Jesus Christ Rap Superstar

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

To make his point, he tells the story of a preacher who put on an old-time tent revival, ministered for two hours, and when he made the altar call, only one kid came forward.

"That kid was Billy Graham," Froysland says. "God used that one kid to save tens of millions of people. Now, in the kingdom of heaven, that pastor is credited with all those tens of millions of people being saved. That's why I tell all the artists in my ministry, ÔIf you aren't willing to give the same show to seven people that you would to 700, get out.'"

Froysland is a serious, blunt-speaking 30-year-old with a red goatee. He grew up Methodist in Philadelphia and was saved two years ago. At the time, he was the youngest general manager in Marriott history, enjoying the comforts of an upper-middle-class life. "I had rides on Lear jets, Rolexes, and money in my pocket," he recounts. "You know what I found? Emptiness, being alone."

In the hip-hopera "The One," Vocab Malone plays a gospel-writing, rhyme-spitting Luke.
In the hip-hopera "The One," Vocab Malone plays a gospel-writing, rhyme-spitting Luke.
Top: At the climax of "The One," Jesus (Gabriel Manjarrez), in fresh white velour, rallies his crew, while Dr. Luke (Vocab Malone), to his immediate right, confirms that he lives again. Above: Holy merch table, Batman! Showgoers on opening night could choose the soundtrack to the musical, a Big Wo (a.k.a. Warren Stewart) single, or the debut album from the Reborn Disciple (Manjarrez).
Top: At the climax of "The One," Jesus (Gabriel Manjarrez), in fresh white velour, rallies his crew, while Dr. Luke (Vocab Malone), to his immediate right, confirms that he lives again. Above: Holy merch table, Batman! Showgoers on opening night could choose the soundtrack to the musical, a Big Wo (a.k.a. Warren Stewart) single, or the debut album from the Reborn Disciple (Manjarrez).

After being born again, Froysland wanted to find a career path that better fit his new commitment to faith. Knowing he was a lifelong hip-hop fan, his friend Aarman Prieto suggested they start a Christian hip-hop label together. Everything Froysland heard, though, was "lollipop, Mickey Mouse rap that could never compete with the secular stuff," until he played a demo from The Rep, an undeniably talented rapper who rhymed about his gritty pre-conversion days on the streets.

Froysland was impressed enough to partner with Prieto and start Soul Flava.

It's impossible to confirm the numbers of kids saved quoted by Froysland and different rappers, since no formal record is kept when someone decides to convert. Froysland does have a binder he leafs through with a dozen or so letters from pastors thanking him for a concert and noting the number of souls saved at each. "This one says 75 kids, this one says 30, this one says 100," Froysland reads with pride. He uses these letters to convince pastors dubious of rap to allow Soul Flava to perform at their youth ministries.

All the weight put on tallies, however, begs the question: How long do these kids stay Christian? What's the depth of their understanding of what it means to be Christian? In other words, what's the quality behind all the quantities?

Froysland concedes that he can't be sure how many stay on the path, although his ministry does take a new convert's phone number and then follows up with a call offering additional support. But even if the change is temporary, he argues, the benefit can still be profound.

"Maybe one of these kids that God touched at our concert doesn't show up in your house to rob you and shoot your mother," he says. "We had 100 gangbangers get saved in one night -- how many kids didn't die that night in drive-bys? If they all turned back to their old lifestyle in three weeks, how many people didn't get robbed or raped because of it?"

Of course, gangsters change their lifestyles all the time -- without the aid of Jesus. One can make Froysland's same argument about the conscious movement within secular hip-hop, which serves as a sort of progressive alternative to hard-core rap. In the lyrics of Talib Kweli, Common, and the Roots, thugs can also find encouragement to lay down their guns and treat women with respect. And such transformations may be easier to make and last longer, since the positive messages of secular rap don't require a spiritual conversion to put into action.

Perhaps there are various paths to the truth -- a notion fundamentalist Christians won't endorse -- with Bible-based hip-hop leading one kind of person to a healthier life, and the life-affirming secular subgenre serving another. Taken together, Christian and conscious hip-hop provide a welcome sanctuary from the increasingly jaded and solipsistic worldview of most commercial rap. Both strains share a similar critique of the materialism, violence and misogyny rampant in hip-hop, which, as Froysland states, "is pretty hard to defend, whether you're Christian or not. Really what we're doing is offering an alternative to 'Move, bitch, get out the way, get out the way,'" quoting the chorus from a recent Ludacris hit.


A Christian hip-hop show is a family affair. At MC Sacred's monthly open mike night, which on this Saturday in early February is doubling as a CD release party for a 20-year-old rapper called the Chancellor, young moms with infants sit in the front row. Six girls in their early teens stand in a circle practicing dance routines as the DJ, Fidel Castro, spins warm-up beats before the evening's performances.

The Chancellor's mother, a middle-aged black woman with a warm smile, is selling copies of his CD, Captain Save a Hood, the title of which spoofs E-40's radio hit "Captain Save-a-Ho." There isn't a drop of alcohol visible on premises, and not one of the 50 or so attendants is acting hard. For a rap show, the vibe is unbelievably wholesome.

Out in front of the charter school multipurpose room that Sacred borrows for his events, he and various Urban Artists United affiliates are still finalizing the evening's schedule. What they really want to add to the program is a reverse battle, a Christian hip-hop innovation that was born in Phoenix and has since spread to other cities through the Internet. But there aren't enough MCs on hand to fill the slots, since a simultaneous showing of "The One" is splitting the audience.

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