SAINt JHN Is Breaking Form
Leveling Up with the Emerging Trap Artist
- Interview: Zoma Crum-Tesfa
- Photography: Hannah Sider
Hip Hop’s lyrical fixation with becoming a mogul at any cost has had uncomfortable resonant frequencies since at least the 90s. Pairing all too easily with reality television, and messages behind America’s right-wing resurgence, some have accused hip-hop of becoming a modern despotic capital: in its perfected state, an ever-renewing representation of commercial lust.
“Rap is an emergent art-form, and so are the people in it,” says SAINt JHN (formerly Carlos St. John). The Guyanese New Yorker’s lyrics and voice unravel an unflinching desire for success that takes on a new kind of patina. SAINt JHN builds a vivid arena of intertwined self-expression, artistic obsession, and ambition to escape systemic poverty. After making a name for himself writing songs for Usher and Hoodie Allen, he describes the place he’s at in his career as a holding cell between two rooms: the place he left and the place he’s going. Let him tell you his story. Photographer Hannah Sider captures SAINt JHN and model Adesuwa Aighewi in the misty woods of upstate New York.
A lot of press marks the start of your career as when you began writing for Usher.
The conversation always starts with whatever is the catchiest subject, but there was a whole life before Usher.
Right, you first popped off with the Hoodie Allen track, "No Interruption."
Yeah, I wrote this hook for him. It reacted. People liked it in the millions.
How did that change things?
I no longer came to anybody with my hand out. I came with something to offer. It was a nice breakthrough. My phone started ringing. My phone never rang before. As a songwriter, my life changed. And then it changed again when I realized I didn’t want to live my life through other people’s voices. I didn’t want other people to tell my story.
As a songwriter and a vocalist, where does the difference lie between you or someone else performing your lyrics?
Music is sound and energy. It’s so simple. Everybody’s voice carries a different sound and a different energy. If I tell you to sing my song and you sing it, even if you sing it well, you can’t sing it with the same energy. Especially if it’s my story and it’s born from pain. How could you ever capture that in the same way?
When did you decide you wanted to tell your story?
It’s been a lifetime. I decided who I was long before I knew what I was going to be.
How did you stay focused on one dream for so long?
If something makes you happy, it feeds your soul, and it’s natural that you will become obsessed with it. When what makes you happy happens to be your occupation, then it’s sort of a dangerous place to be. You can no longer separate regular activity from occupational. I don’t even feel like I’m working. I want this so bad. I want this for my personal life. My private life. This is who I am. It’s my identity.
"If it’s my story and it’s born from pain, how could you ever capture that in the exact same way?"
What about during periods of depression? How do you keep the drive?
Dude. No. I grew up poor. Where’s the time to be depressed? Never having anything is what helped me thrive.
Yet now that your career is taking off, there must be a certain level of comfort, no?
Yes, but I’m in a shift. I’m in an intermediate space—almost in the holding cell of my life, waiting to be transferred to the better part. I can see all the resources being provided to me. When it’s the holding cell, they give you better food. You get better TV programs.
The patina has changed, but the same relationship to struggle is still there, underneath.
Absolutely. You take on larger struggles. Five years ago, I’d be talking about myself and my own hardships and how I came up—having no money and my mom being poor and having no father in my life, things like that. What I’m talking about now is reflective of where I’m at now. I can talk about the difference between white privilege and being black and destitute. Those weren’t things I could address before. I didn’t have a platform or an economic position where I could stand firmly and say I understand the duality of this world, I understand my life. Where I am right now? I’m in furs in the summertime.
A lot of rap also seems to be about themes like “furs in the summer time.” Why do you think so many rappers are discussing this shift into what some might call ratchet-glam?
Maybe the ratchet thing expresses a type of anxiety. But rap is an emergent art form, and so are the people in it. I’m creating music. I’m an aspirant. I’m hoping to transition out of this place that I’m in to a place where I’m trying to go. I’m talking for most creatives in rap music. They’re not just trying to discuss what they’ve experienced; they’re trying to get to the next place. They’re desperately trying to escape. It’s the law of attraction. Even if they’re not experiencing it, they’re trying to summon it.
