Pastoring Rappers

The artists of Humble Beast on the idolatry of artistry, and how the local church best serves artists.
Pastoring Rappers
Image: Humble Beast

Humble Beast describes themselves as “a family of creatives, pastors, writers, theologians, and musicians who leverage their talents to see the Gospel go out into the community and transform lives,” but they’re best known for their stable of talented rappers who produce music that defies the expectations many tend to place on Christian hip-hop. Their music is available online at no cost.

Image: Humble Beast

Humble Beast focuses not only on the ideas of Christianity, but the importance of living out those ideas in the context of a local church. On their website, they spell out that commitment: “As a company, we are submitted to our local church and all our artists are members of local church congregations as well.”

I spoke to five artists on the Humble Beast roster at the Legacy Conference in Chicago about the role of church in their lives as artists.

JGivens is a rapper from Las Vegas, Nevada. His latest album, Fly Exam, was released today.

Jackie Hill Perry is a spoken-word poet, writer, and rapper from Chicago, Illinois. She serves as Female Mentorship Coordinator at Grip Outreach for Youth. Her latest album, The Art of Joy, is available now.

Courtland Urbano, Braille, and Odd Thomas make up the Portland, Oregon based group, Beautiful Eulogy. Their sophomore release, Instruments of Mercy, is available now.

Were you raised in the church?

Courtland Urbano: Yeah, in Texas, so it was a Bible-belt situation. As far as I know it was a gospel-centered church but looking back, I can’t think of a moment where the gospel struck me in the significant way that it did as I got older and actually read the Bible for myself.

As I was going through a rebellious stage, I still felt some of those convictions that I had just growing up in the church. So yeah, I see the benefit in growing up in the church for sure.

Were you all feeling like you were leaning toward being artists when you were growing up in church?

Jackie Hill Perry: I sort of grew up in church, if you call it that. My mom’s not a Christian, so when she was at work, I was with my auntie when she was at church. But I didn’t have a concept of art. I just drew things. I didn’t identify as an artist until I became a Christian.

Was being involved in the local church something that encouraged your art?

Perry: When I was a kid, the only art I saw was speaking in tongues. But when I became a believer, the church I went to, I honed my artistry there. My pastor, when he found out I could do poetry, had me doing poetry like every Sunday, so I was just being affirmed by the people in the congregation, like letting me know “oh you have a gift.” I was like, “I was just writing something.”

I saw this dude, they did signing. And people were worshipping. It didn’t matter. They enjoyed gifts in that church.

I think if it wasn’t for my pastor seeing that in me and giving me opportunities to display that gift, then … I don’t know. I don’t want to say the cliche “I wouldn’t be here today,” but … I wouldn’t have known. I would have thought I was just doing something.

In the churches I’ve gone to, there’s not a category for someone getting up and doing spoken-word poetry. Was that the case for that church?

Perry: Whatever you did, you did for the glory of God … you could do sign language to praise and worship.

JGivens: Miming?

Perry: No, I saw this dude, they did signing. And people were worshipping. It didn’t matter. They enjoyed gifts in that church.

JGivens: I was raised in church. Both of my parents are Christian, as well as my grandma, my great-grandma. I’m from a conservative Baptist family that moved from the South to the West.

Like Courtland was saying, there was always just a conviction. I don’t promote mere cultural Christianity, but I would say, as far as the culture of being in an African-American church, it was about emotion and expression. There was a fear of God that was passed down culturally.

That didn’t protect me from my own lustful desires, rebelling, or going off to college and living my own story. But I had a discipline of running to God when there was trouble or when I was in need. So when I was finally at rock-bottom, thinking to myself, I’m way too far out here. I’m pretty much strung out on drugs and no one knows yet, I said, “Alright God, I know I was raised to run to you, so now I’m really out here.”

So I’m really blessed that I grew up in the church, because it gave me a foundation to explore theology and God as an adult after figuring out that I was responsible for that myself.

Did you start going to church after that?

JGivens: I was going before, but I started going with a little more tenacity. Like, Let’s do this right. Let’s stop playing around.

I was raised in youth ministry, and was in youth leadership. So I never went to church with my family. It was like, “Okay, you go to the kids and the teen group, and then I’m gonna go there.” When I became an adult, I actually went to “big church” by myself, and it was kind of a culture-shock. It’s like when you’re an adult and you go out into the big world by yourself and you’re like, “Oh!”

