Every hero has an origin, a point at which he/she mustered the resolve to use their time, energy, and abilities for the greater good of others. It is these tales that often captivate us more than a hero’s ability to “leap buildings in a single bound”, or move “faster than a speeding bullet”. These tales remind us that even the grandest of heroes often have humble beginnings. Bruce Wayne was born in a hospital in Gotham City, and subsequently whisked away to the palatial Wayne Manor, where his parents, Thomas and Martha Wayne, reared him with a silver spoon in his mouth. Notwithstanding, Batman was born in Crime Alley when Bruce Wayne witnessed an unnamed thief violently murder his parents one cold evening. Kal-El was born on Krypton, the son of scientist Jor-El. Yet Superman was born when Jor-El rocketed an infant Kal-El to Earth moments before Krypton’s ultimate destruction, and the Kents later found that tiny infant in a spacecraft that crashed near their home in Smallville, Kansas. This list could go on indefinitely with tales of how our heroes became who we know them to be. The same could be said for Sean C. Johnson.
While Sean C. Johnson never professes to have lived a heroic life, he does understand the power of our origin stories to contextualize the present, and predict the future. Consequently, Sean, a self-professed comic-lover, has decided to share his origin story in his forthcoming album, aptly titled, Circa 1993. This terrific album details one of the more transformative years of Sean’s life in an effort to describe how God can use life’s unexpected turns to transform us. Circa 1993 captures Sean’s signature melding of stirring soul renditions, hip-hop transmissions, and Gospel foundations with practical insights into daily life; however, its content wrestles with intimate details of his personal life. It is an exquisite addition to his impressive catalog.
Sean recently sat down with me to talk about his upcoming album and its theme, the album’s inspiration, his upbringing, his goals as a musician, and more. What follows is the better part of that conversation.
So you went from the armed services to the classroom, and yet still have a song to sing. God must have given you something special to say.
(Laughs) Yeah man. I thank God for using the Air Force. It’s amazing how God will use things we never expect for his greater purpose. For me, He used the Air Force to set me up for now. I’m going to school with the G.I. Bill, which has allowed me to go to school full time, and pursue music full time. It’s such a blessing. That idea never occurred to me when I was serving in the military. But God, in His sovereignty, uses different things to achieve His will. For me, the Air Force was a vehicle to set me up where I am now. I’m blessed man. I’m two to thee months from graduating…
Thank you. I appreciate that. I’m excited about where I am right now. It’s a good time for me. I’m about to release a new project, a lot of good things lot of blessings, a lot of blessings. God is good.
Indeed. And now you’re partying like it’s 1993.
(Laughs) Right. So I mean it was a transition year for me, a fork in the road for me. Lots of events happened that year that shaped who I am now. It was a pivotal time in my life.
1993 seems like a lifetime ago (for some it is). Bill Clinton was president, Michael Jordan was playing basketball, Intel introduced the Pentium microprocessor, Jurassic Park ruled the box office, Snoop, Janet Jackson, Garth Brooks, and Nirvana ruled the Billboard charts, and Sean C. Johnson’s life changed forever. Tell me about that. What would you tell your audience who has yet to see your short film series about Circa 1993?
Well, 1993, like I said, was a year that shaped who I am as a person. There were four events that impacted my life, extremely impacted my life: my mom passing, falling in love with music, watching my first pornographic movie, and getting saved. My mom passed in February of 1992. From there, a lot of things snowballed. I mean, I was mourning the loss of my mother, and I reached out to music. Music was a great comforter. That was the second event—music. My mom was a music education major, and music teacher also. It was really that year that I fell in love with music.
The third [life-changing event] was the first time I saw an adult movie, a pornographic film. I spent the summer with my cousin(s) and my aunt, God bless her. God bless my aunt, she did the best she could. My aunt worked at night, slept during the day, so basically we were unsupervised during the day. We had a lot of idle time, and that lack of supervision led to us finding a pornographic film and watching it. It really shaped and warped my view of love, how I viewed females. I still struggle with breaking free from that bondage.
Later that year, I gave my life to Christ. It’s amazing how God used that those events to open my eyes, soften my heart, and give me new life. Those events shaped my life: accepting Jesus as my personal Savior, my mom passing, seeing the pornographic film, and falling in love with music.
