When whisper-quiet Aretha Joshua assumed her rough-and-tumble persona--Sister Saved--for the behatted ladies filling Harvest Tabernacle's pews, the welcome was far from open-armed.
"The mothers of the church were down in front saying: '. . . All that rap . . . that's just noise,' " Joshua explains. "Then I came out and said, 'Wait, all rap ain't bad!'
" 'Oh yeah?' they said," Joshua recalls, giggling and shaking her head. "Those moms, they were \o7 hard!\f7 "
But what Sister Saved unleashed in her coquettish style was a self-penned rhyme, fresh and at once wildly confounding to the elders' ears:
\o7 I said I got the Lord and that's all I need\f7 .
\o7 You don't believe it?
Just try it, G\f7 .
\o7 Yeah and I won't quit\f7 ,
\o7 Believe me, I'm going to stick with it\f7 .
\o7 So hey what's up y'all\f7 ,
\o7 I'ma give you what you want?
No, no\f7 .
\o7 I won't give you no cussin'\f7 ,
\o7 But it will be bumpin'\f7 , \o7 rappin' for the Lord.
\f7 Lukewarm-to-dubious receptions don't much faze Joshua anymore. It's part and parcel of a missionary's work to impart a foreign message to the yet-to-be-converted.
She knows exactly what kind of rap the congregation is most familiar with: "Fat" beats pumped hard and loud from "tricked-out" pick-up trucks "rolling the 'shaw" (Crenshaw Boulevard); boom-boxes flexing their wattage in neighborhood malls; dinner-table recitations by posturing half-pints peppered with more than just traces of gangsta-tough disregard and an arsenal of expletives.
In her quest to "rap the Word," Joshua expects to prove that the forum isn't as narrow as one might think, that it can not only ignite the imagination, but inspire a younger generation to ask a few questions. Or better yet, demand some answers.
She's the first to admit that it confuses both the Bible-thumping elders who follow tradition with a careful finger, line by line, and disgruntled youth, looking for a more immediate way to address community problems and viewing the church as an antiquity.
Joshua's a proud product of a musical family; brother Lloyd, who briefly had his own small record label, jump-started her passion by introducing her to vast musical options.
A South-Central L. A. native, mother of one and grocery checker by day, Joshua, 24, has been rapping since she was 14, and on the gospel track since 1991. And she thinks her style can bridge the gap between booming, declarative street rap and bold messages about damnation and salvation that put a spin on the Testaments, both old and new.
"A lot of people think Christian rap should sound like Walt Disney or something," says Jerome Carter, Joshua's brother and manager. The perception is, he explains, that "you have to be associated with Islam to be 'hard,' so to speak, in the rap world, (but) Christians are just as hard, just as tough."
Los Angeles and Manual Arts high schools served as Joshua's testing ground. She penned lines in her spare time, sharing and sharpening them with friends. As a secular rapper, she stood her ground at the mike, "bustin' rhymes" at talent shows and festivals around town.
She and her sister, Maria, shared a stage with Salt-N-Peppa as well as Ice-T, one of L. A.'s first hard-core rappers. The sisters served up what appeared to be fun and sassy rhymes. "But," stresses Joshua, "I did an apartheid rap, a drinking and driving rap, a fussin' and fighting rap, a lost and found rap. It was just all message, always a message."
And when brother Jerome introduced her to his congregation at Maranatha Community Church in the Crenshaw district last fall, she explored content that was more parable than simplistic cautionary tale.
A few years before, he had squired his grumbling siblings to a Christian retreat. They emerged, as Joshua puts it, with a "changed heart." Together, she and Jerome pieced together a rhyme titled "The X and the Cross," and set it to a full-blast instrumental mix recorded by the Geto Boys, a notoriously nasty crew.
Neither a trailblazer nor alone wandering an indifferent landscape, Joshua is one of few women to take this mantle solo. Along with Run-DMC's new-found religion, Hammer's gospel-tinged "Pray" and the rich, spiritual tableau of Grammy-winning artists Arrested Development, lesser-known rappers like Idol King, Soldiers of Christ and Alliance of Light approach the stage armed with messages of salvation or miracle stories primed with a '90s beat. Even the Gospel Gangsters, a posse of ex-gangbangers, have called their own truce--with Jesus.
For many, though, the notion still takes some getting used to. The resistance is similar to rumblings inspired by the first saxophone let loose within the confines of a church sanctuary or a comfort song celebrating the balm of the Gospels with traces of the blues.
"In the black church there's a new generation changing the sound of gospel music," says Nelson George, a New York-based culture critic and author.