Singer, poet, cancer survivor, and McGill undergraduate Jonathan Emile last appeared in The Daily’s pages in a self-penned exposé about his experience with Kendrick Lamar’s legal team after his song “Heaven Help Dem,” a song about institutionalized racism which features a verse from Lamar, was pulled from the internet. Now the Montreal artist is back, this time discussing his upcoming LP, The Lover/Fighter Document. A labour of love, the project has taken six years of work and preparation leading up to its October 9 release.
The McGill Daily (MD): You’ve recently been throwing a lot of shade at the Montreal rap community in your song “The City That Always Sleeps.”
Jonathan Emile (JE): What Montreal rap community?
JE: It certainly instills resilience, being in a city where nobody cares that you’re making hip-hop. It’s cool. There’s so much diversity in Montreal that hip-hop isn’t the thing, the urban culture that’s the most prevalent, which is understandable.
MD: What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered working in that environment?
JE: Just on a marketing standpoint, Montreal isn’t one city; it’s two cities side by side, two different languages. When you’re making music in Montreal, you’re not really competing with Montreal artists. You’re competing with 500 plus artists that come visit the city every year. It’s a very arts-culture city, and there’s lots of competition.
There [are] some amazing people who do some great hip-hop in Montreal. [But] with the exception of Under Pressure Festival, there’s nothing really going on in terms of building a community, or a network, or having an open dialogue. It’s very much individualistic artistic projects, which is fine, but it’s maybe one of the most difficult cities to emerge in North America, even though it’s a city of four million plus people.
MD: You mentioned languages. Do you also do French work?
JE: Definitely. I intend to put out a French project before 2020, but one thing at a time. My mom’s anglophone and my dad’s francophone. […But] you can’t do everything at once. My first project is going to be in English and Jamaican Patois. That’s diverse enough. And the next one, we’ll see what happens.
MD: How do you feel about Kendrick Lamar having a song like “Alright,” that’s chanted by protesters critiquing institutional racism, but at the same time, working with him and collaborating with him is almost blocked because of the corporate mechanism. Do you think that detracts from what he’s trying to do at all?
JE: I think yes. It certainly opened my eyes to the way mechanisms really worked in the industry. It makes sense. This is what I signed up for in a capitalist industry. I sort of expected it, but at the same time, it makes it hard for me to see [Lamar] as wholly authentic. He definitely has to do what he has to do to be where he has to be, and I can’t knock that, but if his real priority is to make statements and make change, there’s no reason for him to back out of [our song, “Heaven Help Dem”].
Since then, there’s been a lot of back-and-forth between my team and my lawyers asking what we should do about this, but this doesn’t discount his work at all. I think he’s a brilliant artist and he has his own lane and everything, but it definitely makes it harder for me to respect him on that level.
MD: Would you work with him again?
JE: Not unless we have a real conversation. At this point I’ve been in contact with his management, and […] it’s been like pulling teeth. When somebody sees you as a small fry and that’s how they treat you, it’s like okay, I understand, but there’s been no chill on the part of his management, no chill, […] but life goes on and that’s not the focal point of my album. It’s about the content, and unfortunately [Lamar] wasn’t ready to address that content, or he had stuff coming out that was too similar to what I had coming out, so his management said, no, he can’t do this.
MD: Within the dichotomy of the Lover/Fighter LP, are you going to undertake a critique of race relations similar to that of “Heaven Help Dem”?
JE: Definitely. I address it in multiple songs on the album. Race relations is just a part of what we live as Black people. All the artists I’m influenced by address it, among other things. Anyone from Marvin Gaye to Bob Marley. If you’re making an album and you want to talk about the world and you gloss over that, [then] that’s not the type of music I want to make. I want to address things in an uplifting way. A lot of my music is reggae-influenced. A lot of my music is hip-hop-influenced. I try to pull out the parts of it that are the most uplifting, the most inspiring, and dwell on that stuff. You’ll see the dichotomy. The lover/fighter dichotomy is infused in every single song and I try to get it into every single verse and every single lyric. When you listen to it, you’ll be able to live the experience of what it’s like to have these two sides of you constantly at war, pulling against each other, and figure out which one to use when, so you don’t self destruct.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Lover/Fighter Document LP goes on pre-sale September 9 on iTunes. Its release date is October 9.