The latest release by Chicago emcees S.O.M. starts off with a brooding, minor key bounce that compels the listener–per the name of the album–to “Shut Up & Listen.” It is, for lack of a better word, hot. The album’s fourth track, “Where They @,” is club-ready, built on brisk acoustic guitar chords and the thump of an 808 drum machine. A bonus track, “Let It Go,” closes the album, conjuring both the refined beats and rapid tempo characteristic of fellow Chicago rhymer Twista. From beginning to finish, S.O.M.’s beats display at times the harmonic sophistication of Kanye, at others the DIY feel of Soulja Boy. The lyricism of these young emcees, whose stage names are Gideon and J-Ark, impresses. It’s possible to get crunk to the album, but also to feel grown and sexy.
Which is why it comes as something of a shock that the goal of the album isn’t to make its listeners feel grown and sexy, or to inspire them to get crunk (not literally, anyway). We’re not compelled to shut up and listen purely out of gangsta braggadocio: S.O.M. is an acronym for “Sonz of the Most High,” and they’re part of a larger movement uniting churches, communities, and young emcees under a common mission: to bring the Christian gospel to a wider audience through hip-hop music.
For the Lawndale Community Church, as for a number of enterprising, community-based churches around the country, social outreach is key. A number of projects are aimed at sustaining the congregation while drawing in new members, such as an arts center that is in the works. But on Saturday nights, Lawndale Community Church becomes Tha House, a self-proclaimed “hip-hop worship experience.” On the first of two Saturday nights that your correspondent visited Tha House, a DJ set up shop in the back, spinning while people in the crowd tried to name that tune–Common, Eric B & Rakim, Afrika Bambaataa. Almost equal numbers of black and white kid, made up the majority of the congregation, although sprinkled throughout were families with children that looked no older than two. Heads nodded, cool and aloof, as the crowd appreciated good hip-hop.
A young man got up and walked to the stage in the middle of the room to present the reading for the evening. Tha House was in the middle of a series on faith and doubt, and tonight the congregation read from Matthew 11:1-12, in which John the Baptist asks Christ, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” The DJ signaled a segue from the reading to the homily with an excerpt from Common’s “U, Black Maybe,” as Lawndale Community pastor Phil Jackson, in a baggy black T-shirt and jeans, made his way to the stage to preach. He chose to illustrate his theme of faith and doubt by referring to Diogenes of Sinope, also known as Diogenes the Cynic, who is famous for once having intellectually bested Plato. But the problem now is how to pronounce his name. “Dye-oh-jean?” he asks. “Dee-oh-genie?” No one in the crowd has a suggestion. Tall, with stubble and slicked back graying hair, Pastor Phil, as he is universally known, cracks a smile. “CPS education,” he riffs, as he presses on to address the problem that cynicism poses to the believing Christian.
The church has often been a center of social change, from the Reformation to the Southern Baptist church’s role in the American Civil Rights movement, and each instantiation of social change has had its own music, from hymns to the Negro spirituals and gospel music of the 1960s. In a sense, then, Pastor Phil’s response to the question asked of all those that participate in this hip-hop church movement–“Why hip-hop?”–is a no-brainer. “I grew up hip-hop,” he said in an interview. “Hip-hop kind of raised me, in light of who I am, in the context of how it communicated with me.” It’s a sentiment echoed by emcees, by members of the congregation, and by visitors to Tha House.
It’s a pairing that, while it conjures surprise at first glance, seems natural from the start. The idea of mixing hip-hop and worship was greeted as something new, but what, other than the genre, has really changed? After all, hasn’t music been a central part of worship services for centuries? Besides, stepping away from chants and hymns and into the modern day religious landscape, one will see churches with rock bands made up of professional musicians, and a guitar or two at smaller services isn’t anything out of the norm. And hip-hop is catching up.
“There are a lot of churches that do hip-hop now,” a young man shared at the first Saturday service. “But this one’s the first. No one’s done it as long as Pastor Phil.” Both Saturday services drew small crowds–a stark contrast to the annual Hip-Hop Revival that Pastor Phil said draws a crowd of hundreds. But one gets the feeling that people are taking notes. A young man named John who was present wants to start his own hip-hop squad. A young woman named Sarah Murphy was working on a Freestyle Friday at her home church in Woodlawn. She gestured to the group of white kids to her right, and mentioned she’d brought them in from Indiana to get an idea of how hip-hop could be an effective medium to translate the gospel.
“I just pull out my Bible, and build up disciples/
to rival the idols and tower like Eiffel.” — Nine
“This is my brand new song/
I’m tired of singing old hymns”
— Gideon of S.O.M.
On the second Saturday, a young rapper from the community named Nine performed a cappella along with S.O.M. He told the small crowd that it had been a difficult week for him as he walked to the stage, where he put together an impressive performance that sounded like spoken word. In a small prayer group after the performances, he elaborated on his views on hip-hop. “I used to worship hip-hop,” he said. “Hip-hop was my idol for years.” It’s a fitting tie-in to the reading for the evening, Daniel 3:14, in which Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king, threatens three young men with death in a furnace if they refuse to bow down to his idols. As far as Nine is concerned, his idol is vanquished. “Hip-hop was my reason for living, but now it isn’t the most important thing anymore,” he said.
It’s a sentiment expressed by members of S.O.M. as well. “For us, we were rapping already. But then our lifestyle changed, our message changed,” J-Ark said. “We’re rapping about the street, but now from a Christian standpoint.”
Pastor Phil stressed the “street values” of hip-hop, and that they serve a central purpose in his philosophy behind the hip-hop church–“Be relevant, be real, be respectful.” In one sermon, Pastor Phil asked his congregation to imagine a modern-day John the Baptist, “no crib, sleeping in Douglas Park, one eye open.”
In a way, it’s all relevant to the people Pastor Phil is trying to reach, who–no matter how small the crowds on some nights, how huge on others–measure success in a different way. When the first hip-hop services started, it was one Saturday a month, then two. These days, there’s a service with live music every Saturday evening. Pastor Phil told me that over the summer, “We’d hit the block. We may have had 4 or 5 people, but you don’t have to have a crowd.” He mentioned marrying people who’d found God through hip-hop, of “sparking courage” in people who’d maybe go to their own churches and start something, of people he’d met fifteen years earlier that had become members of his church. How do you measure success, in numbers or in commitment? “Fifteen years later,” he said, “those folks are following in Christ.”
On Tha House’s website, Truth, a rapper in the Christian hip-hop group Cross Movement, paraphrases Ezekiel 3: “Said God to Ezekiel, I’m going to send you to a people whose language you can understand.” For this new, fresh movement, hip-hop is the common language. But for all the notions of a grand new movement, of the next big thing, it is founded in a much older tradition. One goes to hip-hop church not to hear a concert, but to worship. When the hype dies down, the question facing hip-hop churches isn’t whether their new vibe is legitimate, but whether it can stay fresh.