Interview: Jonathan Emile


Talking to Jonathan Emile is like taking a breath of fresh air on a smoggy day. If you thought there is nothing new under the sun, you’ve got your sunglasses on too close, because Jon brings soulful and thoughtful music with a twist – it’s actually hella fun to listen to. His “The Lover/Fighter Document EP” was placed on the long list of the 2011 Grammy Nominations for Rap Album of The Year, and the full-length album is due out this September.

OCR: I’d meet you sooner, but you weren’t around – have you been touring, or writing, or what?

JE: For me, the writing process is a constant thing, if I go a couple days without writing, I start to go a little nuts. The places that I travel to, especially when I’m in Jamaica, that’s really inspiring for me. That’s where my mother was born and I feel a spiritual connection, I write a lot of reggae. When I was in Germany, I wrote a lot of hip-hop.

Before Christmas I was actually touring – I did England, I did a bunch of schools, and performed multiple shows in a school in Frankfurt. That was my first European tour, so to say, and we’re already building the one for next year.

OCR: How did you feel about it, how was the reception?

JE: The reception was incredible. The format that I am doing is a mix of a lecture and music. I talk about the history of music and interconnectivity, in terms of all cultures coming together through music, using music as a tool for social justice and communication. So I do this whole narrative, where I start in South Africa, talk about the underground railroad, and then I talk about the Civil Rights movement, and the relationship between people like Bob Dylan, and how they used music as a tool for social justice. And this always goes well, because I am able to articulate my performance songs, my own stuff, as well as some of the stuff written by people like Bob Marley, and really connect with students, and that’s a big thing for me, and it will be the basis of the two tours we’re going to do next year. Not only doing it in schools, but then, in the evenings, doing concert halls and venues, more for the general public.

OCR: That’s great! You actually got to one of my questions, I was going to ask if your music was a tool for something. Let’s build on that a little bit – if I were to take you back to the beginning, where did it all start – what really inspired you to go around and spread your message? Was there a turning point, or is this something you’ve always felt strongly about?

JE: Yeah, I’ve always felt strongly about being a positive force in the universe, whatever you want to call it. But when I was going through cancer treatment, that’s when I decided that…I made a promise to myself, that if I got through the treatments, and I did manage to survive cancer, that I would go and use music as a positive light, and to discuss my experience, and how music can be used for positive impact on the world. So here I am.

OCR: Right on. It says on your Facebook page that you are a poet, composer, cancer survivor, and entrepreneur – how do these descriptions mesh in your music? Is there a way that you incorporate all of them, or are you just when person when you write your music and another when you perform it?

JE: That’s a very good question. In the beginning, it was kind of hard to put all those things, because music is very singular. I mean pop music may deal with complex issues, but it’s very easy. My goal is to write difficult music that is also accessible to everyone. Music that is not only complex musically, but thematically, and to discuss real things. Yes, all aspects of who I am are very present in my music and are filtered into each song. I don’t really have that Sasha Fierce/Beyonce dichotomy. The title of my album is called the Lover/Fighter Document and every single song has instances of a lover and a fighter, and just dealing with my experiences, what I think is right, how I think that we can be more interconnected. 

But it was really important to me to not do it in a sort of a preachy way, or a corny way. There is nothing worse than music with an amazing message that is unlistenable. So that was the hardest thing, to put myself on the record. And when you hear music, a lot of the time, it’s not the artist on the record, a lot of the time, the artist is being used as an instrument. Great artists hear their soul in their music, and that’s what I am trying to do.

OCR: Right – so when someone listens to your music, is there a theme, or a message that you’d like them to walk away with? You’re putting your soul in the music – what do you want the audience to take away from that?

JE: I guess I’d want people to not make the same mistakes that I’ve made, approach everything that they do with perspective. It’s easy to get locked into our own life, our own issues, our own perspectives – I think the only thing a good writer, painter, author offers, is an alternative perspective. And when music gets stale it’s the same f*cking (excuse my French), perspective over and over again. When somebody fresh comes out, it’s like “Wow!” and it’s not really a new style, but it’s a new perspective that comes out. So using my voice, I am able to talk from an obviously African-American perspective, the male feminist perspective, the democratic-socialist perspective, and do it in such a non-patronizing way that people are still able to have fun and to listen to the music and say, “Okay, I sort of understand what he is trying to get across.” Every song has a different agenda, but it offers, I don’t want to say ‘my perspective,’ but ‘our perspective’- the people who are tired of cookie-cutter hip-hop, people who are tired of the misogyny and bigotry, people who are tired of disunity. 

The only reason I do music is because I feel like there is something lacking. There are a lot of people who do it for the aesthetics of it, you know it feels good, they’re happy doing it, and they like to add their own flavor to it. I really am doing it because I feel like there is a big void, and what I am trying to do is offer the perspective that is inside that void. There are sixty-year-olds who buy my albums, and there are twelve-year-olds who buy my albums, which means there is a void in both of those ages that is filled by what I am doing.

OCR: Speaking of a creative process – how do you write your songs?

JE: A lot of the times I start with the title. A lot of the times I start with the opening lines, and that’s usually the thesis, and I use every tool available to me to get across the energy and the emotion that I am trying to put forward. I write more as a short-story writer, than I do as a rapper. A rapper will write a punch-line, and build a whole song around it; for me, it’s sort of the opposite, I work with the text. Sometimes songs take an hour and a half, sometimes songs take three years – it took me three years to do ‘Babylon is Falling’ and it took me ninety minutes to do ‘Endless Life.’ Why? Who knows.

OCR: Finish the sentence for me: “For me, to make music is to…”

JE: Be free.

OCR: What’s next for you? You have an album coming out this year…

JE: Yes, September.

OCR: Let’s talk a little bit about it.

JE: Sure. The album comes out September 9, 2014. Wooh, it’s been a long time coming. I am trying to stay emotionally detached from it, but it’s a long process. The album will be, at the very least, twenty songs. I wrote eighty songs for the album, and I’m going to cut down from there.

The whole idea of the Lover/Fighter Document is that a document is something that you posit, that you put forward, like you’re making a contract. The Bill of Human Rights, is a document, the Charter. The Lover Fighter Document is a contract of my soul to the rest of humanity, saying, “This is who I am, and this is why, this is the code that I follow.” It’s a code that overrides cultural codes, it overrides dress codes, all these different codes, and this is my humanist, feminist, democratic-socialist agenda. It describes who the ideal me is. And it’s a promise. If I step out of line, people ten years from now can say, “Hey man, remember this document.”

And I’m late in the game. A lot of people who I aspire to, were in their late teens when they put out their albums. But I think allowing myself to grown, and transitioning from adolescent to man will give me more to work with. This is a five year project – I am not where I was five years ago, and you can hear that on the album. This is something that has never really been done before – it’s my soul’s social contract with the world.

Inna Bio


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