Artist Tribune

The next chapter of Just John: “I am a product of my community”

After helping to strengthen Toronto's artistic community, Just John tells the story of why he's now compelled to focus on his own music

November 16, 2018

Just John is the driving force behind Blank Canvas, a hugely popular multi-disciplinary art collective that seeks to provide platforms for marginalized artists through curated experiences, performances, exhibitions, pop ups and panels. His event DEAD POET is now one of the biggest spoken word & open mic events in Toronto. Today marks the release of his collaboration with producer/DJ Dom Dias, the Don II EP.

I’ve never been one to stay quiet, whether it was with my artistry or my social work with Blank Canvas. But now, it’s time to show cats that I really do this rap sh*t.

From an early age, I always knew I was going to be an artist. My mother could tell—during soccer games, when our team was winning, you would find me in the goalkeeping box breakdancing, entertaining parents from both sides. That’s when my mother knew I was different and decided to put me in an art school which harboured my creativity. Shoutout Wexford Collegiate School for the Arts which felt like the X-Mansion to me.

My brothers and I played soccer before anything. I still remember the drives with my dad, back and forth to tournaments. He had this bust up grey GMC playing Buju Banton, Luciano, and Sanchez—all the reggae hits on full blast pulling up to the pitch. After the game, we’d come home to my mother playing Luther Vandross, Bee Gees, Whitney Houston, Ray Charles, Prince, and Michael Jackson. So, from an early age, I was being influenced by all these different sounds, styles, and cultures but not quite hip-hop, not just yet.

I didn’t really dive into hip-hop until I was like 10. I bought myself an Outkast CD, it was The Speakerboxx / The Love Below duo joint. I soon grabbed Elephunk by Black Eyed Peas and K-Os’ The Joyful Rebellion. I had my Walkman and I would just loop those CDs non-stop. Around the same time I had given up soccer but my parents still forced me to come to my brothers’ games and sometimes I wouldn’t even leave the van because I hated the parents asking me why I quit, so I would just stay in the van and listen to my CDs.

My first entry point into hip-hop was as a dancer. I was the leader of a dance crew which sparked my first moniker “Slim Picture”. I called myself that after hearing in classic movies “now it’s time for the big picture”, but I was skinny af so eventually I just told people to call me Slim.

My dance crew in high school was full of individuality, everyone had their own style, look, and vibe. The world of dancing took us all over from us dancing to the Beat Street Soundtrack to performing for Much Music, Target, Energizer batteries, and all these corporate gigs. I thought I was going to be dancer forever but after a couple years with my dance crew we had disbanded. Members were getting older, some were getting married and some people wanted to move on to other things so I was wondering what I should do next.

As I grew more in love with hip-hop so did my digging. I began to travel back and I fell love with records from A Tribe Called Quest, dead prez, Big L, Jurassic 5, Black Star, Snoop Dogg, N.W.A., Public Enemy, and the list goes on. I was also digesting a lot of Lupe Fiasco, Kid Cudi, Danny Brown, and N.E.R.D. around that time.

This creative angst began to burst out of the seams when I started working retail jobs that had me feeling more and more like a statistic to the system and I had a find way out. I had to find a way to contribute more.

That’s when I started to take rapping more seriously, recording overtop of Mobb Deep instrumentals and playing with my voice. I needed to find a way to leave my job and make some money so I took on an intern position at a small art gallery on Markham St. which no longer exists cause that area is now gentrified.

But my ascension into rap and community organization oddly came around the same time.

I’m ready for any challenge. If I learned anything from having a dance crew or running an art space for years is that you never stop. Keep applying pressure and being resilient, it really matters to your success.

I was starting university for journalism which led me to want to launch a blog which became my art collective and I was working on mixtapes to start introducing myself as a rapper. It became a struggle for me constantly because one always seemed to occupy the other. I was throwing parties all over Toronto’s D.I.Y scene. People kept asking me when the next one was and I always loved bringing people together so I would continue to deliver.

The events were getting bigger and bigger. At the time, my rapping was nowhere close to where it is today. I would drop mixtapes here and there but I hadn’t found my sound or really my truth yet. But I always had this chip on my shoulder wanting to be great even if I understood it was going to take time.

I was hanging around all these artists I emulated and looked up to and they weren’t getting enough platforms to showcase themselves. So, it kinda felt like it was my calling to create a space where people can see them. I became that guy doing networking parties, music showcases, jams, and art shows the most! I didn’t know how much this would compartmentalize how people would look at me as an artist.

A lot of the time when you’re an artist who’s also putting on the show, the event promoter, and the stage manager, you think about yourself last. And I did that for a long time. I would make myself perform last in 20-person lineup shows, with only a 1/4 of the crowd left to watch me perform. I would, a lot of times, cut my set short or completely, if the venue manager was bugging me for being over time. I would hardly even rehearse. There were a lot of missed opportunities to grow my career in the early stages but I knew I wanted to be a master at rap. I knew I loved rap more than anything because it was an outlet for me, it’s where I felt the closet to myself and it was something I would always trail back to.

The community I’d built was growing vibrant and I was fulfilling a need that was uplifting to both the people and the artists. After a while, I got tired of doing the same events so I decided to open up a gallery space which became Blank Canvas Gallery.

At that time, it was the most liberating thing I’ve ever done. For once, I could run on my own schedule, my own programs, and do whatever I wanted in there. But this was far bigger than me.

It became a reference point, a home for marginalized artists and community leaders. It grew to be a hotbed for Toronto’s emerging talent. Everyone had been in and out of that space.

I had always fantasized about legacy, the black and white pages looking back and telling people who were the OOGs and what we did. This was something I would be proud of. This was something the community would talk about for years to come…but it wasn’t all of my story.

That space is gone now but what I took from it still lives inside me and the melodies.

The punk energy in my performances comes from the D.I.Y lifestyle I was engulfed in. The mosh pits, the expression, the connection with people, the relentless sharing, sleeping there after wild nights. The sharp cadences and flows comes from the 2am cyphers that would embark after a party. The stories come from marginalized communities far and wide and my lived experiences dealing with my own personal social injustices. My voice, my truth and platform grew out of that space, I’m a product of my community.

I think there comes a time when anybody who occupies a lot of space in the community needs to step back and let others champion those roles. While doing this, I’ve seen many other collectives be inspired by what we did at Blank Canvas and have gone on to start their own ventures and collaborations. This is exactly what I hoped would happen, this, I feel, is one of our contributions to the renaissance that’s currently happening in Toronto.

I’ll never stop the social work that I do with Blank Canvas—we continue our Dead Poet Poetry and open mic every month amongst various art events that pop up throughout the year. Back then a lot of it came out of our own pocket and resources but now I’m fortunate enough to be teaming up with some amazing foundations that are helping us grow our organization and inject more of our programming into the youth who will be forerunners of the Toronto art scene of tomorrow.

I felt I had put music on the back burner for so long, but in actuality it fuelled a greater fire in me. Looking back to how i approached performing 3 years ago, I was never raging like am now. Figuring out where it came from doesn’t take too long. It came from all those nights practicing in the space, learning from colleagues and mentors, working my craft and now it’s time for me to step forward and really show people what I’m capable of in this rap game.

I’m ready for any challenge. If I learned anything from having a dance crew or running an art space for years is that you never stop. Keep applying pressure and being resilient, it really matters to your success.

Whatever happens in your life just becomes apart of your story. I’m getting better with time, everything I’ve learned has led to this moment.

Exclusive videos, interviews, contests & more.

sign up for the a.side newsletter

sign up