"When you’re writing, you’re trying to find out something which you don’t know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway." - James Baldwin
Some stories stick with their authors disproportionately—those that aren’t necessarily the most popular or obvious.
Texas rapper Javon Johnson first made contact with me in 2015 after I posted one of his songs in my now defunct column 5 On It. His story struck me as one that deserved to be plucked from the static and shared. A Houston native who grew up in and around gangs, he rapped roughly like Jay Electronica, read existentialist authors and obsessively followed the news. He was a boxer who loved the beauty of ambient electronic music, a survivor of child abuse who had spent a good portion of his adult life homeless, occasionally choosing it as his resting state.
Johnson is deeply southern, deeply black, a man aware of his footprint in the world to an almost frightening degree. He has deeply held and thoroughly considered opinions on all of these subjects, politics, race, and class chief among them. Though his story hasn't achieved wider notoriety, it is deeply intertwined with the intricacies and injustices of American history, an important tale for understanding our tortured relationship with race, homelessness, and mental illness. He is an American chimera, defiant of what the world projects onto him and acutely aware of why it feels the need to project in the first place.
Our initial conversation careened from his violent childhood to a suicidal adulthood. Along the way: brushes with famous rappers and opportunities to ghost write, battles with landlords, girlfriends, and would-be managers, run-ins with police and the constant fear and paranoia of a nomadic life.
For many reasons, he exists in silence and shadows. Johnson doesn’t rap for stardom. He raps for his own survival, to etch pieces of his story in a corner of the internet with the hope and prayer that they will be discovered and provide solace or new understanding for those who stumble across them. He is not famous, nor does he aspire to some form of celebrity. He is not in LA, on the scene. He has no hit record, nor anything resembling current commercial hip-hop. As such his story will likely go largely unnoticed. He would probably say that’s fitting “in a sense” (one of his frequent favorite phrases): the man with the true American story, the one vital to us understanding and dealing with our fissured past, silenced again by all the noise. Its scope doesn't diminish its importance.
In age of too much—where digital debris and worthwhile content exist on the same plane—everything becomes a kind of noise demanding filtration. Even with keen sense and focus, stories get lost. Music and movies pass us by, just as important news stories drown in the fray. It is in this swamp that strongmen like Donald Trump rise and conflate fact and fiction, that companies like CNN present one version of reality while Fox News depicts another. Dystopian reality marched right to our doorsteps, and we were too busy clicking through listicles to notice.
Nearly two years after we first spoke, Johnson sent me his newest album Audiobiography. I listened and told him that it seemed like a fitting occasion to pick up where we'd left off. I don’t write much these days, but I still felt deeply pulled to his Johnson’s experience and perspective. He responded to my questions via email as he always has, letting his mind flow like a gas expanding to meet each topic at its dimension. He occasionally seems to speak in riddles, circular sentences leading to mostly rhetorical questions, but his is a discourse that seems fitting for his the conditions he comments on—rife with confusion and rage, but clear-eyed and measured all the same.
As usual, Johnson’s perspective feels unique, an amalgam of street smarts and self-styled scholarship that shines through in both his responses and the densely coiled rapping on Audiobiography. It is art that attempts to make sense of an absurd world through the calculus of a cagey would-be prize fighter. Both the album and this interview feel of a piece with one of Johnson's favorite authors, James Baldwin: attempts to apprehend the unknown, as outlined in this piece's opening epitaph.
Listen to Audiobiography while you read our conversation below.
What have you been up to in the two years since we first spoke?
Living…Making sure I make the correct decisions that will better myself and the path I'm on. Sometimes I forget about time because I don’t care for it too much. I'm living to die sometimes because rising won't be enough to make me happy. I love the opportunity I have to breathe and live, but I hate living. If that makes sense. I've met some incredible people and I've been offered some amazing things by some amazing people but…my gut. Our discussions have opened many doors for me and I'd take my appreciation for that to the grave.
What do you mean when you say correct decisions? That's a line of thinking that I've always felt is alien to you—you don't strike me as being concerned about the normal constrictions or expectations of society. Even the way you talk about living, it's very existential. So what differentiates the “correct” from the “incorrect?”
