Photo Credit: Tony Ketcham
Photo Credit: Tony Ketcham

Mohawk Johnson on Hip-Hop, Activism, and Skating

The Chicago rapper and activist sits down with the Weekly

Mohawk Johnson defies a label. He’s a musician, rapper, stand-up comedian, activist, and skater, but none of these boxes really capture the totality of the introspective twenty-five-year-old Chicago native. Johnson grew up in Auburn Gresham and went to TEAM Englewood Community Academy High School on 61st and Stewart. While there, he attended classes at the UofC, and he later majored in creative writing and minored in acting at Columbia College.

His music—a collection of singles and EPs released on Bandcamp and other online platforms—similarly strains against being put in any single genre. It’s hip-hop, of course—but on any given track, Johnson is just as likely to deliver spoken word as to rap, and his beats are as eclectic as the posse of producers he works with. The few dozen tracks that comprise his two-year-old discography show influences of house music and juke, drum & bass, industrial, trap, and heavy metal. His lyrics address themes ranging from colorism, racism, and toxic masculinity to dating and self-esteem.

Johnson started listening to music early, but “bloomed late in regards to hip-hop culture,” listening to it on the sly. “My mom was kind of strict about the type of music I was allowed to listen to,” he explained. “She relegated my access to stuff. I’m not mad at her about it.” He counts Masego, Kaytranada, Rakim, early Yasiin Bey (“when he was calling himself Mos Def”), Kanye (“back when Kanye was Black”), old Jay-Z, and Megadeth among his favorites.

He dropped his first single in January 2018, hoping to win back a musician ex-girlfriend after a break-up, “which didn’t work,” he said. “That’s not how that works. But I just fell in love with the craft and I started making music.” He has released around thirty tracks since.

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Johnson sprang to local notoriety when, at a protest in the Loop on August 15, he was arrested for allegedly defending protesters from police by swinging a skateboard. The Chicago Community Bond Fund paid his bail, but he spent nearly a week in jail while electronic home monitoring was set up. Upon being released, he addressed the situation with characteristic humor, tweeting: “I have two neck tattoos and I have now been to jail. Will y’all please go listen to my music now?”

The week before the protest, Johnson released “Blacked Out, Pissed Off” with artist TYGKO. “Blacked out pissed off/Whip out a can of whip ass a rip the lid off” Johnson raps, addressing a city still grappling with the legacy of Jon Burge and awash in cell-phone videos of police brutality. “Man y’all don’t really get it/I said I ain’t give a fuck I really meant it.”

The lyrics are starkly topical amid a summer of rebellions against state violence. Johnson said he thinks the song will remain relevant until the system is changed. “I think it was relevant during the Civil Rights Movement; I think it was relevant during the Black Panther Party’s movement; I think it was relevant during the Black Arts Movement,” he said. “The general message of being angry with white supremacist violence in any context is ever relevant.”

It isn’t his first issues-oriented song: with 2018’s “DGS” (or “dat gay shit”), Johnson performs a soliloquy repudiating homophobia and toxic masculinity over a Naughta-produced beat that is equal parts juke, wonky, and dancehall. “I wanna live in a world where men are free of that, where we can hug and cry and scream into the void with our voices instead of our fists, and where our brother can say ‘I love you’ and it isn’t gay, and if it is it doesn’t matter because gayness isn’t scary,” he says over the tightly frenetic beat. “…I want me and my n——s to be free.”

In early October, he plans to release the album Fire-Type, which he describes as “Pokémon trap music.” In a recent phone call, the Weekly spoke to Johnson about his music, comedy, skating, and activism. An edited transcript follows.

What role should artists have in social movements and revolutions?

I not only think artists are part of them, I think they’re integral, especially if we’re talking about mass consumption and understanding of any social movement. You might look at people protesting and think, “I don’t agree with that, because television told me that these people are criminals,” but then you might listen to some music that explains what we’re saying—because you couldn’t hear it at the protest because you weren’t in the space to listen—or you might look at a piece of art that gets to the gist of what we’re talking about. I think art is absolutely integral to bringing people together.

