Pictured above: Image from album cover for “DGS – Single”/Graphic: Chi Blu
Mohawk Johnson is a rapper who grew up on Chicago’s South side and put out an EP in early September called “The Relapse.”
It’s a five-track journey through heavy topics like depression, suicide, racism and toxic masculinity. Sonically, it borrows from Chicago’s trap music scene, as well as having production and flow that places it firmly outside of easily curated boxes of X-genre rap and hip-hop. The political landscape that shapes the record is palpable to those who understand the turmoil folx in the city of Chicago’s face.
I sat down to talk with Mohawk Johnson about it and his new single, which you can listen to below:
How long have you been making music?
Mohawk Johnson: [Since] February 2018.
What was the impetus to start?
Mohawk Johnson: I’ve dealt with a lot of alcoholism, pill-popping and stuff I shouldn’t have been doing. I was suicidal for a while—I think I’ve tried to commit suicide in the last two years more than 10 times. I really wanted to fuckin die.
How did music present itself as an alternative?
Mohawk Johnson: I just decided to do it one day. A bunch of my friends told me I should have been making music years ago, but I didn’t think I was talented enough. I figured it had always been my dream to make music.
You had nothing to lose?
Mohawk Johnson: Yeah, I had nothing to lose and then I fell in love with it. I fell in love with the conversations I was having about mental health issues. A bunch of people came out to me about their suicidal ideations and drug problems. I was able to help and point them towards counseling and resources and gave them an ear when they wanted to get talked down from things without getting the police involved. The last thing you want to do is call the cops on a brown person in a high-tension situation. Calling people who shoot at you on camera is just putting you in a different kind of danger. That got done to me a couple times, so I know what that feels like.
There’s this subconscious part of me that still believes if I keep making good enough music my ex is gonna hear my music and come back, probably not gonna happen, but it’s in there.
The first track on the EP has a bit of that in it.
Mohawk Johnson: Yeah.
When you were putting together the songs for the ep, what did you hope to express?
Mohawk Johnson: The goal was to make music that told the truth, and I have never had qualms with keeping it 100 about how I was feeling. I haven’t always fully understood my feelings. I feel like just because you feel your feelings doesn’t mean you get them.
I definitely haven’t always gotten what I was feeling — a lot of my anger was just misplaced sadness and disappointment about situations I couldn’t articulate very well. I needed to get it off of me and I never really cared about how messy it ended up looking or what people felt about it. If I decided to say something I’m gonna say something. I tend to dwell on things for a while before I say them.
Have you played much in Chicago?
Mohawk Johnson: Not really. I’ve gotten more slam poetry work than music work. I did Louder Than A Bomb in high school and won the Spirit of the Slam award and the Mic Terrorist award. I stepped away because I actually made a really problematic poem because I didn’t understand how sexism worked. I was 19 at the time and thought reverse sexism was a thing. Someone went off on me and I thought maybe I don’t make poetry for a while until I understand the things I’m talking about. That is where the need to understand feelings before just spewing them came from. I learned that and stepped away. Ever since I came back, I have gotten a lot of work in the poetry sector.
Who do you consider influential artists on what you are doing now?
Mohawk Johnson: Juice World and Childish Gambino minus the misogyny. They are important to me artistically because the spaces they occupy that I don’t see black male rappers being about. I want nothing to do with their problematic nature.
I don’t want to make music where I’m constantly calling women b*tches. I don’t want to make music where I’m saying black women don’t like me because I like anime. Because that is not true, most of the black women who like me, like me because I like anime. I just want to occupy that space differently and way less harmfully.
G Herbo and a lot of other trap artists are super influential to me because they are solid examples of what I don’t want to do. My friends say to me about G Herbo “yo he real to me,” and I tell them, “He is real to you because you are a rampant alcoholic who desperately needs help. As valid as that is, I am so excited for the day you listen to G Herbo talking about shooting people and being drunk and that doesn’t relate to you anymore.”