As far as art, I stumbled upon that. That was just kind of a vehicle that God gave me.

So you stumbled onto art after you had become a Christian?

JGivens: Yeah, that was about five years ago. Actually, I stumbled upon Jackie [Hill Perry] on YouTube, and I went to the church that was listed at the bottom of the video she was on. I walked up and I said, “Hey, I think I’m a fake Christian.” Then I went home, and read the Bible for myself. Then I was reading the Bible and I was getting bored, and I was like “Alright God, well, I still want to hang out, but I don’t want to read this till I fall asleep.”

Then I started writing what I was reading in rap form, and it just didn’t stop.

That’s really cool, because I feel there’s a stereotype that churches don’t understand this idea of art in general. It’s interesting to me that at least both of your experiences are “I went to church, and because of that, partially, I became an artist.”

Perry: I think it’s cultural.

In what way?

Perry: I think most black kids typically go to charismatic churches, and most charismatic churches are in love with everything that seems like a gift or entertainment-driven. That’s why when I go to black churches and do poetry, it’s always a different response than when I go to a white church, because white churches don’t know what to do. They say, “Do I … is this a song? I don’t know what’s happening.” I think our environment and how we were raised culturally lends itself to that.

Braille: I wasn’t raised in a Christian home, so the first time I ever entered a church building was for a funeral, probably in middle-school. The first time I heard the gospel, though, was from a street-preacher on a basketball court. The Lord was just gracious to grip my heart with an awareness that there was a God, that I was accountable to him, that I was a sinner, and that only Jesus could save me.

I went to one church, and they asked me to take off my hat, and it really wasn’t that big of a deal.

That’s pretty much the only theology I had for a long time, but the Lord used it to sustain me. By the time I actually began going to church, that would have been right after high school. I was in a lot more charismatic church as well, so I’ve only really ever been embraced as an artist.

That hasn’t been exclusive to any one type of church. At this point in my life, I’ve traveled the world, not just the United States, but overseas. I’ve just never seen it be an issue.

I mean, I don’t go to church trying to rap. I go to church to worship the Lord. I went to one church, and they asked me to take off my hat, and it really wasn’t that big of a deal. I took off my hat. It wasn’t that serious.

Sometimes there’s this idea, “Well, the church doesn’t get art.” You’ve got to be careful with broad, general statements like that, for one. But also, the Sunday gathering of the saints is not about art anyway. If art can be used to edify the rest of the body, it can be a good tool. But the burden on me as an artist is not to go and say, “Let me show you my art.”

I think the issue with art is if my identity or perception of my usefulness is so wrapped up in my artistry, then people’s acceptance of my artistry is their acceptance of me. So if they don’t give me an opportunity to be an artist, then it’s like they don’t accept me or they don’t love me. I think that is an idolatry of artistry.

You don’t have to accept my artistry to accept me, but if my artistry can be used to build up the body, that’s beautiful.

Those are the things that need to be navigated. I think it looks different depending on the artist’s intention, the minister’s intention, and the congregation’s intention.

Have you struggled with idolizing that role of artistry in your lives?

Odd Thomas: Of course. It’s an expressive medium. It’s easy to find your identity in how you express yourself, especially creatively. The reality is everybody wrestles with that tension, and the goal is to keep going to Jesus and saying, “God, help my desire and affections to be fixed on you. Help me to know you as being better than my art.” That’s a recurring passenger for any artist.

Braille: Not being raised in a religious home, I definitely feel as though hip-hop was my religion and my identity. That’s why I’m so glad that I was in situations where my life in the church wasn’t all about my artistry. Because everything else about my life was about my artistry: who I was, who I related to, who I was friends with.

The church was where I was finally realizing, No, my identity is more in Christ than it is my artistry. My relationship with someone and what I have in common with them in Christ is more important than what I have in common with them through my artistry. I didn’t need church to be all hip-hop because I was hip-hop.

The church was where I was finally realizing, No, my identity is more in Christ than it is my artistry.

Ridding myself of my own idolatry was a long, painful process of dying over and over again, thinking, Okay, I’m done with that, then realizing it’s still so wrapped up in how I perceive myself and how I relate with people. Knowing that, I love going places where all I share in common with the rest of the saints there is a faith in Jesus Christ. It strips away all these other things, so that I cling more tightly to him.

