John River brings #BlackOnCampus tour to Waterloo

Despite dropping out of school himself, River listened, understood and gave advice on issues of being black in a predominantly white culture.

johnriver-Joshua Awolade online
Graphic by Joshua Awolade

In the midst of a Canadian university tour, John River, a rapper from Mississauga, Ont., hosted a #BlackOnCampus discussion on March 8. Despite dropping out of school himself, River listened, understood and gave advice on issues of being black in a predominantly white culture.

How do you achieve the balance of putting out your story as well as speaking out for the population of Canada or Mississauga?

That’s exactly something we work on. I always feel like you tell a story, then you explain how you feel about what happened. Then the third step is to think of how you can reflect that microcosm into the whole world.

Do you think the rappers should be role models? And does that impact your creative process?

If you make yourself a role model and you only speak from yourself, it just comes out naturally. In terms of rappers being role models, me personally, I think I should be. I’ve learned over time that I can’t tell people what they should and shouldn’t do, to each his own. Nicki Minaj for instance, if she shakes her ass and makes $10 million and then donates $1 million to an all-girls school, she might be doing more than me … [I] didn’t technically sell out, but she technically did more than me as I could only give like $50,000 for example. It’s all so relative.

Would you consider yourself a product of the rise of conscious rap?

No, not necessarily. Lupe Fiasco is one of my biggest musical influences, so is Shad. Honestly, I was more a product of a conscious family. CBC Radio 1 was always on at my house, six o’clock news you hear this is going on in Syria and such. It keeps you in touch about life in general. I did Martin Luther King speeches in grade five, Nelson Mandela in grade four, I went to regionals and provincials in French and English. I was always aware of what happened and then rap was just a result of my general thought process.

Do you think lyricism still has power in rap? I noticed your production style places emphasis on your voice.

Yeah, I personally think that there’s a lot of importance in what I’m saying. I want to support that in my sound. About lyricism, yes … if you’re good enough. But you have to be amazing now. Because of Drake’s success, people got really acclimatized to hearing super “slow and understandable the first time” rap. Which makes Kendrick Lamar to the non-listening rap fan almost unreachable. Drake and J. Cole make music that’s a lot easier to digest, but if you’re good enough, lyrics can still be everything.

At the performance:

I arrived at River’s show at Maxwell’s around 11 p.m. to see the rapper storming the stage with a bunch of his friends. That echoed a defining feature of his whole set: his unwavering energy despite occasional disconnect from the fans.

Trying to start anti-Western and Guelph chants, sharing personal stories, playing a “guess the song” game and interacting with those in the crowd between every song, River was constantly trying to place himself on the side of the fans. Stripping himself of the glorified position that rappers often assume, it was as if River was saying, “I’m one of you.”

High points of the concert included his performance of “Hope City II,” an acapella rap and the final track “Get Down” in which he brought out a costumed panda and threw balloons into the crowd.

Yet, the knock on the concert was the breaks between every track. His music is relatable, passionate and honest, yet the lengthy pause between songs interrupted the flow and made the music seem an accessory to his speeches and stories.

Talking to him as well as listening to his mixtape The Storm, it’s not hard to tell that River is an ambitious talent who isn’t scared to weave personal stories and social issues into his bars. Music has the power to be more immersive than any speech.

River is a mature rapper and I’m confident as he continues to grow as a performer, his rapping will do more of the talking.

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