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When it comes to Atlanta hip-hop, don’t forget church

On 50th anniversary of hip-hop, here’s a look at its influence on Christian music
Christian rapper Young C performs between worship service alongside Pastor Sam Collier at Story Church Atlanta on August 27, 2023, in Atlanta. (Michael Blackshire/

Credit: Michael Blackshire

Credit: Michael Blackshire

Christian rapper Young C performs between worship service alongside Pastor Sam Collier at Story Church Atlanta on August 27, 2023, in Atlanta. (Michael Blackshire/

Sam Collier is a child of hip-hop and R&B.

Growing up, the 35-year-old pastor of Story Church Atlanta fed on the music of Tupac, Biggie and OutKast.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that when Collier first opened the doors of Story Church Atlanta on Easter Day 2022 he included “The Portrait,” a rap song responding to those who question the story of Jesus by Emanuel Lee “Da’ T.R.U.T.H.” Lambert Jr., a friend, member of the church staff and one of the pioneers of Christian hip-hop.

As the world observes the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, experts say its far-reaching impact can be felt in all aspects of culture, from the way people dress, how they talk and even the way they worship.

And its reach extends to some of the world’s sacred spaces: churches.

From an evangelistic perspective and from its earliest days, Collier said, hip-hop provided access to unchurched people, which is one of the missions of faith.

Some might think the two worlds of hip-hop and Christian music would collide. And perhaps with some lyrics of hip-hop they would, but churches and audiences have found they can co-exist, thrive and praise God at the same time.

Some churches with younger members have ditched long choir robes for jeans and T-shirts. Hip-hop vernacular like “It’s lit” can be heard in the pews and from the pulpit. The music has hallmarks of traditional hip-hop, with its rhythmic beat and heavy bass, but with messages about faith and God and themes of encouragement and change.

A few years ago, Kanye West brought his pop-up “Sunday Service” to New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Stonecrest, performing to a packed sanctuary where he and choirs provided their own gospel-centered lyrics to R&B favorites.

Another New Birth performer was Mike McClure Jr, known as “Pastor Mike Jr.”, who leads Rock City Church in Birmingham. His “Winning” CD took home the 2023 Stellar Award Gospel Album of the Year.

Soon New Birth Pastor Jamal Harrison Bryant hopes to launch a hip-hop ministry to appeal to millennials and Generation Zs.

He said historically many genres of music and famous artists came out of the church.

However, “Hip-hop is the only genre of Black music that was not birthed out of the church,” he said. “It was birthed out of the corner that the church was on ... The church has to be intentional to reach out because it reflects the children that we didn’t minister to.”

A way to bring the church experience to youth

Candice Lewis, worship and arts director at Destiny World Church in Austell, said infusing hip-hop in worship is a way to bring the church experience to youth.

She said 17 young people have asked about joining the choir “because it doesn’t look boring. It’s a little different. Young people are putting down their phones in church and will start clapping their hands and bobbing their heads. ... It makes witnessing a little bit easier because I’m able to talk to you in your language.”

She’s had pushback from older members who like more traditional hymns and slower tempo music. They say it doesn’t sound like church to them. So, Lewis sets aside one Sunday each month for Youth Sunday when their songs can be featured.

Story Church’s Collier, whose father led a small “old-school” Baptist congregation on University Avenue in Atlanta, wears Jordans in the pulpit. His Midtown church also has a faith-based record label, Story Records.

“Every generation has a primary sound that kind of shapes that generation and hip-hop is one of the main sounds — not the only sound — but it’s one of the main sounds for the millennium generation and for Generation Z as well,” Collier said.

“I feel like God made hip-hop ...”

When Brea Miles, a North Carolina-based Christian hip-hop artist, devoted her life to Christ in 2012, she tried to use the energy and passion of hip-hop music in a way that would glorify God.

Miles has a television show “Relentless Faith,” that is aired in Atlanta on WATC Channel 57, an idenpendent Christian broadcasting station.

She found she could still “enjoy myself and learn about God,” without turning away from a musical genre she loved. “I feel like God made hip-hop just like every other genre of music. I think it’s about understanding what worship is and what that looks like.”

Texas-born Lecrae‚ who founded Atlanta-based Reach Records in 2004 has two Grammys and eight Dove awards, which represent the Gospel Music Association’s annual recognition of achievements in Christian music He is one of the faces of today’s Christian hip-hop.

He has more than 2.8 million monthly listeners on Spotify. His “I’ll Find You,” a song about hope in the midst of pain, featuring Tori Kelly, has close to 106 million streams. Others on Reach’s label include Andy Mineo, Hulvey and Wande, all popular artists.

Lecrae “absolutely” considers himself a Christian hip-hop artist.

“Christian hip-hop is just a sub genre of hip-hop,” he said in response to emailed questions. “We are individuals who articulate our faith or faith-leaning themes within our music.”

Lecrae said he used to hate the term Christian hip-hop because he felt it was too confining.

But now he views it as a gift to demonstrate his distinction.

“People may not be interested from that title but once they listen they are generally shocked,” he said. " I think I get to change the perception of what Christian hip-hop is.”

Although growing audiences, Christian hip-hop is still a smaller market than other genres of music.

“We are definitely smaller and lesser known but the skill and music speaks for itself, and the fans are growing,” said Lecrae.

It’s done from a place of love ... “

“You’re probably not going to get rich doing it, so it’s done from a place of love and heart to inspire people. It’s pure,” Lecrae said.

Some of the younger Christian rappers are standing out for their skill and creativity.

“There are some artists in my opinion that rival anything mainstream,” he said.

James B. Rosseau Sr., the son of a Philadelphia pastor, and CEO of Holy Culture’s Christian radio program on Sirius FM, said although it’s been years since Christian hip-hop first came on the scene, it still has a ways to go greater acceptance among mainstream music audiences.

According to Luminate, which issues reports on the leading streaming genres and consumer habits, R&B and hip-hop represent 27% of music consumption, followed by rock at 16%, pop at 13%, and gospel and Christian music at 2%.

“I think mainstream is still trying to figure us out a bit and we may not have the awareness yet,” said Rosseau.

Christian rapper Kevin “KB”: Burgess, whose 2015 album “Tomorrow We Live” debuted atop Billboard’s Christian Album chart, understands that dichotomy.

His mother only allowed him to listen to “church music.” So at night he would hide in the closet and listen to hip-hop. He has merged his interest in both genres in his successful career in Christian hip-hop.

“Hip-hop was obviously aimed at the issues of the hood, and Christian hip-hop was trying to reach the hood but they were reaching the hood with the Gospel.”