And I also think it’s cathartic for people like me who are furious at what’s going on, and carrying this with us everyday and not able to put it into something. I think what people aren’t seeing in regards to these movements is that no matter how you feel about property destruction, rioting, kneeling, no matter how you feel about any of it, most people hate all of it. If people didn’t like Kaepernick taking a knee, then of course, they’re not gonna like what happened at Nordstrom’s. So no one’s happy about anything [we do] because nobody wants us to do anything. But I think what people need to understand is that regardless of how you feel about the methodology, these people are in pain. Art creates an avenue for that pain, and a line of communication for that pain that people might not get if they just look at activism as contextualized by the news.

Do you consider yourself an artist or an activist?

I don’t think I have to be an artist or an activist; I think I’m both. I think if you make art about activism, you’re an activist. I think all of these things are inextricably linked for people like me who create art and also go to protests and participate in multiple forms of action.

In my art and my activism, I think it’s important that people recognize that part of the reason I do what I do is because of how wrong I have been, socially and politically. I’ve done a lot wrong, I’ve thought a lot of wrong, and I’ve definitely Facebook-posted a lot of wrong, like sexist stuff or stuff like that. I think it’s important that people know that so they understand that growth is non-linear, that I am not perfect—there probably ain’t no perfect activists—but that the work is constantly being done and as long as you’re constantly doing the work, you’re doing the right thing, and to be open to that growth. It’s important that people who want to get into me understand that I’m not coming from a place of deep understanding. I don’t know what I’m doing at all, but the little bit of understanding that I do have comes from a myriad of trial-and-error experiences.

Skaters have shown up often at protests lately. Why do you think that’s happening?

Skating has always been countercultural. Skating has always been very alt, and even at its most commercial, everyone wasn’t doing it. I believe as spaces got more diverse, as skate parks got more diverse, and skaters became more diverse, when you bring in different groups of people, their social issues come with them. And then conversations happen.

In regards to class, we all have more in common with each other than we do with millionaires, and skating can be a rich-kid game, but it doesn’t have to be, and for a lot of people it isn’t. And a lot of skaters listen to rap. If you’re not doing the cognitively dissonant thing of listening to and consuming Black art while refusing to understand it, or not agreeing with that violence when it gets pointed at you, then there’s room for real conversation there. You can’t spend every day listening to rap music and not learn something. You cannot listen to Public Enemy while skating and being told “you can’t skate here” by the man Public Enemy is yelling at, and not make connections there.

Skaters and Black people, in regards to culture and being told what to do, are sort of mad at the same people. You’re being told “no, you can’t skate here, you can’t do this, you can’t do that,” always by cops and security, and that’s who rappers are mad at. I would hope that clicks for you, and I would hope you’ll be able to find commonality there. Because we’re having the same conversation; our conversation is just a bit more dire, depending on the color of the skater.

In “DGS,” you critique toxic masculinity, and in “Mumblehawk” you push back on old-school heads looking down on contemporary hip-hop. What role does your art play in criticizing culture?

“DGS” absolutely is about hypermasculinity, toxic masculinity, and homophobia. All of those things are informed at the root by patriarchy, specifically a white-supremacist patriarchal framework. I think the culture needs to have conversations about music and homophobia and music and toxic masculinity. It has informed a culture of violence against women and violence against the LGBTQ community. And I will not abide that in the culture that I build and participate in. I refuse to abide that.

“Mumblehawk” is just me bragging on old people ‘cause they hate new-school hip-hop. It’s wild. They’re making fun of us for drugs and I’m like, shut up, you sold our parents crack. There’s a rose-tinted-glasses thing going on when we think about old-school hip-hop. And [older heads] should do a little more work to find people who are working out here and doing good stuff.