Do you believe this transformation is attainable?
Yes, most definitely.
I have my doubts.
Until you see a mass transition, you’re going to see these rarities where, one person gets out, two people get out, ten get out, but 40 million of us are still trapped in this thing. You’ve got to see the numbers grow before you see the conversation change.
What does getting out look like? Not to be corny, but is it like being the first black POTUS?
No, fam! Economic freedom. Obama’s out! But I couldn’t say that, because he has the trappings of his own success. And he has the responsibility in a way that all the other people that got out probably won’t, because he has to speak on our behalf and represent us. That’s a whole other thing. He might not be so out.
We were so hard on Obama. We didn’t appreciate what it was like to have somebody not make you look like a fool in public.
It was a good relationship. We found ourselves in a good relationship. We broke up, and now the girl we’re with is a THOT. [Laughs] But I like where we are. It’s character-building.
Who do you think this period of time is character building for?
I like where we are, period. Nothing happens in a vacuum. Music doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Music relates to fashion. Fashion relates to the economy. The economy relates to culture. If we’re in a minimalist music time, we’re in a minimalist time, period. Think about fashion. We’re in a real stripped down streetwear era where Louis Vuitton and Gucci look like streetwear. Where Miu Miu is doing shit that looks like racer uniforms. It’s just where we are as a culture. We’ve seen this before—in the Industrial Revolution denim was prevalent. Like workwear. We’re back to that. Jeans and a white tee. Or sweats and a hoodie. It’s basic form because we are focused on other things.
"I’m in a shift. I’m in an intermediate space—almost in the holding cell of my life, waiting to be transferred to the better part. "
Are you a formalist?
I don’t know. Maybe in fashion, or representation, but not in music. In music, I follow my instincts. When I’m making a record, I ask myself, “Are we telling a simple truth here?” It doesn’t matter what I’m talking about. Our instincts tell us when things are true and then we believe it. We crawl into the guise of other shit.
What about in fashion?
Let me tell you my story. I started off in Georgetown, Guyana—in South America. I grew up bouncing between Brooklyn and South America. So my parents would put me in cool shit. I had these red pants and the striped shirts with the matching shoes.
This is the Georgetown influence.
Yeah. And back then, I was like, “Okay that’s interesting.” But there's shit you don’t appreciate until you get much older. Then you go, “Oh damn, that was wavy!” When I came to the U.S. I remember my first experience with Jordans. We all wanted Jordans—any fucking year, give me whatever. Just don’t give me the team brand Jordans, give me the ones he played in. I remember wanting these Jordan 13s, and my mom was like, "I got you son.” She went and bought me the Converse that looked just like the Jordans!
Is that the kind of thing that makes you a fashion formalist?
Fam, you could have just got me Converse. But the Converse that looked like the Jordans? I looked crazy. Crazy. I used to be a sneakerhead, super sneakerhead—SBs, T-19s, Dunks, I was on it. I still have my Olympic Dunks! The gold-plated, completely gold and kind of shimmery. I don’t wear them, but I keep them in my closet.
“What I’m talking about now is reflective of where I’m at now. I can talk about the difference between white privilege and being black and destitute.”
What do you see for the future?
That I can’t predict. I don’t have the information.
When was the last time something blew your mind?
I’m impressed often. Mind blown? That seldom happens. When was the last time you saw real innovation? Innovation is absent right now. We’re seeing technological innovation, but outside of that, is every other sector of art and culture innovating? Are we just retracing shit? People are finding things and putting twists on them. If we retrace steps, we might just revisit another era after this.
Do you think remixing will ever be as valuable as innovating?
Remix is equally as valuable as innovation. We require both of them. But I want to see some innovation.
- Interview: Zoma Crum-Tesfa
- Photography: Hannah Sider
- Styling: Savannah White
- Makeup: Alana Wright
- Grooming: Nigella