SAINt JHN is in his own lane and happily traversing outer realms with the finesse of someone who has always occupied the space between. Though some may characterize him simply as a rapper, SAINt JHN has a fondness for melody, a poetic lean, and a keenly studied aesthetic that identifies him as something of an anomaly—a musician who is just as observant of the inputs and process of his art as he is with the finished product itself.
Hailing from Brooklyn, the Guyanese American artist exhibits a quiet charisma that is right at home in his music videos, directed by Bill Fishman (Tapeheads)—from the bleak Werkmeister Harmonies-influenced video for “Roses” to the tongue-in-cheek ratchetness of “1999”, filmed in the empty streets of Coney Island, NY.
Fresh off touring in Los Angeles, we catch up with SAINt JHN to discuss how those videos came about, his upbringing, his favorite films and scores, and the journey of carving out your own fate.
CINEMA THREAD: You used to do music under the moniker of Carlos Saint John (your legal name). It was angrier music but you eventually shifted to music with more emotion and melody. Was there a specific experience that was like the tipping point to that shift?
SAINt JHN: Yeah, I think it was probably the first time in my life that I felt what it was like—I guess, I felt love for the first time. So it was my first time experiencing something with a woman that I was open, that I was emotionally open [with]. Those kinds of emotions are a little bit more colorful, a little more pastel. That’s what the music was starting to feel like, because I was having more—for lack of a better term—more tender experiences. And I relayed those differences and my rap expressed those experiences differently, while the earlier rap music that I was making was aggressive—because coming from this impoverished environment I was trying to make it out of, all I could talk about, all I could see was this tunnel vision. I was trying to stay clear of the ill fate of my friends and my brothers. So it was a little different.
CT: So what was your childhood and upbringing like? We get hints of it in “Dope Dealer” but what are different milestones or things that happened that shaped who you are?
SJ: My childhood was not that different in dimension to other kids growing up in Brooklyn. The one caveat that made it a little different, that gave me a bit of separation, was that I grew up out in Brooklyn and in South America, in Guyana. So what was pivotal for me was experiencing two different types of poverty. I knew what it was like to be poor ‘cause I was growing up on food stamps, and we would sell food stamps to get real currency to go buy other things. It was almost two food stamps dollars to one regular dollar. Understanding that and transitioning back and forth between that type of poverty and the barefoot poverty living in something, almost … not exactly a hut … but that being the reality of the situation of what’s around you. Like you’re barefoot running around, cooking in the bush, and understanding survival skills. It’s two different types of ‘broke’—two different types of struggles—like third world struggle, first world struggle. So that’s what my childhood was like. My dad was a hustler, he traded goods, and my mom, she was in the states, in the US here as a nurses aid, that’s how she first started making her rounds. I was a poor kid growing up in an apartment. The only thing I had, the one thing I had going for me, I had one slight separation, a deviation that my mom managed to provide.
She said we would never live in the projects. So we were always a block away. For some reason that simple distinction for her, gave us the type of latitude, gave us the room to never be so far down the totem pole that we would never see the future in a bright or optimistic way.
And I think that separation was really important. The mentality of growing up in the projects is slightly different than growing up a block away from the projects, you become cocooned in that environment—and I grew up in proximity to it all. So I had to navigate some of those treacherous terrains but I didn’t have to go back to it every night in the very same way. Like I was in apartment 4C, you know?
CT: That’s pretty profound. I grew up in a similar situation where most of my friends grew up in the projects and I lived maybe a neighborhood away. Even though everyone in my neighborhood was still very blue-collar and poor, I definitely still felt that distinction as well.
SJ: Yeah! It gives you, it’s like it gives you a running start in a race. And you know, the gun goes off, and you get half a second or a 75th of a section to run first—not that far, but a head start helps.
CT: Your music videos are really distinct, visually and thematically. What is the process like crafting the aesthetic for your music? Has that always been something you’ve cared about? Or has that formed as part of your development as an artist?
SJ: It’s always been something that’s been part of me. I want to create the things that I want to watch, I want to create the art that I want to listen to I’m literally … I’m almost selfishly making music and making video, I think. I notice, oftentimes, people are so self-indulgent in their taste that they don’t happen to share the perspective of other people. So sometimes you watch a video and you’re like, ‘This is cool. [But] I never need to see this again.’ I don’t ever want to feel that way about my content. I want to make the things that I want to watch over and over. I remember watching Heat when I was a kid—I remember watching Pacino, De Niro go at it, guns in the middle of the street. I revisit that to this day. Like it left a lasting impression, like, I still want to see that. So, to me, the process in making a video was first thinking, ‘What do I want to see again? ‘What captivated me enough that I want to revisit? What haven’t I seen in this genre that I’m participating in?’ And sometimes rap videos are really stereotypical. You almost know already what’s gonna happen in the end. I’m not interested in that.
I want to make art, but never art for art’s sake. I don’t believe in that.
I believe in art in a way that you can consume it. So the aesthetic for me, when I’m watching fashion brands, I’m watching Yves Saint Laurent, I’m watching Marc Jacobs do his campaign, or looking at a Chanel commercial—I’m like, ‘Oo, how the fuck did they do that? I wanna go do that.’ And I borrow from some of those aesthetics sometimes, like when I watch a super indie movie that might’ve had a terrible script but I love the cinematography.
CT: “Roses“ in particular is really dark and was based on Werkmeister Harmonies—how did you stumble upon that film and what was it about that film that connected with you as a person?
