So Jovan, tell us a bit more about the beginning of your creative journey.
So Jovan, tell us a bit more about the beginning of your creative journey.
Prior to that, I've always been into music, and curious about how music was made. Even just holding a video camera when my grandparents had one, I was interested. But I didn’t see a career in it. I thought as a kid that I needed to be signed to a major label, I didn’t think I could grab the tools myself. And my cousin introduced me to music production software called Frootyloops (now known as FL studio), which lit my excitement. I realized “I CAN do this, I can grab these tools.” And it took off from there. It came from being a kid who was curious about music being made, lyrics, and now having those resources. And around the same time, they opened up a digital photograph class in high school, and then I started taking broadcast journalism, and that was the start of being 1/3 Emcee, 1/3 filmmaker, 1/3 photographer - it started with my cousin giving me that resource.
As you split your time between 3 disciplines - filmmaking, photography, and being an Emcee - how does that work for your process?
Sometimes I stay up really late at night! But I just do whatever the priority is. For example, Synergy the project has been a priority, so I worked on it the most. But sometimes I have video gigs where there’s a certain deadline, so I have to be conscious of those things. It’s based on the priority and how time sensitive it is. But typically I just go with it - I need to do this or that. Sometimes I create a to do list and go from there. Every day, the night before, I’ll tackle these things, but I don’t have a certain time schedule of when I should do it. Art, especially with music - my film and photography, people hire me to do that. But to write music, I have to do that on my own time, and whenever I’m inspired at that time, then I’ll make a beat, or write some lyrics. So I’ll just go with the flow. Sometimes it takes my sleep. But I’m excited to do what I’m doing. Last night I was remaking a beat that I made on Synergy to show people how I created it, and I stayed up until 3 AM, to make that video.
Synergy is an amazing album. The album begins with “To be a woman in Hip Hop in Chicago means that tough skin had to be developed super-early on…” Can you tell us about what it was like to get this project off the ground?
It took all the people who believed in it. All the artists who were involved - from the producers to the artists, the performers - just to have them stick around for so long. It started in early 2017, before I got the WeWork Creator Award - I said “Hey, I’m doing this album, I don’t know how we’re going about it, or how we’re going to compensate,” all the way up to now, march 2019, so have some of the same people stick around. We’ve had changes throughout this whole process, we had new artists who jumped onboard, but to have people who believed in the project, that helped start it. But also the WeWork Creator Award helped it a lot. I didn’t know how I was going to pull it off. And I was able to use that funding to get materials, and to compensate the artists and to do the videos, supporting filmmakers. Everyone who played a part helped this project get off the ground. I could have done it with no money, but just to know I can help others, that means a lot to me. There’s a few artists that never did a music video before, or done one to the caliber that we did, with a 20 person film crew, so it felt super-professional. We had someone doing behind the scenes photography. We had assistants. It felt like a real film set. And some of the artists may have come from a 1 or 2 person crew. So I felt like a lot of people felt more supported, on a bigger platform.
How were you able to find your incredible collaborators?
I found them through knowing them personally - the art scene in Chicago is tiny. I’ve done some social media outreach. For our producers, because I feel like the producers were tough to find, women producers, so I put out posts like “I’m looking for producers, please submit your work, it’s paid” and people were tagging their friends. One woman, she’s been following my work since I was doing video blogs, and she has been following me since 2009. And I never knew that she was a supporter or anything like that. And she submitted some music. And she is the person who produced the Interludes for the album. She’s the only one that isn’t based in Chicago, but she has been a part of the team for a long time. So you have someone who’s been following me who makes beats. There’s another person I found through social media that someone tagged me to. Our engineer was a referral from someone who works on the project. The filmmakers I knew some of them personally from working with them onset. And a few others I just did on Facebook “I need someone who’s a gaffer or cinematographer or editor.” So people just gave me information. And then once they got onboard, they said they knew a person who could help be a grip or help with set design. So it grew from there, from crew members who knew they had someone else who could be a part of that. The power of referrals, of social media. And this was all female. And that’s what I wanted to challenge with this project - because not only is hiphop a male dominated genre, so is film. So I wanted to challenge myself to make it all women-created. It’s hard to find people in these realms, even though they exist, they are there. So it’s like - let’s pull EVERYBODY up, not just from the music aspect.
We had a screening for the music videos before we dropped them online, and someone asked a similar question. And I remember the producer, her name was Kenyetta Johnson, said "It's important to keep your relationships, to just keep in touch. You just never know what those connections could do for you later on. It's important you're always on your A-game, because you never know who's watching, where it could lead to further opportunities." So that's why I chose Kenyetta, we were onset together before.
