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Rap Gets Religion, But Is It Gospel?

By Natalie Hopkinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 24, 2004; Page C01

We at war with terrorism, racism but most of all we at war with ourselves.

-- Kanye West, "Jesus Walks"

It seemed at long last that commercial rap had finally come to Jesus.

Thanks to "Jesus Walks," a hit single by the hip-hop superproducer-turned-artist Kanye West, His name has been blasting over car stereos, moving taut bodies in the clubs and racing up the mainstream hip-hop charts all summer.

"I'm just trying to say," West raps, "The way school need teachers / The way Kathie Lee needed Regis / That's the way y'all need Jesus / So here go my single, dog / Radio needs this."

The single vaulted onto Billboard's Hot 100 and has stayed there for 21 weeks running, and three versions of the "Jesus Walks" video are spinning heavily on MTV and on BET's rap

and gospel programs.

And when West's debut album, "The College Dropout," was selected for a spot on the ballot for best rap/hip-hop album by gospel's prestigious Stellar Awards last month -- right next to God's Little Soldiers, the Christian boys choir -- it seemed a new day in gospel had arrived.

There have been crossovers -- usually religious artists such as Kirk Franklin and Amy Grant moving into the pop charts -- but mainstream hip-hop had never infiltrated the gospel world to this extent.

Not everyone was pleased.

"Lord, please help the Stellar Committee and deliver them from ignorance and commercialism in Jesus' name!!" prayed one poster on the message board at GospelFlava.com.

"The Reverend James Cleveland must be rolling over in his grave," another sniffed.

The committee got nearly 100 letters and e-mails expressing outrage. Several threatened to boycott the Jan. 15 awards, said Erma Gray Davis, president of Central City Productions, which produces the awards.

Last week, the Stellar Committee announced it was sending out 4,000 new ballots to its voting academy -- minus Kanye West. "It was a mistake," Davis said in an interview. "Even though that song was wonderful, that was not a gospel album. Kanye, we love you darling, don't be upset with us, it's not personal."

The flap has got some folks asking age-old questions, such as: What

is gospel? Is it supposed to reach sinners or the converted? The choir or the street?

It's also fair to say that it has presented new questions: Can one walk with Jesus

and still do unmentionables with Lil' Kim, as West fantasizes in another song? Would Jesus bling, as He will in West's soon-to-hit-stores religious-themed jewelry line produced in partnership with Jacob "The Jeweler" Arabo, baublemaker to the rap stars? Would the Savior wear a crown of diamond-set thorns?

West isn't offering any answers at the moment. Several calls to his publicist, Gabe Tesoriero, were not returned this week. But there are those who believe West did belong on the Stellar ballot. "I think it is gospel," said Mark Anthony Neal, associate professor of black popular culture at Duke University and author of several books about black music. "I think we have to think more broadly about what gospel is."

Neal says black popular music has always had a spiritual foundation, and hip-hop is no different. Everyone from Run-DMC to Tupac to Nas has openly celebrated and debated religion. Religion and spirituality are themes throughout "The College Dropout," he says. Several songs, such as "2 Words," featuring the Boys Choir of Harlem, are even more overtly religious than "Jesus Walks":

So I live by two words

"[Expletive], pay me"

Screamin Jesus save me

You know how the game be

I can't let 'em change me

Cuz on Judgment Day

You gon' blame me

Look God, it's the same me.

To reach beyond church audiences, Neal says, many contemporary gospel artists avoid the words "God" or "Jesus," opting to sing about, say, relationships. But when West, a mainstream rapper, explicitly -- sometimes expletively -- grapples with his religion, his work is dismissed, says Neal.

"It's shortsighted of the folks at Stellar Awards not to affirm an artist trying to do that," he said.

The Rev. Matthew L. Watley, youth minister at Reid Temple AME Church in Lanham, disagrees. "It probably never should have been on the ballot," he said. "I think that Kanye's offering is sort of like a Hostess snack. It's a good quick something to ingest, but probably not enough to make a full diet for a person seriously committed to their faithful orientation."

In late August, Ebenezer AME Church in Fort Washington was ridiculed after the New York Daily News published a gossip item saying the church paid West $30,000 to perform two songs there. The public criticized the church for spending too much for too little.

Ebenezer's young-adult minister, the Rev. Tony Lee, says the item got it wrong, and he went on national radio to explain: Three thousand young people paid $10 for tickets to see West, who had agreed to stop by the church after a concert with Usher at MCI Center. Lee says he's contractually barred from revealing what West was paid, but said the event "more than paid for itself."

During the show, Ebenezer's youth ministers interviewed West about "Jesus Walks" and voiced concern about some of the content of the rest of the album. West performed the tune and another hit single, "All Falls Down," about materialism in hip-hop. After West left, the ministers "opened the doors to Christ" for an altar call. More than 300 young people came forward, Lee says.

"It's a challenge when Kanye could talk about drugs and guns and violence and he wouldn't get half the flak that he gets for talking about Jesus," Lee said. " . . . My question is what statement is the church sending to a person like Kanye who is trying to reach out? He comes for the sinners and he comes for the sick, and we are upset because he is not coming in the usual way.

"That single is anointed, and I'm telling you I'm seeing the fruits of it. It is not every day in a church where over 300 young people give their life to Christ. I'm not going to be mad at Kanye about that. I'm affirming that brother. God bless him."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company