Jesus Christ Rap Superstar

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

Indeed, many Christian rappers make their names by counterfeiting the innovations of their secular counterparts, which is a major breach of hip-hop etiquette. KJ-52, one of the more prominent Godly rappers on the national scene, climbed from obscurity by calling out Eminem as a bad role model in a spoof he made of Em's "Stan" hit. But in so doing, KJ unintentionally proved that Eminem served as his guidance, too, since he rapped exactly like him. Malone groans as he recounts all the groups he's heard who steal the entire instrumental from a currently hot secular track and change the lyrics just enough to "sanctify" them.

"It's like a Weird Al parody, but they're not trying to be funny," he says.

The third dark cloud looming over Christian hip-hop is the ambivalence the evangelical church movement still has to it. The River of Life, which boasts a full recording studio available to area rappers, and Arizona's largest mega-church, Phoenix First Assembly of God, which will be hosting monthly UAU open mikes soon, are oases. There are just as many heavyweight churches that don't feature rap in their youth ministries at all. Some maintain that Christian hip-hop is an oxymoron or condemn it altogether.

Pastor Jason Perez sitting in front of the graf-covered walls of the Fifth Element Fellowship, after his Sunday service.
Pastor Jason Perez sitting in front of the graf-covered walls of the Fifth Element Fellowship, after his Sunday service.


Photography by Jackie Mercandetti.

"Can God use anything? Absolutely, he's God," says Pastor Tom Lonas of First Indian Baptist in north Phoenix, a church he describes as born again and evangelical, although denominational. "But I'd rather think that when God does something, that He's big enough to start it. So we don't have to get some fad like hip-hop from the world and bring it into the church. Frankly, I'd love to be a member of a church where Jesus is enough."

His church doesn't host any of the many local hip-hop ministries that go from church to church putting on performances, and he advises parents not to buy the albums. Some reactions have been more forceful. Will Robinson runs a 24-hour all-gospel-rap Internet radio station from his Phoenix home called the Slam Radio Network, but he started out on the airwaves. After his debut show on the pay-to-play Christian station KBIE (since bought by Christian goliath K-Love), he came back to the station to find the doors locked.

"Overnight, they took us off the air, tore up our contract, and the next thing I know their corporate lawyers are calling me saying that they don't play that kind of music." What had happened, he says, was that the American Family Council, a major donor, had threatened to pull its funding if the station played any more rap -- even of the Christian variety.

Pastor Mike Boyer, of In His Service Ministries, who is an ardent supporter of Christian hip-hop, and Verbs' father, says his son received a similar reception when he started his career. "When Verbs wanted to put on his first concert, he went around to different churches and told them God had given him the vision to do hip-hop. They laughed at him. They said hip-hop's a pit of hell. Nobody would open up their doors."

Without broad support from the church or much in the way of promotional infrastructure, Christian hip-hop is an orphan scene, "a minority within a minority," as Malone puts it, adding, "A lot of Christian hip-hop artists view it as their cross to bear."

As a result, the Christian rap scene in Phoenix is especially tight-knit and self-reliant, motivated by a circle-the-wagons instinct that produced things like Urban Artists United. "What I like to say is that if you're a Christian rapper in Phoenix," remarks Malone, "you're in the UAU whether you like it or not. We have no choice but to be unified."

Evangelicalism so often comes down to a numbers game. And while the 10 local rappers interviewed for this article admit that their projects -- or "ministries," in their vernacular -- haven't achieved anything financially, all are adamant that their music is effective for bringing in converts. This is why church resistance to Christian hip-hop is slowly waning.

The second half to Pastor Boyer's story is that after his son searched in vain for a venue, he got him a room in Phoenix First Assembly through a pastor friend he had there. "Forty gang members came to the Lord in that concert. After that, every church in town wanted us to play there."

Putting butts in the seats of God's house is the ultimate objective, which is why these artists put on shows for free or a small honorarium from a church. Quest even gives away his 16-song CD. "I've given out 300 right now; if I'd been selling them, it might have only been half of that," he explains. "So look at all the 150 that are blessed now."

God is the final accountant, and often the numbers he uses aren't always so clear in human terms. "You can't apply normal Keynesian economic theory to what we do," says Terrance Froysland, CEO and co-founder of Soul Flava Musik, the largest Christian rap label in Phoenix. His artists -- The Rep, Aarman, 1-80, and Vision, who are rappers, and Dunamis and BloodBaught, which are rock bands -- are constantly on shoestring-budget outreach tours, sleeping in the basements of churches and eating Whoppers every day. "I've been at shows where the church gave us 13 bucks but we saved 300 kids. We can't see the difference we're making because it's a spiritual reward."

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