Being from the Midwest myself, I could relate to the lyrics on the first track being a mellow meditation on the world of Chicago: “we’re like the seasons. You never know how that changes. We flip it up on you.” How much did the world of Chicago influence Synergy?
Just the fact that we’re from here. We come from, at least in my perspective, Chicago sometimes can be very cliquey. Everyone has their own little circle, their own little bubble, people can only support some people, or maybe those who have more clout or fame. We wanted to change that. I wanted to bring people from different places. These are people I’ve never collaborated with that are from Chicago that I’ve been seeing around for years. So that definitely played a part. But also I feel like the women on the Interludes, they are definitely the essence of Chicago. I agree with what they are saying. Chicago IS tough. And I still feel like this project hasn’t gotten all the love yet that I would like it to - we could have our arms folded, asking how is this person important, we can be tough on each other - you need people to tell you the truth about your music or the work you’re doing. But I feel like definitely - one of our artists, Tweak’g, she was very honest, and with being a part of this project, she was like “yo, we may need to go with another engineer.” Or “I have a problem with this.” She is so Chicago, you know? The personality. She’s very strong in how she feels. And so I love that. And I want to make sure in our two singles, Synergy Cypher Part 1 and Synergy Cypher Part 2, I wanted to make sure because it’s a Chicago-based album, I wanted the artists to tell the audience how Chicago has impacted them. What makes Chicago different than everywhere else. I made sure a majority of us could talk about Chicago. One person, Jade the Ivy, she talked about the city’s landscape, and I talked about the city’s landscape as well. The Sears Tower, the Lake Front. I think just Chicago’s an amazing place. Sometimes we have our downs, we have our ups, but I feel like we’re especially known for our music. I feel like Chicago’s a place to be. I’m always naming people - Earth Wind and Fire, Twista, Kanye West, Chance the Rapper, Common, Noname there’s so many people from the city. We do set the trends. We have so many artistic people from this city.
There is so much energy in Synergy Cypher Part 1. Focusing and channeling female power with really strong beat and energy. How much fun was it to make this video? With lyrics like “So many queens, so many crowns, I’m gonna adjust yours and never take it down” - what was the track evolution like?
I produced the track, and I made it for this particular project. I knew it was going to be one of the singles. It’s a pretty simple beat, and even though it is, it still packs a punch. The bass, the kick drums, it really stands out. We all wrote our verses in different spaces, I just threw out the concept of this is what I’m looking for, and then as everybody finished their verses, I sent everyone’s verses to all the artists so everyone could get a sense of how everyone sounds. So with all of the tracks, I did demo sessions, so we could get a feel for the sound or whatever. So we did that. And then the music video was awesome. We shot it an hour outside the city. We had the whole space to ourselves. It was a beautiful environment, it was so fun, it felt like friends making creative things together. We had makeup artists, stylists, our director Briana Clearly, she was definitely our hype man throughout the whole thing, yelling YES YES! Directing us as she does. She kept the energy going. She had the personality where if something bad happens she wouldn’t back down. She was calm, cool, and collected. “The show must go on.” Instead of worrying, she was saying “We just gotta do this video.” This is why I asked her to do the second video, and we pretty much had the same crew for both videos. We switched out a few people for both videos, but I kept the same crew. It was a fun set.
The track “Under Pressure” starts with a 1980s sounding synth sample and leads into a really thoughtful track about tackling challenges: mental health, financial problems, violence, family relationships.“Fighting out against depression, every day is a new day.” Can you share more context behind the scenes on the track?
Yes. With the songs, and this could pertain to all of the music, I didn’t have anything to do with the concepts. So Jade the Ivy kickstarted the concept for “Under Pressure,” and all I can remember was her saying “I want it to be like what if we were on a bridge where there’s fire underneath.” She recorded her demo. I had found some beats from women producers, so I had a catalog of instruments and beats, so I had each artist pick out the instrumental and beat they liked best for their “feature song.” So Jade the Ivy, she liked this particular track, “Under Pressure.” And the other artist featured, Sauda Muse, she liked several instrumentals, but this was another one she liked, so I felt that Sauda Muse and Jade the Ivy had a similar vibe. Their voices, very relaxed, laid back. And so I placed them together to work on the song together. So Jade the Ivy created the concept of being under pressure, on a bridge with fire underneath. It went from there, with Jade the Ivy writing out her part, presenting it to Sauda Muse. These artists had never worked with each other or met each other before, so I made sure they had time to write and meet. And Sauda Muse pretty much wrote her stuff on the spot. It took her a minute, but then we did the demo session that day, and that’s how it happened. We ended up re-recording it later on in the summertime. I pretty much provided the beat, and they just took it and made it how they wanted to make it. I didn’t necessarily have a plan on how people should conceptualize a song, as it was all a collaboration. I provided the beat, and they would go off how they wanted to go with it.
