Terverius Black believes in hip-hop gospel so much he sold his first home to get the money needed to start his Christian-themed entertainment company.
It was a risky move, but the 34-year-old entrepreneur believes the company's diversity, which is producing music, a film, a reality television show and a gospel cruise, will help boost a struggling genre of Christian music.
Secular hip-hop used radio as a launching pad, but holy hip-hop gets little play on regular hip-hop stations and nearly none on gospel or Christian radio.
"It's tough, but we've got to get a little more creative," said Black, who started Huntsville, Ala.-based Xist (pronounced "exist") Worldwide Record Label three years ago with partner Sean Simmonds.
Both men point to hip-hop moguls like Sean "Diddy" Combs, Jay-Z and Russell Simmons, who succeeded branching outside the music industry. Even though their message is faith-based, Black and Simmonds believe they can find the same success.
"We're trying to create our own blueprint for gospel, but at the same time, make it so that it's respected across the board, and can be followed," said Simmonds, 32.
Hip-hop gospel has been around nearly two decades, but many followers say it didn't start getting recognized until a few years ago. So far this year, there have been more than 500,000 CD and digital sales of hip-hop gospel, according to the Christian Music Trade Association, which operates Christian SoundScan.
Supporters also point to an increasing number of hip-hop gospel fan Web sites.
"I think holy hip-hop music is starting to make a move," said Danny Wilson, a former road manager for rapper-actor LL Cool J and the main organizer of the Holy Hip Hop Awards in Atlanta. "Look how long it took regular hip-hop to take. You're talking about 25 to 30 years for it to really make an impact to the point that it's a driving culture that's known all over the world."
Faith in the music
Wilson said better air play of hip-hop gospel would make it a more effective tool in reaching the unchurched. He cites a syndicated two-hour radio show sponsored by Holy Hip Hop Awards that airs once a week in about 100 cities.
"We get letters from prison all the time," Wilson said. "One man wrote, 'I wish I had this music when I was out on the street, it might have saved my life.'"
Joey Elwood, president of Gotee Records, a small independent label, agrees hip-hop gospel would benefit from more air play on both gospel and secular outlets, but he believes "a lot of the outlets are afraid of offending people."
"If there's any genre where I think that would not be an issue, it would be in hip-hop," Elwood said. "I think hip-hop listeners are less likely to complain about a gospel message in their song. The radio stations have got to get a little bit braver."
Xist could create more awareness and demand for its music with its other ventures, said Kymberlee Norsworthy, director of publicity for Verity Gospel Music Group, a subsidiary of Sony.
"I think only time will tell, but I have faith and confidence that it will be successful," she said of the company.
Xist's film, "Stand," and its reality TV show focus on three young hip-hop gospel artists struggling in the industry who refuse to trade their beliefs for fame.
Black said the gospel cruise, which allows fans to mingle with their favorite artists, is also an opportunity for people to enjoy themselves "and not ... worry about compromising what they believe in."
"We Christians, but we party, too," he said.
Focus on God
The key will be staying true to a Christian message, said Vassal Benford, a top California-based record and movie producer who is working on his first gospel album. Xist needs to clearly distinguish the music from secular hip-hop, whose reputation and lyrics are often "centered around a lot of darkness," such as robbing and killing.
"Gospel music has a certain wholesomeness to it," he said. "And whether it's a hip-hop beat or whatever it is under it, the underlying cause of it should always be about God and ... creating a positive influence."
Trey Williams, also known as Andale, is a Nashville gospel rapper starring in Xist Worldwide's film. He said his lyrics focus on humility and encouragement, rather than negativity.
On a track from his latest CD, "White Flag," Williams says: "I'm surrendering ... sick of lying, sick of stealing ... I'm taking my life back the devil he don't really like that but Christ glad I'm waving this here bright white flag."
Williams said he believes the movie will provide valuable exposure for hip-hop gospel.
"If people know we're here and they know the level of quality we're presenting then they'll pay attention to it, but the trick is getting them to pay attention," said the 27-year-old Williams. "We have to get in their face, and a lot of times they just don't know we exist. I think this film will help with that."
Hip-hop gospel pioneer Vicki Mack-Lataillade, whose discoveries include gospel star Kirk Franklin and a group called The Gospel Gangstaz, said she understands the challenges of "doing radical music" and applauds companies like Xist Worldwide for thinking outside the box.
"It's healthy for the industry to have ... new visions," she said. "It's the lifeblood."