The crowd at this north-city venue is almost entirely African-American. Guys in white-collared shirts are decked out in their Saturday-night best; the women are gussied up in oversize earrings and plenty of makeup. The Beat (100.3 FM) DJ Dwight Stone gets everyone psyched with two turn tables and a microphone, and the congregation bellows as Cho'zyn is introduced. In a flash, the girls -- all glitter, curves and sass -- mount the stage. Their first number is down-tempo, but the second one brings on the crunk beat, and they take turns spitting their message:
It's hot as Hell in Hell's kitchen
I hope you're listening closely,
Payin' attention when I mention the consequences
You gettin' from the sin you in
In true teeny-bopper fashion, the music is piped in and the mics are nearly silent, permitting the girls to save their breath for dancing. This is just fine with the crowd, who go wild for their aggressive-yet-sexy steps. A cornrow-coiffed male back-up dancer drops moves somewhere between b-boy style and the Robot. Ten minutes later the set's over, and the group exits to ecstatic screams.
Cho'zyn is just starting to hit its stride, with a rampant preteen fan base in St. Louis, and Tanisha Foxworth and Dawndia Crump, both in their mid-twenties, are the Cho'zyn ones. By day, Tanisha takes orders for prison care packages, while Dawndia cares for her two young children. By night, they tour all over the Midwest and South.
"They have the complete package to me as far as entertainers," gushes Warner Aldridge, another DJ for the Beat, awash in orange for tonight's show. "Their music and talents go far beyond words for me. They can sing and rap, and that shows a true artist right there."
Like every other act jockeying for a record deal, Cho'zyn may or may not hit the big time. If it happens, it happens, says Tanisha, but the whole thing, she believes, is out of their hands.
"If the Lord wants us to get rich," Tanisha muses, "he gone get us rich."
Until then, the two of them will just keep doing what they're doing. Which is to say: performing before the screaming masses at churches just like this one.
Two years ago the farcical newspaper The Onion featured a parody of the Christian rock scene. Titled "Bassist Unaware Rock Band Christian," the piece discussed the travails of one Brad Rolen, who found himself "the only member of Pillar Of Salt open to 'hot groupie action.'"
Christian rap also finds itself in an identity crisis. When acts like Stephen Wiley and Gospel Gangstaz introduced the holy hip-hop scene in the late '80s and early '90s, the music was dominated by cheesy rhymes and cheap Casio beats and lagged behind its secular counterpart, which was quickly gaining credibility and fans.
But in recent years, Christian rap's production values have improved dramatically, and its image is now virtually indistinguishable from mainstream rap: jangling jewelry, tilted ballcaps and five-foot-tall T-shirts are now the norm. But perhaps the most startling similarity is the choreography. Female rappers ape Beyoncé, and male emcees scowl and gesticulate aggressively. The guy talking about JC appears no different from the cat talking about dumping bodies in the river.
"People used to say that if it was Christian, it must be a few years behind the times," observes Nikki Cantu, music director of Columbus, Ohio-based RadioU. "But now, sound-wise, if you like a particular [rap] group, there's probably one that's Christian that you'd enjoy just as much. They make music so people will like it, and then the idea is that later, they'll hopefully get the message."
RadioU reflects Christian rap's rising popularity. With two traditional radio stations and satellite service, it plays hard-edged Christian music for a young audience coast-to-coast. When RadioU was founded in 1996, holy rap didn't even register on its playlist. Today Christian hip-hop makes up about 20 percent of its programming. Overall, only about 30 percent of RadioU's audience is Christian, estimates Cantu. "People tell us: 'We're not into that [Christianity] at this point in time, but we still like the groups.'"
Despite an emerging national audience, gospel rap has no platinum-selling breakout artist -- and certainly nothing on par with holy rock & rollers Switchfoot or P.O.D. (Payable On Death). But this might change soon. Artists such as Grits have sold hundreds of thousands of albums under the auspices of Nashville-based Gotee records. Another top label, New Jersey's Cross Movement Records, includes local artist Flame on its roster. Flame has moved some 30,000 albums, tours as far away as Alaska and has one of his songs blasting on Busch Stadium's loudspeakers each time Albert Pujols comes to bat.