I think a friend of mine might’ve introduced me to it, like ‘Yo, you should watch this. This is interesting.’ I don’t even know if my homie had watched it, when he said ‘just watch it.’ So I sat down and watched it, and I happened to be in the studio watching it for the first time. The first time I saw it on mute. I couldn’t tell you exactly what the movie was about, I wasn’t exactly reading the subtitles. Just sorta watching it and being immersed in it, and we’d be making music all at the same time, and I remember it being visually striking. ‘Stunning’ wouldn’t be the word, because it wasn’t colorful or elaborate. It was dry and burdensome. [But] I felt something. And I took notice. I take notice whenever I feel something in any artform. If you can make me angry, make me sad, make me cheerful—any of these emotions that are stirring and striking. Werkmeister Harmonies just happened to have that impact and I was like alright, this: I feel this. How do I score this? ‘Cause I don’t even know what the music sounds like to this. What do I, how do I let this influence and I make something that’s so worthy that people can relate to it. And I finished up “Roses” and it felt like the perfect record to use as a score to this … this almost cannibalistic type of visual, and I say cannibalistic because it felt so raw, it felt so fucking primal and almost so offensive.
CT: How did you get linked up with Bill Fishman and what was that process of collaboration like?
SJ: Bill is super talented. He did this cult movie in the 90s—it’s like a classic, I think it’s called Tapeheads. We had a mutual friend and we were looking to shoot the video for “1999” and we had this idea, this quirky almost ratchet warriors type of video that we wanted to show. And Bill was a great fit. He shot this great movie way back in the day and he was open to doing something in the urban space and rap, and I like the contrast of bringing people who don’t necessarily participate in my world. ‘Cause the perspective is just different. So Bill had a unique perspective, it was him and Maria Juranic, they came in and did “1999”, so we already had the idea turned out. They lent the perspective of how the lenses would come in and how they’d shoot it at these strange angles. It’s almost a perpetual loop of you seeing it circle around, but it’s not a 90 degree angle, it’s not straight. It just felt right, it had the spirit of being 19 or 20 and just being reckless and sportlike with their friends. ‘Cause you could see, we’re hanging out on cars, eating cheetos, fishing in the middle of the street. Doing ratchet shit—it’s elaborate ratchetness. [Laughs] It felt right.
CT: In the “Roses” the video it seems like it’s mostly those around you who are violent and angry. You’re kind of cruising, not really participating. Was that random or intentional?
SJ: Nope, wasn’t random. It made complete sense. Even when I was watching Werkmeister Harmonies, there was a character, the lead character, and he fit my motivations quite easily. [Laughs] It’s a really great representation of what things are like for me. So I might orchestrate the mania but not directly participate in it because it just doesn’t fit the color of my sneakers at the time, I just, I don’t like how it feels on my skin. Even walking through the mayhem, you can tell I orchestrated it in this particular depiction, but I’m not the guy carrying out any of the violence, but I don’t need to—it’s more pleasant to watch it in a really cynical way.
CT: What are some of your favorite music videos?
SJ: Ah man, there are countless videos, but for different reasons. I remember watching Jay Z’s video for “Give It To Me.” I remember it was him and Pharrell and his entire Roc-A-Fella and State Property people running through this mansion, and every room there’s a different girl trying to grasp at his attention. It wasn’t necessarily the most cinematic picture, but it left a lasting impression especially being that I was so influenced by Jay Z. Things like that, or watching videos from The Weeknd, currently, they’re so fucking cinematic. They’re movies! They’re shorts—watching “The Hills”, in that video where he hops out the car and the cars are turned over and these girls, I guess they’re really upset that he crashed their car, they’re hitting him, and he’s walking almost unfazed about what happened. That real, staggering motion and you can see that it’s at the magic hour when the light meets the dark right there. They bridge one another and there’s this texture of grain in the film but it’s high contrast and he’s slow motioning it to this mansion, and the car explodes behind him. It just feels gripping as possible but nothing’s really happening in the video! It’s just [laughs] I don’t know, it’s almost like a selfish piece, but the cinematography’s so beautiful, it just reels you in.
CT: What about favorite movies or composers?
SJ: Definitely Heat. Braveheart for sure. I love the screenplay in Braveheart—actually, it’s probably one of my favorite movies of all time. Watching it I felt so … How often do you watch a movie and you get to feel something that’s either provocative or repulsive, you feel something? Braveheart made me want to be a better person, a better man, like ‘Goddamn! This what love feels like? I gotta love someone like this! This is amazing.’ Think about that. Shit made me wanna be a hero! Where do I sign up? I just saw Moonlight. There were unique subtleties in the movie that hinted at the elements of sexuality early on, I was like ‘Ooo, what are they trying to say here? Is this sexual? These are children. Wow, okay, alright, I’m not gonna say anything. I’m gonna let that happen.’ Then as the plot started to unfold, you got the gist of it much more, and they cut it short before it ever became too graphic and it left a certain haunting impression. So it was definitely a strong moving picture—I thought it was riveting. Whoever scored it, they moved silence really well. It’s interesting how oftentimes in movies they drowned it a lot, and you forget how much music is in movies. There were lots of scenes of just awkward silence, placement to make you feel, you had to think, you had to have your own emotional experience—because they weren’t telling you how to feel. You have to draw from your own past, present, future mind to experience this emotional scene. When I was watching it, I found myself thinking about my past, about the type of poverty I came from. And being so much more grateful for my experiences. I’m thinking, ‘Fuck, I came from the bottom, but this guy, he came from the sub-basement. This is another tier.’ How do you make it out of that? Cause making it out of my circumstances were harsh enough to come to a place where I’m okay. I can see the future. This feels promising, I’m still hustling like it’s 1992 and they sellin’ coke around the corner, but I can imagine my dreams are starting to come to fruition. But him? How does he, how the fuck do you do it? How do you do it and not be angry at the entire world?