It was the 1990s. Distressed fonts and neon colors were in abundance. What was not in abundance was connections to the Internet. Like Bugle Boy jeans, the Christian Rap scene was made up of a bunch of pockets all over the place—some larger than others. These “pockets” consisted of an artist or two and their fans who were all in close proximity to each other. Because before the mass adoption of the Internet, it wasn’t about where you were from; it was about where you were at—literally.
It was during this era that Efrain “Brother E” Alicea worked tirelessly to connect these pockets by his day job and to develop his own pocket, of which he was a prominent member, by night. His networking efforts, his own artistic contributions, his discipleship of those who came after him, and the infrastructure he assisted in building helped pave the way for all of us—those who have achieved notoriety, those who are still active, and even those who are just starting out.
Christian Hip Hop is in a much better place because of Brother E, and this is the story of how that came to be.
In the Beginning
Brother E grew up enamored with hip-hop and the four elements of emceeing, break-dancing, deejaying, and graffiti. And since he was in New York, he had front-row seats to what would one day capture the heart of a nation and eventually the whole globe.
At 26, he began attending a small, very traditional, Spanish-speaking congregation where rap was considered to be ‘of the devil’. When this Hip-Hop head from Spanish Harlem (El Barrio) became a Christian, his church didn’t know what to do with him or his passion to merge two things he loved—Christ and Hip-Hop.
This didn’t stop his drive or determination to proclaim the gospel. The first thing he did was start Power and Dominion Ministries, a live band consisting of kids from the youth group that he led.
He moved between different denominations and congregations that were skeptical of his ministry style. But one thing is for sure, his efforts have paved the way for the many others who came after him. If it wasn’t for people like Brother E who were willing to be laughed at, mocked, ridiculed, and thrown out of the church for attempting to use Hip-Hop as a tool to proclaim the gospel, we wouldn’t have the flourishing scene that exists today.
The Festival of Raps
Another Christian rapper from New York named Bert Bocachica was facing similar struggles. After an introduction by a mutual friend in 1993, Brother E visited the Salem Coffee House to watch Bert perform. This was a catalyst for things to get better and at a rapid rate.
The two became inseparable. They had a similar passion and a vision to use Christian Rap to reach the world, which is what ultimately led to the creation of Rap Fest in 1994. As far as we know, this was the first of its kind, a multi-artist music festival inspired by Christ and Hip-Hop.
For two decades, Rap Fest was an instrumental part of launching an artist. Cross Movement, Da’ T.R.U.T.H., and Andy Mineo—while part of a group called TRUCE—all performed early in their careers. Rap Fest even hosted legendary performers like Kurtis Blow, DJ Breakbeat Lou, and Frankie Cutlass.
Rap Fest is where Cross Movement met DJ Official—who later became their official DJ—for the first time. This of course all happened before DJ Official toured with Lecrae and produced projects for Reach Records.
Brother E was the first to ever perform at Rap Fest in 1994 and the last to perform in 2014.
The Information Superhighway
By 1995, Compuserve, America Online, and Prodigy began to provide Internet access to people in their own homes for a small fortune. An Internet that already had Amazon, Craigslist, Match.com, and eBay. But more importantly, around 40 million people were now plugged in.
And where two or more than 39 million are gathered, surely some of them are bound to be into Christian Hip-Hop. This is why websites like Godzhouse and HipHopZone started to pop up. On obscure message boards, chat rooms, and email lists like TruHipHop, church misfits like Brother E were finding community for the first time.
Having Internet access at home was expensive and a tough sell for most. For a passionate visionary like Brother E, it was a tool to find others like himself. Luckily, his job at Columbia University came with the perk of an email address and access to the Internet. This is where he began his work behind a keyboard to help connect different “pockets” all over the world.
On the opposite side of the country, I was in high school and had also found my way to the Internet through a Computer class at school and an obscure federal contractor dial-up service that my friends and I found with open access to the Internet.
This is where I first saw an email land in my inbox from email@example.com. I would soon find out that eja2 was Brother E. This was the start of our long-distance penpalship. We regularly communicated back and forth for well over a decade before we finally met in person at Flavor Fest.
Besides his passion for performing, Brother E had the heart of a pastor. He naturally found himself in positions of mentoring the next generation of Christian emcees, so it was no surprise when he started a Bible study called The Collective. Young emcees would show up just for the chance to participate in the closing freestyle session.