Other artists on the thriving St. Louis scene include Cho'zyn, J-Son, fish.AMEN, KRy, REdNOTE, Future, Born 2 Di and Thi'sl. The artists use urban vernacular to infuse Biblical messages into songs like Thi'sl's "Not 2 Late Mommy":
It's not too late, Mommy
If he really do love you he can wait, Mommy
He should be happy with a dinner and a date, Mommy
Just be patient and let God chose your mate, Mommy
It's not too late, Mommy
Holy hip-hoppers draw thousands of local fans to events like barbecues, poetry nights and, of course, church services. The fan base is largely composed of middle-class African Americans from north city and county -- some of them Christian, some secular. Black churches use Christian rap concerts as an outreach tool to swell membership. And, according to the some clergy, it's working.
To its detractors, though, holy hip-hop's likeness to its secular cousin makes it the devil's music.
"I don't accept [the music] at all," says Bishop Dwight McDaniels of north county's San Francisco Christian Assembly. "I don't feel like you have to change or do nothing modern to get the word of God over to people. I don't think we have to cater to the world to get the world to come to church."
Jason Watson folds his hands and silently offers grace at the Goody Goody Diner on Natural Bridge Road. The prayer complete, he pours syrup across his steaming plate of pancakes, hard-scrambled eggs and bacon and talks about the first time he ever squeezed a trigger.
"I was twelve or thirteen years old. It was a .38 -- what we would call an 'eight' -- and I was just shooting in the air. It had a little kick. The first shot was a little scary, but after I shot it a couple of times it was more exciting."
Before he was a rapper named J-Son and a preacher, Watson was caught up in north-side gangland life and addicted to heroin. As a teen member of the Gangsta Disciples, he says he shot at people a half-dozen times. "It was just beef," he gives as an explanation, before adding, "I haven't killed anybody; I'm almost pretty sure of that."
Watson pauses to take a bite of his concoction and washes it down with a frosty glass of milk.
"My best friend was shot by the person he was robbing," he recalls. "All my friends except a couple are dead or locked up now. It was all pretty rough, but now that I look back I don't regret it. It helps me relate to people in ministry. I got a passion for people who're in the midst of that."
Though not ordained, Watson has been preaching at different churches around town for nearly a year. His preacher presence is much like his stage presence: slightly slouched, with long arms constantly extending like a bird of prey. His pulpit vernacular is injected with hip-hop phrases like "Paul doesn't just say 'Be reformed, I'll holla at you,'" and "He doesn't expect us to have this on lock."
His primary evangelistic targets are teens and twentysomethings who remind him of his former self.
"He speaks their language," says David Baker, Watson's pastor at New Direction Christian Church in north St. Louis. "I have three teenagers, and they oftentimes comment on some of the words he uses, like 'tight,' 'let's pray out,' or 'spit the Gospel.' They relate to all those terms."
Though only 24, Watson's rhyming skills, organizational acumen and religious commitment have propelled him into the role of elder statesman within the local Christian-rap network. He's performed before thousands at an arena football game halftime show at the St. Charles Family Arena, and he recently led a half-dozen holy hip-hop artists on a five-state tour called Da BLING (Believers Leading Idolaters Near God). Most important, his "rap ministry" is successful enough to support himself, his wife and two sons. "It ain't a lot. I ain't rich or nothing, that's for sure."
Once known as Lil'-G, Watson's rhymes have the smooth, focused syncopation of someone who's been honing his craft since he was fourteen. His lyrics stray far from the bland, predictable praises of gospel music and instead pick up where his sermons leave off:
So why you reject the passion of Christ?
The fashion is tight?
Things that are perishing and only last in this life
Cash and the ice
It all is only grass in his sight
When He slashes the atmosphere
You'll meet His wrath and His might
Watson's says he's on a mission to warn people of the hedonistic and sometimes violent themes conveyed through mainstream black music.
"We're being taught through secular music that it's cool to go to jail," he says. "Women are taught to dress provocatively as possible so men will like you. You got dudes killing each other to get 24-inch rims, Bentleys, Lexuses and Girbaud jeans.
"Secular rappers say, 'This is what we been through. We're not tellin' people to do what we sing about.' But they aren't giving the solution. Their solution is usually money and things. But the more things men consume, the more things they pursue. Once you get kicks and those kicks ain't no good no more, you need more. Once you have been pleased sexually, you want to provide yourself more pleasure.
"[Christians'] joy isn't wrapped up in things, it's wrapped up in God and our opportunity to have a real relationship with Him. Our joy stands through the test of time."
Watson believes that you can't be a Christian and a secular rapper at the same time.
"Secular singers and rappers claim a faith in God, but faith produces change. We don't have a God who says, 'I will save you, and you can stay how you are. We have a God who says, 'You will change. You will transform to my likeness.'"
