Before going to jail, Mick Jenkins admits he was “just rapping” without much direction.
Now, night after night and city after city he performs in defense of rap music. I know this based on back-to-back evenings standing stage left, observing him perform with determination – a desire to be more than the average rap artist.
The first night in Santa Cruz, he paces the stage at the Catalyst looking out at a sold out show full of fans hanging on his every word. Young, mostly white Californians are leaning over the barrier with eyes raised to Jenkins as he takes large gulps from a water bottle. He barks an order in sharp bursts that become a mantra throughout the set: “Drink. More. Water.” The next night at the Regency Ballroom in San Francisco, it’s no different. “Drink. More. Water.”
In his “just rapping” days, he was an undergrad at Oakwood University, a Christian school in Alabama. His first three mixtapes were mostly “wild shit and talking misogynistic,” because that was his understanding of rap. He says this the afternoon before the Regency Ballroom show, where he’ll open for labelmate and flagship Cinematic Music Group artist Joey Bada$$.
We talk about how he felt he was just imitating other examples. It’s not an uncommon creative practice. Author Joan Didion and gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson both transcribed Ernest Hemingway to learn the craft, and each found their unique departure from that source. In Jenkins’ case, he pantomimed his rap heroes until it he was ready to define his voice. He didn’t finish at Oakwood, but he did complete the Trees & Truth mixtape during his enrollment, and that tape marked a step towards a more spiritual path.
Still, he says he was mostly “bullshitting” and — though the details are never shared — this led to a campus arrest for possession. After the first week in jail, struggling to accept he was in a situation he never thought possible, Jenkins’ arrest began to alter his perspective. “I saw how it worked in there. I saw how people were treated,” he says. “I learned a lot and I wrote a lot of songs in there. Started a lot of songs from The Water[s] while I was in there.” When he was released after 34 days, he understood the influences that placed him in that system and knew that he was never going back.
After his release, he was “consuming a lot of different information, ideals, and opening up about the way [he] thought about certain things”, determining ways to better himself and sustain himself. “That was metaphorical with drinking water,” he explains. “This intaking of information, this intake of insight, this intake of experiences, is the same as intaking the proper amount of water. Keeping you healthy and keeping you alert. And keeping me healthy as far as living in this world goes.”
“I don’t believe that capitalism in the way that it’s run is for the betterment of the people. It’s not.”
In two days following Jenkins and his crew on tour, I’m witness to his off-the-record humor, his devotion, through a stage-side prayer, the antics of young men on tour, the stoicism of young men forced to grow up quick, and passionate performances that both drain and invigorate the 24-year-old. Much like there is never a singular meaning to a Mick Jenkins’ lyric, there does not exist a singular interpretation of his life.
Back in the Hotel Carlton, six floors up, the beds are still made. The room is pristine with a lone window guarded by soft curtains. Beyond is the crisp blue sky and the skyscraper skyline of the city, and discarded on the bed nearest the window is a BB gun. A Glock replica, the gun is matte black and the orange cap is its singular discernable indicator of being a toy. In my two days on tour these toy Glocks will be pointed at temples in joking threats and faux deadlocks of guns drawn; ball bearings ricochet off backstage doorways, Glocks tucked in belt lines while loitering in Victorian furnished lobbies, and close quarters firings in the backseats of a Mercedes Sprinter cruising down the coast between Santa Cruz and San Francisco. Young black children like Tamir Rice are murdered by police for carrying similar toys in public. Of course, the van of young black men are painfully aware of the implications. On the evening of July 21, weeks after my two-day stint on the tour, Mick Jenkins takes to Twitter with a barrage of pained awareness. It was the same day that new footage of Sandra Bland’s arrest was released. Two days later he tweeted: “Fear for my life everyday”.
When we talk about protest he maintains the same belief that protests are not effective in the way that he wants them to be, which is to make tangible progress.
“I don’t believe in politics,” he says. “I don’t believe in the judicial system. I don’t believe the laws are for the betterment of the people. I don’t believe that capitalism in the way that it’s run is for the betterment of the people. It’s not. So I can’t believe in pleading with… I can’t believe in begging the oppressor to stop oppressing us. It helps in ways that are not always tangible. So I can’t really tell you exactly how that helps. That’s frustrating for a lot of people. It’s frustrating for me.”
His music cannot be mistaken as protest either. The Wave[s] EP opens in serious circumstances, revisiting the weighted thought that permeated The Water[s], but he says the project was made as an escape from the conceptual depths.
Jenkins is at a desk in the corner of the room, rubbing aloe over a tattoo inked two days prior on his forearm. He has many tattoos and I get the impression none are without meaning. This one is an overlapping image of a moth, a star, the moon and the sun. He explains the metaphor initially as “moths follow the light. It’s about spreading the light and sharing my light as it represents the son of man.” Then he breaks it down further: “The metaphor for following the light is just Christianity. God is the light, all light, and the way to truth is the light. The moth really follows the moon, but that’s what furthers the metaphor for me because the moon gets its light from the sun.”
Spend enough time studying last year’s The Water[s] and you understand that Mick Jenkins’ propensity for coded language runs deep. H20 is the conceptual linchpin, understood as interchangeable for truth, which Jenkins uses to present an alternative to the worship of vices, violence, and riches. In the hotel he explains that the mixtape was originally called The Healing Component, but that instead became a song title, shortened to the acronym ‘THC’—one of his more obvious double entendres. In the year since its release his stay-hydrated mantra has not wavered; Wave[s] opener ‘Alchemy’ contains a “flooded the market” pun immediately after his three-word calling card: Drink. More. Water.
