NEW ORLEANS -- For the first few moments on stage, young Govenor Reiss-- his stage identity is simply "Govenor" -- looks like many a rapper growntoo hard, too fast on New Orleans' streets. Both arms are heavily tattooed,wrist to shoulder. An Asian symbol for "soldier" peeks over his collar nearhis throat.

Other tattoos chronicle his story: "Dust Be My Destiny" is emblazoned onhis left upper arm; his old neighborhood turf, "Skyview," wraps around hisleft shoulder, front to back. And, over his heart, the one word "Pain,"appropriate to a young man once so dead to hope that one day seven years agohe swallowed every pill in his mother's medicine cabinet. He was 18.

But as the heavy bass thumps and Reiss begins to rap, what comes outrises above the tattooed memorials to his past.

Instead, he begins rapping about Jesus Christ, a different way of life,and a personal transformation still under way that has put Reiss, Christianrapper, on a new course that was uncertain at first, but is slowly gainingmomentum.

In his music, he beckons old friends:

I'm the same brotha that was with ya when the guns bust
Hustle 'til the sun's up
But things then change, I ain't the same
Man, I got to keep my brain on things that ain't vain

Reiss would adopt an edgier stage persona, would drape himself injewelry if he had it, to complement the tattoos and better affirm his streetcred. But his music has not yet provided a road to riches. Reiss lives in aone-bedroom apartment in eastern New Orleans with Johna, his wife of fivemonths. He is temporarily without a car. It was stolen.

So he raps at local churches, at youth revivals, in mission tents thatsprout on weekends in the city's housing developments. Sometimes, when adistant church hears of him, he goes off to another city like Dallas orMemphis, Tenn. Sometimes Johna moves through the crowds, selling herhusband's two CDs, "Godson" and "Flame of Fire." They are trying to make aliving.

They know that New Orleans has its share of rap success stories. BothPercy "Master P" Miller's No Limit empire and the Williams brothers' CashMoney Records have sold millions of albums nationally and, with Reiss, cantrace their roots to the city's sometimes bloody neighborhoods.

But what Reiss is trying to do is even more of a long shot. Christianrap's share of the market is minuscule. And Reiss and a few others like him-- people like Var-G, Second Samuel, Holy Remnant, the Oracle, Chosen One,Foundation -- are confronting the type of rap that put New Orleans on themap.

Together, they preach the Gospel of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in theteeth of a bitter competing gospel of the streets.

They are outmanned. Certainly outgunned.

"The first time I saw a dead body was in a club," Reiss says. "Firsttime I saw gunfire was at a club -- bullets so close I heard them whiz by. Hit the wall right behind me."

_Related Features
  • The Soul in Rap
  • Interview with KRS-One
  • The Spiritual Contradictions of DMX
  • In those days, Reiss' life was chaos.

    Born in Houma, he moved to the 9th Ward on his 11th birthday. Hismother, Donice Reiss, today a coordinator in the University of New Orleans'learning resource center, struggled more or less alone to raise Govenor andhis little sister, Abigail.

    His father, Governor Reiss Sr., lived in Mobile, Ala. A churchgoing manwho shuttled between ministry and sales of one kind or another, he had apowerful influence on his son during those periods when the family wastogether.

    But as Reiss entered his midteens, those days were past. Raising her twochildren alone, Donice Reiss could not compete with the powerfulcompanionship and the blood loyalties that her son found on the streets.

    A natural musician, Govenor began hanging out with rappers, particularlyone named Ricky B. He was a background dancer for Ricky, a part of hisentourage. At 15, he began to bring home money.

    "He was good at getting money," his mother would recall. "And good atspending it."

    About the same time, Reiss said, he began to do cocaine and heroin.

    He was kicked out of two Orleans Parish schools for fighting. Using arelative's address, the family enrolled him at L.W. Higgins High School inMarrero.

    It was there, his mother said, that Reiss began to sense his gifts. Heexplored his love for rap and began to write his own material. He waselected drum major. He was popular. But, back in the east, far from Marrero,he was still "living the life."

    "I was selling drugs by day and clubbing by night."

    Gangsta, Gangsta, murder, murder
    as a youngsta that's all I heard of
    I got to get money and a lot of it fast
    These are the ghosts that come out of my past

    Over the years, Reiss was arrested 11 times, all for misdemeanors, hesaid. And yet, in the midst of such anarchy, there was an invisible line,sometimes only dimly sensed, that he would not cross. He held part ofhimself back.

    "I'd hang out with robbers, thieves, jack artists," said Reiss. "... ButI was always able to walk a fine line between those who did that and thosewho didn't."