Church Brawls, Upsets, & ‘Devil’s Music’ – Stephen Wiley and Christian Rap
Last week, Rapzilla introduced one of Christian hip-hop’s early founders, Stephen Wiley. Wiley’s connection to the golden era of hip-hop helped spark an untapped segment of music Christian circles had not heard of. As this new breed of gospel-inspired rap music began to hit the streets, the church and even Christian music in general, were not ready for the wave.
It’s no secret that hip-hop was not widely accepted by the church. Going back even 10 years ago, Tedashii, said to Rapzilla that he was told he couldn’t perform in churches. Now just take a second, and think back 30 years. Hip-Hop wasn’t just new to believers, it was also fairly new to everyone.
In the 80s, the stigma of rock and roll being the “Devil’s music” was finally beginning to fade. Now the Devil had a new sound, rap music.
Wiley said he could “write a book” about all the adversity he faced when trying to minister to young people with hip-hop. Some of the mainstream rap music of the mid-80s was so non-threatening that it could probably fall under inspirational or Christian by today’s standards. Wiley was quite literally rapping the books of the Bible, and that was too extreme because the sound was “worldly.”
Pastors and churches were banning him from performing and warning their congregation not to listen to his music.
“One church even had members get into a fist fight because half of them wanted me and the other half didn’t.”
Wiley shared one story about an elderly white woman who approached him after a show. She asked, “What is this rap music?” in a sneering tone. She then turned around and began to walk away which prompted Stephen to ask, “Take a moment to listen.”
The lady put the headphones on and listened to a cassette where she heard Wiley break down the books of the Bible and address Jesus as a hero and friend.
“She began tapping her feet and shouted, ‘My grandkids need to hear this!’”
It turns out, grandma bought five copies to give to her grandkids as well as a bunch of t-shirts.
Meanwhile, Wiley is starting to receive attention from mainstream media that is praising his message and willingness to go in the community and make a difference.
Music juggernaut, Spin Magazine, heralded Wiley as the “Grandmaster of God.” His full page write-up appeared next to an article about Public Enemy.
Read this excerpt below from November 1988:
“When Wiley’s concert ended, hundreds of excited homeboys and homegirls headed for the stage, not to wreck havoc or even get the rapper’s autograph, but to get help in turning their lives around…While most MC’s boast and diss one another, rap about girls, sex, and cars and measure their success in gold records, this Oklahoma-born 30-year-old evangelist prefers rappin’ for Jesus and measuring success in the number of souls he saves.”
That little blast from the past spoke volumes about what was going on in music. Perhaps more tongue-in-cheek than demeaning, rap fans were called “homeboys and homegirls.” However, the magazine gave him props for having a message and touring youth rallies and churches. This is something the church still had a tough time doing – giving props.
“Sometimes the world does a better job at sharing the gospel than the church does,” explained Wiley.
Wiley continued to be a trailblazer for Christian hip-hop as more and more artists began to spring up. Names such as Michael Peace, P.I.D. (Preachers in Disguise), E.T.W. (End Time Warriors), One Way Up, D-Boy Rodriguez, and DC Talk, would help spark the revolution and pave the way for the next generation.
As the music started becoming more accepted and more available to Christian audiences, the industry had to play catch up. A Christian Rap category needed to be created, and the GMA Dove Awards would have to add this growing fad to their list of awards.
“In the late 80s, there was no category for rap music because it was in its infancy. There was PID, One Way Up, Michael Peace, DC Talk..we all knew each other because we checked the charts and the magazines,” said Wiley. “We all would meet and talk about what the future of Christian rap music would be.”
Wiley admitted that most of the other guys were young, around 19 or 20, and he was already 30. He had been around the music scene for awhile. The young guys saw the growing popularity and were very ambitious. He always made sure to hit home with the importance of staying true to the Word.
