Having known iJohn (John Van Rooyen) since his early days gritting rhymes between his teeth as a teenager at dingy cyphers in Obs to his evolving career now – marked by loss and love – two things remain clear; John is deeply self-aware and consistent in a way that only an underground MC can be. His music comes from an aching place needing to be heard; not because of money, profit or even really to please, I have always had a deep sense of catharsis from hearing his music. Although, knowing him has made it painful to listen to some of the lyrics over the years because the content is so true to the trials of life, yet so evoking of what we collectively desire most in a poet; vulnerability. John almost dances around the words as he drops bars, with a passion unjaded by the scope of life’s tragedies – somehow transmuting the sorrow into poetic fire, as heard in his latest two releases “Let it Go” and “Holding On”; both pieces penned straight from the heart of healing.
How did you start rapping – I know it was from a super young age, but what made you pursue it as a career?
iJohn: Well, I think people are naturally drawn to certain things in life you know, I just happened to be drawn to music as a whole from a young age and then as I got older I started to identify with hip/hop and rap more. To be honest I’m not sure where the passion to pursue it as a career came from. I know I connect most with life and people through music so I guess it was just a natural choice to pursue making a living from it and develop a solid career.
What has the experience of being a rapper in SA been?
iJohn: For me personally, I’ve found it really hard to find my niche in the SA scene. SA is such a gigantic melting pot of culture and with that comes an array of different sounds and sub-genres! I used to think that the fact I don’t rap in vernac or Afrikaans was almost a setback, but all it comes down to is music being a universal Language overall and when I changed to that mindset I started to see more growth in my audience and how my music is received.
You exert a lot of passion in your lyrics; is this a craft you are continually developing when writing new material?
iJohn: Absolutely. I always try to challenge myself in some aspect when creating a new song. For instance, my song ‘Ballad of Broken Trust’ released earlier this year is the first song I’ve released that was completely self-produced as well as it not being anything close to a Rap / Hip-Hop Song. I’ve never wanted to box myself into any specific genre or artist of a genre. I genuinely express myself through my music and that can manifest in various, different sounds. So I’m always trying to develop and grow as well as challenge myself creatively.
This feels like your most vulnerable work yet – can you talk about “Holding On” and “Let it Go”?
iJohn: Yeah so those songs, as you say, is me, portraying myself, at my most vulnerable. I just decided to put myself out there with no hesitation, almost a form of self-sacrifice or self-crucifixion because of the extremely personal topics I speak on. I want people who can relate to what I’m saying not only to feel like they’re not alone but also [to] find some sort of temporary release from whatever pain or adversity they may be facing. That’s really why I do music at all. The process, writing, recording even the mixing is therapeutic and self-medicating in itself but to know that it may provide some sort of solace to someone even for two minutes, that’s the ultimate goal.
What is your vision for the future of Hip Hop in SA and your career personally?
iJohn: Well, I think SA hip-hop is in a beautiful place right now. We’ve got a lot of artists who are hungry and passionate about the game and are always working hard to push it to the next level. There’s so much talent here, a lot of which is internationally recognised and not too long from now I think we’ll be at the forefront of Hip-Hop on a global level. That being said I, personally, think there’s a lot of unoriginality and ‘copy and paste’ sort of songs and artists out there as well. I feel like a lot of cats are just replicating what they hear the next artist do or what’s popping at the moment without actually creating something close to a genuine musical expression. Not to take away from anyone’s hustle but that’s just something I’ve noticed. Overall though we’re in an extremely good place!
I’d also just like to thank all those that have supported me on my journey thus far, thank you Holly / Bubblegum for the opportunity to do this interview as well as my manager Lily Zeetah for all the amazing work she’s done. Onwards and upwards we go!