Image via Javon Johnson

Image via Javon Johnson

All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story; to vomit the anguish up.

― James Baldwin

By Jon Tanners

At times, it can be easy to forget that the real world exists outside the echo chamber of the Internet. When I started writing for Pigeons and Planes some three years ago, I often joked about the excitement of knowing that people other than my mother or father would be reading my work. Even if I inspired hatred, I felt lucky to be getting any attention from humans not bound to me by blood. I’m not a particularly known writer, but P&P has provided me with enough of a platform that my words often reach unexpected corners and people.

On March 3, 2015, a blogger friend sent me a mixtape called Museum of Fine Arts, from an artist named Javon Johnson—a Houston rapper whose flow reminded me of legendarily elusive Jay Electronica. Johnson rapped with the concerted, forceful grace of a great heavyweight fighter, internal knowledge of successive moves giving his delivery and lyrics a sense of momentum and uncommon interconnection. He hooked me; I featured MFAH in an edition of my column 5 On It.

Shortly after publication, Johnson and I started following one another on Twitter, striking up a correspondence at the end of March.

“You don’t know me,” Johnson’s opening message read, “but I’m grateful for the love you’ve shown to my sound and what I’m doing. It never goes unnoticed my man.”

Outside of this conversation, I had asked my friend if he could put me in touch with the person who had originally shown him Johnson’s music. He introduced me over email to a man who he said was Johnson’s manager.

As April dawned, Johnson shot over a message on Twitter: “Btw. I have no manager. All I have is a video team and I’m affiliated with my homies shit Rarehouse. So anything you want to discuss don’t be concerned about hollering at me.”

I asked for Johnson’s number, hoping to discover more about both the rapper and what sounded like a tangled situation in a corner of the business cramped with knots. I had encountered similar predicaments with rappers from Atlanta and Chicago in particular, artists with multiple people claiming to be representatives. Such is the nature of the rap land grab, would-be managers attempting to attach their names to as much emerging talent as possible. The stench of opportunistic confusion is strong.

Late one afternoon, sitting in my office, I called Johnson. After five minutes, surface intrigue turned to something far less expected. I didn’t record our conversation, but I had him recap it for me later—partially for posterity, partially to recount something that seemed surreal.

“My fiancée and I were robbed and locked away from our belongings by our landlord, so I didn’t even know you wrote up Museum Of Fine Arts until I was finally able to get Internet access or wifi,” he recalled. “We were going through so much during the time of the release, I felt like I failed the overall objective of making things happen for my family. I blamed myself for a lot. When your back is against the wall, you throw flurries to get out out of the corner. I contemplated suicide many times. I felt useless lots of times—like a burden.”

“I wrote ‘1759’ after playing Grand Theft Auto 5 with the intention of leaving something like a letter behind for everyone including my fiancée to show them that I was trying to write myself out of those thoughts. I was planning on just going somewhere and ending my life due to the circumstances my family was in.”

Before Johnson could kill himself, his girlfriend got a hold of him, telling him that “1759” had made its way into a new edition of 5 On It.

“If it weren’t for my lady stalling me and you reaching out to me after you wrote up on me the second time, I’d probably be dead right now.”

After sharing that story, Johnson and I spoke on the phone for a little over an hour. We were both 26 years old; wildly different paths led us to this moment. He told me about his childhood, about psychological traumas that shaped the man he had become, about homelessness, brushes with hip-hop greats, and attempts all the while to stave off the darkness of his thoughts. I told him of the mad dreams that had led me from New York to Los Angeles in an attempt to become the next Rick Rubin, or at very least a decent A&R. I told him that his life made my passions feel trivial, dwarfed by the gravity of his journey. He assured me that there was value in what I was doing—in the writing in particular. It’s a notion that remains difficult to grasp in the face of a story that makes any complaint I’ve ever had seem like the whine of blind privilege, but one that holds weight coming from a man who speaks with the measured wisdom of harrowing years.

To accompany the release of his new project Hermann Park, Johnson and I spoke about his upbringing, his beginnings as a rapper, his extended brushes with homelessness, and the artistic spirit that carries him through his days.

Image via Javon Johnson

Image via Javon Johnson

Where in Houston did you grow up?
Houston’s Eastside. I’m talking about the highway area that leads to Baytown, Beaumont, and Lake Charles, LA. Yorkshire Village Apartments, Fleming Dr. Apartment 1605—“roach infested heaven,” I call it.

“Roach infested heaven.” Pretty contradictory. What’s it like there?
It was home to me honestly. We had a downstairs three-bedroom apartment This was blue territory so if you rocked red you got your head busted. And this was probably the birthplace of lean. Eckerd Pharmacy on Federal Rd. always got broken into for Jolly Ranchers and codeine in the early 90’s, before rappers carried double cups.