Thomas: I was also not raised in a Christian home. I was kind of an artist. I was doing art probably at the same time [Braille] started doing art. I was like 13 years old. It was our way to navigate life. I would write how I felt. I would write to find acceptance from other people. It was the culture I was striving to gain influence in and acceptance.

So at age 18, a friend of my mom had been praying for me for a long time. She invited me on a picnic and it was at that picnic that she shared the gospel with me.

I didn’t understand all of the nuances, but I knew that Christ died for my sin. It was obvious that I was a sinner. I never rejected that notion. I mean, I was enjoying it, you know? But that was the first time I was confronted with the reality that there were consequences for my sin, and that I’ll face judgment, and I need someone to save me from that judgment.

From there I didn’t connect with the local church. I kind of just floated as this autonomous Christian. I might have come into the church for a little bit, didn’t really look like anybody there, didn’t feel like anybody there. Because hip-hop was somewhat of an idol for me as well, I was like, “Well, you guys aren’t me, and I’m not you. So, I like what you’re doing, but it’s just not for me.”

It wasn’t until I began to value the church, not from what I can bring to the church with my giftings, but what the church can offer me as a person who needs guidance. That was the first time men actually discipled me and helped me to grow in my understanding of the gospel and what it looks like to be a faithful Christian.

I think that was the point, when I was in the church, where I began to value the church so much more than artistry. I never went to the church and said, “Hey, I want to rap for you guys.” There was this change where men and women who were actively involved in my life started pushing me to use my gifts for the sake of evangelism and edifying the saints.

My experience was not so much that I went there and they cultivated this artistry in me. They cultivated healthy discipleship. From there, I wanted to do art, not for creative expression, but for the purpose of making Christ known.

At that point, you were in a place where you had accepted the gospel. Do you think it’s valuable for churches, when it comes to outreach, to embrace art in this way, and to do things that cater to artists?

Thomas: It depends largely on the context of the church. So, if you have this predominately white, upper-class, middle-age church that’s like “You know what we want to do, we want to reach people, so let’s do a hip-hop show,” they don’t know anything about the culture or the art. I would say for them, if you’re talking about hip-hop, it’s probably not a good look. There’s probably other things you can do that would be more beneficial.

But if you are in that context and you see that a large portion of people who are around the congregation are hip-hop heads, let’s start thinking critically about how we might be able to use tools as a medium to gain influence in the environment we’re in for the sake of helping people understand the gospel.

Braille: I think sometimes when we make these broad statements, “The church needs to do more of this. The church needs to do more of that,” it really depends on where the church is located, what giftings the members of the congregation have, and who are the people they are engaged with in ministry.

So often we think, “We need to do this so people will come.” But the call of the church is to go. So if you have people who have gifts and things like that, it’s not necessarily like, “Let’s do a rap concert on Sunday morning so people will come!” No, if I’ve got brothers and sisters in the congregation who are gifted to do those things, I want them to go out into the city to the places where those things are happening so that they can be doing evangelism in those kind of ways.

Anytime a church can throw other various events to create awareness in their community that they exist, that’s always a good thing. People begin to build an awareness of, “Okay, this church is in our city. They’re around. I’ve had interactions with them, and those interactions were positive.” When people get to those points in their lives where they’re like, “I need somewhere to run,” then they’re like, “Hey there’s that church over there.”

So when [JGivens is] telling his story, he’s like, “I’m ready to run to God.” Part of running to God usually involves running to the local church. It’s not just, “I’m going to run out into the middle of nowhere and scream.” More than likely you’re going to run to a local church that has made itself known to you.

One thing that’s really unique about Humble Beast is how upfront you are about the local church’s importance, both to the label, and to the artists within the label. Humble Beast artists also talk a lot about how you are a family. You keep each other accountable, you mentor one another, you disciple one another. Why isn’t Humble Beast sufficient as a local church, and why do you feel a need to go a step further and say, “Actually, we need this other organization to be a part of”?

JGivens: Humble Beast is a community of artists. We disciple each other, we’re members of a body, but it’s not the local church because it’s not local all the time. These guys live together (points at Braille, Courtland, and Thomas). They go to and serve in the same local church. I live in Las Vegas.

There’s something to be said about having the ability to submit to a local church, serve, be held accountable, to be there and show up, or to be missing and have people say, “Hey, where are you?” I think the pastor I’m under in Las Vegas, can probably do a better job of holding me accountable on Monday through Saturday than, say, [Braille] can, when I’m at home. So it’s really important.

