JPEGMAFIA is an elusive nebula, a character with multiple sides. No Facebook page, a mysterious Soundcloud, a website which is even more mysterious with Donald Trump’s orange and disgusting face as a mouse cursor : who is he? Let’s dive in his music. The beats are experimental, surprising. Shrill then slow, always very dark, they sound like delicious violence. Sounds are industrial, organic, mechanical, everything but linear. Extremely productive, let’s scroll through multiple tracks. Titles are mystic, in capital letters, in small letters, personal attacks, ironic witticism, clear references to racial violences – well known in Baltimore.
Remarks are acid, not going in for subtleties, the tone is provocative. Lyrics are following, he does not tiptoe around to tell people who deserve it to go to hell. Known for his “I Might Vote 4 Donald Trump” where he pushed the absurdity of his potential election to its extreme, in the middle of the presidential campaign, he then released his album Black Ben Carson, 19 tracks of pure madness, of pure sarcasm, of perfect flow on insane beats. Interview with the one who contrasts sharply with traditional rap with his beautifully brutal lyrics, with the one who might be one of the only true hopes of anti-establishment rap in Donald Trump’s ignorant America.
Do you think America was ever great?
Hell fuck no. (laughs) It was never great in the first place. Here in France, you guys have a culture. Something you can identify by. In America, since Americans are just people who basically built the country off a bunch of other people’s shit, they have no culture, nothing to identify by. So they are very insecure, they cling to things. When they say “Make America great again” they are talking about this time in the 50s when they could call Black people colored and shit. They mean like “I can say what I want without consequences”. America was never great in the first fucking place, it can’t be great again. I mean not for me. I don’t know what Trump is talking about. They are delusional, they are just xenophobic crazy ass motherfuckers. We don’t fuck with them. (laughs) Guns, white supremacy, these are the things that is culture to them because they have none.
You are definitely engaged in anti-racism, especially as you live in Baltimore, a city known for police violence and racist crimes. I read you grew up in New York, do you think your feelings would have been different if you grew up somewhere else?
I was born in Hampstead, New York and I moved to Queens, New York, then I moved to Brooklyn where I lived most of my early life. I moved from Hampstead because i was kicked out of school because I fought a white kid who called me the n-word. Then from New York I moved to Alabama. In New York, I grew up around mostly black people. I grew up around black pride, they told me about Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, etc. I was never insecure about my colour. That was a foundation for me.
America was never great in the first fucking place, it can’t be great again. I mean not for me.
The way I am now is strictly a reaction to how I was received in the south. I had to deal with racism head on, people calling me the n-word. Somebody drove by me after my first day of school and they were like shouting “Nigga!” and just drove off. I was twelve years old, it was a lot to deal with, and my initial reaction was to suppress it and ignore it, pretend it was not there. I expected it, but i didn’t know how to react to it. Eventually I realised I shouldn’t be treated like this. Then when anybody would call me like that, I would just fight with them, and they would stop. This is how they learn. Everybody in America wants to talk, have debates, but you can’t talk with people who have no empathy. They don’t care about you in the first place, so you can’t convince them to care about you. To them the cops are in the right because to them all Black people are shady. It’s because of slavery. We got freed but we ain’t got no money, people just threw us out there, people never respected us. That same disrespect is a privilege today, it’s passed down from generation to generation.
Your lyrics are very radical. Do you think it is necessary to be radical to fight racism?
You have to be like that. In Alabama, people were like “I don’t fuck with black people but i like you, you’re one of the good ones“. That’s how it was given to me so that’s why I say “Fuck white people“, because I don’t have time to cherry-pick the good ones from the bad ones. So I speak generally. I just throw it out there and if you get offended, I’m probably talking about you. And if you understand it, then I don’t have anything to explain to you. There’s this comedian called Paul Mooney who does the same, it’s called “testing”.
I’m violent and crazy but I feel like I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said before or isn’t already done ; I’m just talking about my experience.
Everybody in America wants to talk, have debates, but you can’t talk with people who have no empathy.
How did it affect your music to be in the military?
It affected it a lot. Before I became JPEGMAFIA, I was rapping under my real name which is Dévon Hendricks and I rapped about the same shit but it wasn’t as polished. I wrote a lot when I was deployed to Kuwait, Iran, etc. Having bombs thrown over gates, it was a lot of stress. I was writing just because under all that stress, I still wasn’t respected because I was black. My political affiliation is the same as I was before, but in the military it helped me see this first hand, I saw it for real. It made it stronger. I would never fucking go back.
It is so cynical the way they accept and want people of colour, trans people to fight for them, and they are pushing them away at the same time.
In the military, when I was there, it was “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. That policy itself is just stupid. Why does it matter that a guy is fucking a dude? It shows how ignorant people are, and now this dumbass Trump is trying to reinstate it. It’s making them weaker. I don’t know who Trump think trans people are, but they are just regular people. To say that they can’t join because it’s a girl with a dick… Who cares? If they can shoot, that should be what you want. It shows American mindset, they’re contradictory as fuck. They want us all to be together but they treat us like second class citizens.
Do you think what keeps America together is ignorance?