That is amazing. For many, childhood is a time that we recall with fondness, a time that hindsight provides a sense of moving sentimentality. While I imagine you may say the same, you had some difficult experiences in your childhood. Would you say that made you grow up too fast? How old were you in 1993, eleven or twelve?
Yeah, I was eleven in 1993. To answer your question, I would say, “Yes” and “No”. I was fortunate; I had an older brother that was there. He shielded me from a lot of things. He took the brunt of a lot of things. I was able to keep some of my innocence. I was exposed to some things, but for the most part, I was able to still be a kid. We have very fond memories of being children, living the typical childhood life. I thank God for my father too, for the man of God he was. There were some rough years there, but for the most part I was able to be a kid. I was able to grow up fast. I did get a job when I was fourteen, fifteen though.
I can relate. I got my first job at that age.
(Laughs) Yeah, getting a job was the natural progression from preteen to moving to adulthood. For the most part, I was somewhat coming into my preteen phase, past the childhood phase. I was moving toward [being an adult]. But I was able to keep my innocence. My brother helped shield me from a couple of things.
That makes sense. What would Sean C. Johnson of today tell that young man struggling with so many difficulties in 1993?
Man that’s a great question! I would tell him to walk out of the room when they were watching that pornographic movie! That movie impacted so many of my relationships going forward.
Another thing I would say is to realize that I should be a lot more confident. [Be confident] in yourself. Some people peak in high school. That’s not my story. I did not get a lot of attention from girls at that age. I did not get a lot of attention from the opposite sex until I was as adult. [I would] tell him, “Don’t worry about it”. You’re going to grow from this. God is going to use a lot of these experiences to shape and mold you. There were times I felt inadequate, like I did not measure up. God used that to keep me humble, make me sympathetic to others and what they’re going through. I can say I’m going through, [or have gone through] the same thing. I’ve been the popular kid, been the new kid at school, dealt with the death of a parent, dealt with a struggle, an addiction. It lets me relate to a lot of people. The last thing I would say to is, don’t worry about everything you are going through, you are going through it for a reason.
Indeed. He gives us mountains so we can go higher.
Yeah man. Most definitely. Like the scripture says, “[A]ll things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” No matter what it is, no matter what it looks like, He is sovereign. He is in control. In the past, that has been hard for me especially, because I am a control freak. Now I have come to realize I have to trust God, trust His judgment, no matter what may happens, I trust God.
Indeed. You mentioned this earlier, and your short film series identifies Ain’t Nothin’ But a G Thang as a key influence on your musical tastes and preferences. When did you realize you had a gift to make music?
That song, even that whole album, The Chronic, sonically was, and still is a great album. Content aside, it is a well put together album. I fell in love with that sound, with that bass line. It captivated me at that age. The storytelling element, it exposed me to a culture and lifestyle I had never experienced. I had never been a gang banger, I was not exposed to that lifestyle, but it captivated me, opened my eyes to a lot of things.
When did I realize I had a gift to make music? Actually that year was 1993. We were, me and my brother, we had no jobs, so we were just sitting around spending the whole day listening to music and watching videos. We started a group. We would watch videos, and would find random instrumentals. Back in the day, if you bought a single from the record store, it had the radio version, the extended version, and the other side had the instrumental.
I remember that! I got started making music doing very similar things. When I tell my students that, many of them have no idea what I’m talking about!
Yeah man! (Laughs) It was like a completely different world. So we would just look for random instrumentals on the other side of the tape, we would just find the instrumentals to these songs, and just write. [During that time] I found I had a gift for putting words together, with writing songs, putting melodies together. We would do that all day everyday. That was like my boot camp. From there, the gift went into almost like a hibernation. When I was a kid, I had those dreams of being an artist, but those dreams kinda faded after a while. But God, in His sovereign time, brought it back. Now He allows me to continue to make music to edify God’s people, and build them up. I knew I could sing, I had been singing all my life, but I did not know I had a gift for making music until 1993.
Speaking of 1993, who do you intend to reach with Circa 1993? What do you want them to gather from it?
