the open brick area in front of Borders. Once reassembled, one of the kids pushes play on the backpack boom box he's wearing and the rappers in the group trade improv verses over the continuous instrumentals. Tonight MC Quest, who had a career as a secular artist before being born again two years ago, is the most animated, bobbing his whole top torso up and down to the beat and excitedly exclaiming the glories of Jesus. Besides the conspicuous lack of cuss words, the many references to Christ, and the fact that none of the MCs were challenging each other, this freestyle cipher is just like any other.

The early February night is unusually cold, so the flow of collegiate passers-by is intermittent and the gathering attracts only a few curious onlookers. But on a good outing, the rapping will draw scores of kids straining their necks to get a view and a queue of freestylers nudging to get their turn to rap. One such evening, captured on a UAU DVD, Malone and company engage numerous MCs in what he calls "rhyme conversations." An unsuspecting rapper enters the circle and begins a flow peppered with curses and the typical hip-hop topics of girls and guns. UAU members counter each rhyme with a positive, Jesus-praising one. In an odd reversal of the Christian versus lions Colosseum matches, the secular rapper slowly realizes he's surrounded by Bible-thumping MCs, ready to pounce on his every lyrical transgression.

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