- The Washington Times - Monday, September 22, 2014

Most rappers who go five years without releasing an album can’t use a near-death experience involving a chicken burrito as an excuse.

But then, most rappers also aren’t Messianic Jews, as is Tony Wray, 36, who performs in the rap duo Hazakim with his older brother, Mike.

Their new album, “Son of Man,” drops Tuesday, and addresses the recent increase in Christian persecution around the world with the urgency of a life-altering event.

“I rap with urgency and thankfulness that we have another shot at this,” says Mike Wray, 37.

Dining on a chicken burrito at a fast-food restaurant in Florida in February 2010, Tony gagged on his meal, unable to swallow.

A visit to an emergency room revealed that his esophagus had ballooned due to achalasia, a disorder in which throat muscles close shut. Achalasia is rarely life threatening, but Tony’s case was so severe that he expected to die.

He couldn’t eat for months in 2010, even pea soup was impossible to swallow. The dietary supplement Ensure and intravenous nutrients kept him alive, and he lost 50 pounds.

Unable to perform his job as a mortgage contract worker, Tony had no way to pay for surgery. His record label, Lamp Mode Recordings, asked fans for prayer and donations. Within three weeks, the campaign had raised enough money for him to undergo surgery in October 2010, which cost more than $10,000.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Tony says. “I was trying to find other ways to get surgery. I never thought to ask people for help. Their outpouring of generosity left me humbled and amazed.”

Mike says it was “a miracle that the money was raised The Christian hip-hop community donated a big portion of it.”

Raised in Columbus, Ohio, in a military family with Arab-Jewish roots, the brothers grew up in a Christian home and began attending a Messianic Jewish church in middle school.

Tony started rapping at 9 years old; Mike, who preferred jazz, didn’t start rapping until 1997, when he heard a secular rapper challenge the credibility of Christianity. He then wrote the song “Liar, Lunatic, Lord or Legend” to defend the faith, choosing to use the same art form — hip hop — to communicate his rebuttal.

In 2000, he and Tony formed Hazakim (Hebrew for “strong ones”). Their previous album, “Theophanies,” dropped in 2009.

The concept of their new album — the end of the world, brought by Jesus — is a response to an increase in Christian persecution over the last few years.

The brothers, who now live in Florida, cite as inspiration news reports about Youcef Nadarkhani and Saeed Abedini, two Christian pastors who faced imprisonment in Iran for their beliefs.

“For us, standing up for God’s word is a matter of social issues,” Tony says of the pastors, neither of whom has met the Wray brothers. “For them, it’s a matter of life and death. And these are our [Christian] brothers. Their boldness in the face of death challenged us to be bold as well.”

Mr. Nadarkhani served almost three years in an Iranian prison, from 2010 to 2012, before international pressure prompted his release. Mr. Abedini is still imprisoned, as he has been since 2012.

The music video for “Kingdom Come,” the lead single from “Son of Man,” dramatizes the plight of persecuted Christians in far-off lands.

But the new album also addresses Christian persecution in America, specifically by way of the movement to redefine marriage.

In an interview with The Washington Times, the brothers noted how Dan Cathy, CEO of Chik-fil-A restaurants, defended traditional marriage as the union of one man and one woman during a 2012 radio program. The backlash against his comments included a boycott and an armed man storming the headquarters of the Family Research Council, a recipient of Chik-fil-A donations.

“Gay marriage is an issue that’s literally being forced upon God’s people,” Tony says. “You have Christian companies and corporations being forced into silence, being assassinated in terms of their reputation because they hold to a biblical standard. These are things over the past few years that make us say, ‘Lord, hurry up. We need you.’”

Hazakim views hip hop as an appropriate platform to voice its concerns.

“Hip hop traditionally was a music that confronted controversial social issues head on,” Tony says, citing Tupac Shakur and Public Enemy as examples.

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