ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: An Interview with Jalib Johnson

“Jabari Johnson (aka Jalib), the 3rd youngest of four boys, was born in Upstate New York and raised in Harlem, NY. At an early age he displayed a performer’s charisma, doing whatever it took to have all eyes on him. He later moved to Harlem with his father and found his love for music in his elementary school, not knowing it would change his life for the better.  Encouraged by a childhood friend at age nine, Jabari would write raps inside his notebook for fun.  Since then, this form of creative expression has done nothing but grow; he is now an actor, comedian, singer and guitarist. In June of 2013, Jalib Johnson was crowned the science genius in a competition where high school students write rhymes about science. With artists such as CJ Fly from Pro Era and GZA from the Wu-Tang Clan judging the Science Genius B.A.T.T.L.E.S, it was no fluke that Jalib was hailed as the victor. Aside from being  apart of “WeAreBeatniks”, a group Jalib formed at the age of 16 based off the unconventional practices of the Beat Generation in the 1950s, he is also working on his upcoming mixtape and album, filming sketches, movies, and participating in a variety of showcases to display his comedic and musical talent. He’s performed at places such as The Apollo, NAMM, Columbia University, Ohio State University, MTV, The Intrepid Museum, TEDXTeen and many more, but in his spare time he enjoys writing lyrics, skateboarding, and thinking. Look out for big things from this multi-talented beatnik.”

The up-and-coming actor, musician and photographer took some time out of his multifaceted schedule to talk to Oblivion about the importance of loyal networking, the distinct connection between academia and art, and his personal journey as an artist.jalib 3

BB: Hey, Jalib.  So, basically, the ‘Artist Spotlight’ is something we’re doing at Oblivion to promote rising artists of color.  We reached out to you because we see you doing a whole bunch of different things.  You did ‘Shakespeare in the Park’, you rap—and you do videography too?

JJ: Yeah, I do videography, photography—Can I, can I like just go into my spiel? [laughs]

BB: Yeah, go ahead! Tell me what you’re about!

JJ: Okay, so, I think around the idea of me being an artist—that all kind of started when I moved to Harlem for the first time.  I moved from upstate New York, so I was used to being around a lot of white kids in a rural area.  When I moved here, it was kind of hard for me to fit in because of the way I spoke and the way I dressed and just the culture that I inherited while being upstate.  So, in order to fit in, I had to participate in the culture somehow.  A friend of mine was a rapper when I was nine years old, coming into the fifth grade.  So that’s when I started rapping myself.  Initially, I had wanted to become a comedian, but this is something I took upon myself.  So I started rapping; but it wasn’t until I was in high school that I start to branch out into other areas of The Arts.  I went to a performing arts high school, and they had a criteria of which you could choose from.  I always wanted to sing, so I went inside of the vocal room—and that’s where I began my singing.  I started training my voice and after that, I wanted to start playing guitar to pick up girls [laughs].  Then I started acting for an acting company and continued my rapping as well.  So, I began meshing all those things together in high school.  After I got out of high school, my time was literally for me to do what I please.  I began going to Hunter College on a scholarship—initially I didn’t want to go to school—but that’s when I really began honing in on my craft and started trying to find common ground among all those artistic outlets.  And people noticed, because I’m very media-saavy.

BB: Can you elaborate?

JJ: Well, I think there are two kinds of artists.  There’s the artist who’s really good, but nobody knows that he’s really good.  And then there’s the artist who’s alright, but he has very good promoting skills and people begin to know of him.  And that just amplifies his artistic ability.  That’s not to say that I think I’m sub-par, but I definitely do think I have the marketing aspect of my art down, which enables me to put myself out to a wide array of people.  And from that; you know, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram—even meeting people in person—it kind of just opens doors for me.  The reason why I got the Shakespeare in the Park gig is because I was acting in high school, and I knew a lady from this acting company I was a part of called the ‘Shakespeare Remix’ and she was like “Yo, they’re auditioning people for ‘Shakespeare’.”  So I went, and I did it, and I happened to get a lead role.  Stuff like that just happens to fall into my lap; I consider myself very blessed in that way.  I’m very lucky, because I don’t plan a lot of this shit out—it just kind of happens.  BUT, I do think preparation is a key.  Because otherwise, when this stuff happens, and you’re not ready for it, there’s no way you can really participate.

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Photo courtesy of New York Times

BB: So, you’re in school right now—you’re at Hunter.  What are you majoring in?

JJ: So, I am in school right now—literally, I’m in school right now [laughs].  But I’m taking the semester off.  I’m nineteen years old, but I’m a junior at Hunter.  So, I think the pressure of everything; being in school, being a black man, being an artist who doesn’t think based on the status quo, it’s super-hard for me to compromise with these sort of institutions.  I was doing it for a while, and it got to a point where I was like “I can’t deal, fuck this shit.”  So I decided I needed to take the semester off.  And now that I’m coming back, I think I’m going to major in physics.  I’m really interested in the area of quantum physics; the theoretical aspect of it.

