Taking hip-hop from the street into the church


Tomorrow night, South Columbia Baptist Church will be filled with thumping hip-hop beats, young men rapping and praise for the Lord.

Performers KJ-52, Pigeon John and GRITS will show local listeners that hip-hop and holiness can go together when they appear at the church's annual Summer Breeze Concert.

"Our music is hip-hop music, rap music. It's more conscious though," said Stacy Jones, whose stage name is Coffee. "We're both believers, and our music is faith-based."

Teron "Bonafide" Carter is the other half of the Nashville-based group GRITS, which stands for Grammatical Revolution In The Spirit and also reflects the group's Southern roots.

This is the fifth year the church has held summer concerts for youth, said Michael McDonald, minister of youth and singles. But the series has expanded from a show by the church's in-house youth band to a couple of communitywide concerts this year that showcase national Christian acts.

Comedian Coy Lasone of Laurel is also scheduled to appear.

Christian hip-hop "is definitely one of the hottest, growing trends going on now," said Alan Foster, senior awards coordinator of urban music for the Recording Academy's Grammy Awards. He said the Grammys are seeing more entries in the gospel category - which determines eligibility by lyrical content - from rap groups.

"I definitely see ... probably within the next couple years, creating a best gospel rap category," he said. "It's a big thing."

He added, "At the end of the day, everybody can't be a gangsta. ... A lot of kids that go to church maybe are not singing in the choir, but they rap."

Hip-hop is starting to be accepted more within the Christian music world said Tricia Whitehead, a spokeswoman for the Gospel Music Association. Hip-hop albums have helped drive up sales in the rock category by more than 10 percent this year, she said.

KJ-52, whose real name is Jonah Sorrentino, was a rap fan as a youth and developed the urge to rap about faith issues after he gave his life to Christ as a teen. Now the southern Florida resident tours the country and has three albums.

His latest is Pronounced Five-Two, which in turn is pulled from the Bible story of Jesus using five leaves of bread and two fishes to feed thousands.

He said for Christian rap artists, the music comes "not from some convoluted record label idea to make money. ... The artists that do it are doing it out of a conviction that is in their hearts."

While the genre is growing, leaving him with more requests to play than he can fill, Sorrentino said there should be more Christian rap artists.

"The biggest obstacle ... is not having the outlets to get exposure," he said, such as radio and television programs willing to play songs and air videos.

As Jones and Carter work to reach wider audiences, they are skeptical of phrases like Christian music that may imply the artistry is secondary to the religion.

"When it comes to music, we're artists first," Jones said. "We just happen to have a message. We feel like a lot of people have shunned the whole role model thing. If we're going to get a platform and people are going to look up to us, we want to have something to offer. ... The gangsta and the gun-toting, that has been driven into the ground. People are looking for something else."

GRITS has been performing for nearly 10 years. The two released their fifth album, Dichotomy A, in June and have another, Dichotomy B, coming out in November.

Los Angeles-based Pigeon John, whose real name is John Dust, said he focuses on positive messages in his songs - some with direct references to God and some without - and has always crossed between church-centered and secular audiences.

Dust got his rap name after a friend's mother commented on his appearance when he was about 13. He said he discovered the underground hip-hop scene and the Christian music scene about the same time in the mid-1990s.

When he was with the groups Brainwash Projects and LA Symphony, they played in both arenas. "We grew up without a line being defined," he said. "We thought it was all the same."

He started his solo career in 2002 and continues to play clubs and churches. He released his latest album, Pigeon John is Dating Your Sister, in October.

"The show I love to do is a lot of energy and fun and just, like, a lot of humor in the show," he said. "I really try to reach out and touch the people and make a connection."

McDonald said that making youth feel connected is a big part of his goal, along with introducing listeners to a type of music they may not have considered.

"With a lot of music out there, the message is negative," he said. "These groups deal with some issues that really encourage the youth."

The bands performing tomorrow "all have unique styles," he said. "People think all Christian music is a certain type and sound, but [the bands] break the stereotypes."

The Summer Breeze Concert will be held at 7 p.m. at South Columbia Baptist Church, 8814 Guilford Road. Tickets are $15 in advance, $17 at the door and $10 for groups of 10 or more, available at the church, by phone at 800-965- 9324 or online at iTickets.com. Information: 410-381-1877.

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