Discovering Local Music: An Interview with Ryan Thomas
Today on Waco Stories we are honored to have my friend and favorite rapper, Ryan Thomas. Ryan is a Baylor graduate, church planter, and rapper, and he has some crazy life stories and profound thoughts about how life should be lived. Enjoy!
Thanks for joining us today, Ryan! Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m Ryan Thomas and I currently live in Waco. I’m a rapper and I also work at Baylor University. My life, on a weekly basis, is a mixture of working in an office processing transcripts for prospective students and performing music at clubs, events and churches while reaching out to Christians, non-Christians, and everybody in between with my music. It’s been a lot of fun to learn how to love people and engage culture in that way; it’s been cool learning a lot — I don’t think I’ve arrived but I definitively feel like I’ve found a good rhythm.
How did you end up in Waco?
I graduated at the end of 2015 and felt called to go help start a youth ministry in Houston. I was also dating someone at the time who lived in Houston, so I moved there. I had been promised a job at MD Anderson Cancer Center, but that fell through, and I ended up working at Topgolf. Those were probably some of the toughest months in my life. I definitely grew a lot in God in Houston and started a youth ministry that’s still going strong.
I was about to get promoted at top golf to marketing assistant when I got a call about going to Greece for three months with five other people as part of an immediate response team to engage the [Syrian refugee] crisis that was going on in Lesvos. The opportunity lined up with what God was speaking; he had stripped away so many things I didn’t need. I decide to count everything that was gain as a loss for the sake of knowing him more, and showing him more to people who don’t know him. I went over there for three months and that shifted my perspective a lot; it narrowed what I value. Being in Greece showed me what matters most; how I best love God and minister to his heart, and administer love and grace to people while I’m here on this earth. All this became very clear while I was in Greece.
One of the ways I felt like I was supposed to do that was to do the “church planting thing” once more in Austin. I did that for 6 months until I burned out hardcore and found out I was dealing with depression, PTSD and anxiety. I had been really unaware of what was going on internally, so I took a sabbatical from January to August. I was planning on doing that in Houston, but I ended up doing it in Waco, so that’s why I’m in Waco, and now being in Waco has snowballed into what I’m doing right now.
How has Waco changed, and to what do you attribute that change?
Man, it has changed a lot! When I graduated there was no such thing as In-N-Out or Steel City Pops or any of that stuff, but now the grease pit is accompanied by all these awesome chain restaurants. Downtown is bustling now; the Magnolia silos bring people from all over the country and on Saturday you can meet anybody from anywhere if you want to; just got to Magnolia Market. The farmers’ market is still the same except you can add tourists to what you could see before. It’s cool. There there are a lot more options of things to do, places to eat and people up to see. I think a lot of that obviously has to do with away that Chip and Joanna Gaines have pioneered with Magnolia and how they’ve stewarded their fame to influence and reshape peoples’ perspective on Waco. People are coming to Waco by the droves and people are calling it a place to relocate or resettle in retirement or once they get married, so that’s pretty cool. It’s new seeing people get engaged at the silos! It’s this huge historic moment right in my backyard. Saying you’re from Waco is like saying you’re from L. A. almost. So yeah, I’d attribute [the transformation in Waco] to the Church coupled with Magnolia.
What is your songwriting process?
Ooh, that’s a good one. It varies — I think the most consistent part of my songwriting is I make sure to grab of what I like to call “God thoughts”, which is the equivalent of little revelations I get during the day; when I’m at work or when I’m meeting somebody for the first time or processing something in my journal. I keep my ears and eyes open to patterns that might be God speaking to me that I’m supposed to express in the hope that somebody might be empathized with through my music.
I make sure I’m always living life and not only doing music because then I don’t have any inspiration. I always make sure to have fun, be around people, serve and put myself out of my comfort zone because that always sparks inspiration, which is pretty cool. When I get that inspiration, I might wake up in the morning and hear a song in my head; I might hear lyrics or rhythm or melody and I’ll start to feel it out, sing it out, and record it. If I feel like it’s something I could finish in the moment I just keep going and rolling with it. Sometimes I’ll finish a whole song or a majority of a song because it’s spontaneous and given to me.
That’s majority of the way I write; I’m inspired by God dropping a song in my head because my heart is postured for it. I’ve learned not to pass those thoughts or revelations by or brush them off, but to treasure them because someone else will need that gift. I’ll make a voice recording or type on my phone. I’ll be walking somewhere, or driving, and then I’ll pull over to type what I hear in my head. I’m not one of those people who write a song every day because I have a high value for genuine overflow and expression in worship to be in what I’m writing, so that my words are God-breathed, inspired, evangelistic and relatable to people. In that way I’m not robbing God of worship when I’m writing with a genuine connection. I highly value that in songwriting.
What’s your inspiration for being a rapper?
It’s so funny, because I did not grow up thinking I would be a rapper. At all. At all! EVER! For a while I didn’t even know I could sing or rap. I listen to a lot more singer-songwriter music; poppy stuff, and rock. I definitely listened to hip hop when I was younger but as time goes on I find myself to be more of a singer-songwriter that raps.