“I’d always say, the power of the music is not the beat, the power of the music is the words,” he said. “The Bible says the Word is not what would return void. Just don’t focus on your personal experience. Thank God for your testimony but focus on the Word of God. Use scriptural references.”
Looking back, he said a lot of guys would say ‘Yeah, yeah, but the beat and this and that’ and again he’d remind them, “It’s the word that sets the people free.”
Wiley recalls those days with great fondness and was pleased to see DC Talk turn into the phenomenon they did. He’s happy to see TobyMac continuing to serve the Lord, and said he heard him on the radio right before the interview.
In fact, DCT was among the first of Christian hip-hop to be nominated for a Dove Award. They were nominated for Best New Group in 1990. In 1991, the Dove Awards finally added a rap category to the event. The new awards were for “Rap/Hip Hop/Dance Album” and Rap/Hip Hop/Dance Recorded Song.”
The first category saw DC Talk win for Nu Thang. Loud N Clear by Michael Peace, The Lyrical Strength of One Street Poet and Plantin’ A Seed by D-Boy Rodriguez, and
The second category’s nominees were, Wiley’s “Attitude,” “Heavenbound” and “Nu Thang” by DC Talk, “I’ll See You There” by Michael Peace, and “It’s Time” by the Winans.
In what turned out to be a huge upset, the Winans won the award and they were not even a hip-hop group. They happened to have a song that featured a bit of rapping. Wiley revealed that the Christian rap community was not too happy about this, but he laughs it off now, chalking it up to the category being young.
Unfortunately for Wiley, 1991 was his last real chance at grabbing a Dove Award. He released what is probably heralded as his best work with the album Rhapsody in 1991. As his album came out, he was also being pursued by a church that wanted him to be their Youth Pastor.
He kept turning the job down but they kept chasing him for five months. Their persistence turned into a calling from God, and Wiley accepted the offer.
Wiley and his wife prayed on it and after checking the church out, they enjoyed the message and the vision. He continued to tour a bit until 1998 but couldn’t fill out the record deal portion of his contract with Star Song so they parted ways.
Stephen never put out any more rap music of his own but has continued to perform here and there at conventions and old school church events. He’s been pastoring and teaching full-time since then. He is currently the Assistant Vice President, Director of Christian Ministries, Assistant Professor of Religion, at Bacone College and the Founder and Pastor of Praise Center Family Church in Muskogee, OK and Tulsa, OK.
This is not the end for Stephen Wiley though. The old emcee is up to new tricks and is beginning to work on music with a very reputable source, Jim Gittum.
If the name isn’t familiar, the people on his resume will be. Gittum has written and produced music for Death Row Records and West Coast artists such as Snoop Dogg, The Game, Keysha Cole, Kurupt, Tyrese Gibson, and a legend by the name of Tupac Shakur, whom he has gone 3x platinum with.
Wiley used to teach Gittum piano when he was young and just beginning to develop his talent.
“Jim is very creative. He has a hold of the pulse of what’s going on in the Christian side and secular side because he’s in that world,” said Wiley. “I like the old school flavor but he’s constantly telling me I have to upgrade. He’s putting a fire under me. He wants to do some of my old music and take songs like ‘Bible Breaks’, ‘Attitude’, ‘Big Man’, and put a contemporary up to date digital flavor on it. I appreciate that.”
He continued, “Right now we are waiting for the financial stuff to do what we want to do. We are trying to mesh old and new to make it pleasing to God.”
Wiley is excited about the possibility of putting new music out and appreciates where Christian hip-hop has gone. He maintains that at its core it needs to maintain consistency with the scriptures.
Not naming anyone in particular, Stephen said he went to a concert the other day and was very impressed by the performance, the lights, and the atmosphere, but he walked away disappointed because there was no alter call. “The gospel was missing. The rapper’s life story was shown but I saw a lack of Jesus.”
“It was always about the message and the gospel to me,” he concluded.
That concludes this two piece interview with Christian hip-hop pioneer Stephen Wiley. Read part one here.