Albert Camus is my favorite writer. He said:
“If we believe in nothing, if nothing has any meaning and if we can affirm no values whatsoever, then everything is possible and nothing has any importance”
He also said:
“The literal meaning of life is whatever you're doing that prevents you from killing yourself.”
I live by those two things...
Now, I don't call home and cry to my family if I'm struggling. We don't have a relationship at all. I left, I have nothing but musical opportunities and other shit on my plate, so I create music until i find the correct portal to slide through.
Odd jobs, turning down these fake ass managers and insecure artists most times…I might have suffered this long due to my pride and a lot of other things. I've passed on opportunities to do what a lot of people dream of. If it doesn't feel right, then I won't walk through that portal. Keep being free, no strings attached.
I’m glad I don't have to kiss ass. I think about it, but I'll never be public about it, I'm not looking for cool points or "cool by association status" for knowing certain people, as you know. So people will probably never know some of the people that I’ve come to know. Like I said, people pay attention, they watch. As long as Javon is sharp with the pen and mentally. I’ll keep leaving these letters until I die eventually. Its all about what we do while we're here.
My voice, like all other recorded voices, is eternal and immortal, so I take that into consideration. I'm going back to college once I figure some things out musically, more than likely. I'd like to teach later in life…If there is a later.
If you are to judge me before actually knowing my situation, ask yourself, what do you know? What do you know about not having anyone to reach out to? What do you know about having pride and not asking for handouts and other bullshit? Nowhere to lay, work, and get back on your feet…What do you know about heartbreak at the bottom of the cellar? What do you know about not having identification in another city that doesn't have you in their system? Found out finally in November my father killed himself when I was a baby because he couldn't be in my life. He's buried in an unmarked grave…Can't call him…What in the fuck do you know? Not a damn thing probably.
Where are you living now?
I can't tell anyone right now at this moment. Just know that it's pretty peaceful where I am at the moment.
How much music have you put out? How much have you made?
Since we met, nine EP’s. These won't be EP's coming up here shortly. I can crack an EP out in a week. Takes my engineer Lonny about a week to mix and master. Maybe quicker. So when we first encountered each other, I was more sharpened. I'm still learning. Everyday. I love this part of the process and wouldn't change it for the world.
Did anyone in your family read that initial story?
I think just about everyone read it honestly. A lot of truth was told, so I was never confronted about anything and I don't regret anything I've ever said. I stand by everything I say.
Most of them can't even look me directly in my face now...I love it. You see, I don't have a relationship with anybody in my family, because my family doesn't have a relationship with my family. I don't want to make it sound like I've been abandoned. I haven’t, but I stay the fuck away man, I'm telling you. They didn't even know I created until someone stopped my mother in WalMart talking about the shoot we did for the last article, saying that I "hadn't changed.” [Ed. Note: In the photoshoot for our initial conversation, Javon can be seen pictured holding revolvers and rifles, which were, apparently, replicas]. I haven't held or owned an actual firearm since maybe…2013. I'm trying to evolve from that shit. I thought the shoot would reflect a Vietnam theme. That's what I deal with though, being accused over congratulated. I'm used to that shit now actually.
I know that in the time since then, you reconnected with your mother. That was always a deeply charged relationship, so I imagine that must have taken great strength. Care to speak about it?
As you know, my landlord took everything from us [in 2015]. So being stuck in Dallas with no way to reach my mother was difficult. That was the only time I've needed her since this journey. We finally discussed some things that I wouldn't normally talk to her about. Like my suicidal thoughts, things i might be planning. Anything minus the journey, I didn't want her thinking that she completely failed as a parent. I'm not dead...yet.
Anyways...My ex got me to head down to Houston for Thanksgiving this past November to surprise my mother. Epic fail, same shit since I disappeared from home. She's still being controlled by the same man. They live in the same home…She bought. They don't love one another, they just need each other financially…Well…He needs her actually, which is why he feels the need to control her. Funny thinking about it now, but I thought about fucking him up pretty bad when we were there. He was taunting me indirectly…It was funny actually…A child.
