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Should Rap Stars Talk About God?

Yung Joc appears on stage for a performance as an assembly of youth swarm toward his direction, screaming at the top of their lungs.

Only this time, the rapper delivers a message nothing like his raucous songs "I Know You See It," "Dope Boy Magic," or his smash hit "It's Goin' Down."

"I'm not trying to be a preacher, but God is real in my life," he says, while his 2-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter stand near him at an event called Exodus, a soulful revival for youths.

After Joc's testimony, the host of the event, Corey "CoCo Brother" Condrey, asks everyone to pray for the rapper. Many in attendance drop to their knees or stand in place, tossing their hands toward the sky.

This is a scene Condrey, who created the event, has longed to see. He has set up a platform to marry hip-hop and gospel together through his nationally syndicated radio show, "The Spirit of Hip-Hop" and the yearly event Exodus. Condrey is using well-known rappers for their celebrity status, putting them in the forefront to spread the gospel to youth.

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"We're trying to instill Jesus into them," the Atlanta-based disc jockey said. "We're making it cool, fly and showing them how they can go to their schools among their friends and love the Lord. And, it's coming from people who they can relate to."

On his radio show, Condrey has held interviews and prayer sessions with rappers such as 50 Cent, Ludacris, Kanye West and Young Jeezy. The show has also featured guest appearances from gospel contingents Kirk Franklin, Yolanda Adams and Smokie Norful.

"I've been through a lot of different things," 50 Cent said on the show. "I feel like God is the only reason why I'm strong enough to get through those situations."

Exodus, a free event, has grown over the past three years, drawing between 3,000 and 7,000 in attendance. Condrey has changed the venue of the event each time, holding it once at a nightclub, a church and recently a skating rink.

After all, it's also an opportunity for fans to see their favorite artists.

"That's how we reach them," says Bone Crusher, who performed a rock-infused version of gospel. He is also known for his controversial hit "Never Scared," which drew attention for its vulgar lyrics at an Atlanta Falcons home game a few years ago. "To reach those type of kids, you have to go into the gutter and get them out of disparity. Yes, some of it is unorthodox and derogatory. But it's something I have to do to get the people out."

Certainly, hip-hop could use the good publicity, especially since the genre has been under increased scrutiny for its sometimes misogynist and violent lyrics. LL Cool J believes the hip-hop industry can benefit from rappers offering their spiritual testimonies to their fans. He hopes if that does happen, mainstream radio should embrace it.

"For popular artists to go down and speak to kids about God, righteousness and love for God is great," rapper LL Cool J said. He recorded a rap gospel-type track "We're Gonna Make It" featuring gospel duo Mary Mary off his 2006 album, "Todd Smith."

"Especially, when the kids actually respect the artist and maybe seeing a topic in different aspect," he adds.

But minister Orlando Bethel calls Condrey and the rapper's act hypocritical. He thinks youth shouldn't be taught about God by rappers such as Joc, who is currently facing a felony charge of carrying a concealed weapon at the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport in December last year.

"There are people who say they're saved, and they're living in sin and think it's OK," said Bethel, who protested the event along with 15 others. "Then there is another category of people that are not saved. That's not right."

Some from the gospel industry think otherwise. Dr. Bobby Jones, host of the long-running BET gospel show bearing his name, says he has mixed thoughts about how non-churchgoers receive the message but open to mainstream rappers speaking more about their relationship with God.

"I think it's very narrow-minded for someone to categorize another one's relationship with their spirituality," says Jones. "Who are we to say what's right or wrong about what somebody develops? It doesn't matter if five minutes ago someone sang about the love of their life in a very intimate position, then the next five they're talking about their love of Jesus Christ."

Gospel singer J Moss says a rapper's testimony maybe the only one someone gets.

"It could be their only church," he said. "God is for everybody, reigning on the good and evil."

Condrey would know. He switched from hosting a popular radio show where he only played secular music to a hip-hop gospel platform in 2005 (The show is in 15 markets and syndicated by Radio One). He changed his format after convincing a homeless caller from committing suicide while on air, saying he "began to hear God telling him to shift into a different arena."

Since then, Condrey said he quit drinking alcohol and vowed to be celibate until marriage, trying to lead by example.

After speaking at Exodus, Joc was inspired to record a track with R&B gospel singer Justin Clark.

"It was one of defining moments in my life," Joc said. "Somebody might say, 'How can you talk to kids when you have a gun charge?' But accidents happen and people make mistakes. With young men and women looking up to me, I have to let them know that I'm a man of God."

By Jonathan Landrum, Jr