Jon Swaii refuses to be placed in a single box, striving to step outside his comfort zone and craft music that makes the listener feel something. Swaii's ability to deliver introspective, hard-hitting bars over melodic beats gives him a unique sound that will make him a force to be reckoned with.
Even before learning about his great-grandfather Leonard P. Howell, the founder of Rastafarianism, Swaii has had a vision for the impact he wants to make on the world, using his family history as further fuel for his goals.
I hopped on a Zoom call with Jon to discuss his creative process, life in New York City, "The Neighborhood," and much more.
Jack Martin: I always like to start off interviews with this question: who is Jon Swaii?
Jon Swaii: It’s my artist name. So that personifies basically an idea, and behind that idea I’m trying to mold a regular guy, like a regular artist, like every day type of normal person trying to do shit as great as I possibly can. My whole thing is independence and being consistent with your music and pushing being yourself and being your music.
How would you describe your sound?
I would definitely describe my sound as a very conscious hip-hop sound that doesn’t really blank into any one form.
Has it always been your goal to always have that conscious sound and not necessarily fit into any one category?
Music for me started out as a therapeutic type of thing. I’ve always made music with the intention of wanting the artist to feel something. Not just some shit that you play in the background but something that you really focus on, whether that’s to get you hype, whether that’s to get you thinking or reflecting. Whatever emotion I’m putting out, I want the person to feel something when they hear my music.
I like the songs where you’re not even saying a lot but you’re still making the listener really feel something. Even those ignorant tracks where you’re all over the place but at the same time you’re still saying some shit. Like, I don’t want to fit into any one specific box but conscious in the sense that it’s really going to hit you and you’re really going to feel what I’m saying.
Do you think it helps you when you’re making music that you’re not trying to fit into any one box? Is it freeing as an artist?
Completely, bro. It literally is the best feeling to create and just know that whatever I create, the fanbase that I’m amassing for myself, they’re gonna fuck with it. They’re not expecting or they don’t want this specific sound, like this is the sound that makes me. It’s a really freeing feeling because recently I just dropped a track called “When I’m Down”. I never made no shit like that before, it was literally just hook, verse, hook, done. I didn’t go in there thinking I had to do a certain thing and it felt good to see a good reaction from that song, so it’s a very freeing feeling and it makes creating enjoyable each time.
What’s your writing process like? Do some take you longer or do you go off the dome and put it on paper?
That’s exactly it. Like some songs, like “When I’m Down”, I was just like, yo, I don’t even know what I wanna say but I wanna say something. I didn’t even write nothing down, I didn’t want the lyrics to be too deep, I just wanted it to be like, feel my energy and hear what I’m saying. And then I got a song called “Contagious” where, bro, when I tell you I laid down that fucking verse, eight hours it took me to lay the verse down exactly how I wanted it. I was on acid so I was overdoing it a bit, I think, but at the same time I needed it to be specific, exactly how I need it to be. I wrote down the verse, I even wrote the hook down on that one.
Would you say that you’re a perfectionist when it comes to your writing and crafting and everything?
Most times, yes, I am like that and that’s due to the fact that I produce, mix, engineer, all that shit I do on my own, so I don’t get the outside view until the product is done and at that point do I really hear somebody saying, “You should do this.” But say I’m with someone, they’ll basically help mold me and see what I want it to be exactly like.
How do you go about collaboration?
I should go the other route where I’m going into a more collaborative process because there’s a lot of growth in that, but I find myself more times going straight by myself on most of my songs ‘cause it’s easier. Waiting on someone for something when it comes to music is like, people don’t prioritize your music as much as you prioritize your own music, so when I have to rely on someone for anything when it comes to the music shit, it kinda just slows it down. I like pumping out material consistently.
How long does it usually take for you from ideation to release for a song?
I think it depends. Most of the time, an idea to a full production, it takes months. I haven’t really put out anything where it was like same day type thing just because I usually put visuals behind my stuff. I like full productions. Whoever is gonna be consuming the art, I want them to see something with it, hearing a perfected mix. So like, say I make a song, maybe two, three months before it comes out. Other times I’ll make a song and then a week or two weeks.
How do you craft the visual you want? Do the ideas come when you’re listening to the song? What’s that process like for you?
I try to match the energy of the song with the visual. The videographer that I’m blessed to work with, his name is John, he goes crazy, man, he’s able to capture exact emotions in the visual with the song and make them reflect perfectly, especially with this past “Neighborhood” season, he’s done that shit perfectly. Most of the time the videographers that I’ve been blessed to work with, they take over and really capture what I want because I explain it to them ‘cause I kinda have an idea, but I’m hands-off when it comes to visuals.
Where did the idea for “The Neighborhood” come from?
