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 his last announcements, Perez coordinates rides over to the River of Life to see "The One" and mentions that they'll also be buying advance tickets for The Passion of the Christ. "I have a core of about 15 kids who are together four days a week," he says afterward. "They go to the mall together and share music. The number one thing I want is for the church to be nonthreatening. Hip-hop is a great tool for doing that, for bringing us together. It's the language we speak."

Mustaffa, who's been coming to Fifth Element for three weeks and who also produced most of the beats on The Rep's album, concurs. "I like the teachings, because they're more for our age group," he says, chatting with a friend on the gravel driveway after the service. "[Perez] can relate to what we've gone through much more than somebody who's gone to a traditional church most of their life. It's more aimed at people who have been on the streets."

Perez couches the charter for his church in traditional hip-hop ideology. "The four elements of hip-hop culture are rapping, break-dancing, the graffiti, and the DJ," he says. This is the hip-hop purist's creed, and one of the longest-running debates is what constitutes the fifth -- is it producing beats, fashion, politics, attitude? Perez trumps hip-hopper orthodoxy when he suggests that "all of the four elements can be used to touch the streets, only if they have the covering of the fifth, which is Jesus."

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).

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Photography by Jackie Mercandetti.

Of course, if many churches deny the legitimacy of Christian rap in the abstract alone, the prospect of it being actually used in service would warrant something like a relaunching of the Inquisition. And Perez has met resistance already, most adamantly from members of his own family, who are fire-and-brimstone Baptists. They attended his services for three weeks, "and immediately they began to nit-pick everything," he recounts, "the way the girls dressed, the lack of structure, the fact that I didn't have a ministerial degree -- nothing was right.

"Finally, I said, 'You know what, Mom? I don't think that's what the world needs right now. The church is in shambles -- pastors being found in porn shops, priests molesting children. The world is not trusting us right now, so how are you going to come at them saying they can't listen to this or dress like that?'

"So I'm looking to start what I call a revival in the land of love and acceptance. I think my job right now is to let people know that they have options and that God's not pushy. Hip-hop in church is a big step along that path."

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