NEW YORK – It might not seem like a miracle that a song about Jesus is up for a Grammy — but this isn't gospel music. It's hip-hop.
Producer-turned-rapper Kanye West (search) heads into Sunday night's Grammy Awards (search) ceremony with a leading 10 nominations — and his inspirational mega-hit "Jesus Walks" (search) stands to win two awards, song of the year and best rap song.
Naysayers told West a song about "hustlas, killas, murderas, drug dealas, even the strippas" and Jesus didn't have a prayer.
"They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus/ That means guns, sex, lies, videotapes/
But if I talk about God my record won't get played, huh?" he says in "Jesus Walks."
The song, however, was a huge success, and the 26-year-old star is poised to walk away with gold.
But experts say it's not the message of the song — that Jesus walks even with "sinners" — that has made it big. It's the mastermind behind the music.
"It is a spiritual song, but that is not why it is popular, that is secondary," said Neil Drumming, a music writer for Entertainment Weekly. "It is really an addictive, engaging and unique track. The first time I heard it at a party it had just come out and already people were dancing to it."
That said, Christianity has been creeping up on American pop culture in recent years. In 2002, Christian rock bands like Creed and POD blew up the charts and converted mainstream fans. Mel Gibson's 2004 movie "The Passion of the Christ" was the third-biggest film of '04.
And while he hasn't been included in the titles of many popular rap songs, there's actually nothing new about hip-hop artists giving a "holla" to Jesus. For inner-city youth and rap fans, West is only "keepin' it real" when he mixes a song about God with profanity and street life.
"If you look at the hip-hop albums, a lot of rappers try to 'shout out' to God. They manage to reconcile their faith with the realities of street and 'hood life — it is not that contradictory to them," said Nathan Brackett, senior editor for Rolling Stone magazine.
In fact, "Holy hip-hop" first appeared in the late '80s and early '90s with little-known underground groups like SFC, Dynamic Twins and Stephen Wiley. "Holy Hip Hop: Taking the Gospel to the Streets" (search), featuring various artists, received a Grammy award nomination for Best Rock Gospel album of 2004.
But surprisingly, the holy hip-hop community does not see West's success as opening the door to fame for religious rappers.
"It is interesting, the [holy hip-hop community] has not accepted him with open arms. They have not seen it as a way to mainstream," said Brackett.
Maybe this is because West is not trying to conform to any particular religion through his song, but rather spread his own vision of faith.
"This is his own 'Jesus,' what his vision of Jesus is, a modern, forgiving Jesus," Brackett said.
West couldn't rap it better himself:
"I ain't here to argue about his facial features,
Or here to convert atheists to believers,
I'm just tryin' to say the way school need teachers,
The way Kathie Lee needed Regis that's the way ya'll need Jesus," he says in "Jesus Walks."
At the Grammys Sunday night, West will perform with an impressive group of soul, R&B and gospel artists, including John Legend, Mavis Staples and the Blind Boys of Alabama.
But will he do what filmmaker Mel Gibson could not, as in get his "Jesus" piece accepted by a group of mainstream critics?
Brackett said OutKast's (search) 2004 win for "Speakerboxxx/The Love Below" is a signal that the Grammy judges are opening up to hip-hop and progressive music, whether it is religiously inclined or not.
But there is one potential winner who may trump West's night.
"I hope [West gets the gold], but he is up against a legend. Ray Charles would be the one contender in his way," Brackett said.