Words by Lily Mercer

Mick Jenkins is torn. He’s searching for a solution to stop white people using the N-word at his shows. “What’s been the biggest conflict I’ve faced in life? I have two actually.” he says adding, “Probably jail, I went to jail for 34 days. It was just a marijuana charge, apparently I missed a court date and I wasn’t granted the opportunity to prove myself until I was arrested.” This acted as a learning experience for the Chicago lyricist. “To this day, I’m kinda glad I went because it’s definitely a vital part of who I am and how I think today. If I could have avoided it, I definitely would have but now I’ve been through what I have, I’m grateful for it, it taught me a lot.”

But back to the current conflict. Mick explains that although the presence of white fans at his shows repeating his own use of the N word is understandable, that doesn’t mean it sits well with him. “It’s so weird to me. What a lot of people don’t understand, mostly white people, is that I get to feel weird. People feel like, ‘well you wrote it!’ But it’s like, “So?” Most shows are predominantly white so I’m in a room full of white people screaming “nigga” and I don’t know how to feel about it. I don’t know if I necessarily feel like, “Well you shouldn’t” because at the end of the day, I wrote it.”

It’s easy to see Jenkins’ dilemma, as a white fan opposed to the use of the N-word by white people in general, it frustrates me to see fans at shows feel like their ticket for the show doubles up as a pass to use loaded racial terminology. Especially when the artist himself is offended by the language in question, as Jenkins is. “The majority of people in the room are not reciting it maliciously at me, they’re reciting it to support me because they’re fans of the music. I have complete control over what they say because I write the lyrics. But that doesn’t take away that it is a white person screaming the word in my face and it makes me feel a way so it’s just a conflict for me right now. I don’t know what to do about it, I don’t know what to feel about it and it’s definitely a pressing issue.”

He’s open minded enough to see that many fans are uninformed as opposed to being malicious, “When you’re trying to make an appeal to an ignorant person, there’s so much of your argument that doesn’t matter because they’re unfamiliar. As right or wrong as I am, if you don’t have any knowledge of what I speak of, then my argument doesn’t hold the same weight to you as it does to Lily Mercer. So in the realm of actually trying to affect people, that has to be taken into account because they have to understand me. And if they don’t understand me then I’m losing them, so that puts me more in the realm of really not knowing what to do. Something like that is easier to do on a one-on-one basis as opposed to 850 people in this room waiting for me to perform ‘Jazz’.”

Growing up as a black man in America, his perspective on the country’s current climate is very relevant right now. He expresses disappointment towards many aspects of today’s culture, including the beauty industry, “We make so much money off the insecurity of women it’s crazy, so are we really out here to empower women? No. In every facet, this shit is engineered.” He thinks violence in the country is at a high and it doesn’t bode well for the future. “I think America is progressively getting more and more violent, in the home and the things we do outside of our home and the country. People are getting more desensitised to violence and I think that comes from the music, the movies, the pictures, everything that we use for marketing. I believe in the Bible, the King James version of the Bible, I’m a Christian. The world is not supposed to get better according to my beliefs, it’s supposed to get worse. Everything is becoming more evil, in Chicago, in America, in the world.”

Mick’s hometown of Chicago is often dubbed Chiraq, a tag that he looks at with disdain. “I don’t think it’s anything to brag about, I don’t think it’s cool that Chicago had more deaths at one time than Iraq. It’s not an accolade and we know that it has come from the music, that’s the promotion of the idea of Chiraq,” he says, explaining that the music and violence feed in to each other in a way that can not be entirely separated. “The hip hop in Chicago is probably the strongest supporter of that notion and it just puts a bad light on the type of music that’s coming from Chicago and that affects me personally. I’ve had people say crazy things to me about what they think Chicago is like and it’s not just like this war zone, which I think is what it’s perceived to be. I would like to knock that perception down and I think Chiraq only builds that perception.”

