Jesus Christ Rap Superstar

Jesus raps a bit like Tupac.

Not in the content of his lyrics, of course -- he devotes his rhymes to condemning the vices of thug life, unlike 'Pac, who lived and died by them. But his delivery is definitely West Coast, his meter precise and masculine like a gangster rapper's. In his first rap on Earth, he paces back and forth and holds the mike firmly, declaring:

I'm the one with the hammer

crushing all sin

I'm the one

Keep your eyes on God's son k

determined to pursue

I keep the devil on the run.

No, this is not a meek Jesus. He sports a tan velour sweat suit with the hood pulled low over his face, cutting the figure of a boxer before a title fight. And he isn't wack, either. He can go flow for flow with Satan, which is no small feat considering Lucifer was in charge of music in heaven before God cast him out. Jesus' rhymes are so strong and his message so pure that Satan, unable to defeat him in a lyrical battle, must resort to treachery. He tempts one of Jesus' crew with a lucrative recording contract, in exchange for taking the messiah out.

Jesus dies not on the cross but by the bullet of a gun, like all rappers slain too early in life.

At the funeral, Jesus' camo-clad disciples mill about his casket, dejected. But what's this? One of his followers opens the coffin and it's empty. There's a flash of light, a puff of smoke-machine fog, and Jesus bursts back onstage again, only now his sweat suit is gleaming white. He's returned, and the gospel he spits over a G-funk beat is for all the other rappers on Earth:

Every day remember you're equipped, anointed to spit rhymes

every day you should be preaching, touching lives when you spit game.

And thus God created evangelical MCs, a disproportionate number of whom have apparently wound up in metropolitan Phoenix. The Valley is home to at least 20 serious Christian rappers, five DJs, four record labels, and a dozen or so Jesus-freak graffiti writers and break-dancers. They have their own support group. They promote their own shows. They have radio programs. They have their own form of battling. They even have a church.

What's more, they're multiplying. Phoenix is held in such high regard on Christian hip-hop Web sites that holy hip-hoppers in other cities make connections with locals via chat rooms, move here, soak up the scene for a few months, and then either stay or spread the gospel back home.

Why here? Phoenix, with a nondenominational church on just about every block and more than a few mega-churches (those with congregations of 20,000 or more), boasts a huge population of born-agains, and born-agains have a ministry for everything. There are food ministries, married couples' ministries, old people's ministries, and often most active of all, youth ministries. The fundamentalist revival movement -- and that's the type of Christians we're talking about here -- has used contemporary music in its youth ministries since the '70s. A growing number of local youth ministers, eager to connect with kids in new ways, have been amiable to local hip-hoppers looking for support. Church bookstores carry their CDs.

The result of this unlikely coupling of conservative churches and slang-speaking rappers is a local Christian hip-hop scene that is resourceful beyond its still meager sales, able to launch projects like this ambitious retelling of the resurrection of Christ in the form of the "hip-hopera" described above. Written and performed by four of the most notable Christian MCs in town -- Gabriel Manjarrez (playing Jesus), Warren Stewart (Satan), Vocab Malone (Luke), and Bryan Kilgore (John the Baptist and Judas), the show featured more than 50 actors and an impressive multimedia presentation. They only had a tiny budget for their beats-and-rhymes Jesus pageant, but they had at their disposal the Home Depot-size River of Life church in southeast Phoenix, complete with video cameras on cranes and a concert-grade sound system. They called it "The One," although "Jesus Christ Rap Superstar" would have fit, too. Manjarrez says that the three performances in February, put on free at the church, were so well received that he and his disciples are planning a run at a proper theater and even considering touring outside the state.

"The One" is heavy-handed in its message and a tad kooky in its premise -- qualities it shares with Christian hip-hop as a whole -- but the performances by the four leads were remarkable, and their rendering of the Jesus saga in rap vernacular breathed a welcome humor and freshness into it. As in many fundamentalist versions of scripture, the devil occupies a more prominent role in "The One" than he does in the New Testament. Here he exerts total control over the populace through a one-world media. His Hellbound record label (run by a lackey named Py-Diddy) tempts all rappers to sign away their souls in exchange for the earthly delights of bling, malt liquor and loose women. Friction begins when Jesus, a rising underground star, refuses to sign a deal and instead assembles 12 disciples to do battle with the rappers of darkness.

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Darren Keast