Yes. (laughs). America was started off ignorance. It was a bunch of people like “We are going to make this country free for everybody”, then they had slaves and killed a bunch of Native Americans. America is based on ignorance. That’s what they drive off.
Do you think white people could ever be able to understand what you’re talking about?
Unfortunately no. But I don’t think they have to be. I think the smartest thing to do for white people to do is talk to people in their community. I could never reach an old white guy from Alabama but he might listen to his daughter. I think white people can understand on a surface level, but really living it… The things I’ve been through, it’s unique. I mean, white people have been through stuff that they can’t explain to me. They probably watch Will and Grace, and I don’t get that. I don’t think they can fully understand, because they’re not black. The same way I can’t fully understand French politics, because I’m not French. The problem is that some people pretend like they get it. I appreciate it but stay in your place, you don’t have to be black.
America was started off ignorance. It was a bunch of people like “We are going to make this country free for everybody”, then they had slaves and killed a bunch of Native Americans.
I read about your album Black Ben Carson that you said “The privileged need their feathers ruffled”.
I wanted liberal white people to have their feathers ruffled because I feel like they are just as racist as the right wing, they just go by different ways. I wanted to call out liberal racism because it’s so covert and weird and hard to detect. For a lot of black people they misunderstand it for affection. I made it for black people to understand and to be careful.
I went on your website. From videos to lyrics, sex is quite central. What’s its role in your music?
This trash ass website ? I coded it myself, it’s so bad. I put sex in there because it’s a real thing and everybody have sex. If I put it there, it’s not on purpose, it’s just because it’s natural. For “I just killed a cop now I’m horny”, I just wanted to tell a tale from a different perspective. I just felt like the beat was really slow and wanted to point out the racial prejudice that cops have, but in an entertaining way. If you read the lyrics, I tell it like the cop is into me. I just thought it was interesting. The sexuality, the politics and the anger, I guess it’s just intertwined because I’m a political person but I’m not preachy. I pay rent like a regular person, I pay my car note. I’m presenting from every man perspective, I’m just like everyone else. It’s just the nature of it: people are sexual, people are political. Trump is not sexual though. Do you think he is good looking?
No. (laughs) How do you manage to live there with a man like this as a President?
I have to. Because if I wasn’t, nobody would say shit. I feel like the way I talk about politics is not the way most rappers talk about it. From them, it comes from a way that is, like, apologetic, trying to make sure that the people they are talking about aren’t offended. But why are you afraid to offend them? They are offending you, they’re destroying your life.
Your beats are quite experimental. Where is it coming from?
Lots of places. When I was younger, my dad had a lot of vinyls. I would listen to them. One day he actually took me outside, he put all the vinyls out and said “Are you ready for this?” and took a hammer and smashed them and set them on fire. He said something like “That’s what happens when you disobey God”. (laughs) But before this I listened to a lot of music. I got a lot of influences. I have a lots of experimental shits and instruments.
The music is the most important, I put a lot of time into the beats. It’s my thing, I’m also an audio engineer so I mix and master my shit. The music is where I come through. I make the music and then I write the lyrics. It comes from listening to a lot of music, of learning, trying to understand how they do it. I listen to everybody, even Morrissey and The Smiths, his crazy ass. I would open-hand slap that motherfucker. He made a shirt with James Baldwin on it and it said “I’m black on the inside” and I thought “You’re going to be black on the outside when I slap the shit out of you”.
How do you grow as an artist in the USA when the world is swamped in American pop music ?
It motivates me because the more poppy and mainstream shit there is, the more people like me and the underground rebel against it. Drake is the pinnacle of that.
Today, Donald Trump is President. We are at the bottom now.
You often mention this Drake era, what does it represent?
Drake is a Canadian child star who became a rapper. He happened to make it, but there is a million people who don’t make it. Something about that offends me. I grew up really poor. I don’t understand how Drake grew up. He grew up rich, he was on Degrassi. He was making money at a young age, and when I was 16 I was living with cockroaches and shit. I acknowledge he is number one but I don’t like what he represents. He represents this “I can be as fake as I want to and still make it” type of thing. Also Drake is a bitch. I just like talking about it because when I’m writing, it’s so easy to put him in there. There are so many ways I can attack him. He represents a fakeness. Just like Post Malone, this big white rapper, said recently “If you want to listen to real lyrics, real emotions, don’t listen to rap, listen to Bob Dylan”. I’m just like “Hold on, you made all your money from rap, how can you say that?”
Are you optimistic about America?
No. Think about it. Today, Donald Trump is President. We are at the bottom now. The biggest chance we have is in 2020 and the only candidate we have on the left wing side is Dwayne Johnson “The Rock” who is a fucking wrestler, and Kanye West, and maybe Oprah. So I’m not very optimistic because it’s not looking too good. (laughs)
About your last album coming soon, you said it will be less harsh though, right?
It’s harsh but there’s a lot more melody. I took a lot of influence from female artists like Janet Jackson or Patti Smith. I feel like they are vulnerable in a way that men aren’t. I tried to take queues from them. I’m trying to be more vulnerable. On Black Ben Carson I’m like “Fuck you” and not telling you anything about me” and on Veteran I’m telling stuff about me but I’m still like “Fuck you” (laugh). It will come out in January.