Nena Clark was burned out on Houston hip-hop by the time she was 26, and not only because she’d been sneaking into clubs since the age of 15. It was a scene that was at odds with her spiritual path, to put it mildly—too much drinking, too many drugs, and don’t even get her started on the music. Six years ago, Clark swore off clubbing altogether, opting for movies and bowling over drinking and dancing.
Except here she is.
Sunday nights, when church is over, Houston church folks are heading out to a nightclub on Almeda Road.
“I missed the hip-hop beat and the club atmosphere, the chance to dance and unwind, but I can’t stand listening to the lyrics,” Clark, now an elementary-school teacher, tells us on a recent Sunday night. She wears geometric print leggings and knee-high boots, sways to a hip-hop beat, and sips on a strawberry daiquiri. And it is not a relapse that has brought her to this aging strip center on Almeda Rd. but something different. Or rather The Difference.
The Difference is a Christian nightclub, and it is “exactly what I was looking for,” Clark says, taking a sip of her (virgin) daiquiri. “I can dance again.”
She owes this terpsichorean second coming, Clark admits, to Jerri P. Beasley, a woman who, in addition to hosting a radio gospel program on KCOH 1230, founded The Difference this past New Year’s Eve. It caters, Beasley says, to the growing number of young people who are “tired of traditional church and the politics,” which is to say people who would like to get their grooves on without having to go to hell as a result. The Difference is, for them, a compromise place somewhere between the godlessness of a typical nightclub and that town in Footloose that forbids dancing.
The Difference, or Club Manhattan as it’s known on the other six days of the week, rotates such themes as gospel, jazz, Christian comedy, and tonight’s offering—hip-hop.
“There are lots of people who don’t want to be in a nightclub, but they don’t want to be in church again after the morning service,” says Beasley, a lively force in her mid-40s. “They want to be entertained, but not in a church, which is full of rules and regulations.”
Of course, The Difference has rules too. No alcohol is served, for one, the drink menu consisting entirely of things called Mastermind Punch and Pineapple Son Rise, a $6 melange of fruit juice, Sprite, and a splash of grenadine. No profanity is allowed, no smoking is allowed (which was already banned, but still), no fighting is allowed. There are more prohibitions too, all of them listed in a rulebook posted at the club’s entrance.
Perhaps to combat the lack of social lubrication traditionally provided by alcohol, club-goers tend to greet each other with warm I-love-yous and long embraces. The crowd of 100 tonight includes plenty of sagging pants, gold chains, high heels, and at least one large, unsmiling man in baggy shorts and a “Real Men Love Jesus” T-shirt.
“How many of y’all thought once you got saved you would lose your swag?” asks a man from the stage. Multiple hands shoot up. Satisfied, he launches into a set of loud, energetic Southern hip-hop complete with heavy bass, cutting lyrics, cinematic synthesizers, and a gritty if melodramatic Christian message. Other performers follow, many of them preachers. Between sets, they hand out homemade CDs titled Revenge of Da Gospel and G.O.O.N.S. 4 God and Justified.
A female rapper named K-Renee pauses her set so a young woman can come on stage and be saved. The girl is quickly surrounded by a group of rapping preachers, one of whom takes the microphone and delivers a rousing prayer as the young woman breaks into tears to the hallelujahs and amens of the crowd. The girl now saved, K-Renee reclaims her microphone.
“Ain’t no programming the Lord, gotta give him what he wants,” she sermonizes. Then: “Hey, yo, DJ. Drop that beat!” The bass kicks in, the club-goers throw up their arms, and the show goes on.