Hip-hop star Jon Connor’s head is buried beneath the hood of his gray jacket, possibly to keep his thoughts warm. Twenty minutes before taking the stage as the headliner of Mona Lisa Production’s The Come-Up concert series, the critically-adored Flint, MI native is staring toward his stainless sneakers with his eyes squinted. “Whoa…,” he responds to the first question asked for this SoulTrain.com exclusive interview, momentarily oblivious to the sound of roaring fans seeping through the backstage walls. He looks up and flashes an impressed smile, shaking his head before removing his hood. The temperature is right.
The heat Connor has been delivering on record has rendered even Busta Rhymes to near speechlessness. From underground mixshows to BET’s 106 & Park, audiences have become accustomed to being dumbfounded when the swift-tongued rhymer born Jon Freeman starts mincing words to music. How he says them, though, comes a distant second to the topics he touches on and the very personal influences behind them.
SoulTrain.com: I’d been waiting all day to ask you that. Again, can you explain the literal and figurative definition of “lyric”?
Jon Connor: Wow…You may have stumped me with this one. Hmm…literally, lyrics are the lines of words. Saying “the cat and the hat” could be a lyric. Relative to Jon Connor, lyrics are emotions put to rhymes like it was your life. It’s your story. For me, lyrics are my life; I just happen to make them rhyme. I like that question!
SoulTrain.com: The reason I asked is because I’ve noticed a number of artists who just seem to say any words over music; they’re lyrics by default. When I listen to you, and being a writer myself, I hear where you’ve thought about the words you’ve chosen to use.
Jon Connor: People just don’t know how much I care about music and lyricism, being able to reach people and actually say something through my music. It’s about actually having a message. It goes back to my mother saying to me, “If this is what you’re going to do, make sure you say something with some purpose. Put your all into it; don’t just rhyme just to rhyme.”
SoulTrain.com: Sounds like your mother has studied a few well-spoken leaders.
Jon Connor: Of course! Like right now we’re at a gathering of people who’ve come to hear the words that are coming out of my mouth. When they leave here, they’re going to leave with a certain type of energy, a positive vibe. They know something good came out of it. I want them to feel like they’ve gained something from being here.
SoulTrain.com: When I listen to you, I also get the impression you pay close attention to details.
Jon Connor: I do pay close attention! What I write, it’s not just music! Some people say, “It’s just music!” No, it’s more than that! I said on the While You Were Sleeping album, “…to say that it’s just music is just stupid, look how many hours we listen to it; so I embrace my influence”. Music is in movies, it’s on the radio, music is in TV shows, music is in our free time; we’re always listening to music! It’s constantly in our brains telling us to do something. As someone who creates music I try to be conscience of what I’m putting in somebody’s head.
SoulTrain.com: Jon, when you hear national reports on your home city of Flint, it could easily put negative images in your head. I’m sure you have enough of your own already. Tell us why who and what you’ve become is important to uplifting the image of where you come from?
Jon Connor: If you go back and listen to Jon Connor: Vinnie Chase–Season One, then listen to everything that follows all the way to While You Were Sleeping, it’s kind of like I got more intense. My sense of urgency picked up with every release because as one of the new faces of Flint I get to shine the light on my city. It’s always had a reputation, but even as a kid Flint wasn’t as bad as it is now. As I’m putting out more and more music and my message becomes more intense, I’m begging people to care about us! My city is hurting! If it takes me to be an entertainer to say, “Yo, it’s something wrong here” for people to care, then that’s what I’m going to do! I embrace that. I’ll be the voice. And it’s not just Flint, Michigan; there’s a lot of Flints all across this county that need a voice.
SoulTrain.com: No doubt someone somewhere feels the same way about where they are. When you hear the mention of “Flint”, what does it represent when you think larger scale?
Jon Connor: Flint, to me, is a representation of what the world is going through. The world wasn’t always this bad. Flint is a direct result of how bad the world is getting as a whole. And I feel it’s a responsibility for me to say something. This feeling has directly influenced my message, how strong I come at the message on songs and on stage, and how aggressive I am because I need someone to listen NOW!
SoulTrain.com: How does that feeling affect you away from the music?
Jon Connor: It makes me want to do things for my city. People have to understand, rapping for me is not about fame and all that other stuff; that stuff is cool, who wouldn’t enjoy it? But, honestly, rap for me is a way to change things, so I can make a difference. As Jon Freeman– the person, the regular guy walking around, sometimes your voice doesn’t get heard. As Jon Connor–the entertainer who does videos, tours, and gets to speak to these groups of people, I can make a change! That’s what I do this for. That’s what I believe it’s about.
SoulTrain.com: You have to worry about saying the right things, then. Being a man of words, Jon, what about your life and profession has made you the most fearful?
Jon Connor: I hope things don’t get so bad it’s beyond change. Everything goes through ups and downs. When I look at the world as a whole, and all the stuff that goes on, I start thinking I hope I’m not too late. That makes me the most fearful, especially seeing the things that go on in the world and Flint. I hope it’s not beyond change. I don’t think it is, but that thought scares me.
SoulTrain.com: Our country is in bad shape, and fear likely played a big part in our last two presidential elections. Do you think too much pressure has been put on the president to fix things?
Jon Connor: Yeah, I do! The president is one person. He doesn’t have a magic wand that’ll fix everything. And this next statement I’m about to say has been run into the ground, and someone will immediately try to downplay it: Our country has never been perfect; the eight years before our current president were horrible, and y’all expected somebody to clean it up in four years? It’s not even logical to fix it in eight years! It’s going to take consistent great leadership to start to fix the problems.
SoulTrain.com: Do you at all feel people need to take more ownership of our national problems?
Jon Connor: We’ve been using the president as a crutch. It’s more people in the world than presidents and prime ministers and emperors. There are billions of people; change could start with people. If we want change bad enough let’s start with us and stop putting it on somebody else!
SoulTrain.com: Jon Connor, when you sit down with a pen and a college rule notebook, and those words start flowing out of you, do you feel like you’re taking ownership?
Jon Connor: Yeah. I definitely do. I try to be as honest as I possibly can be with every rhyme I write. I say, “I ain’t flawless, no matter what I’m talking, regardless, is a fact karma’s gonna catch up to all us”. I’ve got to go through the same ups and downs you do, I’m going to go through the same consequences you do! “My bars is just a penance ‘til I chill with Chris Wallace, when I get to them pearly gates it ain’t gonna matter what’s in my wallet”. Me using my gift to say what’s wrong or what I think needs to be changed, I’m doing my part.
For more on Jon Conner visit Facebook.com/JonConnorASQ and follow him on Twitter @JonConnorMusic.s
–Mr. Joe Walker
Mr. Joe Walker, a senior contributor for SoulTrain.com, staff writer for Muskegon Tribune Newspaper, and feature writer for City Locs, is an award-winning entertainment and news journalist and columnist published thousands of times regionally, nationally, internationally, and online. Former Editor In Chief of XPOZ Magazine, his work has graced the pages and covers of Notion Magazine, Kalamazoo Gazette Newspaper, Real Detroit Weekly, and MLive.com. He loves to create, loves that you read. Follow him on Twitter @mrjoewalker. Also visit ByMrJoeWalker.blogspot.com.