Braille: If I’m reading Paul’s letters to localized congregations and what it looks like to live out the Christian life, it doesn’t look like a creative collective or a bunch of people who are like-minded and have similar gifts as you and joining arms together in isolation [from everyone else].

Some of the rich benefit for us in Portland, Oregon, for Thomas, Courtland and I being members of the same church: our church is not built around a bunch of people who do the same things that we do. We have 50 and 60-year-old saints who have never been to a rap concert, who have never been in a recording studio before, but who pray for us while we’re on the road. When we gather together, it’s not “How can we mentor and disciple each other as artists trying to do it as Christians?” We’re just mentoring and discipling each other as Christians trying to live the Christian life.

For us, the emphasis of the local church is so important. I don’t think my music is sufficient for discipleship. It’s a tool that can be used to inform people of correct theology and how to respond to God, and things like that, and sometimes maybe even help them to recognize false teaching, or maybe even just expose them to the gospel for the first time. But that more complete work of discipleship is going to be happening in the local church context.

As we become better Christians, as we grow in godliness, and as we grow in obedience, then our music is going to grow in our ability to convey and communicate things that are true from a posture that is true. And it’s not just “How can I go out and give you a bunch of information?” When Paul says, “We were eager not only to give you the gospel, but also our very lives,” it’s in the local church where we’re giving our lives to one another, so that we actually have something to give to someone else as we travel.

How do you serve in your local churches?

Perry: I don’t really do anything. I try my best to just be there. I’m prone to isolation, because I typically don’t like people. So I would rather not go to the Bible study, and I’d rather not go to the women’s breakfast. I think God has been challenging me to just serve in interpersonal relationships: seeking to talk to people that I don’t talk to or, if I see that there’s this young lady who just joined our church who’s an amazing artist, I just try to connect with her, to pour into her, where her artistry doesn’t become an idol, where she can love Jesus and become a woman of God and out of that flows this really effective ministry.

So, I guess just real inter-personal. Not on stage. I don’t do much publicly at church.

Have your church leaders been relatively understanding of that?

Perry: Yeah.

But you’ve performed at church recently, right?

Perry: Because they told me to. [group laughs] I haven’t performed in like six months. But I told them I don’t want to perform.

When they asked you to perform six months ago, were you kind of goaded into it?

Perry: Yeah! Because I feel like I’m always performing, and there are a lot of other people who have a gift to do it. They’re like, “Yeah but that’s a crock. If God has gifted you…” They were like “You serve other churches more than you serve the local church with your gift of speaking.”

It’s like, I guess if you put it that way…

Do you believe that?

Perry: I do. I felt like I was being humble, you know what I’m saying? Like, let other people do it. But there’s two perspectives to it. So I think [my pastor] is always pushing me to get outside of myself, to just love on people.

By which you mean what?

Talk. Be interested in people’s lives. Invite them over to my home. Cook for them, if necessary. Be hospitable. Allow them to see what loving your husband looks like, what loving your child looks like, which is very difficult for me to do.

Thomas: I serve as an elder in my church. That’s a fairly new thing. Prior to that, every opportunity that I could serve, I would seek an opportunity. That looked a lot like helping with the website, helping with some branding (because I have some experience in terms of marketing), being a part of the liturgy.

I wasn’t so much being used for my artistic gifts, although they did leverage that. I have done some spoken word for holidays when the culture affords us an opportunity to speak to culture, like Easter. They’ve kind of commissioned me to do some spoken word that might be intriguing for non-believers.

Since the church started, I’ve met with men and done discipleship, just kind of poured out and through that I’ve been loved very well by the church. They’ve encouraged me, poured into my life, and spiritually I’ve matured a lot. So it’s been a great experience for me.

Courtland: The Lord has grown me or built me in a way where I’m more of a background person anyway. So even within the context of local ministry, that’s the role that I play. So like, running sound, which is just something that comes natural to me. And then serving coffee.

Outside of that, my wife and I are hosting parties for people that want to use our home, and inviting people over and loving them, getting to know them, helping people move when they need to be moved somewhere.

Thomas: That’s the main thing in our church. Just helping people move. That right there is the ministry. [Group laughter.]

Courtland: Yeah. It’s just really simple. Just normal life stuff.

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