It’s dope, I was working with this other videographer, his name’s Arkani, he kinda helped me mold the idea because my idea was, I wanted to take my MPC and straight up go to New York City, random spots and just play beats and rap for people live. Pretty much how it looks, except he kind of tweaked the idea and he was like, “Why don’t you do pre-recorded joints and make that shit the whole theatrical version?” So it was kind of a blend of me and his ideas put together and it came to this. I think this is the best thing I have going, it’s all segments of the ideas.
What’s it like shooting around New York City? Do people stop and watch? What’s the reception like while you’re filming?
(laughs) People don’t give a fuck, man. Most times they kinda just walk through, some people, like tourists not full-on New York people in their shit, they’ll come up and take videos and be interactive, but New Yorker, New Yorkers, they don’t really pay attention to that shit.
How’s it been in the city with quarantine, the protests, and the state that the country is in, what’s that disconnect been like?
It’s going back to normal faster than I expected. I actually moved from The Bronx to Richmond, Virginia, right when the pandemic hit so I’m not there as often as I used to be. Once I heard Trump say that everything is gonna be okay, I started to realize that it might get real bad out here, so I ended up moving and got the fuck outta there. But when I do go there and shoot the series, I’m basically there a lot. It’s very disconnected even more than it was. The train is empty, people don’t wanna be near each other. People in New York are on top of the virus, they don’t want to keep it going.
What’s it like living in New York City? How does that influence you and shape your creativity and music?
It’s amazing. I grew up in the hood, I grew up in The Bronx. Being there, I got to see a lot, I was exposed to a lot of shit that in reality helped shape my music because that kinda opened my eyes to what the poorer side of humanity deals with. But at the same time, you can go 20 minutes to Manhattan and see the richest fucking people in the world, it’s so interesting to have poverty and extreme riches in such a close vicinity, it’s almost poetic when you really start looking at the shit. It’s a very, very inspiring city if you’re open to being inspired by it. It’s very easy to disconnect and shut out because it’s so fast paced, but once you start to analyze and people watch, and go around to places, like the music, the food, the fuckin’ world is there, it’s amazing. Very inspirational.
Where do you think you’ll end up eventually?
For real, man, I wanna go to Cali. It’s a balance of both, you get the slow pace and you can go towards the fast paced. Right now I’m in Richmond, Virginia, that’s where me and my girl are, planning to buy a house out here, this is gonna be one of the spots where I set up a homebase. Virginia is a very slow-paced environment but it’s very cool, very honest.
What’s that adjustment been like going from The Bronx and this fast-paced city and going to Virginia?
It’s so weird, man. When I was living there, right, down the block, this dude got stabbed to death in the deli because he tried to steal a beer. And then a couple blocks from that, a dude got a buck 50 cut in the face over nothing. So it’s like, one moment you’re dealing with that like, damn, this city is fucked up, I hope I can avoid shit like this. The next moment I’m in Richmond and I’m in a very nice, safe, good area and paying less in rent (laughs). It’s funny, man, it’s different. I love it out here.
How have you used your new environment to curate creativity? How has it lent to your creative process?
Crazy enough, actually, I’ve been happier than I’ve ever been, but less creative than I’ve been in a while, just based off the fact that I don’t have consistent inspiration around me, so it’s like I gained comfort but I lost creativity. I can’t say that Richmond has been a conducive environment for creativity at all, just ‘cause there’s not really much going on but during the protests and the stuff that happened with that, that was very inspiring. But other than that, it’s just not much going on.
Do you think you’ll get to a point where you have a better feel for the people, area, and culture?
Hell yeah, man. Richmond is a very diverse and moving city, it’s moving up. But the pandemic has killed all of it, like, this is the type of city that’s not going to thrive like New York after a pandemic. Out here, it’s not doing as well, maybe because the culture’s different and it’s not as big. The limited hubs for creativity, those are still shut down. Once the pandemic is over, I’m highly looking forward to getting ingrained in myself out here. I bounce back all the time, I’m actually going to New York tomorrow, so I’m always in New York but I definitely want to make a little hub out here, too.
I saw you have an upcoming collaboration with IZE THE WZRD (out now) and you said it brought you out of your comfort zone. Why did it bring you out of your comfort zone and what can you tell us about the track?
It’s an exciting ass track, that dude is so talented. Basically, it’s like an alternative hip-hop song. Think Gorillaz. It’s a very similar vibe and it’s done in a way where it’s nowhere near cliche, it doesn’t sound like he’s biting off of it. You can tell he’s inspired from it from the production, from even the lyrics, from the way he mixed. It’s so good, man. It brought me out of my comfort zone because I’ve never gotten on a beat like an alternative hip-hop beat, it’s different.
Is working on stuff that takes you out of your comfort zone something you want to do more going forward?
Yes, man. Collaborations aren’t easy but when they work, they level both artists out. When I got to hear the beat I was like, this is fucking different, I wanna work on more shit like this and now I have an artist that can help bring me out of whatever comfort zone I may be in at the time. So it’s like, there’s collaborative projects when they’re amazing and there’s some where it’s like, fuck, this is terrible.
