Kids and teens crowd in front of a small church stage, jumping to gospel rap beats, singing along with the words, as a handful of parents sit in the seats nodding their heads along with the music.
On stage, 19-year-old Gabriel Taylor raps: "I can tell you what it is to be scared / living in the 'hood all my life seein' death I wasn't prepared." He went on to describe his negligent father and financial hardships before reaching a climax: "I can show you what it is to have life / now I got Christ / my darkened heart was brought back to the light." The audience in the small Long Beach church listens intently.
Taylor is part of a five-member gospel rap group called Keno Camp. While this small sanctuary was filled with about a hundred people, other times Keno Camp performs at events where only a handful of people show up. And they still "go hard," member Jermaine Paul said, as if a million people were occupying those seats.
"When I first started doing this, it kind of bothered me. Like, 'Oh man, nobody showed up,'" Keno Camp member Purpose Warmsley said. "But then as I grew, honestly, it doesn't even matter. God will set it all up just for one person."
In the past few years, gospel rap has garnered a national audience - even mainstream television networks like BET play artists like Lecrae or Trip Lee. But gospel rap in Los Angeles has been slower to catch on.
Earl Franklin, CEO of the LA gospel rap label 90K Watts, wants to get the California artists recognized. "90K" stands for the California zip codes, while "Watts" represents the power Franklin wants the genre to generate throughout the state. He wants gospel rap to be known.
"I think a lot of people don't know this music exists," Franklin said. "[The artists] just want to use their music to get the word of Christ out to the people."
Franklin noted the need for unity among the scattered Christian rappers in LA, like Keno Camp or rapper Tha Mic, to create a larger movement.
Keno Camp founder Paul agrees: The group came together in 2010 after 40-year-old Paul heard about the talent of four other gospel rappers and saw the power in rapping together. The group consists of Paul, Warmsley, Taylor, 27-year-old Chuy Herrera, and 23-year-old Mario Herrera.
The group was formed in Compton, where two of the members were raised. Paul hopes Keno Camp can help change the city's notorious acclaim.
"Compton became famous through gangster rap. … [God] was showing me the same way that it became famous is the same way that God can make it famous. It's through gospel rap," Paul said. "Compton was put on the map by … four guys rappin' about nothin', so it's the power of God in four or five brothers rappin' for God."
As LA gospel rap tries to make a name for itself, many budding artists turn to well-known Southern Christian hip-hop artists for inspiration. South Gate resident Michael Jelks, who raps by the name of Tha Mic, said he first started getting into gospel rap after hearing Trip Lee and Lecrae as a teenager. Jelks, 22, didn't grow up on hip-hop - he listened to Spanish worship and pop bands like the Backstreet Boys and 'NSync - but he started loving rap when he heard the Christian alternative.
Jelks said rapping allows him to talk about the things closest to him: "My whole thing is to really show that God is real. For my life, God did the impossible, broke chains that I could've never ever broken in my life."
Since he was 6 months old, Jelks has moved between different foster care homes and churches. Without a stable home life, he fell into the a lifestyle of partying, drinking, and promiscuity. But at age 16, Jelks felt tired of it all and yearned for something more. Jelks asked God to show himself to be real. In response, Jelks said he felt an overwhelming sense of the presence of God and committed his life to Jesus.
And he's been rapping ever since. As Jelks penned authentic lyrics about issues he was dealing with, his faith deepened.
"My relationship with God was seriously always entwined with rapping," Jelks said. "Every time I went to record a song, it always ministered back to me. God helped me overcome a lot of things through the music that he allowed me to write."
Jelks said he feels God has placed a mission on his life to reach the city of LA. This means performing in arenas outside the church like his college, Cal State University Los Angeles. He said people can relate to what he's been through - the broken home, the lack of a father-figure, the desire for more. Jelks said he wants to be transparent, rapping about touchy subjects like racism and pornography.
"I feel challenged by my ministry, because I really don't see anything like it," Jelks said, referring to performing in places were gospel rap has never been heard. "At times, doubt comes in. … I tell God this could never work because this has never been done. And God says, 'Exactly. It's never been done. That's why I called you to do it.'"
Keno Camp and Jelks believes that no matter where they are performing - on small stages or amphitheaters, they're preaching the gospel to the people of LA.
"It's gospel rap, so it's already ministry," said Warmsley. "It's a lifestyle. You gonna rap about what you live. [Secular rappers] rap about what they live about. We rap about what we live about."