A hot sun beats down on an exuberant crowd in a parking lot last month in downtown Minneapolis. Smoke wafts from the grill, and cups of lemonade are passed around. People of all ages, colors, shapes, and sizes wave their hands high, bodies swaying to the booming music as they scream along to the chorus: "Christ rules everything around me!"
It's my first taste of the burgeoning Christian hip-hop scene in the Twin Cities. Taking cues from mainstream artists like Lecrae, who became the first rapper to win a Grammy Award for Best Gospel Album in 2013, local Christian wordsmiths are taking to the streets in hopes of utilizing an oft-misunderstood genre to spread peace, positivity, and the Gospel.
The movement starts with XROSS, a pioneering local Christian rapper and founder of 1 Way Entertainment, a Minneapolis-based Christian hip-hop record label. He recalls his unlikely first encounter with Jesus in a Southern California strip club.
"I was sitting at the stage tipping a young lady. I was makin' it rain, just throwing dollar bills at her. Then I heard the voice of the Lord, asking one question: 'Are you happy?'"
Tears fell down his face. "My friends were thinking, that dude's just trippin' — he's high," remembers XROSS, a.k.a. Korey Dean Sr. He left for his recording studio at 3 a.m. that same day, entered the booth, and knelt in prayer. Hours later, he was on the first flight out to the Twin Cities, where he had attended college and formed relationships that would serve as the foundation for his newly chosen path.
Other artists share similar revelatory stories. Take King David the Recruiter, another one of the performers who graced the stage last month outside of Wesley United Methodist Church. At first listen, his songs sound much like anything you'd hear on popular rap radio — bangin' trap beats, thundering bass, hard-hitting and aggressive lyrical flow. Tune into what he's saying, though, and the message may catch you by surprise. He stalks the pavement spitting, "Christ all in my vein," holding out his right arm.
King David, 37, grew up on the outskirts of Chicago. "I started gangbanging at 11 years old," says the real-life David Taylor. "That was my dream as a kid — to be a big-time dope dealer." He had his first spiritual encounter while reading from the book of Deuteronomy with a cousin at the age of 17. "From that day on, things just started happening," he explains. "I became paranoid."
The particular passage they read discusses curses that shall befall those who turn their back upon the Lord, and King David felt a strong connection. "I had a lot of enemies," he says grimly. "I used to do a lot of dirt, and people really wanted to kill me. I come from war." It took many more years and signs for King David to evolve into his role as a Christian rapper. Despite an initial surrender to God, he found himself face-to-face with his demons again several times. He spent six years incarcerated in Minnesota for attempted murder. He's been out for two years. "My heart was darkened for a minute, and then the light bulb went back on," King David says. While in prison he began writing songs again, yearning to turn his life in a positive direction. Today, King David sees himself as something of a street minister, confident his experiences told through rapping will reach young people trapped in similar cycles of violence.
Dezal da Messenger found God in the throes of a 2004 drug overdose. "My body started shutting down," recounts the rapper born Devron Mitchell. "I had an out-of-body experience, and I could see myself laying on the ground." He felt a positive presence, one he identified immediately as Jesus — "which is interesting," he notes, "because at that time I was not a Christian." He remembers also feeling a dark presence. As a child he was told by his mother and grandmother to say, "Satan, I rebuke you in the name of Jesus," and the devil would leave. As he repeated that mantra, he felt himself moving back into his body. After that near-death experience, Dezal stopped performing on the local club circuit. "I wasn't focused on making party music anymore," he says. "I was focused on making music to help people change."
Dezal, 30, is joined onstage at the barbecue by his wife Nichelle, 26, whose beautiful voice soars above the audience. Today he's mostly rapping, but he reveals that he's collaborating on non-rap worship songs with his wife. Dezal is the worship leader at Spirit of Faith Christian Center in Minneapolis, and Nichelle is on the praise team.
The last performer of the day represents the new generation: K-Jay, the 20-year-old son of XROSS. Though he's the youngest of the crew, his lyrical flow is the most mature and developed. He's got the crowd fully engaged, sparked by his enthusiasm.
K-Jay experienced his greatest moment of growth upon first leaving home to attend college. "I found myself really lost," Korey Dean Jr. says. Raised in the church and given the opportunity to perform at a young age by his father, he'd never truly been on his own. "Going through that process of not knowing where the next meal was going to come from pushed me to really get a grip on myself," he says. He cut ties with bad influences and focused on perfecting his art.
As for the broader Twin Cities Christian hip-hop scene? The movement is truly working its way up from the streets. Many local Christian rap artists can be found performing at churches, recording studios, and free community events. "Yo, we got a major army over here that's not going anywhere anytime soon," he boasts. "You're gonna have to let us in."