As enriched as he is, Jenkins doesn’t want to be misconstrued as someone without flaws and vices. He has no problem admitting his faults, both pre-existing and persisting. “Everybody’s got their shit, you know what I’m saying,” he says in the hotel room. “Whether it be vices or it’s problems. A vice to me would be something that’s constantly plaguing as opposed to a fuck up. And for me it’s just a constant struggle to get out of those things and not fall back into the habit.”
Despite being a form of expression and entertainment, rap music is used by law enforcement and the judicial system to justify surveillance, as probable cause, and in some cases to indict young black men. Lil Boosie, Chief Keef, Gucci Mane, and Young Thug accrue massive popularity and congruent “feds watching” scrutiny for this very reason. There are even cases of non-rappers perpetuating the criminal rap stigma by quoting lyrics in the courts and behind bars. Take convicted capital murderer James Broadnax, who when asked if there was anything he wanted to say to families of the people he killed, decided to quote Lil Wayne’s ‘I’m Me’: “Fuck ’em, fuck ’em, fuck ’em, even if they celibate / I know the game is crazy, it’s more crazy than it’s ever been / I’m married to that crazy bitch, call me Kevin Federline.” Every show on tour, Jenkins uses Broadnax’s unapologetic interview to illustrate why truth on record is a serious matter.
On stage in both Santa Cruz and San Francisco, Jenkins shares that controversial moment with his audience. While he doesn’t feel Lil Wayne is to blame for those murders, when it comes to his own music he will only give them the truth – there is too much at risk otherwise. With that, he launches into ‘Martyrs’, a track from The Water[s] with the lyrics: “I pray it’s never too preachy, but I’m preaching.”
“I’ve been told I have a menacing… not aura, but when I walk around I don’t look happy.”
On ‘Alchemy’, when he raps “they say I talk about water too much”, it’s self-effacing. The Wave[s] EP loosens the grip on serious matters to celebrate love and enlightenment. On ‘Your Love’, Jenkins mixes his water with Hennessy on a night out with the woman he’s out to give his love to. The Kaytranada-produced track has a pop bounce supplied by sinewy synths, but the heart of the matter is a topic Jenkins is exploring with fresh eyes. He’s holding down a long-distance relationship while on tour, and says that one of the greatest lessons he’s learned of late is that love means being able to ask for what you want.
Why do people shy from asking for something so simple? “Because of how it will make the other person feel. Because of how society perceives certain things. There’s a million reasons why people don’t do what they want to do and what they want to do is not wrong. It’s unpopular opinion or someone has voiced why they don’t like that. I say ‘what you want’ not in, like, a refusal to compromise, but lowering standards or settling.
“That’s why people don’t move forward. I understand that I really don’t know shit about this and most people don’t. So you need to be open with new ways. New ways of seeing things working. New ways of talking to people. New ways of expressing feelings. New ways of trying things. You have to be open to trying it because we are all different and we are all affected in different ways. Trying to have this type of connection with a person, there’s just so much to actually learning a person. There’s so much to actually loving a person at a higher level than what is common. Higher than what is shown and pushed by the media regarding what love is and what it should be.”
At the Santa Cruz show I overhear a nearby onlooker realise how frequently Jenkins invokes the call and response of “Drink. More. Water.”, as though it is taxing. Unfortunately, this is a consequence the well-intentioned must endure. The commentary at the end of ‘Alchemy’ is a glimpse into Jenkins’ thoughts on the matter: “You hear that?” — the record goes silent — “That’s how many fucks I could give.” It could be misread as typical rapper bravado, but he goes on: “Still I got love for a hater, would give up a rib”; “People tell me I’m that nigga now, but I know none of that shit is real.”
Back in the Carlton, Mick mentions ‘Treat Me (Caucasian)’, a track he did with Chicago’s Hurt Everybody. The concept began as a joke in the studio, but took on gravity once a song took shape. He orates the entirety of it in the hotel room, since I’ve never heard it, and it’s delivered without hesitation, the verse and chorus called up with ease, but there’s no performance to it. “Fuck my appearance, up that security clearance / Walk past security, they condescend, it’s apparent / All of these people are parrots, treat me caucasian / Come off that privilege, my nigga I need connections at Yale / Y’all talking doctrines or bail? Just need a doctor, I know you can tell.”
Spend two days in Jenkins’ company and he will smile and laugh as much as the average person. And yet, he knows that most people assume he has a grouchy disposition. He says with a laugh that a 6’ 5” black man doesn’t really scream “comedian”; his stoic facial expression comes off as unapproachable.
“I don’t purposely project it,” he says. “I understand how it could be perceived but it doesn’t bother me to change because that’s not who I am. My normal face, people will ask me what’s wrong. Well, nothing’s wrong. I’m just looking.
“I don’t feel the need to change that face just because you feel something might be wrong. It’s the same way with how I move. I’ve been told I have a menacing… not aura, but when I walk around I don’t look happy. I’m big and I’m overbearing. But it’s like whatever. I’m really just chilling right now.”
He laughs again and I’m reminded of something he said earlier in the interview, about how easy it is to write from a place of pain and awareness of his identity on ‘Treat Me (Caucasian)’: “It’s just a condition that came with my life.”