As far as [F]Emcee interlude - a discussion of labels, of identity, of talent, of art - “People are trying to put you into a box… what is the result of that? The result is that we can’t share the space. The women who are MCs or writers are driven underground.” The interludes are so rich in social commentary. Was there more you wanted to include?
Well, how has being a woman emcee stifled you? Have you felt like you haven’t been granted the opportunities you want to get because you’re a woman? But I didn’t want to have too many interludes. Originally there were only supposed to be 3 but we ended up with 4, because one of them was the “No women = no hiphop” interlude. That interlude, and the person who was speaking was ang13, and the question I asked for everyone at the end was “What do you see for the future of women in hiphop?” And ang13 went into a whole tangent, she didn’t even want to say what she wanted to see for women in hiphop. She was saying if it wasn’t for women, there would BE no hiphop. I never knew that DJ Kool Herc’s sister was the reason that there’s hiphop. All of the women on the interludes, they are all artists that have been in the game for 20+ years. I learned a lot from just speaking with them. But especially for the “No women = no hiphop” interlude. It would have made the “Future is Female” interlude super long, so I had to make it by itself, because I felt like people HAD to hear this especially. It’s almost controversial, the way that she’s saying it! “We’ve been here, we raised them, and they still disrespect us.” SO powerful.
I will say that a friend and I have kickstarted a documentary about Chicago women in hiphop. We’ve been compiling footage. I knew when my friend asked me to do this documentary with him, it was perfect timing, because I was already doing the Synergy album. So I asked them these questions that would be useful for the album and the documentary as well. So some of the things that you’ll hear in the interludes will be used in the documentary as well. It’s something we are putting together, we don’t have a release for it yet. We are collecting interviews.
What’s been the most rewarding thing about seeing Synergy out there and in the world? What kind of reactions have you received from fans?
Well, people have definitely been loving it. Even from doing the album release show, just hearing everyone’s chanting, and affirming YES, YES, that means a lot. When people are reacting to it, that shows the people love it, and the music is great. People can react to it, they can really think on it. I think the most rewarding is to give people a platform, to be able to give people opportunity to speak or express themselves in whatever creative form they contributed to. That’s the most rewarding, to be able to share the gift with other people. It’s not an easy process, because we’ve had a lot of people that joined, a lot of people that’s left, and the remaining people that stood with this project, and that tells me a lot, the people that were dedicated and thankful. I am always telling them “Thank you for being a part of Synergy” and they are saying thank you right back. It’s good to have people who will always appreciate each other. I just want us to keep skyrocketing. Last night I submitted the music videos to a few film festivals. I want this project to keep living. I don’t want this project to be released and that’s it. I want Missy Elliot to see it. I want Queen Latifah to see this. Because this has NEVER BEEN DONE. An all-women produced and perform hiphop album has not been done before. I want people to create dances to it, to implement it in their hiphop curriculum, to do workshops around it. I don’t want it to ever die down.
What’s next for you? How can people stay updated on your journey?
Anybody can follow me on social media through JLeslieMonique, especially Instagram, where they can stay up on the updated works. I also have a website, JovanLandry.com, and a monthly newsletter they can sign up to stay up to date. And as far as next steps? I want Synergy to keep going up, so just submitting it to some film festivals, and I would love to do more performances together, and doing my own thing aside from Synergy, some video work with this amazing project called Project Tool where I video and photo-document a group of dancers creating dance floors they make by hand.
I’ve been added to do video documentation for the project, and they create their own dance floors as a way to call upon the ancestors who created their own things by hand, and also to provide a resource to other dancers, they can rent out these floors, have a mobile stage. You can have a dance floor anywhere, in the middle of the street. So we recently went to Haiti in December for the Black Arts Retreat, and we visited a carpenter, seeing how they create their own furniture.
Starting next week, we will be in New Orleans for a residency with Dancing Grounds. So I’ll be there with them to document and be a part of the entire process. So that’s an ongoing project that I’ve been a part of and traveling with.
Thanks again for the opportunity!