SAN JOSE — The pastor paces up and down the aisles of Jubilee Christian Center, shouting words from the Scriptures, casting out unclean spirits in his midst. Hundreds of arms reaching to the heavens sway as the rough, familiar voice rises, touching souls that yearn to be saved.
"Somebody here needs to be set free," he tells them. "There's somebody here who's spiritually dead. I can feel it. Somebody shout hallelujah!"
"Hallelujah," the faithful yell out.
With the same breath and body that rhymed and danced to the worldwide rap hit "Can't Touch This," M.C. Hammer is now preaching about God.
Every Sunday night at 6, Hammer leads a dynamic hip-hop gospel prayer service at Jubilee Christian Center, one of the largest evangelical churches in Northern California. "Hammertime" draws curious kids, families and unchurched young people of all races with its straight-up message about God and life that honors the street credo of "keeping it real."
Last Sunday night, as rain poured on the church roof, Hammer was at the pulpit with his Bible, directing those who were spiritually dead to awaken to Jesus. Dressed in simple black slacks and a red blazer without the flash and entourage he once was known for, Hammer worked the crowd for a different kind of celebration.
"Hammer wants to throw you a party tonight. Ain't no party like the Holy Ghost party," he said.
"Amen," someone shouted from the back.
"Hammer wants to throw you a party and you're stifling the Holy Spirit! Come on, now! Why you holding up the party?"
The crowd of close to 500 faithful roared in laughter and applause.
In the early 1990s, Hammer, whose given name is Stanley Kirk Burrell, was on top of the world as a multi-platinum rap superstar with a Grammy award and an estimated annual income of $33 million. By 1996, he was forced to declare bankruptcy. The Oakland-born entertainer had amassed debts of nearly $14 million and squandered his fortune on a $9-million mansion, 17 cars and a Boeing 727. He moved his wife, Stephanie, and four children to a new home in Tracy, Calif.
Hammer, now 37, had always been a Christian, often praising God in his songs and even securing his second-biggest hit with the soulful rap hymn "Pray." But his fall from grace, combined with several other wake-up calls, including the death of his friend Tupac Shakur, triggered a rediscovery of faith, he says. In 1997, after what he describes as a visitation from Jesus, Hammer was ordained in the Church of God in Christ and set his life on a new course.
"Previously, being a prodigal son took me away from the relationship that I once knew. There came a point where I wanted to just get back home. Get back to the place . . . I once had in my relationship with Jesus," Hammer said.
"Whether the bankruptcy played any role in my refocusing, that's great. Hallelujah, I hope it did! But the most important part of what occurred to me was love, missing the love of God in the way that I had known it," he said.
Last year, Hammer and Jubilee's Pastor Dick Bernal began talking about starting a Sunday night service aimed at bringing the hip-hop generation to church. The service, for which Hammer is not paid, made its debut in September and has garnered a multicultural following of young and old from across California.
"He's a natural. He brings in all kinds of people because he's a celebrity and he's also an evangelist," said Bernal. "He was a casual Christian. Now, he's committed. He'll tell you himself. God had to take his money away to get his heart."
More people are beginning to take note. The Trinity Broadcasting Network, for example, is collaborating with Hammer on a new Christian talk show. The first program will be taped live from the church Sunday with Smokey Robinson as Hammer's first guest. He also has a new album in production to be released on his label, Worldhit Music.
Lately, there seems to be renewed interest in religion and spirituality among the voices of the hip-hop generation--rappers. Besides Hammer's example, rap legend Run of Run DMC was ordained as the Rev. Run and now preaches from Zoe Ministry in New York. Lauryn Hill, the hip-hop diva from New Jersey who snagged five Grammys last year, made her deep faith public when she used her acceptance speech to thank God and read a passage from the Bible. Other black artists such as Eryka Badu, Q-Tip and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony have also turned to religious narratives in their lyrics.
Some in the music industry attribute the trend to the deaths of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G., which forced many young people to question their own mortality. But scholars who have studied the history of the black church see other reasons for the renaissance of religion among young African Americans. Youths struggling in the inner city have always leaned on religion in hard times as solace in a hostile world. But many felt uncomfortable in a traditional church that they said dictated and judged the way they should dress, walk and talk.