The Rapping Reverend

may 22 2006 • Written by meghan hurley for the toronto star

With rap records spinning and the gymnasium of Dante Alighieri Academy in the dark, you would never guess that a Roman Catholic priest was about to take centre stage.

But Rev. Stan Fortuna isn't any ordinary priest.

They entertain platinum violence kids get slain it's insane/Tupac and Biggie and the boy it's a constant refrain/Pray to abstain from the lie sustain the truth/We got to come together y'all we losin' mad youth.

Striding around the stage with his red guitar, in a thick New York accent Fortuna belted out the lyrics to "Everybody Got to Suffer," a song he wrote for one of his CDs called Sacro Song II. On stage, he moved smoothly from jazz rhythms to hip-hop beats, with his long ponytail and grey robe swaying around as he rapped about God.

The North York students, who call Fortuna "the rapping reverend," think he can entertain almost as well as Notorious B.I.G. The 46-year-old evangelizing rapper set out to change the world through music.

Fortuna, who lives in the South Bronx, has been touring the world for the past six years and made a stop at Dante Alighieri on Friday to perform for more than 500 students. "I have been into music my whole life. I think I might have even been busting beats in my mother's womb. I saw people in the streets of Spanish Harlem doing beats with their mouth and I was floored. That made a deep impact on me."

The Franciscan Friar has combined his love of music, which began in Grade 2 when he got his first guitar for Christmas, with his Catholic faith. When the late Pope John Paul II began to challenge priests in the 1980s to take the gospel into the streets, Fortuna began to make his own beats and targeted youth with his message.

"That for me was a green light to be open to the possibility to taking the gospel message and start working on songs. I would talk to kids who were bored as a dead piece of wood and then I started rapping over beat and the kids came alive. It became a tremendous weight to tap into their hearts."

Fortuna told the crowd at Dante Alighieri that he became involved with an alternative way of speaking to students because "God is like the divine — when he bite, he don't let go."

Edwin Rivas, a Grade 12 student at Dante, said Fortuna's unorthodox approach has helped him reunite with his faith.

"It's radical to see a priest rapping. To see a man rapping about God inspired me more than ever. He gave me more fuel to burn on. Now I have a deeper connection with God."

Fortuna's popularity comes with taking rap songs that are sometimes filled with sex, drugs and crime, and creating his own music with more positive messages, Rivas said. "There is a stereotype about hip-hop but his messages are really positive. My favourite music is hip-hop and I believe in God a lot and now my faith has gotten stronger," Rivas said. And he feels Fortuna's experience living in a city plagued with youth crime and violence is what makes his music so powerful. "He knows about the kids in the 'hood, the gangs, and the drugs. If Toronto is bad, the Bronx is even worse. He helps kids and he talks with them and is very involved," Rivas said.

Rapping the word of God isn't the only way Fortuna reaches out to students. Motivational talks are also an integral part of his program. "His speeches are real and he doesn't try to be fake about anything. He speaks with so much heart," Rivas said. "He doesn't try to confuse anyone. You can tell that he has seen people in the street, seen people struggle."

Fortuna's motivational talks are similar to stand-up comedy — but with a message. His way of engaging students is what makes him such an in-demand speaker. "What I get directly from students is a very positive response. A lot of them are surprised and maybe somewhat impressed.

``On another level there is a credibility factor that I think helps the difficulty of the message become palpable to them," Fortuna said.

Fortuna doesn't only address faith and religion but also deals with other issues affecting students, such as drugs. "When I came to Dante I smelled it, dawg, right here in a Catholic school. I wondered, `How stupid are these kids?'" Fortuna said, making the students roar with laughter.

Along with his engaging rap tunes and speech, interwoven in his appearance were messages of prayer and reflection, as well. Slang and lingo students can understand rolled off his tongue as easily as a teenager. "I want y'all to be aware that there is no end to this place and God will give y'all a kiss," Fortuna told the gym full of high school students.

Robert Quaglia, a religion teacher at Dante, has been following Fortuna's work for about four years and invited him to the school. "Speaking and evangelizing the culture of youth through music is a medium that works well for the students," Quaglia said.

Dante principal Angela Piscitelli said Fortuna's work has transformed her taste in music and she thinks rap is the right medium to reach out to students. "I made a decision today. I like rap. God is in other people and comes and talks to us in different forms and sizes and today he talked to us through Father Stan and for that we are thankful," she said.

Fortuna established the non-profit Francesco Productions to record and distribute evangelical music and video productions. All the proceeds go to working with the poor of the South Bronx.

Fortuna's next CD will be available in the next few weeks.