BB: I know you through Shelly, so he was showing me this video of you guys at Huffington Post a few years back.  Can you talk back to the nature of that gig?

JJ:  Yeah, being in that spotlight is where I think, in a sense, a lot of my fans have come from; and where I was able to get all those opportunities within that year.  I was a senior in high school, I was sixteen, and I wasn’t planning on going to college at that time.  It’s a crazy story.  But a guy from Columbia University—his name is Chris Emdin—he started a program out of his tenure inside of Columbia University called ‘Science Genius’.  And what this program does is it goes into the inner-city schools and it tries to get kids excited about science through hip-hop.  What he’s trying to do is blur the lines between hip-hop and academia to show that they’re not necessarily that different, in that they can coexist within these spaces; and black kids don’t need to necessarily leave their identities out the door when they’re going into these academic spaces.  So, there was a city-wide competition and my school happened to be one participating.  I wrote a rhyme about working kinetic energy—a physics concept I was learning about at the time—and I went to the competition, and I won it.  And I after my win, I was expecting, “well, this is it”.  But literally right after I won, balloons came down and people started grabbing me by the arm and were trying to interview me.  After that I got emails from these crazy, notable organizations like ABC, Huffington Post, MTV, VH1; like, ridiculous institutions that wanted me to perform.  And they would actually go to Chris himself and ask—because he is an amazing dude—and he would just have me come along, and get this exposure.  So I would meet these people—and Chris brought me along to that Huffington Post thing, and I asked if I could bring my homies Sheldon and Jonathan—and yeah, we killed it.  That’s how that kind of came about.

BB: You mentioned how it’s important to network as an artist and retain a devoted fan base, and you seem to be doing that by actually including a lot of your artist friends in your projects and gigs.  Can you speak a bit more into the imperativeness of loyalty within the art game?

JJ: Being an artist is not a one-man sport.  It’s definitely a group activity.  I feel like when it comes to me and my artistic friends, we know a lot of the same people.  When you see an artist, they stand out, and you probably want to meet them.  And when you have that same dream; that same drive, there’s no way that more people with that ideology can slow you down or stunt your artistic growth.  So it’s better to have more people around you who inspire you; who are like minded.  Because then you never have to question yourself as an artist about what it is that you’re doing, or feeling.  And also, so you guys can promote each other.  That’s a big thing.  You’ll see artists today who are super caught on being by themselves, but at the end of the day, that only hurts them.  Art, itself, is supposed to be done with multiple people.  You only know if you’re getting better if others are confirming your art.  It’s good to have that positive energy around.  So, I think it’s definitely an asset to have that wide network of friends and artists who support you and your dreams.  Because nobody else is going to do it.

BB: Obviously you’re multifaceted.  Do you have a main objective right now?  That is to ask, are you focusing on one form of art more than the others at this moment?  Or are you seeing—as you mentioned before—what “falls into” your lap?

JJ: Life is so fucking crazy right now. I’m 19.  And I only keep saying that because for a nineteen-year-old, I’m doing a lot of things that people in my age bracket aren’t doing.  And I say that to point out that I’m not perfect at all; I’m not necessarily coordinating anything.  This is going to sound cliché, but it depends on how I’m feeling at the time.  Like today, I told myself that I was going to finish writing this ten page paper, but I ended up hanging out with my artist friends.  And, I just played.  But see, I play the guitar every day, so that’s just not an option anymore for me.  When you start doing that, it becomes repetitious.  As far as art, I think about it every day.  On a certain day, if I’m feeling really introspective, then I’m going to write a song; that’s the day I’ll write a rhyme, or a melody.  But if the vibe is off, I’ll try to express that on my guitar; and I like to play The Blues the most—it’s the most expressive.  But what I am working on is—I’m actually producing one of my first shows next month, which is going to happen on May 11th at a dope studio in Brooklyn called ‘The Brewery’.  So, that’s where my head is at right now.  I’ve been working all this past semester—since I’m off from school—with my producers in Brooklyn, and we’ve been making a lot of music that will be released as a part of a project this summer.  So, to get some feedback on the music, we’re going to produce this show.  It’s going to be a live show; I’m going to be singing, playing guitar, rapping, and I’m going to have some of my artist friends singing backup, playing instruments and stuff like that.  So, a lot of my actions are around that timeline, but honestly, some days, I don’t feel like doing anything.

BB: I get it.  Once you create a schedule for yourself, and mandate that the creativity just happen, it’s not as organic; the flow doesn’t happen.  You have to kind of be inspired in the moment, and work with that.

JJ: Definitely.  And honestly, that’s where the BEST shit comes from.  When you’re not expecting it.  Like, “If I don’t write something in the next five minutes, I’m going to die.”  Those are the moments I live for.



You can read more about Jalib’s sucess at the below links:!blank-18/fg0p2


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Bianka Bell