The melding of religion and the energy of the culture helps to spread the word.
The Rev. Timothy Holder, 51, is about the last person people would associate with the rough-and-tumble world of hip-hop.
The white, Harvard-educated Episcopalian priest is a mild-mannered, bespectacled fellow with a plump face, merry eyes and a genial Tennessean lilt that seems to melt like butter among the bodacious New York City accents that surround him.
He’s also openly gay.
“When you look at me, you see a whole lot of hip-hop, right?” said Holder, his laugh tinkling with mirth. “God clearly has a sense of humor.”
If not that, surely a creative one. Holder is among the new leaders to emerge in the fast-growing, underground movement of holy hip-hop, a melding of religion, primarily Christianity, with the energy, lingo, dress and dance moves of the culture. The approach, created to attract young people and hip-hop fans, has produced a number of fledgling churches across the country, several traveling rap ministries, numerous Christian rap artists, a couple of awards shows and plenty of Wrath of God-like discussion from Long Island to the Bay Area.
Many traditional religious leaders seem hesitant to embrace the approach, while others reject it outright, because of hip-hop’s hell-bent (pun intended) fixation on sex, drugs and violence. Nevertheless, the movement is gaining traction as people such as Holder, whose street name is Poppa T, and a slew of hip-hop artists bring a message of God to a generation searching to embrace spirituality on its own terms.
“Hip-hop and religion is huge,” said Bikari Kitwana, who is writing a book on the subject. “There is an entire generation that has grown up on hip-hop, so it just makes sense that that generation would express its spirituality in the culture that it has grown up in.”
Hip-hop culture started more than 30 years ago when African-American teenagers growing up in the trash-choked streets and burned-out buildings of the South Bronx began expressing themselves through graffiti, rap music and break-dancing. In the beginning, the lifestyle focused on partying, social ills and romance, but as it moved into the mainstream, it became misogynistic, homophobic and profanity-laced invective.
Pop in spiritual expression
Collaborations of religion and hip-hop go back almost 20 years, experts say, and is part of an even older trend of pop culture as an instrument for spiritual expression. Rock-inspired religious services abound, such as the “U2 Eucharist,” a fusion of Episcopalian liturgy and the music of Irish rock band U2. Then there is Dharma Punx, Bhuddism inspired by punk rock and Judaism emboldened by rap.
In the last 10 years, holy hip-hop has spread as more young people pour into churches, log onto related Web sites and snap up Christian rap CDs, industry experts say.
Advocates of the movement are rushing to meet the demand. Kurtis Blow, who shot to fame as the first rapper to release an album for a major label in 1980, spends his Thursday evenings rapping and spinning turntables at the Greater Hood Memorial AME Zion Church in Harlem. Blow, 46, who is studying to be a pastor, has helped launch at least five hip-hop churches or services such as the ones celebrated at Holder’s church.
And in Freeport, the Rev. Emanuel Felder, 38, pastor of Felder Ministries, perhaps the only hip-hop church on Long Island, is looking to open other churches in Chicago and Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and launch a record label.
Meanwhile, in Atlanta, former performer Christopher Martin, better known as Play of defunct rap duo Kid ‘n Play, and partner Eddie Velez juggle several budding holy hip-hop enterprises, including a local television and radio show, and a Web site – holy hiphop.com.
Martin, 43, who also has produced “Holy Hip Hop,” a DVD documenting the rise of holy hip-hop, spends most of his time traveling across the country lecturing teenagers about education.
Martin and Velez also have compiled holy hip-hop CDs of various artists that are distributed under the EMI Gospel label and sponsor an annual awards show. Martin, who also starred in the “House Party” movies, acknowledged that his new life is far less lucrative but much more fulfilling.
“It’s not about the money,” said Martin. “It’s about spreading the word.”
But not everybody is fond of the way the “word” is being spread.
“The hip-hop culture in its origin is demonic,” according to the Web site of the Rev. G. Craige Lewis, founder of Ex Ministries in Fort Worth, Texas. “And its foundation is set upon a doctrine that is contrary to the Word of God.”
Lewis has produced more than a half dozen CDs and DVDs on the ills of hip-hop, and he criss-crosses the country speaking at churches, colleges and civic centers.
“A real eye opener”
Last month, he spoke at Oneness Pentecostal Tabernacle Church in St. Albans, which “was a real eye opener,” said the Rev. Lincoln Graham, 39.
Young people have so many temptations, Graham said with a hint of frustration in his voice. But Christian hip-hop is not the answer because it “seems like a shallow take on Christianity,” Graham added.
Holder, who has spent his life grappling with detractors, ignores the criticism. He spent his 20s and 30s fund-raising for powerful Democrats in Tennessee. And in 1997, he was ordained as the first openly gay priest in Alabama, not the most supportive state on homosexuality, he said.
After building a church that welcomed gays, liberals, African-Americans and immigrants, he left five years later for the South Bronx, where he settled at Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania.
He initially wasn’t a fan of hip-hop but realized that many youths were, and when it was combined with Christian doctrine, teenagers flooded the church. Despite his success at attracting young people, Holder also began drawing criticism – some of it from the pews of his own church.
“I have ladies at my church right now that want to ship me back to Tennessee,” said Holder, a small smile playing across his lips. “But people don’t like change even if it is beneficial.”
Late on a recent Sunday afternoon, the service at St. Paul’s Chapel in Manhattan is jumping like a club on Saturday night. Heads are bobbing, fingers are pointing and butts are swaying as people groove during a service where teenage dancers boogey in the pulpit, and doo-rag-wearing rappers deliver rapid-fire lyrics about God and Jesus.
Holder decided last year to take “the word” on the road. His HipHopEMass, a form of worship where the “E” stands for “everybody,” is a hip-hop-inspired service that includes musicians, vocalists, rappers and dancers.
With the help of the Episcopal church’s publishing arm, he published in May the “Hip Hop Prayer Book,” which contains, among others, a revised 23rd Psalm that includes the words “chill,” “hood” and “baller.” About 2,000 copies of the prayer book have already been sold.
Some of the clergy at St. Paul’s Chapel, the oldest one in New York City, were a little hesitant about the HipHopEmass, confided Julio Herrera, the group’s musical director. But once it got under way, “I saw some of them dancing in the balcony,” he said.
They weren’t the only ones pleased with the service. “It was entertaining, engaging and high-energy,” said Brian Nieuwenhoven, 26, a Web designer in Manhattan and member of the church. “It would be nice if we could have services like that in the future.”
“I thought it was a wonderful service,” said Deborah Donner, 50, a telemarketer from the Bronx. “It’s going to bring more young people in the church, which is good because there is no church without young people.”
‘Hood to holy’
Here are some examples of how the holy hip-hop gospel is spreading.
Greater Hood Memorial AME Zion Church, Harlem. Founded by the Rev. Stephen Pogue and Kurtis Blow.
Crossover Community Church, Tampa, Fla. Founded by Tommy Kyllonen or Urban D.
City of Refuge, Memphis, Tenn. Founded by Mr. Del, formerly of Three6 Mafia
Felder Ministries of Freeport, Long Island. Founded by the Rev. Emanuel Felder.