Rapping on Heaven's Door

Can Christian hip-hop save Enock from his demons?

In the beginning, Juan James is just a kid. A seven-year-old latchkey kid in his hometown of Philadelphia with a couple of hours to kill after school one day. Instead of watching cartoons, he wanders into his parents' bedroom.

It's a yellow crate, maybe orange, that he finds in the stand on his father's side of the bed. There are magazines in it, the kind of magazines he's never seen before, and he looks at them.

Something stirs from within -- a foreign feeling that, years later, Juan James, a recovering sex addict, will describe as his innocence dying. As a Genesis story, it's fitting: His tree of knowledge was a stack of dirty magazines.

Juan James, holy hip-hop star, tells a tale of contradictions.
Daniel Kramer
Juan James, holy hip-hop star, tells a tale of contradictions.
Lil' J Xavier lights it up at a Houston holy hip-hop awards show.
Daniel Kramer
Lil' J Xavier lights it up at a Houston holy hip-hop awards show.

The "crazy dreams" arrived shortly thereafter. Nothing especially explicit at this point, just, say, a woman walking down the street without a shirt on.

He loses his virginity at age 14 to a prostitute in a warehouse where he stocks sodas. Three years later he knocks up his girlfriend and drops out of high school. The two never marry.

Scratch forward a decade to 2000. Juan James is an MC with the Christian hip-hop supergroup the Cross Movement, and he goes by the stage name Enock. His name refers to Enoch, a character in the book of Genesis who lived for 365 years before God took him away.

He explains: "One of the questions that I asked myself…was what kind of relationship with God did this man have for God to say, 'You know what, you don't even have to worry about a funeral. I'm just going to take you.' And so that's the kind of relationship with God that I want."

But here at the stroke of the millennium, it isn't the kind of relationship with God that he's had. Juan James has a secret, an addiction that makes his righteousness ring hollow. If anyone finds out, he'll go down as a hypocrite. At best.

James is 30 now and has moved down to Houston at a friend's invitation to get a fresh start. On a summery Saturday afternoon, he's sitting in a prayer room at a large church called Fishers of Men on the west side of town, waiting to perform. The light falls on him from a side window, its blinds drawn but aglow with the warm late-afternoon sun.

An imposing figure, James carries his weight up top on a muscular upper-body frame. His broad shoulders and thick biceps are like barbells, his shaved head is almost bald, and his eyes narrow sharply at the corners. He has on a Phat Farm T-shirt, jean shorts and slick blue sneaks. On one arm his name is tattooed in pointy letters; on the other, near his hand, he has a tattoo of a Jesus fish.

Juan James went to church with his mom when he was a little boy and started getting serious about faith in his mid-teens. But being "saved" didn't save him from a struggle with sexual addiction. Just because he'd accepted Jesus as his savior didn't mean the urges went away. Christianity, he discovered, was not the Band-Aid Christians sometimes bill it as -- or even the force James would rap about with his Christian hip-hop group. Porn, though, was a force -- a magnetic, corrosive force that was affecting his mind and pretty soon would start rippling through his life as well.

This didn't jibe with the person he played on stage.

Back in the day (around 1995) in the Philadelphia area, a large collective of MCs joined up to create what would become one of the most popular "underground" holy hip-hop crews anywhere, the Cross Movement. They toured and performed almost exclusively at religious venues, churches, outreaches and the like.

In 1997 they released Heaven's Mentality, following that up with House of Representatives the next year. Compared to secular hip-hop hits, these albums really didn't make a lot of noise; 29,000 and 46,000 units moved, respectively. At any rate, James wasn't counting on that cheddar to get by; he made his living doing construction, church maintenance and auto repair and has yet to bank his living on a rap career.

Lyrically the Cross Movement approach couldn't get much more Christian short of hanging beats behind a Bible-study class.

Take "Introducin'," a track off House of Representatives that James himself penned: "Hearts are altered to the altar / He died for all walks of life / He's the Lord of all cultures / Perfector, resurrector, all life is His / Sin-disconnector."

Yet there was no sin-disconnecting for James. Instead, he learned how to compartmentalize.

"It was up to the point where I masked. I began to manage it well," he says. "You sort of become a good manager instead of being out of control with it. Knowing that, okay, I got a responsibility, I got an image to maintain, okay -- uh, since I know I gotta minister this week, I'm not going to do anything of a sexual perversion or nature this week. I'll wait till after I get home. See? You start to manage it; you start to, uh, you know, find ways to still not feel guilty when you're on stage telling people what they shouldn't do.

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