Rap Game-Changer Mick Jenkins on Romance and Reality

Interviews

This article originally appeared in Oyster Magazine issue #107. 
Photo: Colin Leaman

Mick Jenkins wants to change the way you think about things, whether that be through his music or simply running into him on the street. He’s one of the most lyrical rappers coming up in the Chicago scene, putting himself way ahead of the game with mixtapes made to inspire conversations about truth and love.

Lucy Jones: I hear the first time you rapped was in a competition to win Beats headphones.
Mick Jenkins: Yeah, that was the grand prize, around the time they were fairly new. So that was the initial motivation behind starting, but once I got in and met some of the people I met it became a lot more serious.

Did you win the headphones?
No, I lost. [Laughs]

Damn. Can you remember when you started writing? You used to be into poetry, right?
I’ve always been a creative writer from a young age; it’s been a strong suit for me. I started writing more in high school when I joined this poetry collective called Young Chicago Authors. Then of course that extended into college as that was a major step in my life, but I’ve always been writing.

Do you think the media has created an inaccurate picture of what it’s like to live and make music in Chicago?
Definitely. Inaccurate would be the word — it’s not a complete lie, but it’s definitely inaccurate. The perception of Chicago from the outside says preposterous things about what must going on in Chicago — that it’s a war zone and crazy shit like that. The reality of the situation is Chicago is much like any other metropolitan city: you know where to go and where not to go, and if you find yourself in a place you know has a certain reputation you know how to act to make sure you’re safe. I think there’s definitely a large amount of violence that is unnecessary; really young people are killing each other. One year [the death toll] was higher than Iraq. But we’ve had, like, five documentaries, from Worldstar [Hip Hop] to Noisey — independent people — and they only cover the drill scene and how it relates to what’s happening in Chicago. It’s a very biased approach to only come from the drill side of the scene if you’re addressing music in Chicago. That kind of thing with the media is how we sensationalise and concentrate on the negatives, and that then breeds more negativity in the community. That’s the process and the cycle. I can’t endorse a lot of that type of music — I definitely turn up to Future just like anybody else in the right setting, but it’s gone so far beyond the right setting at this point.

Is that why you’ve taken a bit of a stance against people who rap about superficial topics?
I think it has a place and time. I don’t feel like people shouldn’t be rapping about superficial things — I rap about superficial things — but I think the way superficial things and the music that supports these things is promoted, accepted and followed is a problem. It’s just like sweets: there’s no problem with candy, but if you eat candy all day then you have a problem. It’s the same thing with this superficial shit on the airwaves and on the TV. I think there’s a time and place for it, but it’s being used, manipulated and learned from far beyond what would be deemed the time and place for any given person, as far as how they move in their life. It’s causing a lot of young people to make decisions that aren’t necessarily the best. We see what’s going on, we see how the media is influencing, you know what I’m saying? What’s popular in the media translates to real-life situations.

If that’s the focus, more people are inclined to make that music and identify with it.
Yeah, exactly.

How did you want to change that conversation with something like your track ‘Martyrs’?
Definitely just by starting a conversation. We don’t necessarily have to change the conversation, but just have other ones. We constantly talk about the same ways to fight the same problems… I stand with people after the show and talk to people when they see me in the streets and really try to have one-on-ones with people. I used to think that, when I was performing, 1100 people in a sold-out venue were going to think differently about shit when they left, and that’s not the truth of the matter. So being able to take advantage of conversations I can have with people when I do meet them face-to-face, and explain my lyrics and make them feel it in a different way, is definitely what I try to take advantage of as far as trying to change minds. But through the music I just put it out there to be accepted and felt — people who don’t really understand it all the time still feel it.

Have you ever had feedback from people you’ve made think differently?
Definitely. That’s what’s pushing me to continue. I appreciate it because it lets me know I’m not just doing this and it’s falling on deaf ears. People are hearing me. There’s definitely people who I feel know every word and completely miss it and that shit’s just saddening [laughs], but definitely people come up and let me know things… specifically lyrics and things I didn’t think people were thinking so deeply about — that it touched them, that it helped them and that it affected them. So that definitely gives me solace and helps me keep going.

The Water[s] was pretty conceptual…
Water is a direct metaphor for truth, [which is] just as important as water is to the world, to our lives, to our well-being. By truth I mean the true nature of things like beauty, success and wealth — what those things really are as opposed to what the media pushes and would lead us to believe that those things are. What the world standard for beauty is as opposed to the fact that beauty is everywhere — we’re all God’s creations and we’re all beautiful, and that’s the real truth. So when I say drink more water, when I say I’ve been in these waters, when I reference water like that, it’s really synonymous with saying, “Learn more things, gain more knowledge and seek more truth.” That’s just the basic synopsis of The Water[s]: an introduction to this water or to this truth.

So the new mixtape Wave[s] is a continuation of that, but it’s about love and was inspired by your girlfriend?
Yeah, that’s the direction I’m moving into; it’s inspired the music for sure. I felt really down after doing The Water[s] and coming off tour with Method Man and Redman, and I recorded this song called ’11’, about Eric Garner. It was heavy and I didn’t want to go right back into making a project, with the same effort, time and energy, about something so negative and daunting, so I used [my girlfriend] as inspiration for lighter vibes. It’s definitely more up-tempo music; it’s fun and it feels good. I definitely concentrated on making people feel good with the music. That’s what it is: Wave[s] is just kind of little waves, little ripples of inspirations from different places, definitely a lot more musical — using different instruments and sounds — and melodic.

Would you say you’re romantic?
Romance? Yeah, I would say that. I guess so. I can be romantic for sure, but I’ve been busy so there’s been a lack … I don’t think of romance as some slight shit. When I think of romance I think of being showered with roses, I feel like it’s dramatic displays of affection — I feel like I could definitely be wrong about that, but that’s what I think when I hear ‘romance’. I could do that. I have done that. I will do that.

You’ve spoken a lot about the importance of finding the truth. How do ideas of love and understanding factor into that?
That term… I was raised with Christian beliefs and I know that’s what God is all about: unconditional love; for sure, that’s the basis of everything. My next project is called The Healing Component and that’s what the healing component is: love. It takes a lot of love to come to a place where you can understand people. When you think about what the answers to a lot of our problems are and somebody says, “We need more love,” I think that sounds funny — I don’t think people take it that seriously, and that’s really what we need. If a lot more love was spread and a lot more love was being shown, we wouldn’t have a lot of the problems we do now. I think that’s very important; it’s probably the most important thing, actually.