I usually check in on her every two years or so and vanish again. She hates it and I know it kills her too…I have no interest in building anything with her. I just want her to stay healthy and alive.
I don't carry around hate inside. I don't hate or blame people. I blame me, its something that I take good pride in. It starts from within. She turned her back on me in January and I haven't looked back since. He didn't even want her to help me get my identification back. My mother, the only person that can confirm that I am who I am. It all makes sense now honestly
Regardless of everything she's done or listened to…I love her, no matter what
In the time since we first spoke, there's been continued violence on unarmed black men at the hands of police officers, something we touched on briefly two years ago. We now also have an administration that seems, at best, implicitly bigoted in its policies and, at worst, actively pursuing an agenda that will disproportionately target and punish people of color. Have you felt this intensify in your own life? Has this changed your approach to music at all?
Listen it happens to me all of the time. I’ve been profiled all of my life…I don't think I look like a “thug," but I do know that I look like a nigga. Since being back in Houston earlier this year, I've had different female officers grabbing my dick during a pat-down. Security guards pulling out guns on me because they're trigger happy. It never fails, I should've died long ago from the shit.
Last week, my friend can vouch for this, two armed security guards told me I was trespassing in front of a public building.
I asked to leave so I wouldn't be "breaking the law."
Guard: No. Do you have ID??
Me: No…I'm in my workout clothes but if I'm trespassing I will leave
Guard: No…(Draws gun)
Me: Shoot me...
I was supposed to go meet with their captain because he heard about it, but I haven't been yet. I don’t know if I'll go honestly.
At the University of Houston, I was working with my homie only an hour after closing down shop on producing and recording...Same shit, harassment for about an hour, questioning, uncomfortable roaming around, accusing. Mall cops trying to be police officers…I know the rights they claim I have though…You gotta do better than that.
I'm black, tatted, I have death in my eyes. I've seen it before...I'm easy work for them. Shoot him and say you felt threatened haha.
Beyonce comes to Houston (where she's from) to perform and gets protested by police for speaking out about it. There's a serious problem there…Houston is the fourth biggest city in the nation.
You know, nobody paid attention to it, but that "Cops lives matter" shit started here in Houston after a deputy cheating on his wife (Deputy Darren Goforth) on duty was shot by a black man (Shannon Miles) at a gas station in Spring, TX. Then they fired the lead investigator (Seargent Craig Clopton) and a few other officers on the force that were also moving with the same woman that Goforth was killed over...Insane right?
They ignore Sandra Bland because Texas is its own planet. The Bland case alone should've shined light on what happens to us in the system here. She was an instrument to shine light on that. A probe, I believe. She didn't know how it was here. Women don't get sanitary products inside…Men don't get baths…We don't get underwear. We are nothing...Lower than slaves...We get beat down. Lower than anything. We can literally get lost in the system and be forgotten.
I'm beginning to speak more clearly about it now, but I never wanted to sound preachy. I am the struggle. I am the struggle rapper. I was born in it and I've grown in it…I've been talking about it since I first started rhyming, but nobody believed me. Early Cricket mobile and Boost mobile customers couldn't gain much access to a video phone…Now…It's understood and we have a big fucking problem, g.
I've been to jail for bullshit myself.
I think it's sad. We aren't dangerous…You can make us dangerous, but we are afraid of police because they've dominated us for decades. They show us that they truly have power over our freedom…Imagine that if you can.
Understand that the heat starts within the police force. I think the police themselves don't trust each other. They're sleeping with each other’s wives…Some cops are bullied on the force, believe it our not. Those are normally your racist "tough guys" on the outside with us unarmed black men. Yes, black officers can be racist too, I've seen it. Black officers hating blacks.. Female predator officers looking to bang you or take you to jail just to waste your time...That won't come out until later down the line…There are some great cops, one of my mentors being one. Dana Wolfe…I love that woman to death... She's never in the streets, the good cops are normally the ones at the stations
Remember that, we're nothing. Don't be surprised when you witness it for yourself at some point.
What are your thoughts on the current state of the country?
