By Riley Manning
TUPELO – For some, rap and hip-hop music may not be the first outlet to come to mind when they think of spiritual music, but Christian rap artists Joshon Watkins (JWat), Jabaris Jones (J3), Tony Price (Bigg Tone), Roshod Forster (JetBlaq), and Robbin Ruth (IamLenflow) say it’s a movement that is growing every day.
All five of them came to the music on their own, discovering it individually before finally converging at a music showcase last year.
“We all started thinking we were the only ones around here doing this thing,” Watkins said. “Then you get into it and realize how huge it is, and say, ‘Why not do this together?’”
Preparing the way
Jones, Ruth and Price have always been involved in music.
Jones began taking his passion for rap seriously as a ministry in 2010, but for Ruth, rap was a surprise even to him.
“I never intended to rap. It just kind of came about,” he said. “I’ve been into music since I was 18, producing songs and writing lyrics, but my influences are from all over the spectrum, Led Zeppelin, Dave Matthews, Lecrae.”
Meanwhile, Watkins and Forster came to the microphone through the church.
Forster is a proud product of a youth-minded church, whose ministry inspired him to start writing. For Watkins, the music came at a time when his church needed it.
“One night I noticed our youth just looking bored, and I knew we needed to do something different,” he said. “When it comes to reaching them, Wednesday nights aren’t enough. I wasn’t even into music before, but it turned into something big.”
Price has been in the game longer than any of them, since before he was saved in 2005. When he backslid and found himself in jail, he emerged a new man, he said, and released his first Christian album in 2007. He discovered the rest of the crew at the Summer Jam music festival in South Carolina last year.
“I overheard them in the huddle, and I could tell they were hungry and thirsty,” Price said. “You can feel when someone is pulling on you. I truly believe God prepares the way.”
Breaking the genre
While the label of being a “Christian” artist may cause problems for some musicians, the group said each one of them embraces the genre, and hopes to breathe new life into it.
“There’s a big distinction between a Christian rapper and a rapper who happens to be Christian,” Forster said. “You can’t be out for your own edification, but for the building of the kingdom.”
“What do you do with a blessing? Do you feed the people or keep it to yourself?” he said.
To Ruth, what separates Christian rap from secular is the substance of the message. Substance, he said, is exactly what the mainstream rap scene is missing, and what rap fans find themselves craving.
“Rap music is so dumbed down sometimes, because it doesn’t have to have a message,” he said. “When you really have something to say, you bring to the table a mindset of excellence. And when you make your message relatable, it goes above genre. Anyone can tell someone to get saved, but as an artist, you can’t just give scripture, you have to apply it to life.”
For Forster, that doesn’t mean leaving out the nitty-gritty. It’s OK to talk about where you came from, he said, but only if it leads people to where you are.
“The secular industry sells a false idea of the fast life. If you think about it, lots of artists are actually demeaning their fans because all they say is, ‘Look at me, how much better I am than you,’” Forster said. “In a world influenced by this kind of hip hop, you have to give the people something else.”
In actuality, Ruth said, rap may be the perfect medium to deliver the gospel, because of its widespread fan base. Just last month, when Christian rapper Lecrae performed at Tupelo’s BancorpSouth Arena, 10,000 showed up to listen.
“And they all knew the words,” Ruth said. “Rap has touched everybody, culture as a whole. People may see it as a low art, but I Corinthians says God chooses the foolish things of the world to confound the wise.”
On the road
In April, the five rappers will venture to Columbia, S.C., for the Prayze Factor hip-hop artist showcase, where they will each perform. The event contains a competition portion in which artists are voted through three elimination rounds via social media. Last year, Price was astonished to make it through to the final round.
“As the only cat from Mississippi, I wasn’t expecting to get that type of love,” he said. “To me, it was a clear sign that God wanted to deal with me.”
For all artists, Price said Prayze Factor offered a platform for Christian artists to be heard unlike any other. Putting on a good show there can be crucial in developing a fan base.
“Fans of independent artists like us will come anywhere to see you,” he said. “I had a show in Little Rock, and I saw one kid who knew every word. I was so floored I gave him the microphone and he spit the whole verse. That showed me God didn’t call my ministry for the church. He called it for the street. For someone to say, ‘I felt that, I relate to that,’ that’ll touch you. It’ll bless your soul.”
Forster said for an artist to keep his feet on the ground, forget about the numbers, be creative, and stay genuine.
“You can’t measure yourself by the crowds or the money or the self-glory,” he said.
After all, Price said, the real ministry happens after a performance, when listeners get to interact face to face with the artist. And have fun, Watkins added.
“One of the biggest handicaps is people think being a Christian isn’t any fun,” Watkins said. “But we have fun all the time.”