They met in various homes, and it ultimately became a training ground for many future performers and ministers. Some of the artists who participated were X-Out, King David, Crowned One, Warfare Camp, Manny Ferrer, and Switch’d.
The Triple Threat
Brother E joined with Crossroads Tabernacle and evangelist Nicky Cruz to create and perform a series of Broadway-style shows infused with Hip-Hop. It was similar to Hamilton but many years before Hamilton existed. They were known as The Storytellas and ended up recording six full-length projects.
“They used to do these things called hit and runs,” James Rousseau, Holy Culture CEO, said. “They’d set up a small sound system on a street corner and have more than one group to perform songs. Whichever group wasn’t performing was in the crowd evangelizing. Then they’d shut it down, move to another area, and do it all over again. This inspired us to do the same thing in Philadelphia.”
Brother E was naturally gifted. He was musical, could act, and was funny. So not only did he perform with the Storytellas, but he even joined the Bristrous Brothers comedy team and regularly performed at Salem Coffee House.
Brother E and Urban D, the lead pastor of Crossover Church in Tampa, FL, first met at a Rap Fest. There was an immediate connection. They were both youth pastors, and they both rapped. It wasn’t long after that Flavor Fest was created.
All of these experiences provided the inspiration and training for the dream Brother E had of one day planting a church. Together he and his wife Erika, whom he met at Crossroads Tabernacle, began researching and attending classes to learn as much as they could. He added education to all of the experience he had gained through many different roles and church planting he had done throughout the New York area.
In 2008, Brother E found his tribe and planted Elements Church in the Bronx alongside Erika with a mission statement of “Leading the urban culture to Christ while cultivating relationships.”
And like his work with emcees earlier, he began to mentor young pastors. He was still passionate and determined to see them be fruitful.
Kangols and Kangaroos
In the same way, Brother E had been encouraged to start Elements Church during his time at Flavor Fest, he became the source of encouragement and inspiration for another pocket of Christian Hip Hop—Mistery and four other leaders from Krosswerdz, a network of autonomous churches located around Australia.
Brother E’s relationship with Krozzwerdz was behind the decision to create the Uprock Christian Hip Hop Summit. In preparation, Mistery and other Krosswerdz leaders decided to travel to Flavor Fest in 2010 to build with the global community and get inspiration from other like-minded individuals.
It didn’t take long for Brother E and his brothers from other mothers down under to hit it off. He invited them to visit his congregation in the Bronx. They performed at Elements Church and blessed the building with a graffiti mural.
In 2012, Krosswerdz invited Brother E to be a guest speaker and emcee at Uprock. One of the members of Krosswerdz was so moved that he later came to the United States to be the associate pastor alongside Brother E.
A decade later, like his early efforts in Christian Hip-Hop, Brother E was still investing in the Krosswerdz “pocket” by showing up in their scheduled chats to offer encouragement and challenges to their members.
Better Than You Found It
If it wasn’t for the focus, vision, and courage of Brother E, our scene wouldn’t be nearly as connected as it is today. His early work of knitting together different pockets laid the groundwork for the thriving and organized scene that exists today. As did his willingness to persevere when those around him thought he was crazy. As did his persistence to use Hip-Hop as a tool to reach people when he was constantly told that he shouldn’t. His incredible example of stewardship—whether with the microphone, pulpit, or the lives of the people around him—are all things that have benefited us and should challenge us to leave CHH better than we found it.
Both Christian Rap and Brother E are now in a Better Place.
Rev Efrain Alicea
August 6th 1964 – January 31st 2023
Christian Rap pioneer Efrain “Brother E” Alicea passed away suddenly this past January. We hope the story of his life will inspire you into action. Please pray for the friends and family of Brother E. If you can, please also consider supporting his family by clicking this link.
To continue with our 1990s theme, it’s only right to put a thank you section like the liner notes of our favorite albums. To all of those who made this article possible. Without your thoughts, anecdotes, and fact-checking, this story would not be possible. Thank you to Justin Sarachik, Trig, Urban D., Mistery, Ray Majoran, Erika Alicea, David Daniels, and most of all, Bert Bocachica.
Did you know Brother E? Leave some memories in the comment section to encourage his family.