Man, I want to reach as many people as possible. What do I want people to get from the album? I want people to see that in order for them to move forward, you have to know where you come from. I want to cause people to look back where I have come from, so they can see how I got to where I am. I want to help other people see how God is sovereign, no matter what you have been through in your life, no matter what, God can use what you have gone through to shape and mold you into who He wants you to be. No matter how bad it is; God in His sovereign will can use that to work for our good.
So, I hope I am able to reach as many people as possible with this album. That is part of the reason I am going to release Circa 1993 for free. I don’t want anything to be an impediment for people to be able to get it, so I’m actually going to be giving people the opportunity to name their price on my Bandcamp page , so they can donate or pay what they want, or download it for free. Whatever you want. It will also available to stream on Spotify and on Soundcloud. I just want the album to be as accessible as possible, and use my brand, my platform to help my audience.
That reminds me, one of my favorite aspects of Circa 1993‘s theme hinges on the origin story. In your promotional materials you mention how you are “no hero”…
Not at all, not at all. I don’t claim to be anybody special…
Indeed, and demonstrating that, the album reveals how God can and does use many who are “[not] mighty, [not] noble, [not wise]” to achieve His purposes. I know you don’t consider yourself a hero, but describe how Circa 1993 communicates that.
Yeah, I am no hero. I’m just a vessel who wants to be used by God. When I was young, I had dreams to do music. When I got older that dream faded, but God in his sovereign grace brought it back when I was older. He used my willing heart, willing mind. That’s why my first album was called Simply a Vessel, I was simply a vessel that wanted God to use him to edify His people. Especially that last album, Surrender All, I was surrendering all to be used by Him, so He can allow me to steward what He has given me. Everything up until this point is a testament of how God can use something small for great things.
In 2012, I went to London. That started with something small. Someone in London found clip of my music on Youtube, and began to spread it around London. From there, it spread, and I had a fan base in London that I didn’t even know about. Then one day, someone reached out and asked, “What will it take to get you over here”. I said, “Just get me a plane ticket, I’ll sleep on somebody’s couch, I don’t even care”. The next week, they sent a ticket, and I was there for ten days. The whole time I’m over, I’m thinking, “I recorded this in my room, sitting in a chair using Pro Tools, and God used something so small, recorded in my bedroom, and allowed me to go 1,000 miles away and share this music”. The whole thing was blowing my mind. You don’t need all these grandiose things. You just need a willing heart, a willing mind. My entire ministry is nothing but a testament to how God can use anybody, just be willing to work, be wiling to steward what He has give you, and go from there. That’s why I want to let go of things that don’t please God. I can’t just live any type of way.
Speaking of not living any kind of way, are you still sleeping with fans?
(Laughs) That was a good one. (Laughs) That was good.
That story line was obvious fiction, but it demonstrated a reality for many in your position.
(Laughs) Man you got me there.
(Laughs) All jokes aside, your catalog is replete with deeply personal details about your life—both success and failure—how do you balance the desire to create intimate experiences with your fans, while also maintaining a modicum of privacy?
Man, I try to just be…I don’t divulge information just for the sake of shock value. I want to come from an honest place. I don’t divulge it unless it will edify and build people up. I don’t wear sin as a badge of honor. I’ve done things; I’ve fallen, but God has restored me. Simply a Vessel: Life is Art is based on true events. I did not sleep with a fan though. I did not sleep with a fan. (Laughs)
I know, I know.
Yeah, I just want it to be clear for people who may have seen the series. There have been instances where that has been an option, or temptation but by God’s grace I did not fall in that way. [In the past]. it almost came to that. With Life is Art, I explored what would have happened if I had followed through. I tried to be as honest as possible. I was brought up in very legalistic, strict church. If you [fall in sin], you’re ostracized. The pressure to be perfect is just unbearable. It’s a burden. I just want to be free of that burden; I a man; I sin; I repent, get back up and go. I am far from perfect. I have sin that I repent of every day, and I continue to grow in grace. I am not staying in the same place, but just continuing to grow. The heart behind all of that and the web series was to help put these things out there. We don’t talk about these issues. I pray people were blessed by it.
I am sure they were. Similarly speaking, in Domonique, you reveal how you encountered pornography at a young age, and how its images never left you. What made you decide to discuss this struggle openly, and how do you combat it now? You have wrestled with this before on Grateful’s Thirty.
