Hip hop music is most identifiable by its hard-thumping base lines and fast-paced rap lyrics. But what makes Christian rap different from what you might hear on commercial radio stations is not the music, but the message.
This is the music of Minneapolis hip hop artist Xross (pronounced "cross"). He is one of the artists making what some have dubbed "holy hip hop." Xross, who used to run a secular music label, says he made the switch to religious rap after he became saved. And he says he's just using his music to spread the word about God.
"It's a tool. When I look at different genres of music, I look at praise and worship, that's a genre of music. Contemporary gospel, traditional gospel, quartet, those are genres. Those are all styles. But those are all styles geared to reach specific people," he said.
And the specific people Xross is trying to reach are young fans of hip hop music.
Xross recently performed at a "holy hip hop" concert at Shiloh Temple International Ministries in north Minneapolis. The event was the preview party for a documentary on the Christian rap movement called "Holy Hip Hop," which features Xross. During the show Xross performed one of his best-known tunes "Do it for Daddy."
Xross says the song was written to be played in clubs more than churches. He says the phrase, who's your daddy has several, sometimes sexual, connotations, and it's also catchy.
"But the question is, really, who is your daddy when it's all said and done, ultimately. Considering the fact there's only one God, it's Jesus Christ. That's who your daddy is. When I began to write that song, I wrote the song because the hook was catchy. It's 'come on, dance for daddy,' that's a club joint. 'Get crunk.' Those are club terms. And it's 'come on bounce.' But then it transitions into ;Come on pray, get saved.' It can't be no more direct than that," he said.
Several hundred people attended the show, which also featured spoken word artists and break dancers.
Fourteen-year-old Darin Gregory was in the audience. He says he doesn't see much difference between hip hop and holy hip hop music.
"It uses the same kind of element as what the worldy hip hop is and the Christian hip hop is. Basically, I say it's the same because it's using a different word. The worldy music is kind of like entertainment. But the Christian music is trying to pull people that's in bondage and in trouble closer to God," he said.
That's exactly what the Rev. Tyrone Maxwell wants to hear. He's the youth minister at Shiloh. Maxwell says his church regularly incorporates hip hop music into its worship because he says it works.
"In order to reach someone, you have to be able to communicate with them and you have to know their form or communication in order to do so. Holy hip hop is saying that there are areas of hip hop that's not holy, but there are areas of hip hop that are holy because we keep that part holy," he said.
But not everyone is comfortable with having hip hop in the church. The Rev. Belinda Green of Minneapolis is an African Methodist Episcopal minister. She says fears that some churches may only be using the music to build their congregations and thereby their collection plates. And Green says she worries that the music may offer a good time and little else.
"My premise is, if we're going to adopt all those kinds of music, especially one that is so much a part of the culture of today, then we need to definitely make sure that we preach Jesus first, that those who sing it know the Lord Christ Jesus and the soul salvation that it offers them, not the bump and the grind. That's not it, she said.
And while Green says she'd prefer that hip hop be left outside the church doors, she realizes she may be in the minority. But she says if hip hop is allowed in the church, it needs boundaries. She's not alone in that thinking.
I think there's a place for that kind of hip hop in the church and I think there's a place for the church in hip hop.Rev. Efrem Smith
The Reverend Efrem Smith is the pastor of Sanctuary Covenant Church in Minneapolis. He holds hip hop services about six times a year and he regularly uses hip hop -- as well as other music genres -- as part of his ministry.
"I think hip hop should only be in the church if its message and its lyrical content is true to scripture and has a Biblical foundation. It has a mission that's wrapped in the principles of Christ, which is what makes it holy. And when that happens, I'm saying, 'why not?' I think there's a place for that kind of hip hop in the church and I think there's a place for the church in hip hop," he said.
And that thinking is critical says Bakari Kitwana. He's the former editor of the hip hop magazine "Source" and he's written several books about hip hop. Kitwana says both sides must give a little.
"Hip hop can't be brought into the church, I don't think, exactly as it is. I think it there have to be some adjustments to fit. And I think where it doesn't fit, young people can't be so pig-headed to say 'this is hip hop, we're young people, you guys just have to accept that this is how we're going to express ourselves,'" he said.
But Kitwana says each church must decide for itself how much hip hop is too much.