He frequently uses the word “fetish” to describe the media’s focus on Chicago’s violence. And it’s not just the newspapers that he’s opposed to, the music press can get it too. We speak on the spate of documentaries highlighting the city’s violent side, most notably World Star Hip Hop and Noisey. “That shit made me so upset, not just because they covered one side of Chicago hip hop and I’m talking about the Noisey one specifically. They covered one side of Chicago hip hop, and when they did cover SaveMoney, they only covered them getting Joey Purp out of jail.” Laughing in agreement, I concede that the World Star effort was somehow the most credible, even though they focused heavily on the drill scene and not the more optimistic music scenes the city has to offer.

Jenkins tells a story that Andrew Barber of Fake Shore Drive relayed to him about the moment that labels started reaching out to him about Chief Keef. When he told them that Chance the Rapper was also worth checking out, they displayed far less interest in picking up the artist with a positive message. “People often come at me as if I’m opposed to drill music and I’m not at all. [If] they gained the nickname Chiraq, there’s some level of violence going on, you understand what I’m saying? So this is what they’ve done with it and they’re telling their story and it’s valid because it’s true. So who are you to not give that any credit. It’s a double-edged sword because of what music promotes. It promotes that same violence but it is a valid story that needs to be told.”

His point is understandable, as he explains that the violence will exist regardless, but exploiting it is unnecessary. “I kinda put fault more on the media, for the people that cover it and the way they write about it and the way they depict the narrative of what goes on in Chicago because it’s not up to the artists; the artists don’t give themselves the national spotlight. No matter how talented you are, someone else brings you to the national spotlight and they’re more at fault than the artists themselves for pushing that idea of Chicago, its music and its community.”

Jenkins’ natural understanding of media manipulation builds a hidden layer into his music, as he incorporates his own subliminal message via the phrase, “Drink more water.” “That’s the way to subtly combat it, that’s all I can figure out how to do it in my quest to combat it is just fight fire with fire. A lot of people in the initial release of ‘The Water[s]’ were like, ‘you’re talking about water too much, how many songs are you gonna do about water?” and I was like, ‘it’s purposeful, now you’re drinking more water. Now you’re drinking ginger ale instead of something else’.”

Mick Jenkins isn’t a rapper that grew up determined to hold a mic, (“I was trying to be in PR, I did a considerable amount of journalism in college”) which is why he criticises the tactics the media use to draw attention to the negative side of his city, “that shit has no integrity to me. I hate that shit.” But his ability to see the tactics at play makes him question how deep the control methods go. “That idea of how you can coax people into making the decisions you want them to make, so subtly without them ever knowing. The messages you study when you go into marketing – playing with people’s emotions to get them to do what you want through colours, through visuals, through smells and that shit – is a ply to marketing. But I know that with that kind of power applied to politics and ushering the country and the world into the direction that we want them to go. If that kind of power can be sided for marketing, why wouldn’t we use it in other fields? It goes so deep and I think about it on some evil genius shit, it’s crazy, it’s fucking sad.”

Continuing to discuss subliminal messaging in music, Mick explains the inclusion of an interview with convicted serial killer James Broadnax at the end of the ‘Martyrs’ video. “I chose James Broadnax because in the extended interview, he was asked if there was anything he wanted to say to the victims families and he quoted Lil Wayne, “Fuck ‘em, fuck ‘em, fuck ‘em, even if they celibate/ I know the game is crazy, it’s more crazy than it’s ever been/ I’m married to that crazy bitch, call me Kevin Federline.” I point that out in my shows, I stop after ‘Martyrs’ and make that correlation, “how many people started drinking more water after they heard the tape?” and everyone goes crazy. So the same musical influences can affect you negatively and I’m not saying James killed those men because he listened to Lil Wayne but when asked if he has anything to say, he quotes Lil Wayne – that is definitely not a correlation to be ignored. I wasn’t really attacking Chief Keef [in the ‘Martyrs’ video] or the drill scene with the imitation of his video, I was just pointing out that listening to this stuff in overload does affect you, you will make this decision as opposed to that decision because of influence and that is real.”

