Humble Beast Interview, Part 3: Beautiful Eulogy’s Second Album, Lyrics and Theology, and the Evangelical World’s Response to Hip-Hop.
Thomas Terry and Bryan Winchester of Humble Beast, w/ Aaron Halvorsen and Todd Miles of Western Seminary.
AARON: Tell me about the creation of Beautiful Eulogy’s second album, Instruments of Mercy.
BRYAN: One of the most important factors for me is to put the glory of God on display. Many of our songs have personal side, but we ultimately want to make worship music. That’s essentially what we’re creating. There are some songs that could be exceptions, but for the most part the record is worship music. In that, I find that it’s important that we enjoy God ourselves and enjoy our fellowship with one another. When that’s not the case, how can you write songs about God and put Him on display in any kind of way that’s sincere? So for me, making an album is a heavy process. There is studying that goes into each song, and having that study penetrate your own heart, so you feel something about it, and then finding a way to artistically express the way those truths about God have affected you. It’s worshiping God in song, and at the same time making Him known. We want to tell you things about Him by the way we worship Him. We also try to model a proper posture in worshiping God, having the song reflect the posture of the content. If it’s a song about the impact of sin and God’s mercy toward sinners, there’s a way we should communicate that lyrically, musically, and even in our tone of voice. Each song can be a mini, topical sermonette. But it’s all about making God known and worshiping God for who He is and has revealed Himself to be.
THOMAS: As we’ve started doing some preaching, we’ve come to realize that the process for constructing songs is very similar to sermon preparation. We sat in on Art Azurdia’s preaching class, and as he was breaking down the way you prepare for and deliver a sermon, we found that the process is similar. We study, study, study, allowing the text to affect us so that we know it and feel it. The thing about hip-hop is that people will know if you’re not being genuine with what you’re saying, just like in preaching. That’s been huge for us, allowing what we study to infect us so that we are radically changed by it, and then able to experientially able to communicate it. And there were some distinctives in creating this Beautiful Eulogy record. We of course wanted to put the glory of God on display, and we wanted to communicate good theology, which requires us to know good theology. We also wanted to help men feel like they could worship in a masculine way. That is one of the reasons we make worship music the way we do, so that men can sing songs that aren’t about a love affair with Jesus, but more about a King, the God of all creation, the savior of their souls. Also, we wanted to evangelize people with this record. The gospel is in every song except one, so when people take a song out of the body of work, there is still a gospel proclamation for them.
TODD: So where did you get your training, and who influenced? The songs are so robust and theologically packed, yet you didn’t go to Bible college or seminary.
THOMAS: Preachers, teachers, and books. Our pastor, Art Azurdia, for sure. We definitely read a lot of Spurgeon and Packer. In the beginning I read a lot of Francis Schaeffer, Gordon Clark, and Van Til, and folks like that. The guys who discipled me challenged me to read those books, and I didn’t understand them at all when I first started. But God was kind and gave me a palette for them. With sermons, Keller and Piper and others all worked as a catalyst to help me think through the Bible and theology.
BRYAN: Very similar for me. I try to make it a habit to take whatever topic I’m talking about, and using the search function in a Bible app to locate any relevant Scriptures for that topic. I’ll study commentaries to see if those passages are relevant to what I’m trying to communicate. Then I’ll look to discover theological issues that are contained in the passage, and study some systematic theologies. I use Packer’s Concise Theology a lot, and he might reference some verses that I didn’t consider in my initial search. That leads me back to the Bible. So the Bible leads me to books, the books lead me back to the Bible, and I just go back and forth. But I have to be convinced by the Bible. I can’t be confident that what I’m rapping is right because J. I. Packer said it; my confidence has to be rooted in the Scriptures. So I tremble before them. That’s why the writing a song is a difficult task. To tell how I feel is easy, I know I’m not lying. To tell you something about God is to speak outside of my experience and in the realm of absolute truth and revelation. Sometimes that makes for a long song-writing process, because even if I believe in the atonement, I don’t want to start rapping about it until I’ve proved it all over again to myself in the Bible. The other challenge is that the medium is so concise. I don’t have 30 minutes to unpack a topic. I have to tap into this in words that would fit into one page, taking the weight of the truth and wording it in such a way that there is the kind of depth you might find in a larger volume. You have to take in a lot so that your little can have a lot to it.
THOMAS: It’s like CliffsNotes theology.
TODD: There’s still a lot more content in what you’re doing than in a typical song that has three verses and a chorus. Your lyric sheet seems to be much longer.
BRYAN: That is a benefit of rap out of all genres of music. There is more room for words than in other genres. If you’re singing, you have less room for phrasing. With rap, more words can go by at a quicker pace. And I think people are learning to keep up with that. We try to create music with a tempo that is fast, but is also spoken with clarity so that the train of thought can be followed.
