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From the Epicenter of Hip-Hop
The following first appeared in our Spring 2016 issue of Marian Helper magazine. Order a free copy.
This wasn't the plan at all, the subject matter of these rhymes cast forth from a rooftop above the roughened streets of the Bronx.
I pray the novena, I pray the novena
I been kinda slipping but I won't start tripping
Cuz I pray with St. Faustina.
What in the world happened to Rabelz, a hip-hop artist formerly of the school of jewel-bearing swaggards paying divine homage to female flesh and material possessions?
Well, Rabelz's priorities have changed. A lot. Within the first few seconds of this music video being filmed on the rooftop of Our Lady of the Angels Friary on 155th Street, this becomes rather evident.
The man who grew up in a two-bedroom Brooklyn apartment he shared with his mother and three siblings, who was arrested for fighting, expelled from high school, who dreamed of fame, of getting out, of following in the pricey-sneakered footsteps of his rags-to-riches rapper idols — well, here he is, hands in prayer before the camera. A church organ plays. A snare drum slaps a wake-up call. It stings. It's meant to. Then Rabelz's rapid-fire rapping begins.
The song: "Novena." The album: #Mercy. The rapper: not pussyfooting around.
"My goal, my mission," says Rabelz, "is to expose Jesus' Divine Mercy to hip-hop culture, to youth, and to the world before it's too late."
And it's no accident he announced the release of #Mercy on the opening of the extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy on Dec. 8. In a way, to all those paying attention — and there are many — Rabelz is sending out a station-identification from Bronx, New York, from the very geographical center of hip-hop culture, that the revelations of a humble Polish peasant nun have been received and absorbed.
Doubtless no one is more surprised about this turn of events than Rabelz himself. But in retrospect, for today's youth, many of whom are raised in
a culture that has long eschewed rules governing right and wrong, what could be more rebellious than obedience to God's law, a lifestyle so ancient, it could easily be mistaken for innovative?
Indeed, for a self-identified rebel,what's more defiant than following Christ's Gospel call through St. Faustina that "Mankind will not have peace until it turns with trust to [His] mercy" (Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, 300)?
That's how he sees it, anyway. Off-stage, his name is Melvin Windley. He's 29 years old. He's married. He and his wife, Diana, live in a one-bedroom apartment with their four young children. In videos and on stage, he's loose-limbed in that stylized and streetwise manner of hip-hop artists that strives to say, "I've got everything figured out, and I'm scared of nothing."
But with his children and his wife, he's a softy. He dressed in a Crayola Crayon costume for Halloween (blue). He can share some of the more educational quests of Dora the Explorer. He prays as he writes.
And he is, indeed, scared of one thing in particular. He realized this back in 2004. During a rocky time in their relationship, Diana presented him with a copy of St. Faustina's Diary. Diana grew up in a devout Catholic household in upstate New York. She was introduced to the Diary by the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in the Bronx after she moved to the city for college.
Melvin wasn't one to read books. He promptly tossed it to the side. But when he finally picked it up one day, he hadn't even gotten to page three before he knew he want- ed this book to be with him for the rest of his life.
"The fact that St. Faustina recorded words of Christ written in the 1930s — the same century I was born in — it just blew me away," Melvin says.
It was entry 42 that terrified him. In it, Jesus tells St. Faustina He's going to leave the convent at once, so displeased He was with the lack of holiness there. "I will not let You leave this house, Jesus!" Faustina pleads. Seeing her love for Him, Jesus stays.
"I read that, and I thought, 'He's serious. He means business. He will leave if we don't accept His mercy,'" Melvin recalls. "Suddenly, I was afraid He could leave me. I never wanted to do anything that would make Him leave me."
Not long after reading that, Melvin picked up his book of rhymes — thick as a New York City phonebook — and tossed it into an incinerator. No more singing about sex. No more disrespecting women. No more worshiping the things of the world — jewelry, money, material pos- sessions. No more being misled. No more misleading others. No more wasting his time and his talents.
He was baptized in the Catholic Church in 2005. He and Diana married in 2006. He thanks Diana for "fighting the spiritual battle for my soul." He began using his gifts to proclaim the Word of God through hip-hop in 2007.
He has earned a name for himself through his web presence (at soundcloud.com/rabelzthemc and rabelzthemc.com) and through performances sponsored by Catholic Under-ground. His album #Diary, released in early 2015, stands as arguably the most powerful and creative alliance between the Divine Mercy movement and urban culture.
It's no surprise that he has experienced his fair share of ridicule from the hip-hop community, "but there was a lot of hating on St. Faustina, too, in her lifetime," Melvin says with a laugh.
He deals with it the best way he knows how: through rapping. "They could try to stab me in my back/ but it will never penetrate my soul," he sings in his song "Problems," available on his streaming website.
He realizes the unlikelihood of this musical path bringing him wealth and fame, so he remains true to the mission, committed to prayer. He has a day job now as an administrator at a medical clinic. He's at peace.
Why else would he be singing Good News from a rooftop?