There are a lot of pastors in Houston. Very, very few of them can rap. And only one of them is releasing an album this week featuring guest verses by Scarface, Bun B, Z-Ro, Paul Wall and Propain.
That would be Vaughaligan Walwyn, a married father of four and the pastor of Legacy Church, a 300-member congregation that meets at the Christian Temple Church on the city's southeast side. Walwyn grew up five minutes away from the place, stopping by on Tuesday nights to play basketball.
As he grew into a young man, however, it wasn't the church that called out to Walwyn. It was the music of the streets.
"When I was young, LL Cool J came out with that 'I'm Bad' video," the pastor says. "I knew all the words to that, and I'd rap the whole video. I would go to DJ Screw's house to buy the tapes, you know what I mean? One of my guys at the school's sister was actually dating DJ Screw, so we had access to the tapes other people didn't have! We were really embedded in the culture."
When an injury derailed his track scholarship to Rice University, Walwyn took the name Von Won and jumped headfirst into the Houston rap game, fueling all-night recording sessions with tons of weed and Timmy Chan's. After years of writing songs, producing records and doing shows, he had built a solid local network, working with artists such as Screwed Up Click mainstays Lil' Keke and Big Pokey.
After the Houston rap scene blew up nationally in 2005, it looked like he would get his shot.
"I had been to Sony in New York and to Universal," Walwyn recalls. "I was talking to Avery Lipman and got a couple opportunities to open bigger doors."
But even as his career was taking off, Von Won's life was a sad mess. When the rapper discovered that his father was dying of AIDS, he sank into a deep, dark depression. He turned to cocaine and alcohol to numb the pain, and his life spun out of control -- culminating in a confrontation with police in 2006 during which Walwyn says he was beaten and tased.
It was a near-death experience that changed his outlook on life completely.
"Just in the midst of me releasing an album called Money Already Made, that same month, I got tased," he says. "So I never really got to put out the album like I wanted to.
"I call that 'shock therapy,' man," he adds. "That gave me a whole new direction. I went back to the church and started doing youth ministry. I started using the hip-hop to go into churches and things like that."
Needing to get away from his old rap lifestyle and hoping to focus all of his creative energies toward his faith, Walwyn reached out to a few guys he knew in the local Christian rap scene to see how they did things.
"Luckily, I was already writing songs for some of the Christian rappers in Houston and producing for them, so I had an idea of what it sounded like, an idea of what they did," he says. "But I didn't really take what they did seriously, you know what I mean? But when I got to the point where I said, 'You know, I want to live my life for God,' I already knew some guys."
Soon, Von Won was hooked up with one of the bigger Christian rappers in town, Tre9, and the Much Luvv label. He put out an album called Answering the Call and began his new career as a Christian hip-hop artist.
In doing shows at churches around town, Walwyn discovered his true calling: hip-hop worship. Monthly hip-hop services on Saturday nights at the Christian Temple turned into every Saturday. Walwyn turned his focus to preaching, and now leads worship at Legacy Church every Sunday. But as his family and his church grew, new opportunities for ministry appeared that Walwyn found hard to turn down.
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"This last project, here, it's just got to a point when it's been seven years, and the sound that I was going for at one point was kind of frowned upon in Christian rap, because they really don't want you to still talk about cars and money," he said. "They don't want to blend the two. But me, well, we grew up on the Southeast side!"
Through his old rap-scene connections, Walwyn reached out to the city's biggest rap stars, pitching a project capable of bringing Sunday School to the streets.
"Most of us, we've had something of a relationship, or we've seen each other in the studio," Walwyn says. "They know what I do now, so I sat down with them and I honestly told them, 'I need your fanbase. I need a voice to the people that listen to you. I'd like to do a project that's clean enough for the church, but real enough for the streets.'"
"I think just in my transparency and my honesty -- and me being a pastor -- no one really batted an eye twice or was confused about it," he adds. "They knew exactly kind of where I was going."
The end result is Grace Still Abides, possibly the rawest Christian rap CD ever produced. It's a strange but interesting blend of H-town street flavor, gospel and contemporary Christian sounds you're not real likely to have heard before. The album is Walwyn's first to be released under his birth name, a move he says helped free him up to be himself rather than try to be more Christian or more street.
This was no charity album. Walwyn had to sit each guest rapper down and talk money, but he got 'em. The pastor says that Scarface was the first onboard, making it easier for the others to take him seriously.
Trading verses with Houston's greatest rap icons, the pastor holds his own, never devolving into parody or pure cheese. Church music and Christian themes have always been present in Houston rap; here, they're just amplified and uplifted. The raps are clean, but they're still unfiltered: Z-Ro is a gangster, not a choirboy, and he makes that clear on "I'm Still Here."
"I didn't put any so-called 'Christian rappers' on the album; I wanted all the Houston guys," Walwyn says. "That was just to make a statement. I feel sometimes Christianity might put up too thick a wall between people in the secular side or street music, gangsta rap, whatever you want to call it. But if you ever really listen to those guys' music, you know they reference God. Me knowing them, I know they know the Lord."
Ultimately, the rapper-turned-reverend-turned-rapper hopes that the album will pique the interest and spark the imagination of young people across the region, offering hope not just for an escape from the hood, but from a spiritual ghetto, as well.
"What I try to show them is, you know what? I did do cocaine," the pastor says. "I did do drugs. I slept around with a lot of women; I made a lot of dumb mistakes. I was even tased by the police. Think about how dumb I was!
"But now look at what God did, to where I can show people I've been sober for seven years, I have one wife with no extra baby mama," he continues. "I'm a father to my children, and I work. When people look at me, they don't say 'This Jesus thing is too far off. I can't get there.' They say, 'If it did it for him, then it can do it for me.'"
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