You may have never heard of the name Jonathan Emile, but Kendrick Lamar has. Top Dawg and Jonathan have been in a tug-of-war over the track “Heaven Help Dem” off his LP The Lover/Fighter Document for some time now. As Noisey reported earlier in the year, Jonathan cold-called Kendrick to do a verse on the track. Jonathan’s team sent it over as well as K.Dot’s fee and waited. When they got the track back there was a shiny new Kendrick Lamar verse on it. They hit them back to tell them they were putting it out. And, according to Emile, there was no answer. Then they put it out and send another email 48 hours in, but still, no answer.
So it seemingly came out of the blue to Emile and his team when Top Dawg asked him to take the song down: “We agreed on the verse and everything was paid up…” Emile said. “So the song came out and then all of a sudden he’s like, ‘Yo. Don’t put the song up.’ This was five days after it dropped.”
That would sway most, but Emile’s got experience on his side. He’s already battled death and won. When he was diagnosed with cancer at 18 he didn’t think he’d make it. So he made a pact with himself that if he did he’d tell the world what he’d always wanted to say. The Lover/Fighter Document is that pact. It’s his contract with the world. But what will it matter if no one listens? Jonathan Emile’s ready to answer that question for you.
Emile Explains How “Heaven Help Dem” Got Cleared
HipHopDX: The first thing I want to talk about is the Kendrick Lamar verse on “Heaven Help Dem”. It’s now on the album, right?
Jonathan Emile: Yeah, for sure. The verse was always on the album. That’s what we had agreed to in the beginning.
DX: The Noisey article left us on a cliffhanger as to what actually happened after Top Dawg tried to block it. So how did it get on the album?
Jonathan Emile: Well, basically, we agreed on the verse and everything was paid up. And, the fact that I sent his camp at Top Dawg a courtesy email weeks prior to the release letting them know what the schedule was and that it was going forward. And I told them to hit me back if there was a problem. He listened to the verse and he just didn’t hit me back for a couple of weeks. So, consistent with our rollout plan we put the song out. So we had the final version of the song and everything and my verse didn’t change. So the song came out and then all of a sudden he’s like, ‘Yo. Don’t put the song up.’ That was five days after it dropped.
So, I was like, “Well, you guys were just cool and now the song is up. It’s not a question of me not releasing it. The song is out there.” So, they tried to strong arm me. I was like, “Listen, if I can take it down I will, but the song is already out.” Then he tried to front like, “Yo, it’s Interscope. Interscope is gonna take it down.” And I couldn’t understand what the problem was.
DX: And you were speaking with lawyers from Top Dawg?
Jonathan Emile: Yeah. So there’s been sort of no-chill on the part of his team. You know, it’s not beef but at the end of the day they pulled a pretty cowardly move. Because they couldn’t really do anything legally so they tried to block it on a copyright basis. But I had the copyright, and that track was recorded before he signed to Interscope so everything was airtight on my end. Because there was no copyright violation it didn’t hold up on Youtube, Soundcloud or anywhere else.
DX: So you went through legal processes on both sides of the equation?
Jonathan Emile: Yeah. My lawyers and I went through the whole thing and we contacted these corporations and there was no legal basis for them taking it down. So, they tried to fuck me and that was it.
The Lover/Fighter Document & Race Relations In America
DX: The song “Heaven Help Dem” has a distinct message, but, being from Canada, how do you view race relations in America?
Jonathan Emile: When you discuss race relations I think it has to do with the black diaspora in its entirety. My father is half-American, and as Americans you tend to think of it as an American problem, but I think it’s a problem with the entire diaspora. And, race relations… It’s not something that is going to be eliminated right away. I’m a student of Dr. King and I’m a student of Malcolm X and I’m a student of Mandela so I really do think love is the answer. But I do think there are some tactical, sociological and economic steps we can take to make things better. I’m no Talib or Jesse Williams on that tip, but I do feel that a first step is to discuss it and bring it out into the open and humanize the whole situation. We have some problems in our own community, which is a complete aside. We’re still dealing with the legacy of slavery and racism as well as criminal institutionalization. I feel like there’s a long way to go but we’re definitely moving in the right direction and if we can keep pushing in that direction and be vocal and participate in the process then we’ll get to the mountaintop.
DX: That takes us back to your The Lover/ Fighter Document LP where someone loves something so much they are willing to fight for it. Do you think the Internet helps or hurts these things?