For the most part, I was comfortable. I was just grateful to have an environment to grow in. I was either home on the weekends or on the Northside of town at my aunt’s crib, so I stayed around poverty a lot. I was so comfortable that I didn’t even find out my aunt was poor until I got older. It was just life.

The block that I lived on always had churches and different people coming through with the free lunches. Hood grocery stores. Street pharmacists. We were stuck in between four other apartment complexes—Timberidge, Birchbrook, Rollingwood, and Coolwood—so if anybody was going to ride on anybody in Yorkshire Village it was gonna be hard for them to get out. We were a small, boxed-in complex. Typical bullshit apartments: brick on the outside with roaches and wood on the inside.

I never felt afraid for my life. Not going outside was bullshit to me because I knew who was being aimed at, so why should I worry about being an innocent bystander or victim? Many people felt I was stupid for that way of thinking, but nothing was going to interrupt my childhood.

What is the significance of Hermann Park?
Hermann Park is the most popular park located in center of the city in the Museum District.

When I was coming up, my mom used to try make my “family” meet up there and do “family” shit. It always looked like the typical family made park for the folks in movies. I became homeless about 2009 at 19 and my shelter was downtown, so I used to take the train there and start rhyming and coming up with shit at the park.

I’ve also been stuck at many life crossroads at this park. Many decisions and ideas have been made there that have affected my life. A place for release, peace, and a confessional in a sense. Peace on earth in a polluted, industrial city is hard to find.

Are your parents from Houston?
My mother and most of her ancestors are from Jackson, Mississippi. Most of my uncles are deceased. I have one aunt and a few cousins left. Nieces and nephews don’t know much about me and I barely remember them.

I always felt music would bring me closer to my family and the history of my family. Truth is, I don’t know much about the history of my family and why it’s so cursed. That could be my purpose of life, seeing where everything went wrong. I honestly don’t have much of a family.

What’s the family curse?
The constant battle of what came before me, my sisters, and cousins were born. Hatred amongst whatever violent history existed before we were born. My grandmother died trying to keep the family together and me alive, so I never got to meet my grandmother. I was meant to be aborted but I wasn’t strangely enough.

Hatred is the plague that kills love and it killed love many times when I was coming up. No family reunions, no get togethers—no nothing. I don’t believe I received my abuse based off the things I did. I think it was more of a way to get out the anger of letdown by my abusers. My middle sister Shon left Houston on her own at 16 and never moved back. It crushed me early in my life but I can’t wait until I’m able to be the one to help her figure out where it all went wrong. That’s my aim in the midst of all this. She was the first to survive it and I’m just now somewhat recovering.

There is much more that I wish to learn about the curse and I plan to do so when I’m able. That’s why I laugh when cats say shit like, “I got haters.” There was hatred within my family. People don’t know half of what hate really is.

Have you researched your genealogy?
Not exactly. I wish. I guess life gets in the way or I feel I don’t have the resources to see what’s really pumping through my veins. I want to discover more about my father’s side and my mom’s ancestors because there were rumors from different cousins of mine coming up that my mother’s Jackson, Mississippi ancestors were slaves.

What was your childhood like?
Abusive. Imaginative. Suicidal. Troubling.

I don’t want to make it seem like it was all bad because it wasn’t, but it never should’ve gotten as bad as it got. My imagination shoved me through those situations because I was physically beaten by people that said they loved me on a daily basis. I grew up believing that tough love was good love. In some ways it was, but Child Protective Services tried to come get me four times in my childhood.

The levels of struggle affected me, which is why I don’t think it’s funny when people overlook that kind of thing in a household. I was beaten from when I got home at after school up until my mom got off—if she got off—at night. I was eight to eleven [years old]. Bruises. Black eyes. You name it

I won’t say who these people were, but they know who they are and I forgive them because I was the extra mouth. It was my fault. I was the canvas that laid the platform for rage. I was getting hit with ringed fists and shit. I was definitely handled, let’s just say that.

If I wasn’t at a boxing gym fighting, on the corner of the projects with the older homies, writing, or playing video games, I was being forced to read encyclopedias all day. It was a dark household and life early on for me, but it is what it is. God still got my black ass here for the time being.

Image via Javon Johnson

Image via Javon Johnson

Are you a religious person? Were you raised in any particular faith?
I grew up in the Baptist church. My mother tried to send me to Sunday school on the regular, but she knew what time it was. I think because I wasn’t forced in the church after a while early on in my life, I can tolerate different people’s beliefs.

My sister came out as openly homosexual to my family and the church. They crucified her, judged her for her sexual preferences. Witnessing that, It made me hate all types of religions. But growing up has helped me understand that people can’t knock other people’s beliefs. I’ve read the Bible, Hebrew Bible, the Qu’ran, studied Buddhism and all kinds of things and it’s everyday life lessons. All pages dedicated to old stories based on everyday life.

