Humility and the Craft of Hip-Hop: A Visit to Humble Beast

Trinity Church of Portland is located on the tree filled campus of Western Seminary and I arrive for a service half an hour late. I quietly ease myself into a back row, the sermon already underway.  Since their teaching pastor, Art Azurdia, is away on sabbatical, one of the elders, a professor of counselling at the seminary, is taking his place. As he preaches from 2 Kings 6 and necessity of having our eyes opened to the greater reality of God’s work amongst us, I glance around the chapel noting the ordinariness of the congregation. The church isn’t large, but it is filled with all ages and all are listening attentively. (I later learned that whenever the congregation outgrows the building, they plant a daughter church.) After the sermon, Bryan “Braille” Winchester leads us through a communion liturgy with the eloquence and passion I’ve come to expect from the emcee, extolling the excellencies of the Gospel we are celebrating. An amateur church band ends the service with unabashed enthusiasm. 

I leave the building an hour after the service, deeply encouraged by both its teaching and the long conversation I had with a member of the congregation, Josh Hill. Josh had shared with me the story of how he became the Director of Operations at Humble Beast, the ministry that brought me to Trinity Church and the city of Portland.

 Bryan “Braille” Winchester leads the congregation of Trinity Church through a communion liturgy.

Bryan “Braille” Winchester leads the congregation of Trinity Church through a communion liturgy.

Humble Beast, a hip-hop label dedicated to producing excellent content it gives away for free, calls Trinity its “home church” and submits to the church’s statement of faith. The label consists of four artists, with diverse styles and lyrical approaches, all united under a lush, acoustic driven production. Their talent is legendary in the hip-hop community. Propaganda is a modern day prophet, preaching into his culture while restoring hope in his community of Los Angeles. Jackie Hill Perry’s intricate wordplay produces a cracked mosaic drawing us to seek our joy in the Lord. JGivens’s depth of lyrics and intricate soundscapes tell a multi-layered story as complex and varied as life itself. I turn to Beautiful Eulogy when my soul is dry and my heart is broken, and they restore me in the hope of the Gospel, my cheeks often getting wet in the process. To say that their music has impacted my life is an understatement. I was eager to see what happens behind the scenes and to learn more about their unique relationship to their local church.

I arrive at the white bungalow in the suburbs of greater Portland that housed the studio at the time of my visit (they have since relocated). Josh welcomes me in. The team has just finished their morning devotional meeting and are beginning the day’s work, quickly dispersing from the main room to enter various meetings and recording sessions. In the kitchen, whose shelves are packed with enough equipment to stand in for a coffee shop’s merchandising wall, are gathered two of the label’s three producers, Daniel Steele and Courtland Urbano. In dress and mannerisms they couldn’t be more different; Courtland has a sculpted moustache and quiet smile, and Daniel wears an XL t-shirt and a backwards snapback cap. I learn that Daniel provided the majority of production on Jackie Hill Perry’s remarkably acoustic driven album, so I ask him about its unusual sound. 

 Daniel Steele prepares some beats for an upcoming project. Sitting next to him (not pictured) is James " JPoetic "  Calkins, a Humble Beast intern.

Daniel Steele prepares some beats for an upcoming project. Sitting next to him (not pictured) is James "JPoeticCalkins, a Humble Beast intern.

“I would describe our sound at Humble Beast as boutiqueDaniel explains, carefully choosing his words. “Do you see Courtland making coffee?” I watch Courtland carefully pours hot water from the gooseneck spout of a copper kettle, engrossed yet clearly enjoying his task. Daniel continues: “That’s how we craft our music.”

The analogy is apt. Throughout our conversation I hear sounds from the recording studio, located deeper inside the building. 10 seconds of a track are played and then paused, played and paused, again and again. I wander into the studio, where Braille and Jeremiah “JGivens” Givens are fine-tuning a song for JGiven’s upcoming album. The two are utterly immersed in the music. Braille, helming the computer, repeats yet again the 10 seconds of track, closing his eyes and swaying to the beat - “oh here we, here we go, Geronimo, look out below” - before pausing and adjusting the deep base line. JGivens, sitting next to him, nods wordlessly. Again the line is played and this time the snare is tweaked. Then three separate lines of background vocals are fine tuned, followed by the effects. All morning the artists work, and I’ve only heard the first third of the song. Boutique indeed; this is hip-hop craftsmanship. 

 Hip-hop craftsmanship: I lost track of time while observing Braille and JGivens work on one of the standout tracks of JGiven's album  Fly Exam.

Hip-hop craftsmanship: I lost track of time while observing Braille and JGivens work on one of the standout tracks of JGiven's album Fly Exam.

That afternoon, an adjacent office is cramped with Jeremiah, Courtland, Anthony Benedetto (who’s responsible for the visual style of the label), and Thomas “Odd Thomas” Terry, the owner and proprietor. The four are planning a music video they are producing for JGiven’s song “10 2 Get In”. The office is packed with computers and cameras. Artwork, logos, bookshelves, and timeline filled whiteboards cover the walls. There is a serious tone to the discussion. The message they are communicating and the preciousness of their resources demand their best abilities. I notice the weight of this responsibility particularly in Thomas.

Thomas is also an elder at Trinity and he has a meeting with the other three elders later that afternoon. The whole team is getting hungry and Thomas suggests a Lebanese restaurant near the church. We all pile into several vehicles and our commute gives us some time to talk. I ask him about the ego struggle that so regularly accompanies the creation of art. “You always have to fight your pride, the way people perceive you, and your affirmation” he tells me. “The pride— and sometimes slipping into finding your self-worth, dignity, and value in your artistry—is something I think every artist has to wrestle with. I don’t know many people who have conquered that.”