AARON: Were you encouraged by the response to Instruments of Mercy?
THOMAS: I think we were blown away by the response. Beautiful Eulogy is such a weird collective of music. Its hip-hop, but it’s also kind of folksy and electronic and hymn-esque; it’s just this weird glue of all sorts of genres. So when we made our first record, we were like; “People are just going to hate this.” So the response of the first record was great, and people were really enjoying it. Then when Instruments of Mercy dropped, we were really blown away. We give the record away for free, which is our joy, but we found that people were still supporting the record by buying it. We actually charted on Billboard, and when it dropped we were number one in hip-hop in three countries. We were like; “Whoa, this is crazy!” God was just doing what He always does, taking these weird rappers with no theological training, and He puts His glory on display. We were baffled. Just for us to be participants in that has been super encouraging.
AARON: How is touring, particularly considering that you are now both family men with wives and children at home?
THOMAS: I think it’s both been good and bad. It’s bad because we are away from our families that we love, and our church that we love. It’s difficult being away. But when we do tour we see the most tangible fruit, because we’re interfacing with people. Every show the gospel is preached. The music shuts off and the gospel is presented, and we’ve seen so much fruit from that. And it is taxing, spending six hours driving to a venue, setting up and sound-checking, then performing, and often doing a Q and A after. Then we engage with people more, pack stuff up, jump in a van, and drive off to the next place. You do that six or seven times a week, and it can be a grind. But the value is immense; we have seen so much fruit. That said, we are coming to a point where we are just incapable of doing that as much as we’ve done it before. So we’re figuring out how that works. But it is a tangible way of seeing what the Lord is doing through the music.
BRYAN:I’ve probably been touring 13-14 years, and have been in so many different churches and so many different places. That is a unique experience that we’ve received from this whole thing; exposure to different cultures, different churches. We get to see these unique things, like performing at a church and coming back five years later and seeing that they have a lot of the same people still there, still serving the Lord and their church. We get to be encouraged by that. We get to peek in and see how different churches love one another. But I also get to peek in and see things that are not working, and observe serious issues in different congregations. I think that God has used that to our benefit in many ways, being able to be a constant observer of a wide variety of churches. And when we make a record, we’re not making it from an isolated place and then throwing it out there hoping it will relate. We’ve met a lot of these people, we’ve spent time in the places they live. We get to see how the gospel is lived out for them personally, and that helps us to speak more directly to issues and needs that we see.
THOMAS: That’s why there is so much theology in the music, because the common thing that we see is a real lack of theology. So many of these pastors and church leaders are never going to be able to go to seminary or Bible college. They love Jesus, and it would be so beneficial to know certain things. So theology is an emphasis for us.
AARON: Is the Evangelical world becoming more acquainted with and encouraging of what you guys, and others like you, are doing through your music?
THOMAS: I think you’ll see a lot of pros and cons, particularly in the Reformed community. There are a lot of folks who find value in the theology and the presentation, consolidating this rich content and then speaking it and contextualizing it for a culture others may not be able to reach. But there are others who still kind of demonize it. That whole “the devil’s in the drum,” and other weird stuff. Even in that, there are more Christians becoming aware of it. And it’s great for some folks because they can use the music as a tool. It’s another tool for the church- hip-hop, spoken word, etc.- that the church can use to speak to a different context. So the Evangelical world is becoming more hip to hip-hop, and with that of course comes more scrutiny. That’s okay, that’s to be expected.
BRYAN: I know I’ve experienced more positive than negative, and that’s going back over the last 14 years. I find that a lot of those negative perceptions are easily torn down when there is face-to-face interaction. Also, some negative stereotypes are based on negative experiences. In Christian hip-hop there are a lot of artists who ran around doing shows at churches and being promoted as a Christian leader, but like we discussed earlier were not accountable to anyone, had a public fall, and hurt and disappointed a lot of people. There were people endorsing and investing in their ministry for a long time, without anybody checking the content or character of that individual. So some perceptions do come from genuinely bad experiences, where people are given a platform because of a talent or gift, but their character hasn’t been tested. It’s bad for that person, and bad for the people following them. The caution of course, is to be slow to consider someone a leader just because they’re talented. There are better qualifications for leadership than talent.
AARON: What’s next for Beautiful Eulogy and Humble Beast?
BRYAN: Beautiful Eulogy will be producing a lot of artists, and with that working alongside them and helping to shape their records, which we are really excited about. We want to take some of the things we’ve been learning as Beautiful Eulogy and apply them and serve other artists well. God has blessed us with a lot of very gifted, ministry-minded gospel-centered artists, and now we have an opportunity to serve them well. And as we serve them well, we believe they will serve the church well.