Still, despite Jason Watson's best efforts, many local African-American pastors have no love whatsoever for holy hip-hop.
"The average pastor thinks, 'It's the devil's music coming into the church, and I'm not going to allow this,'" says Bishop John R. Johnson of New Straightway Family Worship Center, located near Fairground Park in north city. "That the music is centered on gyrations of the flesh -- making the flesh feel good -- and not spiritually motivated."
Some ascribe the local preachers' antipathy for Christian rap to one man: G. Craig Lewis.
Lewis is an influential minister from Fort Worth who travels the world, encouraging kids to burn their hip-hop CDs in bonfires.
"750,000 CD's Destroyed and Counting. To God be the Glory!" is the tagline on his Web site, exministries.com. The site contains a section called "The Watch," which cautions that "hip-hop is a culture and lifestyle from Hell!" and as proof, features selected lyrics from nearly every mainstream hip-hop and R&B singer in the business -- from DMX to Erykah Badu, Nas to Whitney Houston.
Lewis says on his Web site that he has nothing against Christian rap, yet his vitriolic attacks on secular rap have convinced Christian preachers that he's opposed to rap music altogether.
"G. Craig Lewis didn't differentiate between Christian hip-hop and secular hip-hop," offers Pastor David Baker. "He did not embrace Christian rap music. It left Christians wondering if they should even listen to any kind of rap music."
"[Lewis] is not a hatemonger as people make him out to be," says East St. Louis preacher Levi King. "He's very well-versed in what he talks about. People who think he's against true gospel rap misunderstand him." King is a gospel singer and is well-acquainted with Lewis. In fact, Lewis used King's basement recording studio to produce The EX Chronicles: Audio CD Drama, one of his many popular recordings.
Paying lip-service to Christ in popular songs is nothing new, but Kanye West might have taken the love-fest to new heights with his hit 2004 single "Jesus Walks." Even traditional gospel artists like Kirk Franklin have begun bringing the message to the masses by adding hip-hop beats and collaborating with secular artists like R. Kelly and Mary J. Blige.
But to Lewis, they are part of the problem, not part of the solution.
"God showed me that the enemy would not only pervert the secular music, but that he would even begin to involve these perverted artists with Christian music," he says on his Web site. "God showed me an outburst of Christian music that would promote these sinful artists by including them on Christian albums, by using these same secular producers and artists to produce Christian music, and also by these perverse artists using Christians on their albums to validate them and their lifestyles!"
Local emcee Travis Tyler used to be a secular rapper, playing on bills with the likes of Juvenile, Too Short and Bravehearts. Now he devotes all of his rhymes to the Big Guy. Tyler says that Lewis' message -- misinterpreted or not -- has made it difficult for holy hip-hoppers to land gigs. He says north city's Kennerly Temple recently put him through the wringer.
"After the whole G. Craig thing, they didn't allow people to rap at first," says the Christian rapper, who goes by Thi'sl ("This house I shall live"). "But one of the people at the church talked to them and said, 'It's not what you think.' So now they want to hear my stuff upfront, to make sure the lyrics are OK."
Tyler says he's heard that some churches have formally banned hip-hop and recalls one incident where a group's equipment was unplugged mid-set.
"It don't be that bad no more," says Thi'sl. "Now they'll let you know upfront: 'No, we don't want that.'"
The anti-holy-hip-hop attitude threatens to alienate the next generation of black Christians, argues RadioU DJ Jimmie "Big Jim" Bell.
"For so long, especially in a black church, it's been gospel music or none," Bell says. "You get a lot of artists, good Christian kids, but they're not necessarily called through the gospel thing. So they have no choice but to go outside the church to release the purpose inside of them. That's where you get the Beyoncés, the Kelly Rowlands -- because all of those girls grew up in church. But now they lap-dance!"
Roderick Walker regularly features rap in Sunday services at Hazelwood's Grace Bible Church, where he is a pastor. He says it's an important part of his outreach.
"We're trying to relate to the people we're trying to reach," Walker explains. "In fact, the times that we've announced it, it's caused an influx of young people to come. Whereas if we advertise on another level, we would probably just get the 'church folks' -- the older people that are traditional, and conservatives.
"Most of the church growth you're seeing today is transfer growth," the pastor continues. "If we keep doing what we keep doing, we gonna keep getting what we got. And it's those people that are willing to do cutting-edge stuff that's going to minister to that next generation."
