Rapping on Heaven's Door

Can Christian hip-hop save Enock from his demons?

"But when it's all said and done, you're waiting to do it," he continues. "You're so much of a good manager that nobody can really tell what's really going on with you."

There was never a point at which James could affix the cliché "That's when I knew I had a problem." He'd always known he had a problem. And he'd always wanted to beat it. The itch would be faint at first, an urge welling up from the depth of his body, and he would give in. The moment would be sweet and fleeting, sometimes even including an actual human being rather than a tape or a magazine. In the time it took for the urge to exit his body, a wave of emptiness would rush in, and he would start kicking himself again for not being able to resist, wondering, What's wrong with me, dude?

He says he tried to open up some dialogue about accountability with others in the group, but it fizzled out after one or two meetings. (The Cross Movement did not respond to several interview requests for this story.)

Bobby Herring takes the stage at a non-Christian venue for the first time.
Daniel Kramer
Bobby Herring takes the stage at a non-Christian venue for the first time.
Lil' Raskull was one of the earliest Christian MCs to put Houston on the map.
Daniel Kramer
Lil' Raskull was one of the earliest Christian MCs to put Houston on the map.

One day James discovered that he'd maxed out his cable bill from pay-per-view orders. It was yet another small sign that he had a big problem. He resigned from the Cross Movement in 2000 in the midst of marital difficulties with his wife, whom he'd married in Philadelphia two years earlier. When he tried to get straight with a few friends about his sexual addiction, asking for prayer or help, they freaked.

"I don't think they were strong enough to pretty much handle the information and the content that like, 'Man, this dude's going through that?' " he says.

At 26 James had some issues to work through, including a revelation that left him questioning his entire identity. His mother's stepbrother called him one day out of the blue after seeing a Cross Movement video on cable. He congratulated James on his work and his ministry.

"And he said, 'You know, I've been meaning to tell you this for a long time but just didn't know how to tell you,' " says James, trying to reconstruct the conversation. "Then he got quiet. I said, 'Wassup?' He said, 'I guess I should tell you, huh?' I said, 'Yeah, wassup?' He said, 'Juan, I think I'm your dad.' "

There's a pause, then and now, as he lets it soak in. The man he thought was his biological father had left the family when James was ten.

"My jaw hit the floor, dude. I was like, I didn't really know how to feel, but I told him, I said, 'Yo, man, if this is a joke, I don't ever want to hear from you again.' And he said, 'Juan, I'm 99.9 percent sure.' And then I began to look at some old pictures, and I look like his kids."

Reeling from the news, from his crumbling marriage and from his absolute inability to hold down the Seventh Commandment, Juan James hit rock bottom in the summer of 2002. "In my darkest hour, the sun rose in the south," he writes in his CD liner notes.

And an old friend in Houston invited him for a visit.

When Juan James tells his story, it's rife with contradictions. Oddly, that makes him the perfect face for holy hip-hop, which also has had to outgrow its own oxymoronic overtones. It's rap: You expect bitches and blunts, not Bibles.

At its most basic, Christian hip-hop simply borrows the MC-plus-DJ musical aesthetic -- beats, rhymes and samples -- and uses it to deliver a Christian message. Unlike secular hip-hop, which leans aggressive in its party posture, holy hip-hop often takes the same swagger and hoists the cross instead, advocating a Gospel lifestyle.

Some date the subgenre back to the mid-'80s, crediting Stephen Wiley's "Bible Break" as one of the first distinctively Christian tracks to emerge. The ensuing decade and a half saw the movement largely trying to gain acceptance from church communities that focused on the unholy elements of its secular counterpart.

"I think the attitude was more or less that rap is not something to be respected," says one Christian MC. "It was more or less, 'C'mon…why would we want rap in our church? That's like saying we want graffiti in our church. Or we want a DJ in our church. It just don't mean anything to us.' "

One Midwest church, James recalls, went so far as to outlaw rap in its bylaws.

"When you try to tell some established, more conservative folks that you're going to bring rap into the church, that's really what they think of: all the materialism, the sexual, explicit lyrics, that sort of thing," says Jason "Sketch" Bellini, a writer who has followed Christian hip-hop since the mid-'90s. "So that has been a hurdle.

"I think that [artists] felt a burden to really pack their lyrics very tightly with Scripture references and real, very overt Christian references so that it would be accepted in a church."

Christian hip-hop has grown tremendously, especially in the past five years, says Jon Hull, program director at KSBJ/89.3 FM, a contemporary Christian music station. "But, without mass-appeal exposure through radio stations devoted solely to the format 24/7 -- its growth potential is limited by the marginal exposure it receives," he writes in an e-mail.

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