Ma$e Doesn’t Want To Go Back To Rap In November 2002 Story
Mase left the rap game three years ago, but we still miss him. With rumors strong about a possible return to hip-hop, we go deep cover to his church in Atlanta to find out the truth.
Written By: Marginee Ellis
Illustration: Chang Park
Awash in a fervent sea of “Hallelujahs” and “Thank Ya’s,” Pastor Mason Betha ceremonially approaches the clear, Plexiglas altar of Saving A Nation Endangered Ministries. The praises reverberate off the walls of the East Rivers Elementary School auditorium, a tree-hidden edifice quietly situated off a busy thoroughfare in Atlanta’s affluent Buckhead neighborhood. But as Pastor Betha sets his Bible down on the podium, a respectful hush takes over the room. He quickly admonishes: “Don’t stop for me. Keep praising Him!” The obedient congregation resumes their exaltations even louder and more passionate than before.
Betha calmly surveys the well-dressed crowd that has come to hear him sermonize on salvation and righteousness. The rapperturned- reverend’s face, rounder than in years past, is stern. His demeanor is stiff. His blue-black, pinstripe three-piece suit looks heavy and hot against the Georgia heat that waits outside.
The praises gradually dissipate as Pastor Betha bows his head and begins to pray. He’ll be reading fromActs 12:5-15 this morning. His trademark deadpan drawl rolls out toward the rear of the room, where two young ushers stand motionless, guarding the double- door exit.
“I’m about to shake up religious folk today,” he says. “So if you’re religious, watch out.”
The predominantly female congregation yields murmurs of assent. Pastor Betha pauses. Eighty pairs of mascararimmed eyes gaze back attentively. “See, I don’t have a religion. I have a relationship. I live by faith, not by laws.”
Near the left side of the room, a brown-skinned, middle-aged woman in a canary yellow suit suddenly jumps out of her seat. She stands, extending a trembling arm out toward the altar and, in a possessed fury, screeches a series of nonsensical syllables: “Un tsk tsk ch ch tuh tuh tuh!” The congregation gasps. The woman storms out. It’s a surreal, almost cinematic moment. Yet Pastor Betha’s expression never changes. “God bless you,” he yells as she hits the door. Without missing a beat, he half-laughs, “I told y’all I was gonna shake some church folk up.”
Visiting S.A.N.E. Ministries may be unlike any other church experience you’ve ever had. There’s no Holy Ghost choir. No soulstirring band. No television or audio/video cassette ministry. No after-church mingling. No entertainment. Leave your prior notions at the door. Pastor Betha would prefer that his church get down to the business of the Bible.
“It’s not for me to become a clone of any preacher out there,” he writes in his autobiography, Revelations: There’s Life After The Lime. “If I’m going to do something different, I’ve got to go about it in a different way.”
Pastor Betha appreciates the church’s modest surroundings, he says, because it separates the faithful from the frivolous. “I couldn’t see me having a place that a crackhead or dope dealer wouldn’t come into,” he writes. “My church has to make a prostitute feel welcome. God wants to reach those people, too, and they can’t be reached in the usual way. I’m going to do it the way God instructed me to—in an unusual way.”
It’s hard to believe that these words come from the same man who used to spell his name with a dollar sign, the playboy who once claimed to have “hit everything from Cancun to Grant’s Tomb.” But these days, Pastor Betha puts his passion into saving souls for Christ. Sometimes he gets so worked up during a sermon, he can’t finish his sentences. The longer he preaches, the more he loosens up though, and the more effective he becomes. One Sunday, he’ll compare false devotion to a C-Lo game; the next, he’ll liken commitment to working out with an Ab Roller. He’s quick to share personal anecdotes, ranging from the music industry to married life. And he’s not afraid to show that the hood in him hasn’t totally disappeared. “Even if a pimp is teaching tithes and offering,” he’ll say. “It’s still the truth.”
The unusual tale of Mason Derelle Betha begins on August 27, 1975, when he and his twin sister, Stason, were born—the youngest of six siblings in Jacksonville, Florida. Fleeing her abusive husband, Mason’s mother moved her children to Harlem, New York when Mason was just three years old. He spent his early teen years gambling, cutting class, chasing after girls and running the streets of 139th and Lenox.