You take what you can from religion but I won’t sit here and shit on someone else’s beliefs just because I may not agree with what it stands for and represents. That’s idiotic. I’m content with knowing what I believe in, and I keep faith in humanity despite the crazy shit going on every day. I wake up every day amazed simply about what kind of creatures we are and how we are surviving on a fucked up planet for so long.

Being homeless showed me a lot about Houston that I didn’t know. Crab bucket. Keep the poor what they are and keep the rich what they are. I wanted to rob. I wanted to kill, but rhyming gave me the money out of their pockets, so I never resorted to any stupid shit.

Can you talk more about your experience with homelessness? What’s it like to be homeless in Houston?
October 2009 might have been the craziest month for me. That’s when I first landed on the streets. Before I stumbled upon The Star Of Hope mission for homeless men, I was sleeping in parks, under freeways, behind the Astrodome, emergency rooms, in parking garages.

I got to the shelter and the policy was this: Sunday morning around 6:30 a.m., you go to the shelter. Wait in a line filled with people—I’m talking hundreds—just to get one bed ticket to cover you for that night. They keep your bags so you don’t have to carry around loads, but getting the bed ticket meant you had to be back from the streets or city by 3:30 p.m. to check in with your bed ticket. Then once you come in they make you shower and go to the chapel to listen to an amateur preacher in practice, whether you believe in religion or not. Going through all of this assured you a roof over your head for one night.

The shelter is in the heart of the city, and it’s somewhat of a halfway house to watch the ex-convicts and offenders that end up homeless after their releases. I didn’t realize this in the beginning, but I feel like the homeless system is designed to keep the homeless in the same position. Every time I’d score a job and tell them where I lived and how that was my only bed, they took the job away.

I mainly went to the library and listened to instrumentals or stood outside the library, museums, or Hermann Park and rhymed until it was about 2:30 p.m. Being homeless showed me a lot about Houston that I didn’t know. Crab bucket. Keep the poor what they are and keep the rich what they are. I wanted to rob. I wanted to kill, but rhyming gave me the money out of their pockets, so I never resorted to any stupid shit.

People on the street paid you to rhyme?
Not in the beginning. It took about a month to warm people up to it. Some felt it was stupid but it was fun as hell to us. I would beatbox for some homies and they’d kick an SUC [Screwed Up Click] type flow or some shit for the hell of it. It was crazy how people started forming around us just to hear what we were saying. When I started kicking my rhymes out heavy, businessmen and women would come by and drop $5 to $50 in the beginning. It grew bigger until the police kicked us out of the areas.

What’s your earliest memory of rap music?
We listened to a lot of soul in my household. Earth Wind & Fire, Al Jarreau, Roy Ayers, Rick James. My older sister Shon brought home cassette tapes of shit like SUC, Notorious B.I.G., Nas, Kool G. Rap. When I first heard Ready To Die I walked to Target in my Dallas Cowboys Starter jacket and stole it on cassette tape. I was six or seven years old in 1994 and I felt [B.I.G.] understood what was happening outside my window. I almost thought B.I.G. was from my hood at one time. So I guess you could say hip-hop is the first thing I actually broke the law for.

Did you ever manage to catch any breaks locally with your rhyming?
Never, because I never had plans to pursue rap in Houston. I sat back and saw how business is done and how everything is structured and it’s too crazy. I mean in 2009, 2010, and 2011 nobody wanted a lyricist. Nobody. Here I am, an emcee inspired by Charles Hamilton at the time, with a similar story to his. His Pink Lavalamp album helped me on the street as well because it taught me a lot about mental survival. During that time it was Wale, Asher Roth—basically everyone on the XXL cover that year gave me hope. Houston was still bullshitting sound-wise so I was like, “Fuck it. I’m moving regardless.”

Would you say you love Houston?
Houston is my mother. She told me where to go and what to look for and I think I’ve found it inside of myself. I think me making music showed me that I didn’t need Houston and made me love Houston so much more. That’s why I name each project after a Houston landmark—Houston Museum of Natural Science, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Hermann Park. It’s all a testament to what I’ve learned about Houston, the world, and myself.

I felt like if I had a different kind of voice. I could inspire the lost. I was always determined to be the first Houston emcee to do it that way, but shit happens.