Jonathan Emile: I’m hopeful because for every meme and every caricature and tap dance on the minstrel show there’s something real and powerful that comes out. Unfortunately, we have to dig to find the right gems that contain the content and the meaning, but I think we have to do a better job as artists and community leaders to educate and reach people. Not in a patronizing way but just by making it available. And it’s definitely not easy because of the corporate structure and society but it’s possible.
Emile Tells How Surviving Cancer Created The Album
DX: Could you go into the making of the project? It seems to have a unifying theme. Was that on purpose?
Jonathan Emile: Absolutely. I started writing this album when I was going through cancer. I was diagnosed when I was 18 and went through chemotherapy for two years. I beat it. And during that time I made a promise to myself that if I did beat it I’d make a contract to the world. That’s why it’s called The Lover/Fighter Document. And the contract was to shine some positivity. Shine some light on the world through my experiences. To show the beauty and the pain. And I did make it. And what I’m doing right now is I’m following my dreams. And the artists that inspired me made thematic albums. They made albums that had a thread, had a message through it. I never really just wanted to drop a mixtape. I wanted to make an autobiography of my struggle, but it’s an autobiography of a lot of people’s struggles whether it’s through health issues or school or injustice. Artists that influenced me like Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley, Public Enemy. These type of people made that kind of anthem themed music that encouraged people and uplifted people. So it’s an autobiographical as well as a creative project and it’s my contract to the game and to the world. And it’s not just about the art itself, it’s about the purpose of the art.
DX: Can you take us to the place you were when you thought may die, but if you don’t you’ll make the contract to the world you just spoke of?
Jonathan Emile: When I was diagnosed… I guess I haven’t told many people this. But I was basically sure that I was going to die. So what I immediately began to do is to spend time with the people that were the closest to me. It’s an amazing filter on life. You filter out bullshit. You filter out drama. You filter out people who aren’t really important. And, you focus on family, and you really focus on doing what you love and that’s really where I found music and I found writing my poetry. Basically, the project started as, “These are my thoughts before I leave. This is what I would have liked to share. This is what I would have liked to have been.” So in many ways the document was my last will and testament preparing myself for death.
The realization came as I was going through rounds and rounds of chemotherapy. And when I finally got to the radiation period, which was five rounds back to back every day, I thought, “Maybe I’m gonna make it through this.” When the prognosis was really good I wouldn’t get too high and think I was going to live, and when they would tell me my platelets were low and I wasn’t responding well I wouldn’t get too dire. I tried to keep that balance like whatever happens, happens. Let me write a song. Let me be with my family. So the realization that I might make it came towards the end.
And even afterward you can’t help but think, “When is it going to relapse?” So that recognition of your mortality for me just never really went away. I got homies who’ve been shot and been to jail, but that slow death gives you time to reflect and to write?
DX: Did you at one point think to yourself with all the pain, “Am I better off dead?”
Jonathan Emile: I think that’s really human. There’re so many tracks that didn’t make the album. One of the tracks was called, “Wash Over.” It was about giving up to fate. I never said no I’m not gonna take the medicine or treatment. If I had cancer in the U.S…
DX: You might have been Walter White in Breaking Bad…
Jonathan Emile: [Laughs] That’s real. I’d probably be dead. If my grandmother decided to move to New York instead of Montreal then I probably wouldn’t be here. And that’s kind of why I chose The Lover/Fighter Document because I really feel like I got a second chance and a third chance. I really felt lucky. I can’t give up.
DX: Do you think if you didn’t have cancer before the Kendrick Lamar situation that you would have fought as hard? Or has the experience of surviving cancer transformed you in some way?
Jonathan Emile: Definitely. Tragedy and adversity tests you, and how you respond to it sort of defines who you are. I don’t know. If everything was handed to me, maybe I wouldn’t be the person I am today. I have to thank my parents. That relentless resilience was something that was really instilled in us. You can’t give up. You have to think harder and feel more and connect more and that’s the whole game of life.
DX: I have to ask. After all this, what if no one listens to the music?
Jonathan Emile: You know if there’s one thing you can say about black people or soulful people in general [is] you gotta do what you gotta do to make your soul feel right. Whether this album works out or not it doesn’t mean I’m going to stop doing music. It’s not an either/or proposition. To tell you the truth if I didn’t go through cancer I’d probably be a lawyer right now. But after going through cancer it puts everything in perspective. And if I was going to do music I was going to do it in the most passionate and intelligent way possible. We’ll see if it works or not. But it will definitely work on an artistic and a soul level. We’ll just see if people hear it or not.