I’m relieved that I am not alone in this battle. He continues; “It’s a constant day by day thing. Where am I at? How is this impacting me? For the artist who's figured that out, I would like to talk with that person. But I think that there is a responsibility to constantly approach God with your art and with your talents and say, “God, search me and expose the areas of my life where new areas of pride because of artistry has popped up, or I’ve believed things that are untrue, or I've believed things that are exaggerated about myself.” I don’t think it’s special. I think everyone has to wrestle with those things, but art just tends to put it on display more.”

I wonder how being connected to the local church affects this struggle. “I think one of the things the church does is it should—if it’s a healthy church—give you a good balance, reminding you that you are just one of many people within the church, that you are only one part of the body. They shouldn’t elevate you because you’re an artist over and against the person who is not artistically bent, but who is serving the body in an equally important role.”

 Thomas and Jeremiah excitedly bounce ideas for their upcoming music video, the innovative .

Thomas and Jeremiah excitedly bounce ideas for their upcoming music video, the innovative.

We arrive at the restaurant along with the rest of the team. Thomas will have to eat quickly in order to make the meeting. While we wait for the food to arrive, I ask about Humble Beast’s relationship with Trinity Church. “When we come to Trinity we don’t necessarily come with our hip hop burden and say “do something with our hip-hop.” We basically just serve in our church.” This includes ordinary tasks like stacking chairs and brewing coffee, as well as more specific roles, such as serving in the liturgy and being an elder.  “They encourage us to keep on, they encourage through prayer, and support our efforts. But we haven’t come into the church saying “Here’s what we do; support what we do.” We are members of the church that have a particular vocation that has a ministry bent. We are artists who've found that in order for us to be effective we need to submit to a local church.”

Thomas leaves for his meeting and I end up next to JGivens in the back seat of a car returning to the studio. Jeremiah is staying in Portland for several weeks recording his upcoming album Fly Exam, but he was born and raised and continues to live in Las Vegas. I ask him about his church and he tells me about its location in ‘Naked City’, a mile and a half radius that five years ago was considered one of the city’s most troubled neighbourhoods. It was then that a family moved into the area and planted a church. Through a balanced blend of ministries—including open air preaching, food distribution, and weekly discipleship—the church has grown to 150 people. Some of its main contributors were initially those most violently opposed to its work. Jeremiah told me about the church’s active role in the community, their careful balance of word and deed ministries, and how folks who were just kids when the church started have now grown up and are almost raised by church families. “We’ve taken them on their first drive to the ocean or even their first time outside of Naked City.” 

 JGivens on God's sovereignty in his life: "it's just dope!" This moment of joy stayed with me and defined my trip to Portland.

JGivens on God's sovereignty in his life: "it's just dope!" This moment of joy stayed with me and defined my trip to Portland.

It was out of this church that Jeremiah’s rap ministry was born, beginning with live outreach performance on the streets and in local churches. As a kid, a career in hip-hop was far from his mind. “Growing up, all I wanted to do was design rollercoasters as a Disney Imagineer.” After he completed his engineering degree and interned for Disney, he realized that it wasn’t what he wanted to do every day. Nor was successfully selling $17,000 contracts for a communications start-up he worked for. “I went home and I was like “I’m out.” I’m going to rap these songs for my church.””

“So I sold my car, sold everything, lived at home and just had a phone bill, doing shows and selling CDs.” But Jeremiah applies his engineering degree and the problem solving skills it taught him everyday. He is also incredibly creative. “Art is a lot bigger than music. It’s everything—it’s the way you arrange your clothes.” He discussed the aesthetics of his upcoming album and the music videos he and his collaborators at Humble Beast were creating to supplement the narrative of the album. The album’s story is all about pride and the subsequent fall. It mirrors Jeremiah’s own journey through drug addiction and the resulting humility that came from being anchored in the local church. All of the aesthetics, from the album cover to his Instagram feed, support this story.

“Remember, I wanted to work for Disney,” he tells me as he shoots hoops in the small basketball court outside the studio. “So my whole way of producing something is a Walt Disney mindset, it’s the entire experience.” I remark on how interesting it is that these lifelong desires, while not fulfilled directly, are still being used by God in the end. “Right?” Jeremiah exclaimed. “He redeems it! God has been like “I’m going to let you do what you wanted to do you, just didn’t know you wanted to do it like this.” It’s just dope!” We laugh together, truly enjoying the way God turns our selfish dreams and aspirations into something that magnifies him in ways much better than we could have imagined. 

As I sit outside the studio in the summer heat, I reflect back on what I’ve witnessed that day. These are men who are honing their skills with excellence. They are deeply grounded in their church communities, discipling while being discipled. Their unique circumstances led them to this place, despite disappointments, disillusionment, and even failure. But God had worked through it all, impacting many though the overflow of their lives: their music. Even me, in my world of Calgary.

I return home having seen a little clearer how God has been using my messy circumstances, my gifts, and my failings. I’ll pray all the more for faithfulness and humility, and I’ll stay even more rooted, thankful, and committed to the oversight of my church community. 

 

My conversation with Odd Thomas was so helpful and encouraging that I couldn't fit it all in this essay. I've instead published a transcript of the entire chat here.