‘Martyrs’ displays Jenkins’ skill at flipping metaphors into visuals, “all these little girls give it up now, shame. I can see the cherry stems in the fucking street.” Criticising the oxymoronic decisions that his peers make, the song is full of loaded racial connotations, from the sample of Billie Holliday’s Strange Fruit to the nooses Jenkins and company wear around their necks in the video. It’s a shocking and powerful message to exhibit, as Jenkins mimics the low-budget visuals released by Chief Keef and crew. However, Jenkins’ own added metaphors are chilling as the noose ties in with the song’s hook, “I’m just with my niggas hanging.”

For many, the message is too powerful, and the suggestion that the heavily-promoted gangster rap of Chicago is its own small genocide too much to process. But the visual displays loud and clear that Mick Jenkins is a man with a message, and he’s not afraid to upset the music scene in his city and beyond. He understands the importance of how the idea is communicated, which is why his projects are so conceptual, from his 2014 mixtape, ‘The Water(s)’ to his forthcoming album, ’The Healing Component’. Explaining the expansion of the album in comparison to the mixtape, he explains, “‘The Water(s)’ was the introduction of this idea that there’s this truth you are missing out on and that’s all it was. Most of the songs were about “the waters” but what is this information that you’re telling me I need? What are those specifics? I will be giving those specifics in ‘The Healing Component’. The difference between ’The Healing Component’ and ‘The Water(s)’ is ’The Healing Component’ will be 15 different topics, while ‘The Water(s)’ was 15 songs about the idea that you’re missing out on this information. ‘The Healing Component’ will be this information that you were missing out on.”

With stories entwined with social and political messages, Jenkins reminds me of the protagonist in a Richard Wright novel. The themes have been present since the release of his first mixtape, ‘Trees And Truths’, in 2013. Following up with 2014’s ‘The Water(s)’, the complex themes and heavy subject matter were draining for Mick creatively, but we can still expect to hear those familiar topics come through on his debut album. ”The album is what I’m working on right now, the EP, which is untitled, is coming out very shortly and it’s a complete contrast to those feelings, ’11’ was the first song that I recorded after ‘The Water(s)’ and it was really heavy, I didn’t wanna go straight into making
music like that so the EP is a different, lighter feel, more uptempo. I went in with THEMpeople, a production duo out of Chicago [who] produced most of the project, there’s some KAYTRANADA joints on there too. It’s a good move, I’ve been calling myself the dark-skinned Pharrell.”

He admits that the sound is a departure from what he’s currently known for, explaining that a lot of the project features him singing rather than rapping. But taking a brief hiatus from rapping led Jenkins to produce ‘Your Love’ with KAYTRANADA, “I think people will be super surprised, I like that one,”he says, continuing, “I didn’t go in like I wanna do this, KAYTRANADA sent me a batch of 25 beats and that was the first one and I was just like, “yo, watch what I do with this.” I was on tour with Method Man and Redman when I made that song.” Understanding that the sound may not appeal to all of his fans, he confesses, “I think it’s gon’ fuck people up. People are gonna be mad, people want bars from Mick Jenkins and that’s not what they’re about to get. There’s still some super hard rapping on there, but it’s more of those vibes and I definitely wanna showcase that I have that ability. But it’s just a break for me, ‘The Water(s)’ was a super conceptual album for me and it took a long time to do it, it took a lot out of me. So to start on ‘The Healing Component’ immediately after was the same thing and I wanted to breathe and that’s what the EP is.”

With the untitled EP due in the first half of 2015, he expects ‘The Healing Component’ to follow towards the end of 2015, or even early next year. He’ll also be releasing merchandise for the first time. Justifying the wait due to his desire to approach every aspect of his brand as thoroughly as his music, Jenkins explains, “I’m big into fashion, I don’t have merch cus I don’t wanna do tees and hoodies and bullshit, I’m tryna hit niggas with a capsule. I’m over here designing right now, going through drawings and trying to get samples done. So I’ll definitely have merch in 2015.” Naturally water bottles will be one of the first items available for purchase, “I got my own water, I’m super happy about that. I’ll have that at my shows.”

With the “drink more water” and “ginger ale for your hoes” refrains in his music, I ask Mick Jenkins if he’s been approached by any water or Ginger Ale companies for sponsorship? His response, “Nah, I don’t think I’ve got enough juice.”

Originally published in Viper Magazine’s Autumn/Winter 2014 issue.

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