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'Shake it out for Jesus': Churches co-opt hip-hop

By Nate HerpichContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / January 6, 2006


Rapper Kurtis Blow stands in the front of the church wearing a black do-rag, scratching records old-school, accompanied by a drummer in a hooded sweatshirt and a keyboardist in a New York Jets jersey. The congregation is on its feet, dancing.

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"Shake it out," says the Rev. Stephen Pogue of the Greater Hood Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church in Harlem. "Shake it out for Jesus. On your feet for 90 seconds."

Hip-Hop Church has been electrifying Greater Hood on Thursday nights for the past year. Pastor Pogue himself was a fan of Blow some years back, when the musician helped rap emerge on the national scene. Since then, however, Pogue has become dismayed by what he sees as industry moguls pushing artists into ever-edgier realms. Indeed, rap is often known for glorifying violence and using misogynistic lyrics. Yet now, Pogue's church is offering a cleaner version of rap, even putting it in a spiritual dimension.

"I understand that there's a lot of negative in hip-hop today," Pogue says. "But Hip-Hop Church highlights the positive sides of hip-hop, what hip-hop can do."

This marriage between rap and a Harlem church on 146th Street is one of many efforts to improve the genre's image. In recent years several innovative organizations, including the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, have formed, both to help rap's image and offer community programs. The 2004 elections even prompted a National Hip-Hop Political Convention in Newark, N.J.

But Greater Hood, more than just interested in changing hip-hop's reputation, has discovered a unique means of reaching a new generation of congregants. And what's happening at Greater Hood is part of a slowly developing national phenomenon. The Lawndale Community Church in Chicago, for instance, offers its own weekly rap-inspired service called "Tha House" - and one of its pastors, Phil Jackson, has co-written a book entitled "The Hip-Hop Church," due out at the end of this month.

The music has also emanated from Christian churches in cities not typically known for hip-hop, such as Tampa, Fla. Even Redeemer Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, a congregation evenly divided between whites and blacks, has a weekly hip-hop service led by Christian rapper David Scherer, aka Agape.

Says Redeemer's pastor, Kelly Chatman: "Young people are not coming to church to hear classical music like they did when I was young.... Hip-hop is simply the vernacular of a culture that the church should be reaching out to."

3 Shades of Faith speaks that language at Greater Hood, with songs like "Flipside" and freestyle sessions straight a cappella. The group is made up of three Harlem teens: Tykym Stallings, whose stage name is Malakai; Lamar Haney, known as Noah; and Michael Sims, who goes by Mic. 3 Shades writes all their own lyrics, and Pogue checks them out before they're put to a beat in the church. Stallings says some congregants are starting to know some of the songs. On this night at least, a couple of kids in the front row follow along, lip-syncing some lyrics. "My inspiration in writing comes from things I see that God has given me," says Sims.

According to Stallings, the group's members share similar stories growing up together in the church, dealing with obstacles in school and on the streets. Stallings says he struggled with grades in school, and the pull of gangs. He's now a freshman at Nyack College in upstate New York. Haney first came to Greater Hood for a funeral, after a friend had been shot. Pogue remembers that Haney showed up the next Sunday, and the next, and the next. A high school dropout at the time, Haney went back to school. He, too, is now in college.