In doing that stuff, do you learn more about yourself as an artist and the things you find yourself being capable of that you might not have thought you were before?
Yeah, that’s the thing about close collaborations, it’s like, they bring you to a place where you didn’t even know you could go. You have to get better, you have to see yourself in the situation. I think I put so much time into this music that I’m suited in any situation, it’s just exposing myself to the situation.
Who is your dream collab? Who are a few artists that’d you’d love to work with?
Bro, I’d love to work with Andre 3000. I’d love to work with Frank Ocean. Those are two artists that if I could get it right now, like a dream collab, those two I would definitely work with, they’re amazing. I love artists that push the envelope, that do weird shit that may no be accepted then, but ten years later everyone is doing it.
How did growing up and connecting with your influences inspire you to become an artist? Did listening to their music push you to do the same?
It definitely did. I would say they all helped me at different stages in my life. When I was really young, I used to move around a lot, every two years it’d be a different state and then it’d be back to The Bronx. Eminem was a person that I felt like was really talking to me because he used to talk about how he got bullied, I used to be bullied a lot, new kid that didn’t talk, I was in my head a lot so I used to get bullied. I would listen to Eminem and it would feel like he was talking to me. Kid Cudi was during high school ‘cause he was really the weed smoking guy, he was pushing me through depression. Artists like J. Cole, Andre 3000, and Kendrick Lamar came later in my life and they were goals, like, these are the motherfuckers I wanna align myself with, these are the dudes I wanna be like, these are the dudes I wanna work with. I see myself in them. They don’t have a box, they don’t have a box to them. I hate the label of, oh, he’s a conscious rapper, because it’s like, you want me to just rap conscious shit? Conscious music is awesome, don’t get me wrong, I love it, but nobody just wants to hear conscious boom-bop hip-hop 24/7, I wanna hear some ignorant shit. I wanna hear ignorant shit with a message, I wanna hear R&B with a message. That’s how I became the artist I am.
How did moving around and being the new kid and living in so many places, being immersed in different cultures, how did that shape you artistically?
It shaped me in a way where it was damaging but at the same time, it was the staple of who the fuck I am now. I’m a very solo, I don’t really collab-type artist. I’m really to myself and that comes from being forced to be by yourself. I tried making friends my first few times moving but then it was like, damn, I’m cool with them and now I gotta leave. It became where I was like, fuck it, I became the kid that just reads and does his own thing until I’m outta here. People didn’t like that, people felt like I thought I was better, so I got bullied. I think that molded me to a point now where I don’t give a fuck about friendship, I don’t care about any of that shit, I just want to create to the best of my ability, and anyone that can relate to my music, I want them to be a part of my journey.
I saw on your website that your great-grandfather (Leonard P. Howell) is the founder of the Rastafarian movement. Your message on your website is that you want “to influence the growing minority to grab power”, so what’s that influence been like for you as an artist? How has that legacy impacted you?
It’s crazy, ‘cause I didn’t know much about him until very recently. I was already moving in my direction without even having any real knowledge of him. I knew who he was, I knew some things he did, but I when I started working with my uncle, who’s also my manager, he started putting me on to who this man was, what he did, what he meant to the Rastafarian movement, what he meant to the civil rights movement. It started to make sense why I move the way I move. I’m not a really religious dude but I very much believe in spirituality and I believe that from looking at him, whatever DNA he had in him, I have it. I believe wholeheartedly in most things he does.
The shit he did was very upsetting to the powers that be in Jamaica, and America, they didn’t really like it.
Was it an “oh shit” moment when you found out about him? Did things start to make sense?
It did, bro. Down to his goals with Pinnacle, I have very similar goals when I get to a certain point of affluence. When I have enough money I’m trying to give back to a point where I can educate people and align our start to the race we’re dealing with. I want shit to be equal. The only thing that’s separating me and a white dude is education and knowledge, that shit is kept away from a lot of minorities. That’s something that needs to be given back.
Have you tried to learn more about your great-grandfather so you can get more of an understanding?
Yes, bro, it makes me feel not stupid for doing what I’m doing. You know when you think like, no way I can do this, but you’re already on the path to doing it? You always got that doubt, but when I meditate and think about this dude and the shit he had to go through to get to where he is and the fact that I’m here because of his DNA, it makes me realize it’s possible. I’m not just doing some shit, stowing my life away for a dream that’s never going to happen.
Does it solidify for you that you’re doing the right thing?
When I really started doing my research I was like, yo, I’m on an ordained path (laughs). This shit was written. This shit ain’t no fucking joke, like, I’m not gonna say I’m special or no bullshit like that but I just started thinking, this is my great-great-grandfather, it means something, if he’s something that my entire point of being is to create and to create to heighten people.