I'm no young pepper," cracks Bishop John R. Johnson in his gravely, puttering drawl. "I'm not of the hip-hop generation."
In fact, the 63-year-old head of New Straightway Family Worship Center used to preach against Christian rap. So when a couple of his divinity students approached him a few years back about exploring a "hip-hop dissertation," he balked.
"I felt that rap music was an infiltration of the devil into the church," he says.
But his students were persistent, and Johnson believed that their hearts were in the right place. So he went out and did a little exploration, aided by a friend who worked at a Christian bookstore.
"She went and got six different gospel artists who were singing hip-hop, and she led me to a booth and I sat down and played these CDs with headphones," Johnson recalls.
As the bass picked up, inspiration from scripture washed over Johnson. "Saul was vexed of a demon spirit," he remembers thinking. "When he could get no relief from any other source, he called for David. And the Bible says David played cunningly on the harp, and Saul was delivered of the demonic spirit.
"The Lord let me know, 'As it was then, so it is now.' The Lord convinced me, per se, that these two young men were two of the many who the Lord is using to reach what we call 'Generation X.'"
Shortly thereafter, he stood up before his congregation and said he had an announcement.
"I told them that I had been wrong, the Lord had opened my understanding. I took the spiritual handcuffs off and began to allow the young people in the church to go forth in music."
One of the students was 26-year-old Antha Rodgers, who is also known as REdNOTE. ("There is no deity in me without Christ," he offers as way of explanation for the lowercase "d.") Last year the rapper launched his CROSS Breed Imprints label, and its first release was the debut album of the other student, 28-year-old Jeremiah Jackson, who goes by KRy. ("Jeremiah is the weeping prophet," explains Jackson.)
To promote that album, titled My Hope, Rodgers and Jackson decided to put on a giant roller-skating party.
And so that's why hundreds of people have come out tonight to the Treasure Island skating rink in unincorporated north county. Twenty bucks has bought them three copies of My Hope, three skate rentals and three glow sticks in their choice of assorted neon colors.
The joysticks on the facility's video games are mostly broken, the Pop-A-Shots are out of order, and the hot dogs appear to be from the Eisenhower era, but the folks here are having a blast anyway. By 8 p.m. the floor is jammed, and Jackson does backwards figure-eights around the brethren while Rodgers works the turntables, spinning holy hip-hop under the name of his DJ alter ego, WanablesU. The pace picks up a bit as he puts on a song off Jackson's album called "No L.I.T.C."
So many trying to find true love in the club
Lookin' for a hug in the club
Searchin' for a touch and rub
Ladies, show yourself some love
Before you get end up between a bed and a tub
You got played with a drink and dub
You much more than a rub
And you deserve much more than a club
"Are you praising Jesus?" asks a 'do-ragged teen kid skating by, pumping his arms in the air like he just don't care, as a spontaneous rhyme-circle forms just off the skating floor.
Now Rodgers comes down from his perch and mounts a concrete riser next to the DJ booth. When he is joined by Jonathan "fish.AMEN" Smith, the crowd digs it.
But they reserve their loudest cheers for Jackson, who comes up on stage with his wife, Christina, and their two-year-old son, Jeremiah Jr., who refuses to take his glow stick out of his mouth. A large woman in a neon-blue top is so excited that she unsuccessfully tries to propel herself over a three-foot-high concrete barrier into the rink, skates and all.
After a few songs, the music stops. Rodgers addresses the crowd directly: "Is there anybody who would like to accept the call of salvation? Is there anybody who would like to receive prayer?" They're more directives than questions, and two lines quickly form in front of the stage, one before Rodgers and the other before Jackson, halfway across the rink.
The rapper/ministers, who were ordained in May, get down on their knees and dole out blessings to as many as three people at a time, all of them balancing atop roller skates. Jackson entwines his hands with the blessees, while Rodgers prefers a gentle palm atop the head.
From the sidelines, Bishop Johnson watches. Though he hasn't laced up, he's brought along his Nikon digital camera and proudly shot a few rolls of film. As far as he's concerned, parties like this have been going on in one form or another since Jesus walked.
"It was a success, a tool of outreach for young people," he says afterwards. "People need to realize that music did not come from the secular world and creep into the church. Music came from God and migrated to the secular world.
"I have a sister-in-law in her later 40s," he goes on, "and when the younger people go forth in hip-hop gospel, she says, 'I can't understand what they're saying. They're talking too fast.'
"And I tell her, 'You can't understand what they're saying because they're not talking to you.'"