It has been an incredible couple of years for SAINt JHN, a Guyanese-American singer, songwriter and record producer from Brooklyn, NY. Yet, despite his recent success and tireless work ethic, he’s just getting started. He’s written songs for Usher, Jidenna, Beyonce and more. Still, when a dance remix of his 2016 song “Roses” went viral last year, it skyrocketed on the charts—landing at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 in Australia, Canada, Ireland, and the UK. In addition, after months of being unable to perform in front of a live audience, SAINt JHN is more ready than ever to thrill audiences on his upcoming 27-stop North American tour, “In Case We Both Die Young.”
Fresh off the heels of his first VMA win and headlining the Rockstar Energy Drink Summer Spotlight Concert Series, we had a chance to catch up with him on returning to the stage, his hustler mentality, and his definition of success.
When did you fall in love with music?
I was coming home from junior high school and my brother was on a corner in a cipher, rapping. I didn’t necessarily know exactly what he was doing, but I got the gist of it because everybody around him was like, Ooh, aah. So that was my first real permanent music memory.
So, at what point did you decide you were going to do music full time?
I said I was going to do music right away. I’m one of those guys that over commits. So, if I say I’m going to do it, I’m kind of going to overdo it and do it better than anyone else that I’ve ever seen do it, at least in my mind. So, the first time I saw my brother rap, I didn’t even know he was really making music. I was like, ‘I want to do that.’ I said it to myself. I remember it now because I still live by that same commitment. I didn’t start writing at first. I didn’t necessarily know that was the way you did it. I just knew I was going to do music. So, I stole my brother’s raps, and I would go to school and I would rap, too. And when I got enough oohs and ahhs, I was like ‘oh, I must figure out how to actually write raps.’ And then I got sent back to Guyana my first year of high school while I had to figure out how to write my own rap. So, I did.
So, you’ve been in the game for a hot minute now and in these past couple of years your fans and listeners alike have skyrocketed in number. From your POV what have these past couple of years felt like? Has anything changed for you, or did you know this was going to happen?
A lot has changed in the last couple of years, we were just talking about it. This same date three years ago things were very different. Life was completely different, but it all feels familiar. You talk about some future version in yourself and it kind of seems crazy until you get there. And then it seems like you were a genius. I don’t know if I was a genius. I just think I believed a certain thing. So, none of this surprises me, cause if I expect to jump in the water and have a great swim, when I jumped in the water and had a great swim I shouldn’t be surprised about that. So that’s what’s happening. But the last couple years have been drastically different. I remember three years ago, I was in Harlem in an apartment that I owned, shared with roommates and I was coming off a tour. Today I just came from my duplex with a lot of marble around me. It’s just really different. It’s a complete transition from one place to another, but I’m still the same person. So, I don’t feel any different. My beliefs are the same. My instincts are the same. My hopes are the same. My failures are a lot different than they used to be. And that’s how I know things have changed.
That’s so relatable in change being relative. Since your failures have changed too, it makes me wonder how you then overcome them?
Well, the way you move forward is you just keep going. I don’t want to be passive about my adversities because I’ve had all different types my entire life and nothing has stopped me before. The challenges seem smaller now than they ever were before. So, they don’t feel like adversities. They just feel like riddles I have to solve or math equations. I have to figure out what the process is, what the answers are.
I want to talk about what motivates you, especially after the year that we just had, right? Your music skyrockets on the charts and then the pandemic hits and nobody can tour or perform in front of an audience. How do you stay motivated through that and what drives you forward?
I had somebody ask me that question before, not on an interview or anything like that, but they asked me what motivated me probably recently. I don’t feel like I’ve done anything. I feel like I’ve done nothing. Any cheer, comment, degree of applause, support, any accolade or trophy or measure of good gestures saying I’m great at something. I feel like I’ve done nothing. I feel like this is day one and it feels like I haven’t done enough. I can’t exaggerate that enough. This is day one for me, the top of a ladder is the beginning of another one. There’s a lot that I haven’t done, and I’ve got high hopes. So, I stay motivated because I haven’t met my goals. I’ve met some other people’s goals, but mine? I’m not close.