Basketball was his first love. He was a star player for Manhattan Center High School—along with his close friend Cameron Giles (now known as rapper Cam’ron.) As teens, the two dabbled in rap as a hobby, briefly forming a group called Children Of The Corn (“corn” stood for “corner”). Damon Dash, a fellow Manhattan Center student, was their manager for a while before leaving to pursue another rap associate, Lamont “Big L” Coleman. (Dash, of course, would go on to start Roc-A-Fella records with Brooklyn’s Jay-Z. Big L was murdered on February 15, 1999.)
After graduating high school in 1994, Mason went to the State University of New York at Purchase in Westchester, New York on a basketball scholarship. He returned to Harlem after only a couple of semesters, intent on pursuing a career in rap. His sister Stason hooked him up with Cudda Love, a road manager for burgeoning rap legend Biggie Smalls. In 1996 Cudda took Mason down to Atlanta, where the likes of Jermaine Dupri and Sean “P. Diddy” Combs were gathering for a rap convention. Shortly after meeting and rapping for Combs at the Hard Rock Café, Ma$e signed a $250,000 deal with Bad Boy Entertainment and joined labelmate Notorious B.I.G. in building a pop culture dynasty.
They were well on their way. Biggie’s Ready To Die had been released two years earlier and was already a certified classic. Mason struck gold right away, guesting on 112’s “Only You (Remix)” and Puffy’s own “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down,” which held fast to the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s R&B singles chart for 25 weeks.
Anointed crown prince of Bad Boy, M-A-$-E began living a hedonistic high life of champagne and marijuana, wild after-parties and willing women. Along with the heady success, though, came drama from all directions. He was nearly killed in a robbery not far from the Harlem block where he grew up, and a nasty beef with Jay-Z surfaced on mixtapes and records. In March 1997, Biggie was killed.
Amid the chaos and uncertainty that followed, Ma$e’s feared for his own life, even as his debut album, Harlem World, was released. It went quadruple-platinum. Still, the young star was unhappy.
On April 4, 1999, Ma$e shocked the music industry by phoning New York’s Hot 97 radio station and announcing his retirement from rap. Five days later, he stood before an altar at the Salvation Deliverance Church in Harlem. Broken-down, crying, he accepted Jesus as his Lord and Savior and pronounced “Ma$e” dead.
Barely two months later, Ma$e’s second album (and final contractual obligation to Bad Boy) Double Up, hit stores. It was a lackluster effort, and the album’s several songs of betrayal and regret foreshadowed his decision. On “From Scratch,” he broods: “And for all the nights and all the fights/That I have, for all this money, over all these dice/All my cars at home and all my ice/If I could do it all again, I’d do it all for Christ.”
Various rumors spread: Ma$e had gone crazy. Mase had gone off to start a cult in Atlanta. Ma$e was frontin’, it was all a publicity stunt. He’d be back, people said. Few believed the religious stuff was for real. Some still don’t.
Nevertheless, Betha embarked on a spiritual journey in hopes of undoing the damage he felt he’d caused as a rapper. He enrolled in Clark Atlanta University as a math major. He held Bible sessions on campus and made several friends who would later serve as founding members of S.A.N.E. He joined Siloam Baptist Church, a down-home East Atlanta congregation where Pastor Jonathan Carter ordained him in December 2000. A month later, Pastor Betha held S.A.N.E.’s first service in an Atlanta-area Day’s Inn.
S.A.N.E. Ministries now meets three days a week in a school auditorium (located, coincidentally, two blocks from the Atlanta outpost of Combs’ restaurant franchise, Justin’s). As of late July, according to church members, they were $50,000 away from being able to move into their own building. Betha will readily tell you it was his disobedience to God that put the church in a school in the first place. He says that while he was on a six-month, 17-city “Hell Is Not Full” crusade in 2000, God told him to ask people for large sums of money for his ministry. But he didn’t obey. “I let folks talk me out of it,” he admits from the pulpit. “I didn’t want folks to think I got into [the ministry] for me... We could’ve walked straight into a building. I was worrying about what folks were saying. Now we’re in here trying to raise money for a building, and God said, ‘You already had that money.’”
Arrive at the aging brick structure a few minutes early (Sunday morning services are at 9:00 and 11:00), and you’ll be greeted at the front entrance by a group of women singing “Bless His Name.” Once inside, you’ll be led to a dingy lobby area where other visitors silently await the opening of the “sanctuary.”
