Hostile Gospel: Minista Whisper

How an ex-drug dealer discovered the word of God in rhyming.

By Karen Hor

A televangelist’s sermon resounds from a flat-screen TV through the thin wooden walls in Joe Dowdy’s home. His cornrows cover his round head and end at his neck; he normally uses a do-rag to control his natural curls, which peak wildly through the braids’ cracks. He limps. A week ago, a driver sped through a red light and collided with his car. He says he’s blessed to be alive—suffering from displaced backbone discs is nothing too serious. He supports himself with a metallic blue cane as he lowers himself onto the couch. To Joe’s left, Sakia, his wife, feeds their newborn son, Wisdom.

Joe and Sakia met eight-and-a-half years ago in a church on Syracuse’s South Side. She says, "If I had known about his past, I would’ve never gotten with him." Now people know Joe as Minista Whisper, an ordained, rapping minister who hosts open mics at local churches, called Fired Up Fridays. Before, most recognized him as G.I., a dealer from New York City who entered the drug game at age 11. He grins. "Only God can decide who is bad," he says, softly.

Joe grew up in Jamaica, Queens, New York City. As a kid, he couldn’t afford what his peers owned; "Shoes with holes in them—that’s what I got," he remembers. And when his mother lost one of her lungs, life became even more strained. She was left with chronic asthma and hospital visits five days a week. He used to wake up every night hearing her gasp for air. Many times, he’d jump off his bed, quickly assemble her asthma machine, and call an ambulance. With his mother burdened with illness, Joe chose to take care of himself. His cousins and uncles were part of one of the biggest drug teams in Queens, Joe says. At 11 years old, they recruited him for his age to carry 100 grams of cocaine in his pockets for $50 a night. With the money he made, he bought a couple pairs of sneakers every month.

Joe became more active in the drug game once he started his first year at Andrew Jackson High School, a school where, in 1970, two decades before Joe enrolled, police broke up a heroin-processing factory in the school’s basement. He continued his studies and never considered dropping out. But after not even a month, two ounces of cocaine hooked Joe into a possession and intent to sell charge, which sent him to Lincoln Hall Juvenile Detention Facility. He stayed there for a year and a half. After his release, he went back to Andrew Jackson—back to hustling. After 11th grade, he dropped out and put time into the streets during school hours. At 18, he bought his first car, an ’82 Mustang. But the deeper he got into the drug game, the more killings he witnessed. Between the ages of 16 and 19, he watched eight of his friends get shot and killed.

Joe maintains that he wasn’t too violent himself, just a hustler. But that didn’t change the nature of the game. "I was really concerned, and it was hard to stop him," his mother Lillian says. "I was going back and forth to the hospital." When his house was shot up for a second time with his family still inside, he illegally bought three guns to protect them. "You were never guaranteed to live if you were in Jamaica, whether you were in the drug game or not," he explains.

When Joe was 19, his older brother was shot at outside of their house. Then a gunshot blasted his friend’s head. That’s when he decided to leave. In 1994, he moved to Syracuse, intending to change. He became a sales associate at Ames—what he describes as a defunct version of Kmart—but the money wasn’t enough. So he went around the Eastwood area of Syracuse (known around town as "Egypt"), where he saw men playing dice on the street, hanging around. "Someone had to be selling something," he says.

Later that year, Joe and his friend were chatting and smoking weed in Joe’s apartment when two men wearing masks ran inside, guns drawn. One whipped Joe with a gun on the right crown of his head, then in his abdomen. He dropped to the floor. As they dragged him into his living room, his friend tried to run across the apartment. But one of the robbers hurled a crowbar and hit him; his friend collapsed. The thief then picked up the crowbar and smashed him in the back with it until he lay there in a pool of his own blood. On the couch sat Joe’s 2-year-old daughter, Staraysa, watching.

The robbers stopped beating his friend and pulled Joe outside. "We know you got guns in here,” one said. "We know you got drugs. Where everything at?" They had him on the ground; one put a gun to his head, while the other sat on the arm of a chair, gun in hand, staring at him. Joe explained where everything was. But the one who stood over him swung the crowbar and smashed his finger into pieces; years later, it hangs like a worm wrought with rigor mortis. "Just don’t touch my daughter," he said to them. The two took a pound of weed and around $500, and left.

Joe, a 5-foot-5 slim man, covered in blood, picked his daughter up and his 5-foot-9 unconscious friend and ran upstairs to his neighbor’s apartment. His neighbor screamed when she saw their blood-drenched bodies. "She grabbed my daughter, then I just dropped on the floor," he remembers. She called the police and Joe went to the hospital. "I don’t want to remember the day, but he tells me about it," says Staraysa, now 18. Whenever she braids his hair she takes care not to put pressure on the soft spot of his head, where the robber smashed his gun.

The police fixated on convicting Joe rather than finding the two men who’d nearly killed him and his friend. His family and friends told him the police were showing his picture around town; "He’s a big-time dealer from New York City," people said the police told them.