And, also, understand that in regards to the machine, to capitalism, a lot of elders sold out hip-hop to white interests, and white interests reproduced gangsta rap, and that led to trap music and the music got worse and the songs got shorter and the lyricism became less important. Then, streaming became a thing and people needed to drop forty songs every month to stay relevant. And it’s hard to compete and gain attention when you’re making less than a cent per stream, which did irreparable damage to the music industry. So there are just myriad cultural things that have nothing to do with making music that went wrong [with hip-hop] before we were born, and I need my parents’ generation to take responsibility for that.

I think with both of those songs it was imperative that I criticized culture, because I am making it, and if I cannot be critical of the culture I make, and if I cannot think critically about the culture that I participate in and the culture that I consume, I run the risk of making myself sick and the people around me sick. It’s like if you don’t think about what you eat and the people around you eat, somebody could get sick.

You work with a lot of producers, and your music production is richly diverse. How did you wind up working with all these different people?

My first producer wasn’t a hip-hop producer; he was an EDM [electronic dance music] producer. He’s one of my best friends. I love him very dearly. He listens to all types of music, but he made this industrial hip-hop track for me for my first song, and then he introduced me to a community of EDM artists and hip-hop artists. From there, I met a lot of producers who I’ve gotten the opportunity to collaborate with, which I appreciate immensely.

I appreciate simplicity, but I don’t want the entirety of my music to be a drum loop and a saxophone. I don’t want to drop an album where the tracks all sound the same. They could be similar for the sake of narrative consistency and aesthetic consistency. I do believe consistency is important in regards to dropping a single project, and if you’re building a fan base, it helps fans immensely if they come to your music and know what they’re going to get from you. But I do want people to be able to get multiple things from me.

Some of your songs, such as “Peen,” are really funny. What role does comedy play in your art?

One, with regard to my music, it shows that I’m a diverse artist. It shows that I’m not just mad, or sad—because I have a lot of sad songs too—and it shows that I have depth and breadth and can accomplish myriad things. As most people can, because most people, if not all, are multi-dimensional. And I can’t be angry all the time; that’s not good for me, so I have to laugh at myself.

The muscles are actually the same in regards to stand-up comedy versus rap, because no matter what I’m doing, I’m writing. A lot of my comedy is political. The expression is different, and the nerves I’m trying to strike when I write for comedy versus when I write for music are vastly different. Both [comedy and music] are selfish in a way, because when I make music I don’t care what people think. I don’t care if you like it if you’re a white suburban kid who’s about to inherit their dad’s company and doesn’t care about queer Black youth; I’m not making music for you. My comedy is much the same way. I make the type of music that I want to hear in the world, and I do jokes that I would laugh at. If people agree with me, great. The people who don’t agree with me can go to a different show.

You have previously talked about the problematic aspect of white fans’ consumption of hip-hop. Could you say more about that?

I think what we’re seeing and what I’m speaking about with voyeurism and hip-hop, and the violence that occurs, is just prevalent throughout every artistic movement that has been spearheaded by Black people in this country, in any social movement. White people love watching Black people fight [one another], but they don’t want to be fought themselves. White people love rioting; they love tearing things up when the Cubs win, but if somebody throws a rock at a Target because Black people got murdered, their reaction is different. White people love the Boston Tea Party, but don’t understand a rally.

In regards to hip-hop, white people love hip-hop. They love violent hip-hop; they love DMX; they love NWA; they love all these “violent” artists—and I don’t mean violence in a bad way; if you live the lifestyle, you make art that reflects your life, and that is honest and true, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just amazing that white people love watching Black death and are fascinated with Black death. There’s an utter lack of empathy there. And there’s a conversation about white people always being allowed to enjoy things while not being able to handle participation, because white people live in a world where they have been exempt from the violence they incite on other people.

You can find Mohawk Johnson’s music on Spotify, Soundcloud, and at www.mohawkjohnson.bandcamp.com. Fire-Type will be released on Bandcamp on October 2.

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Jim Daley is the Weekly’s politics editor.

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