Propaganda’s music blurs the boundaries between hip-hop and spoken word poetry, deftly avoiding the categories of Christian or secular art. His three records through Humble Beast, a hip-hop ministry he co-founded, are carefully crafted. Their songs are far reaching, tackling culture making, the doubts and the joys of faith, the public education system, and the complexities of race relations in America. His performances are a passionate extension of his personality, which grew out of the soil of LA’s street culture. I turn to Propaganda’s music during moments of deep uncertainty, use it to celebrate great joy, and am unashamed in sharing it with all my friends, regardless of their religious background. Keen to learn more about his creativity, church life, and career as an artist, I spoke to him over the phone in late April.
Your album Excellent sparked a desire in my life for excellence in art. But when that desire for excellence is not achieved, I find it hard to be content. My identity so easily crumbles when I’m not making that excellent thing that I set out to create. How do you find that balance of being excellent in your art and being content?
Well, there’re a few things I’d want to parse here. I think one of the things I want to parse is contentment versus satisfaction. So, I think there are times when I’m not necessarily satisfied with a product or what I wanted to achieve.
But I think I find contentment just comes from the Lord, in general—you know what I’m saying? Just being content with who I am and content with the idea that I actually get to pursue this. And I think that excellence is not necessarily a fixed point in space, per se, but more of a line of demarcation. In the sense that I know when I didn’t do my best. I know when I could have pushed this further. And I have the sort of the attitude that says, “I’m not going to release it—whether it’s music or anything—it’s not going to get out of my hands until I’ve pushed it as far as I can push it.” It may not be the best, but it was done well and done right.
How does that apply in a church context? A lot of times I have high standards for art, but my local church doesn’t have resources to create it. Yet the gospel still shines forth in that environment.
That’s what I meant with contentment versus satisfaction. Given the resources that you have, you do your absolute best with what you have—you know what I’m saying? Whether it’s in a church or in a business.
When Humble Beast started, it was three of us. And we still put out videos that were for free. Like, we figured out, with our resources—which were none [laughs]—to try to still put out something that was excellent. So I think that sometimes you have to—well, not sometimes, all the time—you have to redefine what you consider a resource. Sometimes our greatest resource is our creativity and our skill sets. And being able to pull things off, despite having [no] finances. So as a church, not having finances doesn’t mean you can’t do excellent things.
Right. That’s helpful!
When you’re making music, you stand out as being unafraid of the culture.
Do you get push back, from yourself or others, when you are creating something beautiful instead of converting someone through the gospel?
Uh, I just don’t see those as conflicting concepts. To put them against each other is to degenerate both. Beauty communicates God’s goodness, you know? In addition, I don’t feel the weight on my shoulders for the totality of revelation, of knowledge. I know that I’m just playing a part, you know? And I may not be the guy that carries the ball into the end zone, but I know I’m playing a part of it. And I’m okay with that.
Yeah. You can find your peace through that.
You started Humble Beast with your label mates Odd Thomas and Braille, who run Humble Beast’s studio in Portland. I’ve been down there to observe their church life and saw how much Trinity Church of Portland is a part of their ministry. What is your church life like? Do you have a local church in LA that you’re part of?
Yeah. So I’m part of, as of recently, a church plant in my local area. My church home life looks a little different than Thomas and Braille’s, in the sense that I purposefully am not in any sort of public ministry in my home church. Because it just serves my family better to not have any sort of extra responsibility of being up front, you know? And not only does it serve my family better, it serves my soul better. I just need at least one space in my life where I’m not The Guy. I don’t know if that makes sense…
Yeah! You can be fed rather than having to feed others all the time.
Yeah, and serve in a sort of active member capacity rather than active leader capacity. You know? I’m helpin’ with parking, I’m puttin’ away chairs. You know what I’m saying? Really, sort of like, “Yo, you’re just one of the dads.” I take my turn in the nursery. For my soul it’s very important. And also, just so I can serve my family well. They don’t need that, you know? They just need me to be a dad and a husband.
How does your involvement with the church and its neighborhood impact your ministry?
Really, like anybody else. I feel like it’s cool how God sets that up. Like, service to others has such a symbiotic sort of feeling. Somehow or another you still feel elevated and lifted by lowering yourself and serving others. Also, it’s really easy to start living a life that’s so different from every other human. Because of the nature of my work.
[So first], this keeps me writing at the ground level. And second, there’s no unique caveat for a stage personality in their Christian life. We are still called to the same thing every other Christian is. So this is me, participating in my normal outplaying of the faith.
Before you went into art, you were a full-time public school teacher for several years. How did that career feed into you and make you a different artist than if you had just went straight into music?
I actually loved teaching. I really thought that’s what I was going to do for, really, the rest of my life. I thought that’s what I was going to do! I mean, I went to school for art. I went to school for illustration and intercultural studies. But I enjoyed my job, you know?