Man, I decided to discuss it openly when I realized I was not the only one who went through it. When I realized that [I was not alone], it opened my eyes. It’s especially hard now with much more access to do it. You can do it in the privacy of your home where there are no eyes on you. Before you might have to grab a magazine, or sit in a theater, or whatever. Now, you can literally have it at your fingertips wherever you go.
When it’s private like that, those are the seeds that are planted that grow. When you can do it privately, it can infest and grow. I’m talking about this, and the grace of God, to give people hope. I’m telling them that you don’t have to live in this bondage. To see this is something so many have dealt with, especially like mentors and people I hold in high regard…When I see that some them struggled with this when they were kids, or young men, I saw I was not alone. That encouraged me. It took the shame of it, and I realized that it is something that can be conquered. I did not want to remain in secrecy any more, but rather just confess, repent, and grow from it. I’m hoping I can encourage people to do the same.
That is powerful. Tell me about how you chose to interpolate Kendrick Lamar’s Don’t Kill My Vibe. It’s a dope re-imagination of the record.
Man I was lucky enough to find a dope instrumental that [interpolated Don’t Kill My Vibe]. I reached out and was able to use it. God had grace in that situation. From there I wanted to do an artistic expression over the beat. It fit the vibe; it fit the topic well. For something that serious, the beat fit that well. It was the perfect canvas to paint that picture, and it grew from there.
I wanted to get a female perspective on it. Once again the stigma that [pornography] is just for men, that’s a lie. So, I wanted to approach it from the perspective of men and women. So I reached out to Shy, who is based in Dallas…
She is so dope.
Yeah man, Shy is dope, so dope. I always thought she was dope. I was honored to have her speak from a female perspective, and she did an incredible job. When people hit me up about the song, most people who hit me up, hit me up more about her verse. It was a blessing to have that perspective. People still hit me up about that song, and tell me thank you. And that clip at the beginning of the song, some people caught that the clip is from the movie Flight. Flight does a great job of depicting addiction. When I saw that in the theaters, I was like, “Yeah, that is so powerful”. That scene at the end, where he was like, “God, I need your help”. I’ve been there. I understand what he was feeling at the time. When it reached its climax, I thought it was a great way to introduce that song. The beat, the clip, it all was the perfect canvas to paint that picture.
That makes sense. In Don’t Kill My Vibe, Kendrick is talking about the comfort and isolation that controlled substances bring, and how one longs for the euphoria it gives, even if it is momentary. Do you see parallels between that and pornography?
Aw yeah, most definitely. I think that is one of the bigger sins of it all. It’s not just taking advantage of the woman, and lusting after her, that is part of it. I think the bigger sin that is associated with it is when you make it a God. When you’re depressed or feeling down, or going through something, and reach out to porn for an escape rather than to God who can provide that escape, that is a bigger sin. You are literally putting this thing on a pedestal. You are seeking a joy and pleasure, or using it as an escape after a long and stressful day. You look to [pornography] to relieve yourself, and escape from that reality. You reach out to porn as a comfort a lot times. I know that is a real struggle for people. So in many ways, some of things Kendrick had on that song are relevant here as well.
That makes sense. So to sum it all up, what would listeners who have followed you since Simply a Vessel Vol. 1 come to learn about Sean the man, and Sean the artist?
Each album, I live the theme of each album. Simply a Vessel was the start of my ministry, and I was simply a vessel. Simply a Vessel Vol. 2: Faithful [was created] during a time when God was proving Himself to be faithful in my life. With Vol. 3: Surrender All, I was at a place of letting go of certain things, and wanting simply to be a vessel. Now with this with Circa 1993, I’m saying, look at where God has brought me from, and point back to those moments, pick those moments that shaped me. It shows the listener, this is why you heard the music you heard in the past: 1,2,3. These are the moments that shaped the music going forward. [With Circa 1993] I’m taking people back to the beginning, and letting them see the music you heard before is shaped by these moments, and the music going forward was shaped by these moments. It’s another fork in the road. It’s showing you why you heard what you heard, and why you will hear what you hear going forward.
Thank you Sean. It was a pleasure.
You too fam.