About fifteen years ago, during the fall of my sophomore year at Morehouse College, I helped organize an open mic on Spelman College’s campus in conjunction with a campus ministry. The night of the open mic, a freshman from Chicago came through stole the show with his seamless flow, insightful lyrics, and infectious energy pouring out over a pounding beat. That rapper was J. Kwest. We stayed in touch, and throughout our time in undergrad, we shared the stage countless other times. After graduation, I worked for an educational nonprofit in Atlanta, later moved to Philadelphia for law school, got married, had children, began practicing law, and now am a university professor. J moved back to Chicago, turning down Harvard so he could pursue his music, ultimately went to seminary, got married, had a daughter, and is now a pastor in Hyde Park. Somehow, both of us kept rapping. J has continued refreshing the world with his unique brand of “pure music”, and to that end has released his third studio album, entitled Lemonade.
Released on Thanksgiving Day, Lemonade is a rousing fusion of J. Kwest’s signature ebullient content sprinkled with probing insights into the world in which we live. It is a great album, and fitting capstone to a great year for ‘Kwest (he won an Emmy for his participation in a project called Strange Fruit, became a writer for Huffington Post, and has a chapter in an upcoming publication). J. Kwest recently sat down with me to talk about his most recent album Lemonade, along with its theme, the album’s inspiration, the current climate in Chicago, Chi-raq, and more. In short, the pastor and the professor had a conversation encouraging you to “drink more water and have some Lemonade“. What follows is the better part of that conversation.
(Timothy) I know you were still crunching numbers, but have you determined whether you beat Adele?
(‘Kwest) 4 Million records in 10 days…I only did 2.3M, because I’m lazy…
All jokes aside, congratulations on the release of Lemonade. It’s a terrific album.
Thank you! I poured all of me into Lemonade, which sounds gross, but it’s a HIP HOP album, through and through. I’m feeling really grateful right now.
Typically, when I interview people regarding their album, we speak prior to its release. Your album has been out for a little more than a week. What type of response have you received thus far?
Response has been crazy – anywhere from “this is the 2015 College Dropout” (Kanye) to “Man, you had me in my feelings a couple of times,” to my favorite – from my closest circle of friends – “If I didn’t know you, I’d still love this album.”
That’s great. Throughout the album, you sound more comfortable than I ever remember hearing you. Would you agree with that sentiment, and if so, to what would you attribute it?
I weave a lot of my story with what’s going on around us and try to let spirit flow through all that, but I had to get comfortable with MY story first. I been through a lot, and my music was held back until I confronted that pain. My entire LIFE felt held back. I couldn’t get comfortable until I confronted my history, and Lemonade is the result, easily the best J.Kwest music to date.
In a recent Instagram post, you said, “I kept a lot of my past locked away, thinking I was over it. Keep living and you realize that he pain of your history is not to be ignored but metabolized—converted into energy for today”. That encapsulates the vision Lemonade in many ways, talk to me about that.
The default setting for dealing with the past is to let it haunt us – to ignore it and say, “I’ve moved on. This better thing over here is happening now.” But you never move on, the past always comes with, so you gotta make the most of it. There’s some pain back there but you made it, so now let that drive you forward. Pain is not automatically fuel; we have to work at that.
Indeed. You have rarely shied away from discussing your personal narrative within the confines of your music, but you begin Lemonade with a level of candor that seems rare even for you. What made this a fitting time to allow your audience into such intimate details of your life?
I’m a naturally private person, so I’ve always shared opinions more than stories. But people around me were saying, “People need to know J.Kwest,” and I fought that for a minute. When I finally started telling the stories, like on “15 Years Ago” and “Liquor N Pills,” I heard the response – jaw-dropping responses – and knew that my life was like a testimony for folks still going through it.
Why was it important for you to begin the album that way?
I didn’t want to preach about “When life gives you lemons…” you know, I wanted the album to say, “This is how I am doing it.” So I had to lead with my story because it colors every other record. And I think the honesty in the first bars is refreshing in a lot of ways. Lemonade is about refreshing honesty, refreshing music, all that, so I wanted the WOW records up front too.
You have also recently said, “Music has been the closest I’ve come to meeting God. Lemonade is me sharing that energy with you.” That is a powerful statement. What do you mean by that? I’m sure some of your colleagues in the cloth may take issue with that, while others may feel as though it perfectly captures the intersection with the super and the natural.
Music was a gift from God that saved my life. I don’t feel like Stevie (Wonder) and Donny (Hathaway) and Miles and Janet needed genres to communicate spirit. And sometimes they communicated their vices too, lol, but there’s an energy in music. My mother was a DJ, so that was how we communicated. She gave me “Close to the Edge” by YES one day, and that 20 minutes brought me closer to God than 90% of the sermons I’ve ever heard. I’m a bit of a mystic Christian, so I believe nonverbal, silent spaces can speak volumes. Music is a certain kind of “silence” from our regular communication, and I think God can live in that energy.
