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.
"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.
"We are trying to teach kids that they don't have to be a statistic," says Pogue. "They don't have to be a part of the jail system or undereducated. So many people perish because of a lack of knowledge." Pogue says hip-hop has played a major role in the education of these three teens.
It is these types of stories that make Blow feel as if he and the genre he helped to mold are doing something worthwhile. He has seen hip-hop blow up in popularity, now 25 years since his certified gold record "The Breaks" was released, and three decades after he burst onto the scene as a DJ and break dancer named Kool DJ Kurt. He's watched hip-hop spread globally, becoming what he calls "the primary culture of modern society." He tells of Palestinian rappers whose song was No. 1 on Israeli radio. (In 2004 Tamer Nafar and his group Dam released a single called "Born Here" with lyrics in both Arabic and Hebrew.) He is impressed by a new generation of rappers that features faster rhymes and more creative, diverse beats.
Yet, while Blow aims to remain positive about the state of hip-hop today, his own protégés, like Sims, are more realistic. In fact, Sims says he is unable to name a single positive contemporary rapper whom he respects. Violence has been glorified since groups like NWA gave birth to the gangsta rap movement, and money and sex are still the major marketers of hip-hop. Sims says that the violence and cursing in rap have gotten out of hand, and even rappers with positive songs like Kanye West resort to the negative to sell records. He cites West's new release "Gold Digger." (In last year's Grammy-winning "Jesus Walks," West raps, "...they said that you could rap about anything but Jesus, that means sex, lies, videotape, but if I talk about God, my record won't get played.")
The daunting question remains: Can a religious hip-hop movement really make enough of a dent in the market to become a serious alternative for kids buying records? So called "positive rappers" like Mos Def and Common are successful, yet recent entries on Billboard's Top 10 rap albums include 50 Cent's "Get Rich or Die Tryin'," Chamillionaire's "The Sound of Revenge," Pitbull's "Money Is Still a Major Issue," and Young Jeezy's "Let's Get It: Thug Motivation 101."
Blow acknowledges that something is missing. He says he and other "positive artists" must work to repaint the image of the art form, which he says the entertainment industry has tarnished, and pray that a new movement takes hold.
"What is needed in hip-hop is spirituality," he says. "I believe hip-hop can save the church, and the church can save hip-hop." He believes that songs like West's "Jesus Walks," which was a critical and commercial success, have given the church some momentum to build on. His old friend Joseph Simmons, formerly known as "the son of Kurtis Blow" and later half of Run DMC, is now a minister with a popular reality show on MTV.
Mr. Chatman of Redeemer in Minneapolis agrees with Blow: More important than merely asking if hip-hop can work, he says, is making the decision to accept hip-hop as a viable means of spreading the gospel. To him, hip-hop presents an opportunity to educate and empower a new population of young people. On a typical Sunday morning at Redeemer, about 70 people show up to hear the Christian word. Yet 300 attend the church's hip-hop services.
"Martin Luther did theology in taverns," Chatman says. "To what extent are we willing to go to reach young people today?"