For the first few moments onstage, young Govenor Reiss -- his stage identity is simply Govenor -- looks like many a rapper grown too hard, too fast on the streets of New Orleans. His arms are tattooed, wrist to shoulder, and a symbol for "soldier" peeks over his collar.
Other tattoos chronicle his story: "Dust Be My Destiny" is emblazoned on his upper left arm; "Skyview," the name of his old neighborhood turf, wraps around his left shoulder, front to back. And over his heart, one word: "Pain" -- appropriate for a young man once so dead to hope that one day seven years ago, he swallowed every pill in his mother's medicine cabinet. He was 18.
But as the heavy bass thumps and Reiss begins to rap, what comes out rises above the tattooed memorials to his past.
He begins rapping about Jesus Christ, a different way of life and an ongoing personal transformation that has put Reiss on a course that was uncertain at first but is slowly gaining momentum.
In his music, the Christian rapper beckons old friends:
I'm the same brotha that was with ya when the guns bust
Hustle 'til the sun's up
But things then change, I ain't the same
Man, I got to keep my brain on things that ain't vain
Reiss says he would adopt an edgier stage persona, would drape himself in jewelry if he had it, to complement the tattoos and better affirm his street credentials. But his music has not provided a road to riches. Reiss lives in a one-bedroom apartment in eastern New Orleans with Johna, his wife of five months. He is without a car since his was stolen.
So he raps at churches, at youth revivals, in mission tents that sprout on weekends in this city's housing developments. Sometimes, when a distant church hears of him, he goes off to another city, such as Dallas or Memphis. Sometimes, Johna moves through the crowds, selling her husband's two CDs, "Godson" and "Flame of Fire." They are trying to make a living.
They know that New Orleans has its share of rap success stories. Percy "Master P" Miller's No Limit empire and the Cash Money Records label of Ronald "Slim" Williams and Bryan "Baby" Williams have sold millions of albums nationally. And, like Reiss, those three can trace their roots to the city's sometimes-bloody neighborhoods.
But what Reiss is trying to do is even more of a long shot. Christian rap's share of the market is minuscule. And Reiss and a few others like him -- such as Var-G, Second Samuel, Holy Remnant, the Oracle, Chosen One, Foundation -- are confronting the type of rap that put New Orleans on the map. Together, they preach the Gospel of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the teeth of a bitter competing gospel of the streets.
They are outmanned. Certainly outgunned.
"The first time I saw a dead body was in a club," Reiss says. "First time I saw gunfire was at a club -- bullets so close I heard them whiz by. Hit the wall right behind me."
In those days, Reiss's life was chaos. His mother, Donice Reiss, now a coordinator in the University of New Orleans' learning resource center, struggled more or less alone to raise Govenor and his little sister, Abigail.
His father, Governor Reiss Sr., lived in Mobile, Ala. A churchgoing man who shuttled between ministry and sales of one kind or another, he had a powerful influence on his son during those periods when the family was together.
But as Reiss entered his mid-teens, those days were past. Raising her two children alone, Donice Reiss could not compete with the powerful companionship and the blood loyalties that her son found on the streets.
Govenor began hanging out with rappers, particularly one named Ricky B. He was a background dancer for Ricky, part of his entourage. At 15, he began to bring home money.
"He was good at getting money," his mother recalls. "And good at spending it."
About the same time, Reiss said, he began to do cocaine and heroin.
He was kicked out of two schools for fighting. Using a relative's address, the family enrolled him at a high school in nearby Marrero.
It was there, his mother said, that Reiss began to sense his gifts. He explored his love for rap and began to write his own material. He was elected drum major. He was popular. But once far from Marrero, he was still "living the life."
"I was selling drugs by day and clubbing by night," he says.
Gangsta, Gangsta, murder, murder
As a youngsta that's all I heard of
I got to get money and a lot of it fast
These are the ghosts that come out of my past
Over the years, Reiss was arrested 11 times for misdemeanors, he said. And yet, amid such anarchy, there was an invisible line, sometimes only dimly sensed, that he would not cross. He held part of himself back.
"I'd hang out with robbers, thieves, jack artists. . . ," Reiss said. "But I was always able to walk a fine line between those who did that and those who didn't."
One who did was Reiss's father. As a teenager, his father killed a man in a nightclub shooting in Alabama. Four years into a 32-year sentence, he escaped, moved to New Orleans and began a new life as a Christian of such genuine public witness that when Alabama authorities discovered him and took him into custody 18 years later, employers, friends and clergy wrote scores of letters on his behalf. He was returned to Alabama and quickly won parole.
As one who lived and preached the word, Governor Reiss stressed the resurrection. But when he was with his family in New Orleans, what the father sought to impress upon the son was the lifelong cross of regret he carried from the shooting.
"I saw how it affected him the rest of his life," Reiss said.
But the plain truth is, the son was simply luckier than his father. Twice, the younger Reiss said, he pulled a gun and fired it in sudden confrontations. Nobody was hit.
"I guess God was watching over me even then."
Reiss's youthful brush with his own mortality came a few months after his graduation from high school. He was "speedballing" -- doing heroin and cocaine -- when he heard himself begging a friend for more. The sound of his own begging terrified and disgusted him, he says. "I sounded just like every sick, strung-out addict I'd ever heard. I had become one."
Overwhelmed with self-loathing, "I saw myself walking out of the light and into the darkness," he says. "I saw every bad thing I'd done to my mother. Every memory was like a whip. All that goodness I'd had at [high school], I'd snorted it up.
"I went from something to nothing. I had no more hope."
Three days later, he went to the medicine cabinet, swallowed every pill he could find and locked himself in his room to die. His frantic mother summoned a friend who kicked in the door as paramedics raced to the scene. Things were never quite that bleak again, though Reiss was far from healed. A short stint in a detox program left him physically clean but still troubled.
Then, as he tells it, one remarkable day three years ago, he happened into Club Love, a Christian nightclub for youths and young adults. It was run by Bishop A. Michael Shaw's Perfect Love World Revival Ministries.
What Reiss saw astonished him: people onstage doing something novel: Christian rap, church rap, Jesus rap. Two things struck Reiss. One was that he could improve on what he was hearing. And two, "I knew that's who I was, that's what I was supposed to be doing."
Reiss stayed the night, then began to return, frequently. He began reworking the lyrics to his old songs about life on the streets.
At first, his rewrites were primitive. "I'd just take out some words and put in Jesus, Lord and God, stuff like that," he says.
But, according to Shaw, Reiss stayed engaged, became interested in the church and then interested in digging into the meat of the Christian message.
"Gov was hard-core, and it was interesting to watch his evolution," Shaw says.
What clicked, Shaw thinks, was the revelation of something new to him that night at Club Love. The place had the veneer of street life: graffiti, lots of secular rap in addition to the Christian music, a familiar-looking crowd. But it spoke to Reiss in the secret place he had always held back from the streets.
"When he found he could do his music and still be a Christian, that was his Damascus moment," Shaw says. "He could stop that battle within. Besides, the truth is, he could never be a very good criminal. There was always that reservation, that reluctance to go completely to the dark side."
Bruce Nolan writes about religion for the Times-Picayune of New Orleans. Times-Picayne staff writer Keith Spera contributed to this report.