So, I think it had much more do to with work ethic, number one. And number two, I was such a young teacher, and the environment that I taught in meant that you can’t just get in there and bully the kids and be this power dynamic, this domineering thing. It was more just, “Look man. I’mma have classroom management by just being the most entertaining thing in the room.” Right? [Chuckles.] So that’s how I thought about it. If I’m the most entertaining thing, then I’mma hold their attention! So I spent a lot of my time like trying, man, to learn how to hold their attention. And that definitely translated into being a performer. You know? [Laughs.]
Totally! And I get the sense that what you’ve learned in those years lends a richness to your work that came out of a life lived in those environments.
We see the result of your creative process in your music and in your shows. We don’t really get that many glimpses into the creation of the art itself. What does the actual writing process look like?
Ah, I pretty much write all day. Like, I don’t know how else to explain it! I’m always jotting notes down, I’m always working through a turn of phrase, or a concept, or “what do I mean by that?” Like, thinking about my feelings of something, observing culture, kind of happening all the time. So I don’t have a set time of the day, or season, or place where I go to write stuff. It’s just kind of happening all the time.
We see that through the glimpses… you show us through your Instagram stories. We get to watch you notice things in real time.
Yeah, totally. Yeah, yeah, I’m like chewing on stuff as life is happening.
What does the refinement process look like, once you have these ideas and want to turn them into something?
It’s really the same, bro. It’s really a lot of like, “I’m just working it out.” And then, when it’s time to make an album, or write a poem, or something like that, then yeah. Of course, there’s time when lighting strikes and I’m on. But the majority of my time is not that. The majority of what I do is more like just a slow… Until, “Hey, you’re up, it’s time to make an album.” You know? Or, it’s other times when I’m like, “Hey man, I’m actually sitting on 17 concepts. Can I come and start working these out?”
Do you find that there are either attitudes you give yourself, or practices that help the refining? Are there aspects that help bring that creativity out?
For sure. Just the constant observing and consumption of good art and good storytelling. Like, if you’re allowing yourself to be exposed to just amazing things, it’s a good calibrating. Plus like, open mics. I still go to open mics, you know what I’m saying? And try stuff out!
What advice would you give to people like [me], who are Christians and who want to create art either in the church or outside the church?
Open mics, man. You need to be in front of people. You need to be in front of people that don’t know you, who aren’t really worried about your feelings, or your emotions, and will give you an honest critique of what you’re doing. And if something’s not dope, they’ll tell you. You know? And I also think another part of that is just the consumption of good art. Like, go! If you’re not going to concerts, if you’re not going to shows, if you’re not going to art galleries, or anything like that… You gotta go to stuff and experience art, you know?
You mentioned in your recent interview with Frankly Faraci that when you’re in front of an audience, you never assume that they consist entirely of Christians, or are entirely of no faith. How do you keep both of those in mind when you are creating art and when you are in front of an audience?
I don’t! I try to be true to the story. Like, if there’s a story I’m trying to communicate, that’s my goal. Be true to that. You just make good music. And you have to have a good grasp on what you’re trying to say. That’s really the part that makes making art, for me, much slower than other people. ‘Cause I chewed on it for so long. And I’ve really thought about, “What’s the point you’re making here?” ‘Cause if there’s no point, if I haven’t found that yet, if there’s no greater, sort of narrative about humanity, then it’s like “I don’t think you’re ready to put this song out.” You know? So until that’s ready, I’m not going to put it out.
Right. When do you say, “Now it’s ready.” What does that moment look like?
It varies. Sometimes, you don’t know until after you recorded it, and you’re like, “That song’s stupid.” Or you’re like, “Yeah, I don’t even. Like what am I trying to say here?” You know what I’m saying? Like, you don’t know, you know? And I have a community of people around me that are like, “What are you saying? This is dumb.” [Chuckles.] Or like, “I don’t get it. Think it through a little more.” You know?
You mentioned the consumption of good art and how it inspires you like that. What’s inspiring you right now?
Uh, well Kendrick for sure. Yeah. The Kendrick record is like, next level. Ah… really that’s all I’ve been listening to for the past week or two.
Have you listened to the album backwards yet?
I did. Yeah. I think it’s cool. I think his commitment to the creative hills that he’s dying on, it’s…. For me it’s very vindicating, because I think like that. You know? So it’s cool to see someone who’s made that level of success, who thinks the way that I think.
Well, our time’s up. Thank you so much and thank you for your music. It’s really impacted in my life over the years.
Ah, my man.
I can’t wait for whatever’s coming next!
Yeah bro. Yeah dude. It’s coming soon, man.
Ah, can’t wait. Well, thanks again for the time.
Alright brother, thank you. Peace.
Propaganda’s latest album, Crooked, releases June 30, available on all music services and can be downloaded for free from humblebeast.com. You can hear more of Propaganda on Relevant Magazine’s The Red Couch Podcast, which he co-hosts with his wife, Dr. Alma Zaragoza-Petty.