Philly Open Air Church is a small storefront church on Fifth Street in North Philadelphia, co-founded two years ago by Pastor Jomo Johnson. Twice a month, he takes his nondenominational Christian message to the streets.
"All of us by nature do things that lead us astray," Jomo cried while standing on a step stool on Kensington Avenue, just outside a SEPTA station. "Just as we all have broken man's law, we all have broken God's law."
Johnson splits his time between North Philadelphia and the Westminster Seminary in Glenside, where he is working toward his doctorate. The native of Columbus, Georgia, never thought he would lead an urban church.
"My original idea was to finish seminary, go to Atlanta and plan a nice, suburban church," said Johnson. "I didn't grow up urban. I grew up middle class."
Like most every kid in the 1990s, he grew up with hip-hop: Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff, Kris Kross, and Public Enemy ("that was the first CD I got with the 'explicit' label," he recalls).
While in his 20s, Johnson even recorded his own rap album with Christian-oriented lyrics as a missionary project, giving the album away to anyone who would take it.
Johnson likes rap, though he has written a book, "Deadest Rapper Alive," about the immorality of gangster rapper Lil Wayne.
He is now writing and recording songs with another gangster rapper, Barry Adrian Reese, aka Cassidy.
In 2004, Cassidy's first album, "Split Personality," featuring the hit track "Hotel," sold more than 500,000 copies. He followed it with the single "I'm a Hustla":
"I'm a hustla, homey, I'm a hustla.
I got the product, narcotics for the customer
Fiends open, they be smokin like a muffler..."
A deluge of trouble
Before that album could be released in the summer of 2005, Cassidy was arrested on charges of murder, accused of shooting 22-year-old Desmond Hawkins in West Oak Lane. The first-degree murder charge carried a possible life sentence. Five days after his arrest, the album "I'm a Hustla" dropped, immediately selling 93,000 copies.
Ultimately, Cassidy was convicted of a lesser charge -- manslaughter -- and served eight months in prison. Shortly after his release, he was involved in a near-fatal car accident that fractured his skull. His music started to change.
"I did a lot, and put out a lot of classic music, but the message I be passing off in my albums is not always as positive as I wanted it to be," said Cassidy in a phone interview from his home in Hackensack, N.J.
"That's because a lot of other people have influence over the music. Now that I have the freedom, I'm on my own, I want to make music that serves a purpose more than selling records and concerts."
Cassidy's next release, "Behind B.A.R.S. The Barry Adrian Reese Story," featured the party anthem, "My Drink n My 2 Step." The video opens with a prayer.
He is trying to be both hard and pious, straddling Christian material and his gangster rap success.
"I don't want to put that message out all the time. I go to church, I'm a family man, I got a strong relationship with God," said Cassidy. "When I was going through trials and tribulations, like jail and the accident ... it wasn't money or fame got me through. The only thing that got me through was the Lord."
'Mysterious ways' manifest
Pastor Johnson initially approached Cassidy to write his biography, which Johnson will publish through his own nonprofit company GGIS (God's Grace is Sufficient). Simultaneously, the two are writing and recording an album of songs to be released at the same time, in mid-April.
They trade church-friendly verses like this:
"I've been living in sin since the day I was born.
Now I'm living in him 'till the day that I'm gone.
Every day that go on he correcting me, protecting me
So I'm thanking God that I'm sanctified.
He's blessing me. My destiny."
The forthcoming album, to be called "God Works in Mysterious Ways," will have eight or nine tracks that address the topics of violence, gun control, safe sex, and marriage. It's a far cry from the mixtape Cassidy released just last year, "Mayhem Music," which includes the tracks "Narcotics for Sale" and "Goon Music."
"His past music concerns me," said Johnson. "I look at right now, he's wanting to make a positive change. That's being done in his music. How many so-called gangster rappers would come out with a song called 'Sunday School'?"
Cassidy finds consolation in the Book of Job, the biblical story of a man whose faith was severly tested by God.
"I went through a lot of ups and downs," said Cassidy, referring to his indictment on murder charges and nearly dying in a car accident. "It's similar to what Job went through. That's what God's putting me through so I could make this transition that I'm making right now, to make more positive music and go down the direction that I'm supposed to go in."
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