A NORTH PHILLY preacher isn't offering an "amen" to a Philly rapper's most recent offering.
The Rev. Jomo K. Johnson is calling for a boycott of Meek Mill, one of Philly's most popular hip-hop artists, after being offended by the lyrics of Mill's new single.
The song's title? "Amen."
The song, which also features Canadian rap superstar Drake, is blasphemous because it thanks God for what many would consider rather ungodly things, says Johnson: freewheeling sex, money, violence. And that, Johnson says, is going to send Mill straight to hell.
Such pronouncements might be predictable if Johnson were one of the usual suspects in the culture wars: some old fart who didn't understand hip-hop or the environment about which Mill sings. But that's not the case. Johnson is practically the same age as Mill, and he grew up listening to much of the same music and having many of the same influences as Mill did. Johnson's church, moreover, the Philly Open Air Church on Germantown Avenue, isn't far from where Mill — born Robert Williams — grew up.
"I'm a hip-hop fan. But I believe there is a need to really call him out and say enough is enough," said Johnson, who founded his nondenominational evangelical Christian church two years ago. "He seems to really be using the church as a backdrop and a parallel for some of the sinful things that he does."
Johnson, who first called for a boycott of Mill on his blog, deadestrapperalive.com, has also self-published a book he wrote on the subject called No Amen: Why Boycotting Meek Mill Will Help Save Hip Hop.
"As a hip-hop fan, I want to encourage every rap fan in Philadelphia who is a believer in Jesus Christ, to boycott Meek Mill until he acknowledges this blatant disrespect," Johnson wrote on his blog. "And being resident of North Philadelphia and pastor, I revoke Meek's 'hood pass' until this happens."
Though a representative, Mill declined to comment on Johnson's call for a boycott.
So what in Johnson's mind is so sacrilegious about Mill's song?
After all, "Amen" starts off innocuously enough, as Mill sings:
"I just wanna thank God/For all the pretty women he let into my life/ All the Benjamins he let me count ..." But then the song takes a turn makes a turn, becoming darker, as Mill starts going on about killing people, having sex and drinking alcohol until he overdoses.
"Now it's a lot of bad b------ in the building (Ooh, Amen)
A couple real n----- in the building (Amen)
I'm finna kill n----- in the building (Amen)"
He sings in the song's hook. Then, in the last verse, we get this:
"Lord forgive me for my sins, I'm just tryna win and s---
Devil in a dress but if she knock I let her in
And if she knock I let her in
I have her wet by 12 o'clock, then 3 o'clock she wet again
I'm screaming Oh Lord, that p---- good, that p---- good"
So "Amazing Grace," it isn't. And something tells me that somewhere, the late C. Delores Tucker, the Philly-based civil rights activist who led a national campaign against offensive gangsta rap music lyrics in the 1990s, is cheering Johnson on about now.
Which isn't to say Johnson's boycott is going to get very far. It won't. Mill is a comer, an emerging hip-hop star who is poised to become one of the bigger rap artists to come out of Philly. Jomo is small-time preacher looking to establish a name for himself. Plus, the song is catchy. I caught myself bopping around in my seat as I listened to it for the umpteenth time. Mill, who made headlines last month for being among those in a New York City nightclub last month with Chris Brown and Drake when a fight broke out, is clearly a talent.
But could we get at least get an "amen" for Johnson for at least taking a public stand against all-too-common negative imagery in hip-hop?
It's one thing to have knee-jerk criticism from some corners when it comes to hip-hop, but I pay a little more attention when the criticism is from a die-hard fan who embraces the genre the way Johnson does. The 32-year-old Georgia native grew up listening to gangsta rap music and living his version of the lifestyle — until he was locked up aggravated assault charges.
While serving time in jail, Johnson decided to give up dealing drugs and give his life over to God. After he was released, he was working at a Subway shop when he decided to enroll in Bible college. He moved to Philadelphia three years ago to study for his master's degree in divinity at Westminster Seminary in Glenside. Once a big fan of artists such as MC Eiht, Tupac Shakur and Brotha Lynch, these days his musical tastes tend toward Christian rappers such as Lecrae, Pro and Bizzle.
"Hip-hop started off as a reflection of life," said Johnson. "But what began to happen is hip-hop embodies some of the things it was struggling with … now the main motivation for hip-hop is money."
Now the prevailing attitude is if you can't beat them, join them. Call it the post-Diddy shift in hip-hop. Rappers like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and Chuck D talked about the effect the ills of society had on the black community, especially on young black men.
Fast-forward to the present: Mill built his career on Twitter and underground mixed tapes. His label, Maybach Records (yes, it's named after the extravagant car), home to Rick Ross, is known for excessiveness.
"I don't knock his hustle and what he does," said Chuck Williams, a professor and director of Drexel University's Center for the Prevention of School-Aged Violence. "He's a talented Philly rapper. We need more … For me, it's not so much about looking at the artists, it's more about us looking at what they are offering and what they represent."
The question when it comes to Mill and "Amen," said Williams, is whether such songs simply reflect reality or reinforcing stereotypes that have a damaging impact on the culture. "Is hip-hop talking about what it sees or is it creating a narrative, a self-fulfilling narrative that feeds off of negative racial stereotypes?" Williams asked. "Is it critically analyzing the problems or celebrating them? Are they saying that, 'This is messed up' or are they saying, 'This is what it is and if you can't beat them join them'? Are they trying to change the status quo or are they reinforcing the status quo?"
Yet, James Peterson, director of Africana studies at Lehigh University and an associate professor of English, thinks Johnson's approach is all wrong — at least if his goal is to reach young listeners.
"I would rather spend my time talking with young people," Peterson said. "For them, Meek Mill is speaking the truth. That blurring of the sacred and profane isn't something he invented. The reason why children love Meek Mill is because he's real.
"You can't deny the authentic appeal of the song when the black church does the same thing," Peterson added, referring to various sex scandals over the years. "Jesus would hang out with Meek Mill. He would accept Meek Mill as a disciple, a person who can communicate with young people. He wouldn't boycott him."