You don’t rap particularly like a Southern rapper, but, then again, Houston has always seemed to have a diversity of voices. How did your style develop? Do you think Houston is fundamentally different from the rest of the south in terms of the types of rappers it produces?
Absolutely. In the beginning Houston had lots of gumbo, lots of variety with Scarface and the Geto Boys, my man K-Rino, some of the SUC members—mainly Hawk—even Slim Thug early in his career actually sat down and thought before he wrote. Already Platinum? I hold Pharrell responsible for bringing the best out of Slim with those beats though. I think when Houston’s grind and creativity stopped, it cursed us and the game went to Louisiana, Atlanta, and then Florida. A lot of our rappers got famous and rich too quick.

Right now? There is no variety. People are still in the mindset that everything is real if it’s on the internet. Everyone’s mind is controlled by what the machine tells them to love. I felt like if I had a different kind of voice. I could inspire the lost. I was always determined to be the first Houston emcee to do it that way, but shit happens.

Would you say that there’s no true infrastructure for local rappers now? Is there any room for growth within the city?
No, and that’s what’s crazy. Here we are, the hometown of Beyonce and Scarface and nothing ill comes out on the regular. The DJ has more pull than the artists, so these artists are believing that the DJ will spin them and look out for them and they aren’t. The DJs in Houston are in the clubs playing music from iPhones and promising rappers and artists all kind of shit. They step between the artists and labels and play middle-men. Then you turn around and see these rap cats give up on life or turn to drugs.

A$AP Rocky mastered our sound and made a lot of current local talent look foolish with it. That’s why the people they consider legends can’t knock the vocab he and Drake use on wax—trill, plexin, nawf, chuuch, and so on. It only helps spread the flavor we have.

Image via Javon Johnson

Image via Javon Johnson

What was your intention with Hermann Park as a project?
My intention was to create somewhat of a demo tape to earn respect for my pen. I honestly wanted to just sit and let loose a lot of stress and bad thoughts that I had before the creative process of Hermann Park. The first intention was to grab a bunch of ‘90s instrumentals and make something like a cassette tape type joint.

“1759” inspired the whole tape because I felt like if little shit like Grand Theft Auto can inspire songs like that, then I have this creative shit in the bag. Hermann Park was just about me getting the point out that I’m the artist. I’m the person responsible for getting my voice heard. I’m the one that’s going to inspire the underdog, the person discriminated against, the person that is feared. I am all of that, but most importantly, I’m normal. Or at least I think I am.

Hermann Park is simply me having fun and relieving stress with Garageband after taking five-six hours to learn how to work it and the Mac. It was intended to sound bootleg because I felt the mistakes in the recordings defined this current time for me as an artist. I try to make every project from me an experience.

I know you also dabble in photography. When did you start taking pictures?
I’m a white belt photographer, been on my amateur shit for three-five years now.

What inspired you to start taking photographs?
My first camera as a child was a Polarioid one-step 600 instant camera. My neighbor that everyone in the projects feared was an older caucasian woman named Gloria with a three-legged dog. It was funny because everyone feared the only white lady in the neighborhood. They thought she was a witch or some shit. She was colorblind and she always made me take pictures of her garden for her with her camera—Nikon SLR 1959 Model. She paid me $5 a photo.

It was me expressing myself through the lens for a while. Then it became me understanding how important detail is to someone just looking. I could capture the memories, so when I got older and started rhyming, the camera made it easier.

I believe that nature takes pictures. If a moment presents itself, then it’s meant to be. If not, then fuck it, I’ll find other shit to shoot. I never flip out over art because art is a feeling that you can’t go in time and grab back. I feel like all artists—well, true artists—are all like photographers. They know when to snap the right shots.

Were you photographing things while you were homeless?
It’s funny. I was actually homeless last year and took the artwork to [my song] “Playgrounds” with my cell phone. I had to. It was my escape from when it was lights-out at 10 p.m.

I’d leave at 7:30 a.m. before sunrise and run blocks to the heart of the city and take pics of people, buildings, cars. People would give me their e-mail addresses to email them pics. I got a kick out of being out and having something to do in such a dark state.

I feel like Americans in big cities train themselves to ignore the homeless. Is there any sympathy in Houston? What were the sorts of encounters you had with non-homeless people like?
Tragic. I’ll just say that the cops are on your ass 24/7, following you around, asking for ID. People always came up and asked questions about my story. I almost got arrested for looking through the trash for food one night. Someone called the feds and told them I was causing a scene, but I only wanted food. The beef between the homeless and the police is madness. Simply because our police are racist cowards.

There isn’t much help for the homeless. That changed my perspective on the unsettled. Having no home is a different kind of thing when the wolves—police—are out looking for a person with no home just so they can lock them up. A homeless person loses every day they wake up in Houston. They are considered nothing there. It’s basically a crime to be homeless or poor. You can literally go to jail for not having somewhere to live.

I just feel like this nation as a whole doesn’t understand that huge possibility of losing it all suddenly. People ignore that “what if?” because it hurts too much to think about.

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