The Rev. William Leon Ward danced himself into a sweat during a pulsating throwdown for the Lord. The artists were Christian, but their stage names — The Ambassador, Da’ T.R.U.T.H. and Mali Music — and their sound signaled their connection to hip-hop.
Ward grew up in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. His father was a deacon, and he was in the choir, served as an usher and headed the youth council. Songs, Sunday school and church traditions were passed down through the generations. But times have changed.
“There are a lot of young people out here that the church neglects, but we want to embrace them,” said Ward, 33, who grew up in Birmingham, Ala. “Today, the Sunday schools are empty, the choir stands are empty and kids are doing their own thing.”
So as Kanye West and Jay-Z performed at a sold-out Verizon Center last week, Ward was among 1,000 people who had lined up a day earlier to see Christian hip-hop acts as part the Howard University School of Divinity’s 95th annual alumni convocation. This year’s convocation, “Religion and Culture: Connecting the Church and Hip-Hop,” focused on how to keep the church relevant to a younger generation.
There were panel discussions, concerts and a traditional service at Howard’s Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel as church leaders came to grips with an art form that has gone from the streets to the pulpit. A recurring theme emerged: Embracing hip-hop as a means of reaching young people who are turned off by the traditional church does not compromise one’s faith.
“We should not paint all hip-hop with one negative brush,” said panelist Michael Eric Dyson, a Georgetown University professor and author.
Dyson, who teaches a class at Georgetown devoted to Jay-Z, said many hip-hop artists are filling a void left by the absence of the church. Even in the lyrics of artists such as Lil Wayne and the late Biggie Smalls, he said, positive messages can be gleaned.
“When we think about the original prophets and how they were telling their stories, hip-hop is really the story about a community,” said the Rev. Ciara Simonson, a Howard graduate and an associate minister of Michigan Park Christian Church in Northeast Washington.
Ward said the church has been slow to allow contemporary expressions of worship. He recalled this story fromwhen he was 15: “I brought a tape from a rap group called Kris Kross to church because I wanted to use it for a youth day skit with my friends, but I was told by the youth director that we don’t play that kind of music in the church or wear our clothes backwards. But the director later changed his mind. We got to rap, but we couldn’t wear clothes backwards.”
Ward attended Alabama A&M University, where he was baritone in the band. After college, he moved to the District and did missionary work until he was accepted in Howard’s School of Divinity in 2008. He is now a small-group coach with the Merge Youth program at First Baptist Church of Glenarden and Zion Church.
“For far too long,” Ward said, “churches have not done enough to put money and resources behind programs for young people, and we are losing too many.”
That’s what the “Misfit Tour” that visited Howard is trying to address. The artists said the tour’s name derives from their not fitting neatly into the realm of hip-hop because of their religious lyrics and not fitting neatly into the church community because of their music.
Artist Sean Simmons said the goal of the tour is to let young people know God has a place for everybody and “not allowing anything to hold you back.”
“We really have a message of hope,” said The Ambassador, a.k.a. William “Duce” Branch. “Anyone can feel like a misfit, but we want people to know that God has a solution.”
The Rev. Willie Thompson, an associate minister at Prince George’s Community Church in Bowie, was the alumni coordinator of the concert. Thompson said that the concert was very timely but that it is only a step toward change in the church.
“The church has to come to a place where they begin to engage the hip-hop culture in ways that [are] warm and compassionate,” he said. “It is time for the church community to realize that the needs of the hip-hop generation are different than the needs of the Soul Train generation. But the hip-hop generation needs the church, because while hip-hop is an expression, it is the church that heals.”
The Rev. E. Dewey Smith Jr. of the Greater Travelers Rest Baptist Church in Decatur, Ga., summed up the conference in his sermon “When Jesus Meets Hip-Hop.”
“One culture still is dependent on church bulletins and announcements,” he said. “The other culture is totally inundated with Facebook, Twitter and social media. One culture lifts James Cleveland. The other culture is going to see Jay-Z in a few moments. The question is what happens when these two cultures collide.”