My friends and I have been surrounded by so much of that. Half of my squad is dead because of gun violence from the community and police. And It hurts. That is why they listen to the music they listen to, but I don’t think it goes far enough. I think we all stop at “I’m addicted to drugs because I’m sad.” Everybody is making music about hurting, but nobody is making it about what the fuck we need to do after we’re done.
What we need to do in order to carry on with our lives instead of just engaging in escapism and really bad coping mechanisms. The Chicago trap scene is real influential because it is letting me know where there is a need so I can try and fill it.
Essentially “where the message ends—”
Johnson: Is where I begin. I think when we teach the civil rights movement we always talk about how black people are treated verbally and unfairness. We don’t talk about the literal oppressive systems.
Mohawk Johnson: Yeah redlining, gentrification, poverty and things like that. We only talk about a small sliver of the extreme violence. I worked at TEAM Englewood High School and I got to see some of the black history curricula. I think we grow up missing pieces.
A lot of people grow up with the idea that racism is about being mean. People don’t have to be mean to you to kill you. People are grossly misinformed and that is exploited by the system. That is why having these conversations in music is so hard.
We always talk about the civil rights movement as if black people won. White people love bringing up the civil rights movement, but you killed our leaders and cut the civil rights bill to pieces before passing it.
Being able to vote is a step, assuming you can get representative candidates that have your best interest in mind, which just hasn’t happened. Gerrymandering happens and other forms of voter suppression happen and all people want to talk about is getting out the vote.
How do you think we can create a better-informed public?
Mohawk Johnson: I think music and art can be a huge part of that. After we’re done making the music and art we can’t just—It depends on the individual, not everyone can be a part of direct action. I took a break from direct action to make art. Which is my own form of action. I worked at schools as another form of action. Not every artist can make three EPs about fighting racism and then go and punch a cop. People are tired and not everyone is able-bodied. I am blessed and privileged to be in a relatively well-functioning body. For people who don’t have that or access to the information, getting involved can be very dangerous. I think it is a necessary step and everyone has to find their own way to do that.
What would be immensely helpful is for people to come to an understanding that revolutions are valid in whatever form they take. I personally need to understand that people who want to talk and have teaching moments with people are just as valid as people who like me who want to fight physically for things. Because I need someone who is able to advocate for me using language when I am in holding for defending myself or someone else. And the opposite is true when someone is being attacked physically at a protest.
We desperately need each other. If we can drop the social hierarchies of social justice while completely abandoning the respectability politics, I think that is what is gonna do it. I think art is a part of inspiring both.
You also have a visible nerdy side to your rapping. What anime are you watching right now?
Mohawk Johnson: I fuck with “Boku No Hero Academia” so hard right now. No spoilers but Bakugo and Midoria just got into a fight and it was like Naruto versus Sasuske but you know no one is going to die.
(20 minutes of talking about anime later…)
Mohawk Johnson: I just realized something odd about Attack on Titan. It’s a mech anime pretending it’s a horror anime.
(10 more minutes of talking about anime and the Venture Brothers…)
What would you change about your EP if you could?
Mohawk Johnson: I would have written better lyrics. I know I can write better than that. I know I can write better than every song I have written including the one coming out Monday (today). I have not been pushing myself enough lyrically. People are moved by it and I dig it, but it could be better. Someone hit me up on Instagram and said, “Yo, your EP made me cry.” And I was like, “Cool, did you get help afterward?” Fuck hyper-masculinity—I am glad he was open enough to admit that. But I feel like I could do more. I also don’t like the way my voice sounds because a friend of mine said something to me about hating the way my voice sounds and I think that got to me.
Chicago is a better place because of people like Mohawk Johnson and I can’t wait to hear more from him.
Take a listen his new single “Dyro the Sprago,” where he goes after the police and the people who sympathize with them.
Mohawk Johnson released a new EP “The Relapse” earlier this September. You can learn more about him and listen to his music at mohawkjohnson.bandcamp.com. You can also listen to “The Relapse” on Soundcloud, Spotify and KKBox.
MC Foucault (they/them/theirs) is a rapper, producer, musician, writer and activist located in the Woodlawn neighborhood of Chicago. They prioritize marginalized voices.