Germantown Ave. pastor: Urban youth's decline tied to Lil Wayne's rap

Pastor Jomo K. Johnson speaks to youths at his Philly Open Air Church on Germantown Avenue. He says that Lil Wayne's lyrics glorifying violence can cause youths "to do things that they wouldn't normally do."
Pastor Jomo K. Johnson speaks to youths at his Philly Open Air Church on Germantown Avenue. He says that Lil Wayne's lyrics glorifying violence can cause youths "to do things that they wouldn't normally do." (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 07, 2012

Along this strip of Germantown Avenue where business is cheap and quick, prayer is its own commodity. Places of worship have staked their claim amid the take-out food stores, discount shops, abandoned buildings, and blue lights from a police surveillance camera on the corner, near Silver Street.

Inside the storefront Philly Open Air Church this mild Wednesday night, the youth-study Bible lesson is on the power of forgiveness, out of the book of Matthew.

The circle of nine - mostly teenage boys and young men - sit on worn couches in a conversation that turns to violence. Most of them, even the few girls, have been touched in some way by gunfire.

One girl, round-faced with braids, and swinging her foot, tells of a brawl a few months ago on Bucknell Street that left her 2-year-old cousin shot.

"And now she's crippled," she says softly.

In the back room of this North Philadelphia church, where the Sabbath is kept holy, about a dozen more youth read from the book of Mark by the space heater.

Hands shoot up after Pastor Jomo K. Johnson, wearing a navy hockey jersey and cargo pants, who despite his light beard looks younger than his 32 years, asks them to recount their dead. Among them, the three teens gunned down in Juniata Park by the stepfather of the boys they had arranged to fight.

In a city that so far this year has had more murders than days, Johnson puts his hope for urban youth in his faith in a higher being. And he sees their biggest threat in the embodiment of one hip-hop icon, whose likeness hangs in the church window like a "Wanted" poster: Lil Wayne.

"In the lives of the most vulnerable," says Johnson, "when they are constantly exposed to this philosophy through the words of music, it can, and will, and does, cause them to do things that they wouldn't normally do."

Johnson self-published a book four months ago titled Deadest Rapper Alive: The Rise of Lil Wayne and the Fall of Urban Youth. With more than 100 references, the tome is part bio, part thesis, part indictment. It is directed at teens, parents, and young adults.

In it, Johnson notes the unparalleled lyrical talent that has brought Lil Wayne worldwide fame and fortune. But over the rhythms and melodies, Johnson is almost grieved by the 29-year-old dreadlocked rapper's references to casual sex, misogyny, drug use, gun violence, and what Johnson calls a God complex. And in his hapless neighborhood, he says youth cling to every word.

There are also the tattoos Lil Wayne is covered in, from his legs to his face, that include Bloods references, a red skull, wings, a gun, a map of his native Louisiana, and "Fear God" etched across his eyelids. More than music, Johnson feels Wayne defines a lethal testament.

"All art exemplifies a philosophy," Johnson says. "His is something called amoralism. Anything that appears to have a right-wrong standard, it mocks that, it laughs at. More than any other rapper in history, he mocks and laughs at all moral standards, in his music, in his appearance, everything about him."

Calls to Lil Wayne's management company and record label for comment were not returned.

Johnson once found himself lost. He was named by his father after Jomo Kenyatta, the first prime minister of Kenya, and grew up in Columbus, Ga. Trouble began in eighth grade, when to fit in, he smoked and sold marijuana. At 18, Johnson served nine months in county jail over a knife fight. There, he discovered God.

After getting his GED, Johnson now holds a bachelor's degree in biblical studies from Beacon University. He came to Philadelphia in 2009 to study divinity at Westminster Theological Seminary in Montgomery County. He is in his final year, and he lives near the church he founded.

He has become somewhat obsessed, at times using Lil Wayne as a draw. During one Sunday worship service, the young pastor referred to Lil Wayne's "How to Love," and told the congregation: "If anyone was not qualified to teach how to love . . . ." The church recently put out a mixtape, "Deadest Rapper Alive Soundtrack" as an evangelical tool. And there is the book, which has garnered Johnson some buzz on hip-hop sites.

To those who question his motives, Johnson says: "This book came out of what I was experiencing with young people, and seeing some of their behavior, and wondering what was going on. It is kind of an accumulation of research."

Church vs. secular is an age-old battle. In hip-hop, an earlier generation saw civil rights activist C. Delores Tucker protest the so-called misogynist lyrics of Tupac Shakur, who was later gunned down in Las Vegas.

In his book, Johnson asks an obvious question: "Are Lil Wayne's nine studio albums and plethora of mixtapes really the cause of many of the cultural problems" we are experiencing? "The answer is yes," Johnson writes. Of course, there are other contributing factors, but "a large percentage of the problems in urban culture can be directly traced back to something that Wayne has said."

What of personal responsibility?

"Words," Johnson says, "are very powerful.

To date, Lil Wayne has sold more than 13.8 million albums in his 15-year career, and almost 40 million digital songs.

While imprisoned at Rikers Island in 2010 on a gun charge, he kept journals during his eight-month stint that he is reportedly compiling for a book. Post-release, his album Tha Carter IV went double-platinum in just three months. His next album is scheduled to drop before the summer.

If Johnson ever met the self-described, and arguably, best rapper alive, one thing he would say to him?

"Repent," Johnson says, with an easy grin. "Turn away from your sins. There's a consequence for your actions."


Contact staff writer Kia Gregory at 215-854-2601, kgregory@phillynews.com, or @kiagregory on Twitter.com.

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