As he takes the stage, wearingbaggy jeans, an oversized basketball jersey and a massive gold chain, Sahaan McKelvey could be any rapper, layin' it down for any crowd in any of a dozen concerts happening in Portland that night. But he's not and they're not and it isn't.
McKelvey is a youth pastor. His crowd is 100 teenagers, parents, grandparents and young families, and this is RepChrist, a night of holy hip hop at Irvington Covenant Church in Northeast Portland.
"Regardless of political models that paint culture as the enemy, pastors need to engage the culture in a loving way, to draw people toward a positive alternative to the lives they are leading."
McKelvey and his backup, a five-piece band, a deejay and background singers, fill the church sanctuary with the unrelenting urgency of hip hop that has found salvation not in drugs, not in violence, not in the degradation of women, but in the message of Jesus Christ. Here's a sample:
"No condemnation, I'm free, I'm free.
"I dance and sing in liberty.
"I don't care what they say about me,
" 'Cause I have a right to be free."
In a year when "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp," won an Oscar for best original song, most Christians wonder whether rap music and hip hop belong in a church. With its themes of sex, drugs, wealth and violence, hip hop seems to be the antithesis of Jesus' message. But some ministers argue that hip-hop culture, if true to its roots, provides a valuable outreach to young people.
An evening like RepChrist "starts where your hearts are," said Darien West, 18, a regular at RepChrist. "It's not the vehicle, it's the message coming out of it."
"More and more churches are opening up to hip-hop culture," said Efrem Smith, senior pastor of The Sanctuary Covenant Church in Minneapolis and co-author of "The Hip-Hop Church: Connecting With the Movement Shaping Our Culture" (IVP Books, $14). He and his co-writer, Phil Jackson, found about 10 all-out hip-hop churches across the United States and saw the use of hip-hop elements in a growing number of inner city churches.
"The African American and urban church needs to really engage and embrace some part of hip-hop culture in order for the church not to die," Smith said. "There is a whole generation of people like me who grew up in hip-hop culture and, unlike me, didn't grow up in the church at all.
"Regardless of political models that paint culture as the enemy, pastors need to engage the culture in a loving way, to draw people toward a positive alternative to the lives they are leading," he said.
The resistance to enlisting hip-hop culture to spread the Gospel comes mainly, Smith said, from ignorance about its roots and its latest popular forms.
He traces hip-hop culture back to the South Bronx of the early 1970s. It arose as African American and Latinocommunities responded to urban renewal projects that made a few people richer and smoothed out drivers' commutes but destroyed neighborhoods, eliminated jobs and left too many streets open to crime and violence.
"There is more to hip hop than just rap," Smith said. "Hip hop is about dance, art, expression, pain, love, racism, sexism, broken families, hard times, the search for God and overcoming."
McKelvey has hosted nine RepChrist nights in his three years as youth pastor at Irvington Covenant Church.
"For kids who do go to church, we empower them that they can dress the way they dress, that church can be cool, that you don't have to be hesitant to meet your friends there."
McKelvey is 30 and grew up in hip-hop culture. He also grew up in the church, but by the time he hit his 20s, he had drifted away. When he returned to church, he got rid of all his secular music.
"I threw away 300 or 400 CDs, and now I probably have that much again," he said.
He also helped to produce two CDs of Portland artists who use rap and spoken word to talk about Jesus. He hopes to organize a RepChrist event at Pioneer Square during the Rose Festival.
"Young people in our country now are engulfed in hip-hop culture — the music, the dress, everything about the way young people live. The way that hip-hop affects them can be used for good or bad," he said, and, yes, some mainstream hip-hop messages are destructive.
"But we can redeem all that," he said. "It can be a tool for God's kingdom."
— The Associated Press