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Hip-hop’s faithful

- The Washington Times - Friday, May 16, 2008

Good luck trying to tell 30-year-old Emanuel Lambert Jr., known to his listeners as Da' T.R.U.T.H. , that hip-hop is dead — that record sales within the music genre are slumping and its reputation is sagging because of its perceived penchant for bling, breasts and blow.

Mr. Lambert still believes in the power of hip-hop culture and still believes in its ability to uplift. He has faith — quite literally.

For the past six years, Mr. Lambert — known to his listeners as Da' T.R.U.T.H. — has made a living writing, recording and performing rap songs that riff on God and the Scriptures, not gats and spinners. The Grammy-nominated emcee is one of a growing number of Christian artists who have chosen to express themselves through hip-hop music and dance.

The people pushing so-called "holy hip-hop" are diverse. They're white, black, older, younger, well-to-do and strapped for cash. Most, but not all, are born-again.

Some have been at it for almost as long as hip-hop has been around. Some, such as secular-rap-pioneer-turned-hip-hop-pastor Kurtis Blow, have major name recognition. Others are recent converts with little cachet.

You can find these artists ministering at a church in Mr. Lambert's hometown of Philadelphia, sharing choreography at a workshop in San Diego, performing a dance routine at a nightclub in Orlando or attending the annual Holy Hip Hop Week in Atlanta.

They also might be on MySpace, iTunes or even the Billboard charts.

The beats that drive Christian hip-hoppers' movement and lyrics are often as bumpin' as anything you would find in the mainstream — and sometimes, as in Lecrae's hard-hitting "Jesus Muzik," these works play off familiar images from secular hip-hop. (The song's hook, "Ridin' with my top down listenin' to this Jesus music," is an excellent counterpoint to Snoop Dogg's more felonious cruisin' in his classic "Gin & Juice.")

In holy hip-hop, there's no room for dressing immodestly, dancing suggestively or spitting phrases that might cause moms to whip out bars of soap. Instead, musicians and dancers use this realm to lead by righteous example, using their talents to praise God, inspire others to come to faith, and show that being pious and being "down" are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

How do these artists reconcile the two seemingly disparate worlds of hip-hop and Christianity? Well, the first answer is, they aren't all that disparate. Hip-hop to some extent always has had a diversity of voices, emphasized the individual and his innovations and included reflection on myriad topics, including religion (see: Tupac Shakur).

As a matter of fact, holy hip-hop represents a long history of interaction between the sacred and the secular in black music, says Christina Zanfagna, who is writing her dissertation on holy hip-hop at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Couple this with the fact that both church services and Christian music have evolved over time, adapting to include new formats, and Christian hip-hop seems less like a novelty and more like a natural, even predictable, meeting of cultures.

This isn't to say holy hip-hoppers aren't in a bit of a bind — thought too untraditional by most churches and too preachy by most mainstream hip-hop audiences. To these performers, however, using hip-hop to get closer to God and help others do the same feels right.

"Kids [born] after the inception of hip-hop don't know the world without [it], so for them, it makes sense to worship using hip-hop styles and vernacular," Miss Zanfagna says. "It's just a part of who they are."

As many of these artists have discovered, it's also quite effective at getting one's message across — and not just because loads of people from many different backgrounds like to listen to the popular genre.

"If you think about a rock song, it can mean 1,000 different things," says Ben Washer, co-founder of the Christian hip-hop label Reach Records. "But hip-hop is very direct and plain, almost like a sermon, so I think that it lends itself well to communicating truth."

"There's no music in my estimation that indoctrinates like hip-hop," says Mr. Lambert, the Christian artist.

Street culture's aggressive tendencies might not seem particularly Christian, but Carrie Lucarini, founder of Orlando-based hip-hop dance ministry SolosCrew, says hitting hard is a superior means of driving the message home.

"We use a lot of attitude," she says, "but it's empowering attitude. It's like, 'I'm going to take this life and live it in a positive way and what ... This is who I am and what I stand for, and I can have confidence in this.' "

During her company's four-year tenure, Miss Lucarini says she has arranged artistic collaborations with troubled nonbelievers that led them toward life-changing religious turnarounds. She says she also has opened Christians' eyes to new creative outlets.

"I think a lot of people have amazing talents that are being wasted — Christians that have been told they're not allowed to dance or told they can't use their talents because they aren't Christian enough," she says. "When we do shows, a lot of young people come up to us and are so excited, saying they didn't know they could [do this]."

Brandon Henschel, a professional dancer who founded the Rock Steady Hip Hop Ministry in San Diego, has witnessed the same phenomenon — only in reverse.

"When people get saved, they leave the industry, and their gifts die," he says.

For this reason, he's hoping to build a community that not only will help creative types know God, but also will help Christians hone their skills and figure out how best to put them to use rather than letting them atrophy.

Mr. Henschel, along with Mr. Lambert and all the other countless Christian hip-hoppers, is paying no mind to all the reports of hip-hop's impending demise; he's too consumed with "hip-hope" for a brighter future.