Every Saturday night discs are scratching, music is bumping and emcees are rapping-about religion.
At least it’s about religion at Chicago’s only hip-hop church.
“We are excited about the movement of young people who love hip hop and love the lord, and we want to see how to engage both,” said Rev. Phil Jackson, pastor of the House Covenant Church at 3827 W. Ogden in North Lawndale.
The idea of a hip hop church isn’t controversial to Jackson, especially when negative images and messages about the genre often fill mainstream media. The House, as the Lawndale church is called, doesn’t look or sound like a traditional church. Its use of positive hip hop culture relates to youth and helps keep them off the streets and find spirituality.
“The three values of hip hop are being real, being relevant and being respectful,” Jackson said. “The church often times doesn’t necessarily embrace those as a practical expression of worship, but yet the Bible does.”
In August 2004, Jackson decided to break away from the traditional church model after the youth kept pleading to have weekly hip hop concerts. After talking with local hip hop artists, students and national hip hop pastors, Jackson and the community developed their own hip hop ministry.
“We just started to dream and had these vision-casting meetings to talk about what if there was no such thing as church and we were going to do something to reach our friends,” Jackson recalled.
Unlike Christian rock, the music at The House isn’t always about God and Jesus, but its lyrics have Christian themes and the beats are true to the hip hop style.
“If [Christian hip hop] remains in step artistically, it will continue to gain popularity,” said James Ford Jr., known as “Judah the Lyrical Rev,” who raps at The House.
Aside from the hip hop concerts, Jackson creates a respectful and approachable setting. People from all backgrounds can speak honestly about real issues facing their community, such as poverty, violence, AIDS and teen pregnancy. North Lawndale student Ernest Green credits Jackson for understanding what youth want and need.
“Maybe it’s because where he grew up; he knows the struggles, so it’s like he can relate to us a lot,” he said.
Hip hop at work in the church
The pop culture associated with hip hop tends to focus more on superficial images of bling, baggy clothes and fancy cars, according to hip hop experts and scholars. But hip hop goes beyond catchy music with good rhythms, explained Cecile Bambara, African-American studies professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“Like jazz and blues, hip hop has always been based on community and spirituality,” she said.
Hip hop is also a lifestyle and one of the most influential cultures among youth, said Ken Bradley, one of The House’s Christian rappers who’s known as “Lyve Martyr” of CAMP Liberation Records.
“As a church, you’ve got to reach people through your ministry, and the popular culture of hip hop is a portal into the ministry for the youth” Bradley said.
Another part of The House’s appeal to young adults is that well-known hip hop artists perform there, rapping about real life issues other than gangs and guns that people can relate to. James Ford Jr., or “Judah the Lyrical Rev.,” a Christian rapper at The House, for instance, believes more people connect to his “common man” themes.
“I’m not on the streets, so I can’t rap about that and be something I’m not,” he said.
Chicago Tribune music critic Greg Kot agrees, arguing that it makes sense for hip hop to move away from messages about gangster life. Chicago, he noted, hasn’t had a mainstream hip hop scene until recently with artists such as Kanye and Common.
“Hip-hop is your soundtrack and it only makes sense that schools and churches use it to engage youth,” Kot said. “I think if pastors are smart and tuned in, they’ll use hip hop in their church because a lot of musical movements like gospel and R&B started in the church.”
But while some youth are enjoying this type of hip hop, its Christian-themed CD’s aren’t flying off the shelves. One reason for that, says hip hop author Bakari Kitwana, is the music industry, which has too much control over the artists. Kitwana insists that Christian hip hop is a known genre, “but many rappers feel pigeon-holed by the labeling of the music industry and think less people will listen to it.”
In addition, the idea of religion or church being associated with this type of hip hop scares some kids away, added Isaac Atkins, who raps at The House.
“Some hear God and go the other way,” he said.
Holy hip hop on the rise
Although The House is Chicago’s only hip hop church, it represents a growing trend nationally.
The Crossover Church is Tampa’s first hip hop church. According to Rev. Tommy Kyllonen, its Sunday services can attract as many as 1000 people from all walks of life.
“It’s definitely a national movement, and it’s growing,” he said.
But as far as holy hip hop being the only option for youth, Martin Marty, professor at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, Martin Marty, doesn’t think it should. He adds that hip hop is “disposable” because it’s pop culture and, thus, designed for the moment.
“I just know that this church gets the loyalty of the youth, and if hip hop is the way they do it, great, but it shouldn’t be the only way,” he said. “I would argue that hip hop has one kind of expression that’s limited. I would suggest doing a blend of music such as time-tested hymns.”
In his view, the traditional music “gives you something to meditate on and take home with you.”
But for some kids, hip hop is making a lasting impression. And the fact that the ministry helps youth get off the streets is documented, said Jackson. The story of Chicago high school senior David Rojas is one example. He grew up in a home with little parental support, mentors or after school options. Hip hop, though, has opened many doors for Rojas, who won a full scholarship to Connecticut College. Rojas also won The Boys’ and Girls’ Club Youth of the Year award in 2009 for his leadership and mentoring.
“Being involved with hip hop, and actually being involved with the youth and having a connection with God through hip hop-I think that’s a real motivator,” he said.