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J.Kwest makes room for rap in the house of the Lord

By defying the Christian reluctance to embrace hip-hop, this Hyde Park pastor and MC hopes to help people find God in their daily lives.

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Senior pastor Julian DeShazier, aka Christian rapper J.Kwest, at University Church - JOHN STURDY
  • John Sturdy
  • Senior pastor Julian DeShazier, aka Christian rapper J.Kwest, at University Church

All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. —John 1:3

Julian DeShazier has been leading a congregation at University Church in Hyde Park since 2010 and rapping as J.Kwest for even longer. He's on a quest—hence his stage name—to find a middle ground where hip-hop and gospel music can coexist.

Defined by the qualities that differentiate them—the former is often saturated in profanity, violence, and sex, while the latter is a sacred African-American tradition rooted in praising and worshiping God—the two genres might seem as incompatible as oil and water. But Christian rap has been around for decades: Virginia trio DC Talk earned a Grammy in 1994 with the hip-hop influenced 1992 record Free at Last. (Oddly, it won Best Rock Gospel Album—the category didn't become Best Rock or Rap Gospel Album till 2007, and after 2011 the word "rap" disappeared from the names of the gospel categories altogether.) DC Talk paved the way for today's most glorified Christian hip-hop artist, Atlanta-based rapper Lecrae, whose sixth studio full-length, 2012's Gravity, took home a Grammy for Best Gospel Album in 2013.

Despite how long Christian rap has existed, J.Kwest still grapples with calling himself a Christian rapper. Born in Chicago, the 32-year-old became senior pastor at University Church a month after graduating from the University of Chicago's Divinity School. In his teens he attended New Faith Baptist Church in Matteson, which accepted his hip-hop rhymes with open arms—the rap duo Verbal Kwest, which he'd joined while still in high school in 2001, even performed there. But when he toured as a musician after graduating from Morehouse College in Atlanta in 2005, he found the climate very different. While playing in churches around Chicago and across the country in 2007 to support the J.Kwest EP 20/20: The InVision, he discovered just how rare it was for pastors to support Christian rap. "There were certain churches that would mess with you, and then you just knew the ones that wouldn't," he says.

"One time, I got off the stage [at] a church in Chicago, and the pastor comes up after me and says, 'All right y'all, now we can get back to having church for real,'" J.Kwest recalls. (He doesn't feel comfortable referring to the south-side congregation by name.)

This fall J.Kwest released his first full-length album, Lemonade, but he continues to struggle to find churches that will allow him to perform his music. He'd like to be able to call it simply "Christian rap," but many people in traditional gospel circles dismiss Christian rap as sacrilegious for its attempts to mimic what's popular in secular music—often seen as "the devil's music." The friction between the two is at least as old as the Saturday-­night/Sunday-morning dichotomy in the blues.

Pastor Phil Jackson preaches at the House Covenant Church in North Lawndale, which incorporates hip-hop into its young-adult services. "It's, like, 9,000 churches in Chicago," he says. "I would say maybe there's a good 100 out of 9,000 that would not be intimidated by [Christian rap]."

Jackson says the black church's long history of resisting developments in pop music dates back at least to Thomas Dorsey, revered as the father of gospel. Perhaps best-known for the song "Take My Hand, Precious Lord," which he wrote in 1932 after his wife and son died in childbirth, Dorsey was also a blues musician who'd cut raunchy hit records under the name Georgia Tom. He moved to Chicago in 1916, and in the 1920s and '30s he incorporated blues influences into sacred music.

"The church used to rip out 'Take My Hand, Precious Lord' from the hymnals," Jackson says, because it was so different from the gospel songs of the time. "But now, you can't go to a funeral in the hood and not hear [it]."

The church's suspicion of hip-hop arises in part because the genre doesn't have its roots there. It's more about the street than the sanctuary. By contrast, uncountable soul and R&B singers of the past—Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston—fell in love with music in church or got started singing in choirs. "Young people are motivated by the realness and rawness of hip-hop, and that kind of spooks the church," Jackson says.

Christian rap doesn't tend to get regular radio airplay, and what little it does get is the occasional spin on gospel stations such as Chicago's Rejoice 102.3 FM. It's too tainted by the "cash, guns, hoes" stigma of mainstream hip-hop.

Keno Greer hosts a Friday-night gospel show, Street Sermonz With Keno, on 102.3. He says he doesn't play a lot of Christian rap because it's not what his audience wants to hear. The playlist is based on ratings, he explains, which provides an incentive for advertisers—and that translates to revenue.

"They [management] feel that there's not an audience for it, or they feel the audience is too small. So I'd rather cater to a majority of the people than take a chance on playing some new stuff, playing something different," Greer says. "If it's not broke, you not gon' fix it."

Gospel stations cater to an older crowd. And that crowd loves praise and worship songs ("Every Praise" by Hezekiah Walker), old-school choirs (the Mississippi Mass Choir), traditional gospel artists (Donnie McClurkin), and contemporary groups (Mary Mary).

"If we play a J.Kwest or Lecrae, that may turn them off, and they are our committed audience," says Greer. "I want to keep my ratings as high as they can be, so I can keep my maximum amount of advertisers. It comes down to money."