The auditorium itself is less than half the size of a small gymnasium. Its high ceiling and ceramic tile floors amplify the merest sound. Tithe envelopes lie expectantly on steel gray folding chairs. A wood-finish stage faces the room, its navy blue curtains drawn. A banner that hangs along the base of the stage reads, “Same Spirit: Powerful, Applicable, Committed, Loving.”
Like most churches, service begins with songs of praise. Four members lead the worshippers a cappella in a round of hymns that begin with “In The Name Of Jesus.”
After all the praises have been sent up, Pastor Betha’s wife, Twyla, a perky 5’8” beauty dressed in a simple, sea-green suit, welcomes the church. She’s a typical preacher’s wife: lightskinned, slim figured, polished and gracious. She reads from Hebrews 6:10 with the enthusiasm of a cheerleader.
Betha met Twyla McInnis at Siloam during a prayer service. Not long after, she forsook her high-paying consulting job and began working in the offices of S.A.N.E as their web designer. On May 20, 2001, Pastor Betha received an honorary doctorate of theology from St. Paul’s Bible Institute. That same day he announced his engagement to Twyla. (Much to the chagrin, apparently, of many female church-goers. The following Sunday the auditorium was nearly empty.) The two married in August 2001. Now, three days a week, the woman Pastor Betha affectionately refers to as “Sista B” can be found sitting dutifully in the front row of the church, yelling “Teach, Pastor, teach!”
When Mrs. Betha finishes the scripture and announces, “It’s offering time!” the congregation cheers. Fifty or so people file past the altar, dropping tithe envelopes into the deacons’ baskets, then placing the donations at the foot of the podium.
Pastor Betha’s mission, as he sees it, is to show young people that living for Christ doesn’t mean you have to be wack. He admits that when he was first saved, he “let himself go,” neglecting exercise and haircuts. Nowadays, however, he clothes himself in tailored suits and rocks a Rolex, openly flouting the long-held tenet that Christians must uphold an image of modesty. “I don’t wear stuff to be a show-off,” he explains. “I wear things so people will know my God keeps me.”
Mason believes the unsaved should see that God will reward faith with material pleasures. He drives a Range Rover and lives comfortably off record-sale royalties and donations from his flock, and makes no apologies.
“I’m not after success just for the material things,” he says. “I want God to get the glory. Being broke doesn’t bring Him any glory, because He said He’s a provider.”
A rationale for materialism and greed? Maybe. A contradiction in Betha’s stated goals of being humble and all-inclusive? Possibly. But it’s certainly not a new sermon. Actually, it’s a message some theologians call “positive thought materialism,” in which wealth and success are necessary for salvation. Given the current proliferation of Black “mega churches” and millionaire men of the cloth, many parishioners have taken to heart the idea that they will become wealthy if they tithe faithfully and “get right with God.” Still, it’s a philosophy not without its problems.
“This belief allows the Black middle class to justify personal aggrandizement, upward mobility, economic accumulation and material benefits without being made responsible for how wealth is secured, generated or distributed,” wrote noted scholar and Baptist minister Michael Eric Dyson in a 1998 essay entitled, “Pulpit Politics: Religion And The Black Tradition.” “[Positive thought materialism] stigmatizes those who aren’t healthy, wealthy and successful as inefficient bearers of God’s gifts and grace, or as failures in the spiritual realms of prayer and holiness. They say the poor are poor because they don’t pray right, don’t live right or don’t think right. In other words, the problem is individual, not social or collective.”
Despite Pastor Betha’s public break with his past, you can’t help but wonder whether he really misses the limelight. Positive thought materialism jibes easily with
stardom, and he seems at times to want the best of both faith and fame.
He’d deny such thoughts vehemently. While he’s pleased that the memory of the rapper Ma$e might have helped lead 200 sinners to the door of S.A.N.E. Ministries, he’s bothered by the idea of his celebrity outshining what he sees as a more important truth. “The problem of people going to church [here] is folks are trying to sell people on me,” he says. “They make my salvation a big deal. They make it a weird, strange thing. People at church don’t believe in God. For so long, people haven’t seen anything real—and when they do see it, they don’t believe it.
“I’m never going back [to rap]. That fight’s already won in my mind. I don’t have anywhere to go back to. I don’t think about it, don’t dream about it. Outta sight, outta mind."