Jesus Christ Rap Superstar

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

"For everything I couldn't achieve as an artist," he adds, "I look at him and think, 'He could really do it.'"


Jason Perez still raps and records music, but after more than a decade as a member of Inner Gate, which for years was the Christian group considered most likely to break out of Phoenix but never did, he's shifted focus. Content now to remain a local artist, he says he found his true calling only a year ago, or rather he was dragged to it. He had been going to an unorthodox church called the Youth Athletic Club, which blended activities like basketball with Bible study, until one day the congregation decided to go separate directions.

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).

"I was going around to different churches with this group of young people, looking for a place to worship," he remembers. "They didn't feel comfortable anywhere we went, so they said, 'How about next Sunday you preach?'

"'Preach? Preach what?'" he asked, a bit bewildered. He hadn't studied the Bible formally and his only public speaking experience had been as a rapper.

"'You preach at your apartment and we'll all come,' they said.

"I told them, 'Ain't no way, sorry, I ain't a preacher.' But they came anyway, I gave a little sermon, and then that night I had a dream. Call it a vision or whatever, but I saw a church, called Fifth Element, and it used hip-hop in service. I woke up and said, 'This is what we have to do.'"

Pastor Mike Boyer, whose son Verbs had been in Inner Gate briefly, found Perez a converted barn on 51st Avenue and Greenway Road. The professional sound system made up for the cow pies in the parking lot, Perez figured, and thus the Fifth Element Fellowship, one of maybe four or five hip-hop churches in America, had found its home.

On Sunday afternoon at 1, the day after the Chancellor's CD release party, Pastor Jason is welcoming his flock back to church. He's wearing crisp khaki slacks, an untucked bottom-down shirt, and a baseball cap turned backward. He's all chuckles and smiles as his congregants, mostly Latinos and African Americans in their 20s, leisurely find places on the metal benches that serve as pews. Everyone seated, Perez calls to a last straggler, "Football season must be over! Praise Jesus! Either that or you're on parole." The couple dozen churchgoers laugh along with him.

Inside the barn, graffiti covers one of the walls, programmable lasers mounted on scaffolding hover over the makeshift pews, and there's a DJ coffin set up on the side. "I call the turntable the church's new tambourine," Perez says later. "This is our instrument for the new generation. I don't have a DJ yet, but I'd love to have him throw me a scratch whenever I made a point."

After the congregation sings along to 10 or so contemporary praise and worship songs, the lyrics of which are projected onto a large screen behind the pulpit, Perez quizzes the attendees on the Bible passage they were supposed to memorize from last week. He comes off like a jovial big brother, cracking jokes and chiding the kids who hadn't done their homework, until the lights dim and the light show begins. His rhyme partner Ves hops up from a pew and they rumble their way through a boom-bapping Inner Gate track. Another quick, punchy rap spit by a congregant -- James Chris, Ves' younger brother -- makes it clear that no one will be nodding off at this service.

Just as suddenly as it began, the rapping portion of the program finishes and Perez begins his sermon.

"Our first reading is Romans five, verse one -- say, 'What! What!' when you find it," he instructs. Today's topic is the need for unity amongst Christians and how if church people pulled together, they could set the agenda on this plane, not just the next. "It's more acceptable to be homosexual in America today than it is to be Christian," he begins after his congregants locate the passage. "If anyone steps to them, they'll be out picketing in a heartbeat. We need to stand up for our rights just like that."

Later in his sermon, Perez references some of The Rep's lyrics, which he read in the service last week, to illustrate a point. "There's too much ego in the church," he continues, "too much competing over who's got the bigger youth group."

As Perez preaches, kids call out "Word!" in place of "Amen."

At the end of his hourlong sermon, the congregants rise, approach the altar, and join hands. The casually dressed young Christians repeat a sinner's prayer projected overhead while Pastor Mike walks among them performing healings. He holds an earlier service in the barn for an older congregation and sticks around to support Perez, who is still a greenhorn preacher. Boyer stops in front of a black teenager and tells him, "God is telling me that you're in a very dangerous position. Someone is planning to kill you. You need to be very careful and get right with Jesus." The kid doesn't seem taken aback by this information.

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