How do you then define success?
Success for me is the operation of continuing to be successful. Success is whether you can maintain it. Success is I can stay afloat because I’m a good swimmer and I can measure the buoyancy in the water. Success is relative. But for me, I eat well, I sleep well, my skin is well moisturized, my vision is clear and the people around me care about me in the way that I care about them. My music is in the most promising, hopeful place that it’s ever been. I would consider that an incredible measure of success—that I’ve been on this planet, as long as I’ve been on the planet, and I found better ways to live. I’m a better version of myself than I was yesterday. I hope I don’t seem too fluffy, but it’s true, the way I think is success. If had a different professional objective, this would be the same baseline standard of what I would think success was.
Why would that seem fluffy?
Some kid at home, If I’m their favorite artist or if they are just looking at somebody to give them hope, they’re looking for a lot more than just dry hope. ‘Believe in yourself,’ that’s cool. Who cares about that? You don’t need to see me to tell you that. You want the man or the woman who has the experience and is on the path that you’re on to give you something a little bit more tangible, something a little bit more specific that you haven’t heard because you need the tools. You want to understand what the path is, what the countdown is to get where you’re going. So, I hate when it sounds fluffy, I’m just telling you there’s a physical, mental, and spiritual aspect of being successful. There’s the routine of getting up every day and waking up before everybody and going to bed after everybody. But, there’s also a part of it where you have to love yourself more than everyone else. So, while you observe and you take on these sacrifices, you must carve out the time for you as well. Your mind has to be sharp. Your body has to be sharp. Your energy has to be strong. So, I don’t want to give any general answer for defining success.
The hustle is real. How do you define what hustle looks like for you?
I’m a hustler because I have to be a hustler. I’m a hustler because I grew up poor. I’m a hustler because my mom was a single mom with a lot of kids. I’m a hustler because I’m from a first world country and a third world country. I’ve been broke, but I’ve never been broken. I’m a hustler because you’ll never see me broken. So, the way I define hustle is you keep going. You just keep going. It shows itself in different forms. Keep going means something different every day. But you keep going. You never stop. You can’t quit. You get better. You learn, you make mistakes. You fail even more. You fall harder, but you don’t stop. You keep going.
Thank you for sharing that. So, in your case, you’re motivated, hustling and still moving forward. Then you return to the stage this year. What’s that feeling like?
I feel like I live on the stage. I spent so much of my time performing, but in front of a crowd. When the pandemic happened and I couldn’t do it in front of a crowd, I wasn’t salty or bothered. I wasn’t bitter. I didn’t think it was cool, but it was an opportunity to have time. And I had more time. So, I tried to figure out how to use my time in a better way than I ever could before. Returning to the stage was like a really long vacation and an incredible surprise party to welcome you back to work.
How did you stay connected to your fans during that time off?
I have an incredible opportunity where I can communicate through all the other mediums that I exist in. I design clothes and make music and a lot of times direct the visuals that you see to support my music, in addition to writing songs for other people. This means I’m in an incredible creative spiral constantly. I use all the different places that I exist in to tell stories and touch people in different ways that I don’t always want to do in a one-on-one interview. An example, we made clothes that communicated some of my ideas—instead of a tweet or a post, you got a shirt or a hoodie that sort of conceptualized and captured what I wanted to convey.
And you have a big tour coming up?
I am. I want to make sure my distribution for my clothes is more epic than it ever was before. I want to make sure the presentation for my performance is stronger than I’ve ever done before. I want to make sure the imagery that I leave is as iconic as it has ever been and more impressive than it was before. So, for me, the task is to be better than I was yesterday. I’m playing against me. I’m playing against my shadow. I’m prepared. I’m going. I got it.
What does headlining the Rockstar Energy Drink Summer Spotlight Concert Series mean to you?
It means everything to me because this wouldn’t have been like this a couple years ago. I wouldn’t have gotten the call a couple years ago. I wouldn’t have been able to show up in my shiny leather pants a couple years ago. So, it means that I’m on the way to getting closer to something I’ve wanted to be really close to for a long time. That means my hustle is working out.