That makes sense. In Fifteen Years Ago, you say, “My story’s ugly, but God loves me”. That seems to sum it all up. It’s as though music is one of few outlets where you can communicate the inner workings of your, while capture the most authentic energy resonating in your soul.
Yes. I had to learn to talk, pastor, all of that. Communicating through music has always been easier for me. I’ve had one line turn into a sermon, and entire worldviews boiled into one line: Love who you Are, Strive to Be Better.
With that said, why now? Why release an album now? What does Lemonade offer to hip-hop? What message do you want to leave
with your listeners?
Lemonade – the drink I’m talking about now – is classic, complex, and you are always happy to return to it. I think we need that feeling again – about ourselves, about the divine, and about music. We become more critical of everything the older we get; I want this album to help you say, “Relax. Life is tough and beautiful. I got this.”
Understood. I have told you before, one thing I have always appreciated about your music is that it engenders a sense of purposeful joy. It makes you feel good, but it is not mindless exuberance. Lemonade captures this feeling well. Talk to me about your process in creating the album, and how you continue to weave that joy in your music.
Thanks for saying that. I have to work at a lot of things, but thankfully Optimism isn’t one of them. That’s just a part of who I am, and I’ve always been the guy in the room that believes nothing is impossible. That sometimes means I’m naïve, but the J.Kwest contribution to music is I leave you feeling more capable, less stressed out.
The entire creative process for Lemonade was me asking, “Why is it so hard to embrace the present moment?” And a lot of my answer to that is because we grow older and lose our sense of joy and learn to hate our past. I think that’s a too-harsh interpretation of Christians taking on a “new self.” The entire album is me trying to undo that, lol.
That’s cool. So this is your Drillmatic. Chicago is responsible for some of the most important voices in hip-hop history: Da Brat, Common, No I.D., Twista, Do or Die, Kanye West, Lupe Fiasco, et al. What is it about Chicago that produces such compelling artists? How do you fit within that continuum? How does Lemonade capture that essence sonically and conceptually?
Chicago is such a soulful place – forget whatever you are reading about the city right now. We come from the south, west, east, and all of those cultures blend here in a way that is uniquely Chicago: honest, intentionally provocative, chip-on-your-shoulder rider music. If anyone ever mentions Common next to J.Kwest, I’ll be honored. That is my favorite rapper all-time and I desperately want him to know how thankful I am for his contribution: I like to think J.Kwest is carrying the torch from Chicago artists that strive for high artistic and social value: not just the rappers but Curtis Mayfield, Chaka Khan, Herbie Hancock, etc.
With that in mind, the continued reports of corruption and institutional neglect regarding the death of Laquan McDonald in Chicago make it hard to think of anything else. Describe the climate of Chicago in this moment. The world is becoming increasingly aware of how the epidemic of police brutality uniquely impacts Chicago; however, organizers and faith leaders like yourself have endeavored to combat this issue for years. Tell me about some of the work happening on the ground.
It’s a painful but energetic time in the city right now. We are shining a light on injustices that we’ve always known about but could never prove. That video woke a lot of people up, and now youth of color around the city are leading us! It’s incredible – the marches, protests – of people saying, “The only thing we have to lose is our chains.” It’s so true. Chicago is so broken. But look at how a piece of media has been able to shine a light. Every artist should take notice.
I hope the energy lasts because there is a lot of system changing to do – to change policing policies, to get the city to invest in the South and West side again (where all the black and brown folks live), so I hope folks don’t go away after the cameras leave and the folks that need firing leave their office.
That makes sense. Social scientists have begun to confirm what people have said anecdotally for years—that many young people in urban America experience a similar level of post -traumatic stress as soldiers who have experienced combat. How do you help your community navigate that trauma and stress?
Be someone kids trust talking to, and be ready to listen. The church where I pastor has a music studio where kids are invited to record their stories artistically, then we talk about what they recorded, almost like “creative therapy.” The city needs more outlets like that, because there’s a stigma in the black community around going to therapy, yet these young folks need to process and think and articulate their pain. That’s probably what Lemonade is about more than anything else: processing my trauma then giving them the space to do the same, to see if anything redemptive can come out of that.
That is so true, and it makes me think of how more could be responding to this trauma. The night Chicago Police Department released the dashboard footage of Laquan McDonald’s death, you referenced your frustration that city officials waited so long to engage faith leaders working in their communities. Tell me more about that.
I wrote about this at length for The Huffington Post, but nobody calls faith leaders until the mess has already happened. Then they panic. Then we’re expected to FIX it. It’s the Church’s own fault we aren’t called to help build the community, but that’s the tear I’m on now in my ministry at University Church. I think faith leaders have more to offer than given the opportunity, and we have to work to regain a lot of trust. This is hard, hard work.
