Montreal MC/singer/songwriter and creative entrepreneur Jonathan Émile wears many badges of courage and honour, with no less than “cancer survivor” and “Grammy nominee” among them.
Ironically enough, Émile is, to wit, the first rapper of his generation that I can remember hearing about who performs under his birth name. Ever foresightful, the West Island-raised artist would be followed in short order by several American artists in stepping away from the time-tested formula of being a “Big,” a “Lil,” a “Something-One”, and so on. One pretty big deal example is Compton’s Kendrick Lamar.
Well, as it happens, in 2011, Émile recorded a song with Lamar, the zeitgeist of current hip hop and one of the most important voices in the history of the genre, who has raised the ire of his peers by recent comments made with regard to Ferguson and black self-respect.
In the eyes of many, it hasn’t been Lamar’s finest hour, but here’s where it gets interesting for Émile: he’s had his K-dot-featuring single “Heaven Help Dem” in the vault for a minute, and it so happens that the track deals directly with police brutality in ethnic communities and the value of every life. And shortly after dropping last weekend, the track went viral on major music sites, garnering coverage from Billboard, Fader, Pitchfork, Okayplayer, MTV and pretty much every other major music hub in broadcast, print and web media.
And while Cult MTL hasn’t heard from Kendrick since the backlash against his comments, I was pleased to catch up with Jonathan Émile to get the story behind the story.
Darcy MacDonald: So please explain how this collab came to be. How did you reach out to Kendrick and what was the process like?
Jonathan Émile: To tell you the truth, my boy and manager Nicholas Tsoukas cold-called (Kendrick’s) team back in the fall of 2011. Bold, yes, but we believed that’s all it takes to connect with a like minded artist: a hot track, strong lyrics, a phone call and some will.
We were trying to get a collaboration with Lupe Fiasco. At the time, he was the king of conscious hip hop, in our eyes, ushering in a new era of lyricism — he still is. But then we took a step back, examined the horizon and asked ourselves: who is the next Lupe? Me and Niko have always been about examining the curve and looking forward. So we called Kendrick’s team and sent the song. They approved it. So we did it long distance. Miracle of the Internet age.
DM: “Heaven Help Dem” has been doing great on a lot of the key rap sites, but what has listener response been like? What are some comments or feedback that stand out? And how do you feel about the response?
JÉ: I mean, most comments are that the track is emotional, timeless, heartfelt, deep and hopeful. I designed it like that. All of my music has intention and is like that. When producing it I wanted that kick to hit your chest, that snare to cut your ears, those hats and synths make you feel like an industrial machine pressing down on you. I wanted it to feel like a funeral march, a hymn, an ode to the Black-Diaspora and all humanity; mixing jazz, reggae and hip hop. People have been calling me leaving me voice mails from all over the word to say thank you and congratulate me sayin’, “this is what hip-hop needs.” The criticism is that, it sounds like HiiiPower Kendrick. I don’t know how much of a criticism that is. The other thing is that it’s un-usual to hear Kendrick on a track with reggae flavor and that is a big part of me. So I guess I feel good about it all.
DM: I have seen posts where the track has been called “previously unreleased” and stated that it was released suddenly as a response to the state of affairs with police brutality and so on, but with all that in mind, is this the final version or will you be releasing another take?
JÉ: Yeah, I been hearing that, too. The release was not sudden, we planned to release the song for download on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. day and had submitted it to distribution before the Billboard article came out.
We had always planned to put out the video 10 days before the download to generate interest. That was our formula in the past. It worked for us. But then (Kendrick’s) statement came, backlash hit, and we were stunned… I think we all were stunned.
On the 9th we paused for a second out of respect for the backlash that he was receiving. Me and my wife talked it over, just marinated on it, slept on it. We woke up Saturday and decided not to let all the BS affect our schedule and life plans.
Besides, if you read what he’s sayin’, I feel it’s not out of character if you really listen to the complexity of his music. So we dropped the video one day late, on the 10th. The preview has been out for almost two years. This was no secret — samples of it are still online everywhere, including references in my promo. (And) I intend to do another “live” version.
DM: Did you re-record new vocals and lyrics to update the message in short order? Did you rush to the booth? Or were the words always more or less the same?
JÉ: I’m glad you asked. Hell no. I never rush anything out. Ask anyone who knows me, I operate on my own schedule and take my time with my music. I have collaborations with Murs, KRS-1, Buckshot and many other Montreal artists that have yet to come out — they’ve been vaulted for years.
I’ve been working on my album for four years now. I only aim to write songs you can bump to now and in 20 years. “Heaven Help Dem” has always been the first single. Come on — Kendrick is on it!
So when it came time to release it, I had to wait. 2014 was NOT the year to do it, ’cause I didn’t want to release it in the thick of the protests in the U.S. looking like a baiter or opportunist. That would have put friction between TDE & Mindpeacelove, not to mention be morally wrong. No one want’s that. So I delayed another five months to drop it in January.
My verse never changed. It is word-for-word the same verse I originally wrote in 2009 (you can download that original track with my verse without Kendrick on iTunes). The sax was recorded in September before my boy Franco Proietti left for Japan and I went on tour in Germany and the U.K.
But I kept having to add names to the original list of victims, because police kept killing people. The tribute to Fredy Villanueva became more and more sad and took on an even more enormous and painful artistic dimension. Due to the numerous cases of police violence, I added more names to the list and referenced the tragedies throughout the song. That’s it. Then mixed it and then mastered it with my peeps at LANDR.
DM: Have you heard from Kendrick since the joint dropped?
JÉ: Kendrick is a quintessential artist. No one has heard from Kendrick. Kendrick speaks when he wants to. Your guess is as good as mine. He’s probably creating some more timeless music.
DM: What’s next? When will the rest of the project see the light of day?
JÉ: That really depends. I’m at McGill University right now in my last year finishing up. I have plans for tours when school’s out.
DM: Hip hop is acknowledged as a vehicle for social change, but it seems only hip hop heads really understand how and why. How do you think message-driven music manages to inspire in the age of instant-everything?
JÉ: I’ll let this question humble me. I don’t know. I’m around the same age as Kendrick, Cole and Drake. We were in diapers and elementary school during the golden age of hip hop. I can’t see it any other way or in any other medium or circumstance. I had to study hip hop as a history, learn about this culture from my dad, my peers, my older sister. I’ve always had to sift through noise to find the message. I had to listen before inventing. I’d like to think that my music inspires thought…like how it used to be.
Hip hop heads will always cut through the superficial “instant-everything.” They wait, they go to the shows, they live the culture, they listen to the content and the skill. Corporate hip hop is a different genre of music. I’m not well versed in that. For me hip hop has had to be unifying and revolutionary to be authentic, and that’s why I chose to collaborate with Kendrick Lamar. I’d like to think that’s why he did this song about police brutality and urban violence with me in the first place. ■