Most of the people at Sea World of Texas don’t know what is going on. They can see a crowd of normal-looking people. But one minute—the crowd is bowed in prayer. Then, suddenly, they spring to their I feet, clapping their hands and bouncing their heads, as three young rap singers and their three nimble male dancers take the stage.

For a confused moment, many of the onlookers have forgotten their visions of Shamu, the 10-ton killer whale that serves as Sea World’s mascot, and they are trying to figure out what this revival-turned-rap-concert is all about. “Rap and religion?” you can see them wondering. “Isn’t that like politics and ethics?”

And then they hear the words, delivered with punch and sass by Toby McKeehan, the trio’s MC (or rapper):

I rap for Christ, no crossin’ the line

I don’t water down lyrics or forget the spine

I gotta come bold,’ cause I been sold

On the word that’ll never grow old

The predominantly Christian audience jumping up and down directly in front of the stage cheers and screams as the trio launches into a catchy chorus that asks the rhetorical question that gives the song its title: “Can I get a witness?”

Soon, more confused onlookers—people who had intended to spend a relaxing day viewing aquatic wildlife—wind up at the concert, attracted by the rappers’ energy and volume. Many of these surprised visitors stand in the theme park’s “Map of America” area, which features a huge scale map of the 48 contiguous states painted in vibrant colors on the ground. One young mother, who has been pushing her tiny child in a dolphin-shaped stroller, stops on Boise, Idaho, and does a double-take as the final lines of the song blast out of the massive speaker system:

We’re just three young brothers who were willin’ to serve

Took a stand, threw the devil a curve

By usin’ our talent for the Almighty Lord

When he gave us a gift, he gave us a chore

Called the Great Commission, it’s like fishin’

But, souls are the goal of this Christian mission

A Good Rap

It’s a long way to Shamu’s Sea World of Texas from Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, where the three members of DC Talk were students. But that is precisely how far these three singers—McKeehan, 25; Michael Tait, 24; and Kevin Smith, 23—have come. And along the way they have become the hottest-selling Christian rap act around.

Mention rap music, and Joe Average Evangelical thinks of 2 Live Crew and its lewd and crude challenges to common sense and obscenity laws. But McKeehan, who grew up near Washington, D.C., believes it is his mission to take rap music back from those who have abused it.

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“Rap music did not start out that bad,” says McKeehan, who called himself DC Talk before transferring the name to the group. “I started listening to rap back in ’82 or ’83, and at that time it was the voice of the streets. The songs were cries from the inner city, saying, ‘Hey, you know, we’ve got a tough life down here,’ or, ‘Don’t push me, ’cause I’m close to the edge.’ It’s always been explicit, but it hasn’t always been explicitly vulgar. This is something I love, and they’re ruining it. So I said, hey, if they can make it explicitly vulgar, I can make it explicitly positive and Christian!”

The 100,000 people who bought the trio’s 1989 debut album seem to agree. Their 1990 follow-up, Nu Thang, is doing even better. And recently, cable TV’s Black Entertainment Network aired the group’s first hit, “Heavenbound,” on its “Rap City” show.

Breaking Down The Walls

Ninety minutes before the Sea World concert is to start, McKeehan, Tait, and Smith are standing near the stage, dressed in casual pants and DC Talk T-shirts. They sign autographs and answer the typical questions that young fans ask of their cultural heroes. But they also listen, they share God’s Word, and they counsel their young fans.

“God has been so faithful to me,” says Tait, the group’s only black member. The son of a Baptist minister in Washington, D.C., Tait has a brother who hasn’t been so fortunate—he sits right now in a jail cell after robbing a store.

“I’m obviously no better than he is, but God has seen fit to bring me through. And because of that, I want to live for him. And I want to continue to be an example for young people.”

The group’s road manager disengages the singers from their eager fans, and we walk to the tour bus that is serving as the group’s home on the road as they perform with Michael W. Smith—one of Christian music’s best-selling artists—on a tour that began in February and continues through July.