Joe enrolled in a two-week program for a home health aide degree at the Norrell Health Care Center. "I was trying to break out of the habit, but I was still hustling," he says. He passed the exams but couldn’t obtain his degree because the New York City Police Department never extradited him for violation of probation five years ago. He planned to go back to the city to clear his warrant. And in the meantime, he wanted to keep his hands clean. "I told myself that I would stay in the house," he laughs. “That way I wouldn’t get in trouble."

But one night his friends invited him over for booze and weed to celebrate his plans to get an honest job. Twisted, he and his friends decided to rob three drug houses at gunpoint. As they went through the third house, a dozen police arrived outside. He tried to escape; "I was so drunk and high, I painted this big picture that I could try to jump over the fence, but I couldn’t," he says. When the police arrested him, they cheered, "We finally got him!"

In court, the judge sentenced him to eight-and-a-half to 15 years. It was September 1999. Three months later, his daughter, Ariel, arrived. Ariel’s birth became an epiphany for Joe. He began seeking divine guidance. "God, I can’t do this, I got kids out here to feed," he remembers praying. He heard God audibly demanding he tell the truth. "If You can get me out of this, I will serve You for the rest of my life," he prayed. Back at the courthouse he confessed to the judge about the robberies and all the charges remaining on his record. “He told me he should bury me under the jail," Joe says. But instead the judge gave him three-and-a-half years to five years. "It was then that I knew that it was God, because He always works in threes," he says. "Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit."

At five years old, Joe envisioned himself on stage, mic in hand. And in the sixth grade, he and the other boys held rap battles in school. They fashioned paper belts after those that WWF wrestlers wore and awarded them to the victors; the girls cheered them on. "I didn’t win them all, but I did win some," he laughs. "It was cute"

As he grew up and survived street life, his rapping started gaining recognition. Vacant Lot Records, a subsidiary of Ruff Ryders, which had signed DMX and currently houses artists like Swizz Beatz and Jadakiss, had offered Joe a deal, but he had to serve his sentence. In jail, he attended church, but, for a time, considered himself too cool to talk to anyone. But a couple weeks into his sentence, he says, "I went back to my cell, and God came to me and said, ‘What can these people do for you?’" He started to think, "What could they do for me? They’re not going to take care of me. They’re not going to do my time for me, so why am I being quiet?"

He left behind the stoic G.I. and created another identity, the loud and boisterous Minista Whisper. "I told God, ‘I got this gift of rap, what am I going to do with it?’" he says. "You’re going to use it for me," he heard God tell him. Joe never knew of gospel rappers before; "I thought I was going to be the first one," he laughs.

After several transfers, Joe ended up in Groveland prison. There, he met a partner in gospel rap, named Kendrick Cuyler, also known as Prodigal. "We were like, ‘Yeah, we’re going to be big, man! We’re going to be huge!’" he smiles. After listening to Gospel Gangstaz, a Grammy-nominated Christian rap group, they convinced the president of a church to help create a gospel ministry in the prison. At their first performance, Joe remembers people rising to their feet, crying.

When Sakia met him eight years ago, they discovered they had similar stories: distant fathers, failing marriages. "He was praying for his wife at the time, and I was praying for my husband," Sakia says. Joe laughs, "Go figure, I was in jail reading The Power of a Praying Wife."

Two years ago, Joe met legendary rapper Kurtis Blow and invited him to hold a Fired Up Friday at the Gospel Temple-Church of God in Christ, on the city’s South Side. That night, Joe and Sakia went door-to-door announcing Blow’s arrival. Blow preached to and performed for two- to three-hundred people, including the mayor. "He’s very humble, definitely a man of God," Blow says of Joe, who he knows only as Minista Whisper. "A lot of times God lets things happen to us for a reason, so that we can get closer to Him."

In 2002, Joe started a record label, CrossFire Records, with Prodigal. Joe won the Syracuse Area Music Award for Best Hip-Hop Artist in 2005—"which is funny because there is no category for gospel rap,"he says—and the Tiffany Award at Lehman College in the Bronx in New York City. He’s traveled to Florida, Virginia, Vermont, and Pennsylvania to minister and tell his testimony. He plans to go to Brakpan in South Africa after his wife recuperates from giving birth to Wisdom.

In 2007, he and Justin Fatica, then a 25-year-old preacher, traveled to eight New Jersey schools to perform, with the national Catholic organization Hard As Nails Ministry. HBO documented their work. Joe gave his testimony, though he couldn’t say "Jesus" in the schools. "I told them, if they understand or feel what I’m saying, they should scream, ‘I feel you dog!’" Joe remembers. "And I swear, by the time I finished telling my testimony, kids were holding each other and crying and screaming, ‘I feel you dog!’" Joe said he could see the pain in their eyes, that he could feel it.

Right now, with Sakia’s help, Joe—as Minista Whisper—is focusing on spreading Fired Up Fridays, a weekly congregation that alternates between a movie and an open mic night, across ten churches in Syracuse. "A lot of the churches in the community aren’t doing enough to attract young people," Sakia says. "We can use Fired Up Fridays as a doorway." They watch artists display their talents at the Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ and hope that their creativity guides them toward a new path. Joe says, "It’s up to us to forgive and to help that person along to a better life—not to hold their past against them."