That makes a lot of sense; most of your songs are more than just a beat repeated but have a little more structure.
It’s fun — the two styles are coupled for me. What inspires me is seeing other people use and flourish in their gifts; I love watching interviews of people whose music I love to listen to and watch them unravel their personality in an interview. It just inspires me because they’re normal people just like me. It reassures and reminds me that my musical gifts is not who I am but it’s a product of me living and enjoying life with God and the people around me. Being grounded in my identity as a son of God frees me from living under the impression that I have to rap or it’s the end of the world. It’s easy for me to stay inspired to rap because it’s easy for me to be and let let what I do flow out of who I am and not the other way around.
One last thought on inspiration — I think whatever we do, as a businessman or artist or whatever we do shouldn’t excuse us from the daily pursuit of discipling people and reaching out to people and loving people. There’s a constant opportunity to be reminded of why you do what you do that’s beyond yourself. I just felt in my heart to share that. It actually makes me want to value discipleship and value loving people and value making friends because then the inspiration in my songs is very wholesome and bigger than myself.
That’s a really good concept. I really like that idea for everyone, regardless of what you do. On another note, do you have a favorite venue or location to perform at?
I really enjoyed House of Blues Houston, but I think my favorite show, my favorite venue so far is Common Grounds in Waco because…well, I’m huge into being genuine and and huge into family. There have been times when I’ve met people from San Antonio, Iowa and Dallas there. It’s weird because there’s not thousands of people there; more like 200 to 300 people. Common Grounds always has a variety of people and locations in one place but more than that something about being in Common Grounds makes me feel like I’m just partying with my family; seeing what I wrote in my journal has turned into, with my friends my family. I’ll see people haven’t seen in a long time and I’ll forget my lyrics because I’ll tell them “So good to see you!” while I’m rapping there. It’s so fun to feel like family. It’s an experience while I’m performing and it’s so much fun.
What was it like being featured, in a small way, in The Magnolia Journal?
Yeah, so Magnolia; that was pretty cool. Shout out to Thomas Wilson. I think he put my name out there. It was fairly cool — it was actually a spiritual experience for me to be considered as one of the faces of confidence because in that season I was…I wouldn’t say I was struggling with confidence, but I was more on a soul search. I didn’t know where I was drawing my confidence from because I wanted it be consistent, but sometimes it comes and goes. Sometimes I feel like it needs to be “on” all the time but I need it to click in my head eternally where my source is. I was questioning if I was confident and when I was called one of the faces of confidence I thought “Hmm! Alright. That’s cool that they see that. That’s affirming.”
It’s funny — I didn’t know anything about the magazine or what it was until after I took the pictures and I thought “Wow, they were serious about this little picture in somebody’s journal.” They were putting makeup on me and telling me fart jokes so I would smile. It’s serious. It was a cool experience but then I found out that it is nationally distributed to 80,000 or more subscribers. This is no joke, but my actual thought was “Man! I wonder what old people are going to think when they read my story or my blurb. It’s funny that they want some artist or rapper to be in a magazine is probably the read mostly by old women who don’t like rap, so that’s pretty cool”. I think it reached people that I hope would give my music a try. I think that was God’s way of opening up the ears and eyes of whoever he wants to distribute things through my life. Yeah, that was pretty awesome that I was featured in that magazine because I definitely wasn’t the coolest person in that bunch — there were waaay cooler people with way cooler stories. Didn’t see it coming, but I’m thankful it came.
Anything else you’d like to share with us?
I would reiterate the piece about identity — and you don’t have to be an artist to know this. In our generation and in our culture in America, it’s very easy to get caught up in what we’re doing all the time. When you go to a social gathering people are like “So what do you?” or “What are you doing?”. That’s such a key piece of conversation everywhere, especially when you meet people. It’s very easy to get our identity and our security and our worth from what we’re doing. I have found so much joy, productivity, have been able to execute things and God has been able to do things through me because I’m I’m not worried about doing identity or achieving something. From the depths of my soul I am really just so glad to be alive and to be His. I don’t have questions about who I belong to, or where I’m going after this life, or what I’m living for, or if it matters. Jesus is not an idea my mom and dad taught me or the pastor talks about on Sunday, but he’s a reality I’ve experienced in friendship. If no one else was following him with me I’d follow him anywhere because he’s my best friend and that’s what makes me do anything, what makes me do whatever I do. That’s what makes it easier to make songs and perform. I don’t feel judged, I don’t feel condemned, I don’t feel fear, I don’t feel insecurity. I don’t struggle if I’m humble or prideful — I know who I am and how God looks at me. If it’s impossible for him to condemn me than it’s impossible for him to see me as anything else but full of life, joy, peace, love, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self control. I don’t have to worry about what anyone else, even myself, thinks about who I am. That has made success more attainable than if I prioritized gaining success; counting it all lost as has been my gain.
Wow! Great closing words Ryan — this is really powerful. Thanks again for the interview! If you’d like to check out more about Ryan you can follow him at @allryanthomas on Instagram and get his album, Journey of a Kid, on Apple Music , Spotify, or Amazon Music.
Also, if you enjoyed this interview, check out the first interview with Nathan from Magnolia.