2020-04-29
NEW ORLEANS -- For the first few moments on stage, young Govenor Reiss -- his stage identity is simply "Govenor" -- looks like many a rapper grown too hard, too fast on New Orleans' streets. Both arms are heavily tattooed, wrist to shoulder. An Asian symbol for "soldier" peeks over his collar near his throat.

Other tattoos chronicle his story: "Dust Be My Destiny" is emblazoned on his left upper arm; his old neighborhood turf, "Skyview," wraps around his left 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 ago he 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 out rises 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, Christian rapper, on a new course that was uncertain at first, but is slowly gaining momentum.

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 in jewelry if he had it, to complement the tattoos and better affirm his street cred. But his music has not yet provided a road to riches. Reiss lives in a one-bedroom apartment in eastern New Orleans with Johna, his wife of five months. He is temporarily without a car. It was stolen.


So he raps at local churches, at youth revivals, in mission tents that sprout on weekends in the city's housing developments. Sometimes, when a distant church hears of him, he goes off to another city like Dallas or Memphis, Tenn. Sometimes Johna moves through the crowds, selling her husband's two CDs, "Godson" and "Flame of Fire." They are trying to make a living.

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

But what Reiss is trying to do is even more of a long shot. Christian rap'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 the map.

Together, they preach the Gospel of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the teeth 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. "First time I saw gunfire was at a club -- bullets so close I heard them whiz by. Hit the wall right behind me."
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  • In those days, Reiss' life was chaos.

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

    His father, Governor Reiss Sr., lived in Mobile, Ala. A churchgoing man who shuttled between ministry and sales of one kind or another, he had a powerful influence on his son during those periods when the family was together.

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

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

    "He was good at getting money," his mother would recall. "And good at spending 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 a relative's address, the family enrolled him at L.W. Higgins High School in Marrero.

    It was there, his mother said, that Reiss began to sense his gifts. He explored his love for rap and began to write his own material. He was elected 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, he said. 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 of himself back.

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

    One who did was Reiss' father. As a teenager, his father killed a man in a nightclub shooting in Alabama. Four years into a 32-year sentence, he escaped, moved to New Orleans and began a new life as a Christian of such genuine public witness that when Alabama authorities discovered him and took him into custody 18 years later, employers, friends and clergy wrote scores of letters on his behalf. He was returned to Alabama and quickly won parole.

    As one who lived and preached the word, Governor Reiss Sr. stressed the resurrection. But when he was with his family in New Orleans, what the father sought to impress upon the son was the life-long cross of regret he carried from the shooting.

    "I saw how it affected him the rest of his life," Reiss said.

    But the plain truth is, the son was simply luckier than his father. Twice, the younger Reiss said, he pulled a gun and fired it in sudden confrontations. Nobody was hit, he said.

    "I guess God was watching over me even then."

    Reiss' youthful brush with his own mortality came a few months after his graduation from high school. He was "speedballing" -- doing heroin and cocaine -- when he heard himself begging a friend for more. The sound of his own begging terrified and disgusted him, he said. "I sounded just like every sick, strung-out addict I'd ever heard. I had become one."

    Overwhelmed with self-loathing, "I saw myself walking out of the light and into the darkness. I saw every bad thing I'd done to my mother. Every memory was like a whip. All that goodness I'd had at Higgins, I'd snorted it up."


    "I went from something to nothing. I had no more hope."

    Three days later, he went to the medicine cabinet, swallowed every pill he could find and locked himself in his room to die. His frantic mother summoned a friend who kicked in the door as paramedics raced to the scene.

    Things were never quite that bleak again, though Reiss was far from healed. A short stint in a detox program after his suicide attempt left him physically clean, but still troubled.

    Then, as he tells it, one remarkable day three years ago he happened into "Club Love," a Christian nightclub for youths and young adults. It was run by Bishop A. Michael Shaw's Perfect Love World Revival Ministries.

    What Reiss saw astonished him: people onstage doing something novel -- Christian rap, church rap, Jesus rap.

    Two things struck Reiss more or less at the same time. One was that he could improve on what he was hearing. And, two, "I knew that's who I was, that's what I was supposed to be doing."

    Reiss stayed the night, then began to return, frequently. He went back to his notebooks and began reworking the lyrics to his old songs about life in the streets.

    At first, his rewrites were primitive. "I'd just take out some words and put in Jesus, Lord and God, stuff like that," he said.

    But, according to Shaw, Reiss stayed engaged, became interested in the church and then interested in digging into the meat of the Christian message.

    "Gov was hard-core, and it was interesting to watch his evolution," Shaw said.

    What clicked, Shaw thinks, was the revelation of something new to him that night at Club Love. The place had the veneer of street life: graffiti, lots of secular rap in addition to the Christian music, a familiar-looking crowd. But it spoke to Reiss in the secret place he had always held back from the streets.

    "When he found he could do his music and still be a Christian, that was his Damascus moment," Shaw said. "He could stop that battle within.

    "Besides, the truth is, he could never be a very good criminal. There was always that reservation, that reluctance to go completely to the dark side."

    (SECOND OPTIONAL TRIM FOLLOWS)

    Your eyes and ears are spiritual windows
    Stop living your life every whichever way the wind blows
    You live by the gun, you die by the gun
    He gave his only begotten son to die only once
    I've never felt a love like this before
    I left the dope he done hit me at the core

    In the three years since that first encounter at Club Love, Reiss is still trying to adhere to a new life.

    "Is it genuine? Yes," his mother said. "Perfect? No."

    "I was a baby in Christ, and I've done some backsliding," Reiss said.

    One thing that he does not consider to be backsliding is the contact he maintains with old friends from the Skyview neighborhood, his homeys from the days of the all-night clubbing and hustle.

    But the contact is different now. It's on his new terms.

    Of her son, who always led with his heart, his mother says, "He never made them feel he was not part of their life. He wouldn't live their lifestyle anymore. But he wouldn't turn his back on them, either."

    "Just because I'm here now don't mean that other person can't be here too. It don't mean I'm better than him," Reiss says.

    As friends do, they accept his new life, he says.

    "They've never lost their love for me, never judged me. And as I've read the Bible more, I've learned not to judge, which I've learned a lot of people in church do. I've been judged more by people in church than outside church."

    These days Reiss looks for new gigs, trying to make a living off his music and his reputation as a Christian rapper. It is hard going. His professional life suffered a terrible blow in May when his friend and music patron, Kenneth Taylor, owner of Skyview Music, died of complications from routine throat surgery.

    "Govenor is full of potential. But potential doesn't guarantee success," Shaw said. "But he's willing to work hard to see what's inside him come out.

    "He seems to have made up his mind to try to live his life in a moral manner. His marriage to Johna is a strong sign of that. I hope his future is bright."

    When he raps now, Reiss says he raps for people living as he used to live, for people out of the light as well as those barely on the fringes, who are constantly being called back into the streets.

    "All they got is dope, killing, murder," he said. "But when they open their minds and hearts and they know the Good News, they can know there's a better way."

    "Little Gov feels for people," his mother says. "Some of them are not good people, but he always sees something good. He hurts now because he knows they can escape, but they don't know it.

    "He's trying to build a bridge so they can cross over it."

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