The world as a whole is fucked up and we are to blame. We have it too good. It starts with our decisions, the decision to kill poverty. The decision to make guns more difficult to gain access to. I remember when it was hard to get a gun, it's too easy now. Misguided youth believing that sacrificing their freedom and lives for terrorist groups that don't give a shit about them. Humanity afraid of humanity. Certain marijuana and other substances are to blame as well. Everybody can't smoke marijuana man. Hallucination isn't a small thing. The sun is getting closer and closer to us. It's getting, hotter so people are becoming more paranoid and wild. I don't think our brains should be under this kind of heat. Antarctica is melting. Are we meant to survive this?
You have to think sometimes. Thank god I don't drink or do any kinds of drugs. I smoke, but that's about it. I would go insane, so I understand why people go insane on this planet. It will only get crazier for us if we don't just peep what's really happening in our realities. Get news however you can get it, read. Know what's happening in the world at all times. You have to know. I think life is all about taking advantage of the time that waits ahead of you. It's our choice to be focused on the right things. You can't blame Trump. Blame the government, blame everything history has taught you. It's always been about status and money. Money is more powerful than racism because racism stems from money…Or am I crazy?
Trump had the better PR team and the government just let him on in. They didn't do any homework, it’s really hard to blame the man they made the President of this country. Russia wasn't the only nation helping Donald Trump. Let's just stop the bullshit.
Have you spent any time homeless since we last spoke?
Hell yeah, but I needed to be to create. I needed that mindset. I didn't really know I was homeless because I was brought to believe something else when I went back to Houston. I've tried to take myself out a few times this year alone, but my music friends really help me. I've got people that really need me and good situations so I have reason to keep control of gravity. I can make it, but I don’t care about all of that, I create to stay alive like you told me to do last summer. It made me hungrier this year and I'm glad I faced it head on instead of panicking when I caught on to what was really happening. People and their lies…I put too much faith in people. I blame myself, but it mostly stems from the people that I allow in my life. So that's why i take responsibility for everything done to me, even the abuse from my family. It's MY family, deal with it. You were told I had a "manager" when we first talked and I had nowhere to live…Ain't that some funny shit?
What does creating to stay alive mean to you? How have you internalized and acted on that concept?
I nearly quit on everything after we had our conversation two years ago. Luckily you said what you said about creating during that talk we had when I told you what I was thinking. When you told me to create because it feels like I have to or I’ll go crazy. I've lived by that since then.
I'm also learning that like you also said, "numbers don't mean shit.” It really is becoming more about who you know and who they know. It's amazing, and to have people telling me that i matter and I'm necessary is really a booster for me mentally because it's more than just the beats and rhymes for me. It's about the entire formula. If it was only about the beats and rhymes, nobody would stand out. Teamwork is the way, either get with it or get lost because someone always wants to work with someone you might not. Opportunity always presents itself, and I'm learning more and more about it everything.
Can you explain the inspiration and meaning behind Audiobiography?
Audiobiography is me separating myself from the concepts of the tapes. Each tape had a concept I stuck to. Audiobiography isn’t a concept because it's mainly about me and where I come from. What I've seen with more detail.
The artwork is a picture of me in maybe 95-96. Right when everything became clear. I have bags under my eyes from being sleep deprived. I was probably beaten around that time. The blue bugle boy shirt I'm wearing was comfortable for my back from the beatings. There is a lot of detail and that's what I wanted the songs to represent. Me realizing how fast life and time are both passing. The sound effects, the skits, Eric Christopher, everything represents the way it all came together in my mind. I sometimes take up more time adding extra things to the songs but its all necessary in the end. I keep calling them songs, but I see them as experiences.
What do you hope to gain from your next releases?
Nothing... Absolutely nothing.
I just want people to experience something that comes from a lost soul. You don't have to enjoy the things I create. Everyone likes what they like, which is why I also hate this border within hip-hop. Everybody can shine, there's no need to be divided. We're already divided as a people and certain people love that. How can hip-hop or art be competition if it's all coming from perspective anyway? We all have different perspectives, so its all about who's more relatable. Music is infinite, it can come from anybody, anywhere. So I don't look to gain anything, I'm just staying alive for the time being. These are just glimpses and someone told me to stay active. You know who you are, thank you.