Another drawback, according to Greer, is that radio executives often see Christian rap as too corny for mainstream audiences—hip-hop and R&B stations such as 107.5 WGCI and Power 92.3 won't play it during peak hours. (Greer's show used to air on Power 92.3, but the station cut it in 2011.) This reluctance persists notwithstanding the success of songs like Kanye West's "Jesus Walks."

JOHN STURDY
  • John Sturdy

J.Kwest thinks Christian rap has been hurt by the church's reputation for moral rigidity. "When I listen to and read Kanye, what I think is, this man is exploring the idea of God in his music," he says. "The church sometimes feels that it has to be the authority and it's about right and wrong. When Kanye and Kendrick [Lamar] talk about God, they're not talking about right or wrong. Right or wrong don't matter. This is what's right to me. This is what's true to me."

J.Kwest narrowly escaped the pull of gangs in his Washington Park neighborhood as a child. He looked up to his gangbanging cousin and idolized street life—until he began to under­stand what became of the dope dealers and gangsters on his block.

"The older I got, I started to see where that went for them," he says. "They're not around no more, which I didn't realize meant they were dead or in jail or in the hospital. I just started to say, 'I don't want this to be my life.' They don't look like they're having fun anymore."

He turned to music instead. As a freshman at Rich Central High School in Olympia Fields, J.Kwest overheard a fellow student named Anthony Lowery rapping in the hallway with a big circle of kids around him. The kid—his rap name was BreevEazie—told everyone to catch his show every Monday night at New Faith Baptist Church's youth group. J.Kwest was soon a regular at New Faith, and he eventually became BreevEazie's sidekick in the duo Verbal Kwest.

"Rap saved my life—hip-hop and the ability to tell my story put me at ease enough to where violence became no longer an option," J.Kwest says. "A church that allowed me to use hip-hop is how I found Jesus. It's how I found God. So without it, who knows?"

On iTunes, his album Lemonade is listed under "Hip-Hop/Rap" and "Christian & Gospel," but he wants to be a Christian rapper without people listening to him differently. The lead single, "I Woke Up," begins with a declaration over heavy bass: "We don't pop champagne / We make lemonade." The reference, of course, is to what you're supposed to do when life gives you lemons.

"Liquor 'n Pills" digs deeper into J.Kwest's personal story. He raps, "I watched cuz while growing up / He kept me out of his biz / I couldn't wait to get big / 'Cause they had hoodrats and drove downtown and had / Liquor 'n pills." His latest single and video, "Don't Push Me," is an antibullying anthem featuring the Soul Children of Chicago. "Me and all the voices in my head / Feeling this close to the edge / And they said, Don't let 'em get you / Get into you, but that's a joke / When you wear the same pants and you sick of being broke."

When he raps, J.Kwest doesn't preach a sermon or beat you over the head with Bible verses. He's telling his story, hoping that he can save someone else's life. As Greer puts it, what matters is that J.Kwest's music comes from a Christian worldview.

"Although he does have that [Christian] message in the music, and a message of positivity, he also deals with just everyday life things," Greer says. "I think that it's more attractive to the average listener."

Bronzeville-bred MC Sir the Baptist, the 28-year-old son of a preacher, hears the Christian mission in J.Kwest's music. He finds it inspirational. "I don't see why anybody would have a problem with that," he says. He wants to be considered a Christian rapper himself, despite the occasional curse words in his music. "Gospel music had its time. It just needs some growth. It needs more realism."

According to Sir the Baptist, connecting everyday life to gospel is the future of the music. Chicago artists are doing it in their own way. Kanye's new song "Ultralight Beam" features Chance the Rapper promising to defend God's name against nonbelievers, and respected gospel artist Kirk Franklin ends the song in prayer. Franklin delivered a slightly different version on Saturday Night Live last month than appears on the album:

Father, this prayer is for everybody who feels like giving up
This prayer's for everybody that feels like they're not good enough
For everybody that's said "I'm sorry" too many times.
Jesus, that's why I'm glad you came to give us eternal life
I'm so glad about it

"Before, the only people who knew Kirk Franklin were church folks," J.Kwest says. He means before Franklin made the 1997 album God's Property From Kirk Franklin's Nu Nation with the choir God's Property—the hip-hop-influenced "Stomp," which features Cheryl James (aka Salt from 80s and 90s hit makers Salt-n-Pepa), was one of the most popular gospel songs of the decade. Jackson says Franklin was criticized for mixing rap and gospel but nonetheless managed to reach many people who felt shunned by the church.

BJ the Chicago Kid's recent single "Church" is about doing drugs and having sex on a Saturday night despite having church the next morning. Sir the Baptist feels like most gospel music expects a perfection from people that isn't realistic.

"If you look through it, who don't have sex because they have church in the morning? You just have sex anyway and go to church when you get up," he says. "If 'realistic' is based off what you can touch and what you can see, then gospel would be the intangible, talking about what you can't see. We have to find some way to connect God seamlessly with your life—whether you're smoking a cigarette or weed or drinking."

That's going to be difficult, J.Kwest says, because mainstream hip-hop artists use God's language so flippantly—he mentions Meek Mill's 2012 hit "Amen." "There are words of church that have lost their sacred meaning and sacred power," he says. "For me, my goal is to talk about life because I know God is in there, to talk about my story because I know God is in there. And if somebody hears my story, they'll find their story in the midst of that."  v

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