It is. In my classes, I often tell my students the phrase “black on black crime” is a racialized colloquialism used as a red herring to distract legitimate critiques of institutional oppression. The bulk of crimes in America amount to crimes of proximity, thus people commit crimes against those who live near them. America is segregated, so most Americans who commit crimes do so against people who look like them. Consequently, we do not use clumsy phrases like “white on white crime”, “brown on brown”, et cetera. We merely call it what it is—crime. Nevertheless, when people raise their voices against state-sanctioned violence, particularly as it impacts African Americans, we hear “black on black crime” is the real issue. Notwithstanding, those truths are difficult to digest when dealing with carnage like the death of Tyshawn Lee. Talk to me about the paradox of serving communities in such peril and stigmatization.
I could talk forever about this. Suffice it to say, I’m not a fan of the term “black on black” for the same reasons you mention, and nobody involved in Tyshawn Lee’s death had an ounce of a chance. Richard Wright talked about that kind of “inevitable” outcome in Black Boy. It’s tough because how do you say, “You are in control of your decisions” AND, “The outcome has been designed for you”? The truth is somewhere in the middle: naming our stuff but still recognizing we have some agency over our response.
Speaking of stigmas, our Morehouse brother Spike Lee released his newest film Chi-raq this past Friday. A pervasive critique of it is that satire seems like an inappropriate medium to convey the violence plaguing Chicago. Chance the Rapper even recently called the film “exploitative” and “problematic”. As a native of Chicago, and one actively working to remedy the violence in Chicago, do you find that Chi-raq’s depiction of the city trivializes a sprawling epidemic?
It’s art, and I think people should let art create the conversation and not be the conversation. If Spike’s movie is the only commentary we are going to have on Chicago’s problem, then YES, it is inadequate. But as art it stimulates – or should anyway – a deeper conversation about crime, sex and misogyny, race, all that. Spike is my 2nd favorite director ever (Kubrick) because he knows how to provoke unlike any other. But if you take his films at face value, without knowing he is trying to get you talking and thinking about X or Y, then it appears “exploitative.”
There are some within the household of faith who would say there is too much of a preoccupation with social justice and racial reconciliation. As a pastor, how do you address your colleagues with such a limited view of the faith?
To me this is the Gospel: to be with the disinherited, the folks living with their backs against the wall. If we cannot use our privilege to help them, we are missing the entire point of Deuteronomy, the life of Jesus, the prophets, all that. How do I address folks that can’t see that? I don’t. There’s too much work to do. I’m not arguing while people are dying.
Last week, the news of 100 black clergy meeting with Donald Trump drew the ire of thousands. Where do you land on that? Do you find their meeting effective? If invited, would you have attended?
Politically effective, yes. Trump got to leave and say he got the co-sign of 100 preachers, whether he really did or not. For them was it effective? Well, depends on WHY they were there. If they wanted their name out there, then YES, quite. If they are pushing the meter on justice for their people, well…maybe they are playing the long game *laughs* I’m optimistic. No one in their right mind would have invited a troublemaker like me to that meeting.
Indeed. I personally am growing increasingly weary of black leaders, particularly clergy, who would sell their soul for a modicum of fame and power, or access to it. In essence, I echo the sentiments of Roland Martin when he interviewed Dr. Steve Parson.
I don’t know their heart or their strategy. I just know it’s a dangerous game to play with people’s lives.
Yup. Speaking of pastors, the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Alvesta Wright, Jr. is on your album! Talk to me about that. How did that come about?
He’s a mentor of mine – helped me with my thesis in grad school – and has always been super accessible when I’ve asked questions. I wanted to do a record that was two generations talking to each other, to show the reality that the old and the young really do have a lot of tension instead of sharing wisdom with each other, and “Whatever Happened” is us shining a light on that. For some it’s the most powerful moment on the album, and I’m thankful he said YES the moment I asked.
That is so dope. So you did not have to change your number after Black Man (editor’s note: In the promotion leading up to the release of Lemonade, J. Kwest joked about the prospects of having to change his number upon the listening public hearing Black Man) Notwithstanding, the obvious jest in that statement, the joke illuminated the trepidation in broaching racial reconciliation amongst many within the faith.
Uhhh…Christian music is not the most, let’s say, “progressive” in terms of justice and race convos. I did a song using Barack Obama as a metaphor for each person’s great potential, and nearly got blacklisted, lol. There have even been artists that have hit me up and said, “I’m glad YOU said it,” because they know they can’t yet. Having a wider base than just CHH has given me courage to say, “We need to talk about this.”
You have said Lemonade will be people’s new favorite album. For those who have yet to hear it, tell them why you say that.
My favorite albums are ones that speak to me in a deep way, that open up part of me, that make me smile, that make me move, that give me confidence…they take me to a place. I believe Lemonade will take you somewhere; it’s a unique contribution to hip hop, soulful, and if people really listen, it’ll stay with you for a long time. When’s the last time you heard an album you genuinely described as “refreshing”? People are saying that. Give it one listen.
Make it your goal in 2016 to drink more water, and more Lemonade.
It’s been a pleasure catching up with you again. Thanks for talking with me.
Buy J.Kwest’s Lemonade album at iTunes.