All three sit down in a cramped space that is the closest thing to a living room their bus offers, and they recount their stories. They finish each other’s sentences. They break spontaneously into raps—their own and those of secular performers. And repeatedly, they praise their parents—Christians all—and Jerry Falwell.

Tait sits, grabs a Coke, and explains how he had originally planned a more traditional musical ministry, how he received a scholarship to Liberty and sang in the school’s “Old-Time Gospel Hour” singers, traveling across the country and Europe with Falwell.

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“After the ‘Gospel Hour’ team would sing in a church,” he says, “I would make a follow-up call to the pastors and say, ‘I would like to come sing for your church. I was there earlier with the team—I’m the black guy.’ And they would say, ‘Oh yeah, I remember you.’ ”

McKeehan picks up the story. “Mike would sing three or four songs for Sunday morning worship, and then do a full concert that night,” he explains. “During the evening concert, after he would sing a few songs, we would say, ‘We have another thing that we do for the youth sometimes.’ And then after getting the pastor’s permission, we would do a song or two of Christian rap.”

Meanwhile, Smith was playing keyboards and singing in the Connection Band, a contemporary-sounding musical outreach of Liberty. In the summer of 1987, Smith and the band got a job playing at the water park at Heritage USA. Tait and McKeehan stopped by for a visit, played Smith a few of their new melodic rap songs, and almost simultaneously, the same light bulb went on in all three heads.

Soon the group was given permission to sing at a Liberty chapel service. Falwell praised the group. In 1988 they sang at Joe Gibbs’s Main Event, a youth outreach sponsored by the coach of the Washington Redskins. Word started getting out about their creative blend of rap and religion.

As word spread, DC Talk began to introduce an entirely new audience to explicitly Christian rap. While rap has been a hot commodity in the mainstream recording industry since the late seventies, Christians have been rapping only since 1985 when Stephen Wiley released his “Bible Break,” written to help kids memorize the books of the Bible. Wiley and other Christian rappers, like P.I.D. (Preachers in Disguise) and E.T.W. (End Time Warriors), remain popular, though not as popular as DC Talk.

The group has also been instrumental in confronting racial stereotypes. McKeehan and Tait worked together to write “Walls,” a tough, hard-rocking song that speaks out against racism in the church. According to Smith, audiences respond to the ministry of singing about—and embodying—racial harmony. “We were singing at a high-school assembly in Jackson, Mississippi,” says Smith. “The audience was split down the middle—whites on one side and blacks on the other. But at the end of the song, a white football player walked over and stood right next to a black football player, and they put their arms around each other. The crowd started cheering. It was incredible!”

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Yo, Sinner!

Although DC Talk’s rap is innovative, the group’s values are strictly traditional. “Talk It Out” stresses the importance of Christian families, “Children Can Live (Without It)” condemns abortion, “Take It to the Lord” promotes utter dependence on God, and most of the remaining songs, like “Gah To Be,” stress the importance of salvation through Christ.

According to McKeehan, all the songs fit into the group’s three ministry goals: “To exhort our brothers and sisters, to evangelize the world, and to offer a positive alternative to people who want to listen to rap music but are sick of the vulgarity.”

The road manager, who has been making sure the singers and dancers are dressed and ready for the concert, breaks in to say the conversation has to come to a close. “The guys need to settle down, focus in, and pray,” he says.

But McKeehan can’t help adding one last insight on what DC Talk does: “Rap is like bricks,” he says, holding his two hands in front of him as if a brick had materialized from thin air. “Let’s say you’ve got a brick plant making bricks. You can take those bricks and make a church of Satan, or a church of God. It depends what you want to do with that brick, or that guitar, or that drum.”

By Steve Rabey, religion writer for the Gazette Telegraph of Colorado Springs and author of Rock the Planet (Zondervan).

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