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Emerging Rapper SAINt JHN Talks Debut Project 'Collection One' and Being the 'Ghetto Lenny Kravitz'

Edna Holifield
SAINt JHN

The elusive SAINt JHN has garnered over 50 million streams as an artist without any major label or marketing push in a short time span, not releasing any full-length project until now. Friday (Mar 30), he released his debut project, Collection One, which features an eclectic mix of Caribbean-inspired, yet gritty and complex, production along with autobiographical pieces of the rapper's life. Thirteen tracks take listeners on a ride as they learn about JHN's upbringing along with his braggadocios swagger and charismatic flair with the ladies. 

Born the son of a preacher and raised between the country Guyana and Brooklyn, JHN got into music from his brother who rapped. After spending time writing music behind the scenes for people like Joey Bada$$, Usher, and Jidenna, JHN branched out on his own to release music. Bright and full melodies pepper JHN's songs teetering the line between rapping and singing. 

In addition to being an artist, the stylish rapper is also a burgeoning model having appeared in Gucci's "Guilty" campaign alongside Adesuwa Aighewi. Billboard hopped on the phone with the "Roses" MC to discuss growing up in Guyana, what to expect on his new project, and what makes his artistry unique.

What are some parallels between the music scene in New York and Guyana?

There's no real music scene in Guyana, but there's a music space. So there's no scene because there's no economy for it, but there's a space because everything that spills over dancehall and reggae, spills over. There's a scene for Soca but it doesn't have a huge international market. So to compare the two is night and day. There's accessibility in New York where you can be great. That's why they say if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.

To have the background of being in Guyana gave me a really specific type of influence. Because dancehall music is really melodically driven. Sometimes, the subject matter is a bit harsh, so i can borrow from both of those things. So there's not much of a scene, although there is a brilliant, credible talent that I happen to be in the proximity of is Juke Ross from Guyana. He is a singer-songwriter who plays guitar. My partner and I actually found him and now he's signed to Republic Records.

Did you have any formal music training growing up?

None whatsoever. I can't play guitar or piano. I can't even play dumb to get through TSA in the airport [laughs]. I mean, my jumpshot is kind of nice though [laughs]. I got lucky. I worked for it. My brother inspired me to work in music. My mom made me read a ton of books, so I got good at words and understood the English language. So when I started rapping, words were something I knew. I learned how to manipulate them so that I could say whatever I wanted to say. Being good at words doesn't necessarily make you good at music, but it is a jumpstart.

In addition to rapping and songwriting, you're also a great performer. Was there anyone an inspiration for that growing up?

I'll tell you about the very first show I saw. I'll never forget because I was a baby, and because he's like a hero to me, and also, because it was lit as fuck. I saw Beanie Man and Supercat. It was 1999 and I was in Guyana. That was a show. Supercat and Beanie on the same stage and they were giving you work. It was epic. I didn't know what to do with the information at the time. I didn't know that it was going to be something I was going to draw or pull for motivation. But it left a lasting impression. It's vivid. 

A lot of your earlier work was more aggressive than it is now. And you spoke about how tough your upbringing was. What part of it was beautiful?

Guyana was beautiful because I didn't know I was poor. Ignorance is absolute bliss, I truly believe that. Sometimes, oversaturating someone with information confuses them and inundates them with the responsibility of what to do with the information before they even process the information. So when I was a kid in Guyana, I would run barefoot in the street and bathe in the rain. That was a real thing. Picture that, showers falling from the sky in the middle of the Caribbean. I would take my pop's motorcycle scooter. I was 7 or 8 and shouldn't have been on an adult vehicle but that was cool. Those were luxuries because those are the times you don't get to get back and you don't know how precious they are until they're gone. 

How did the project Collection One come together?

Collection One is a selfish project. I make music that I want to hear. If someone made the music I wanted to hear, I probably wouldn't be doing music. If there was someone to cover the spectrum of all of the things I wanted to hear, then I would have nothing to contribute to the conversation. I'm the artist I want to see on stage and perform. Not because it's me, but because I'm doing it the way I would want to see it done. Collection One is very much a testament to that. I make music on a spectrum because color, sounds, things happen on a spectrum.

So I made a project that communicated all that I wanted to communicate. It's a conversation for me. It's a collection of feelings, emotions, experiences, luxuries, opportunities. That's what it is. But I rapped it in a way that it's a conversation between me and whoever is listening. And I just want to tell you my name, and I just want to show you this blue mink that I'm wearing, and I want you to smell this creed, and I'm going to buy you a drink. But I'm not going to give you my number, you just got to show up again if you want to see me. That's Collection One

How did the song "Traci Lords" come together?

There's a live guitar on it and the rest is programming. It was a night like any other night. We were working on a project and Fallen played me the sounds and the chords. It was just this really broken down interesting section of a record. And I heard its meaning, I heard what it could be. And [that was] the first thought that came to my mind. Usually, my first instinct is generally sharper, they work for me.

And I just said the words, "My favorite porn star is a white girl," and it felt good at the time. So I sort of went with it. Then, I spent time exploring how I wanted to talk about it. But it's sort of free expression for me. Just my mind wandering.

In the song, "God Bless the Internet," you say, "I remember Mickey D's for the number 3's/ I remember TJ Maxx for the summer tees." Through the early days of not having much, what kept you uplifted and inspired?

I live in the future. I live in the years I haven't experienced yet because when you're poor and destitute, an opportunity is lacking. All you can afford to have is tunnel vision and have a vision period. The only way to make it out of a dark situation is imagining there's a light at the end of a tunnel that you don't even know you're in because it's too dark to recognize the space around you. So I lived in the future. I lived my whole life in the day that we're in today. The day that I'm talking to you about something I did that I want to express to the world. I was just hopeful that this would come. And I know if I held onto that idea in my mind, that everything else was a scratch on the back of a whale.

In your song, "N---a Shit", you say "Ghetto Lenny no guitar." Was Lenny Kravitz an influence to you? 

He's an inspiration, but not necessarily musically. I didn't listen to Lenny Kravitz growing up. He's a black man in a world that doesn't look our shade. And I liked the rebellious nature of it and the sex attribute. I just like sexy shit. So our views just happen to be aligned with what he displays musically and how it looks aesthetically. It wasn't even an influence, it was just something I understood and recognized. So when I started putting out records, to get people to understand what I was doing, I called myself "Ghetto Lenny." It feels like I'm making rock n' roll. I'm not making that though, I'm just making music. I'm a hood n---a from Brooklyn, street n---a from Guyana. So to help you understand that, that's what it feels like, "Ghetto Lenny."

What do you want people to learn about you as an artist and what are your plans this year in addition to the release?

I'm focused on music. I'm focused on the things I'm passionate about. I have ideas about the stuff I want to do, but I like to conquer this beast first. So there's a tour coming up in May, first international tour. I did a tour in Europe in December and now I get to combine my first headlining opportunity like 20 something days across the U.S. and across Europe. That shit is about to be so lit and the most ratchet experience of all life. And I'm about to shoot every possible video I can as long as I have the creative ideas for it. I'll shoot every video for Collection One because I feel like every song deserves a visual representation. It deserves to look good. Can't just smell good, you got to look good. 

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