After a decade of chasing his musical dreams, SAINt JHN’s mainstream breakthrough came in a timely twist of fate.
As screen time skyrocketed this spring during the COVID-19 pandemic, an upbeat dance remix of JHN’s 2016 song, “Roses,” suddenly took off on TikTok. The viral rework by Kazakh producer Imanbek propelled “Roses” to No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100, earning collaborative co-signs from stars like J Balvin and Future and elevating JHN to the Billboard Music Awards stage.
“There’s something romantic about that—the world freezing and I kept going,” says JHN. “You do the drills, you plan, you prep, you coach yourself, and you’ve got to leave a little bit of room for magic.”
The singer-rapper—born Carlos St. John Phillips—knows a thing or two about beating the odds. He grew up in generational poverty, bouncing between Brooklyn and Georgetown, Guyana, while his mother struggled to support his family as a nurse’s aide.
“In Guyana, I was this barefoot kid bathing in the rain,” JHN recalls. “In America, I was this kid living a block from the projects, making sure the colors I wore didn’t communicate the wrong things.”
Drawing inspiration from his older brother, JHN started rapping at age 11 and released his first mixtapes in 2010. His tunes began bubbling up in the blogosphere and caught the ear of music executive Zach Katz, who invited the artist out to L.A. to write songs for Rihanna. However, none of JHN’s songs ended up being used, and he returned to New York in dejection. “The failures were my most healing moments when I really got to see myself and make adjustments,” he says. “The successes don’t teach you as much.”
Although he eventually placed a song with Usher, JHN was busy honing in on his own music project. He released his first full-length album, Collection, in 2018 and followed it up with Ghetto Lenny’s Love Songs in 2019. The releases allowed JHN to tour Europe and build a cult fan base, particularly in Eastern Europe, where Imanbek’s “Roses” remix first caught on.
JHN originally wrote “Roses” with Beyoncé in mind during his peak songwriting period. “I don’t know if she ever heard it,” he shrugs. “Maybe the story was supposed to be like this.”
Now armed with a billion-stream global hit, JHN is determined to maximize the moment. He just dropped his third album, While the World Was Burning, Nov. 20, featuring the likes of Kanye West, Lil Uzi Vert, DaBaby and Kehlani. “He has his own vibe, his own aesthetic, his own fashion, and he’s doing his thing,” says Lenny Kravitz, who is featured on JHN’s soulful duet “Borders.”
JHN has also launched two clothing brands—a high-end label called Christian Sex Club, catering to “silks, leathers and extremely premium textures,” he notes, and a streetwear imprint named NOT A CULt.
“The goal all along was to be in every format. To dominate every space. To conquer every niche,” he says. “I’m not dreaming small. If I’m gonna fail, I’m gonna fail big."
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How have you been staying creative during quarantine?
I was in the middle of my Australian tour, coming back home to take a seven day break and start the American tour and then go into the summer festivals. Then hitting back Europe in the fall and then South Africa to wrap it up. So right about right now, I would’ve been in South Africa. Actually, my alarm went off about a week ago when I was supposed to be in South Africa for whatever that festival was. So COVID changed touring for me and everybody else, but I got to go to work. I started working on music. I never had this span of time where I could just sit still and concentrate on music since 2016.
You know what I did? I figured out how to get seven and a half hours of sleep, bro. I figured out how to treat myself better. I thought I was treating myself well. I thought I loved myself. Then quarantine gave me an opportunity to slow down at a rate that’s better for my heart, soul and spirit going forward. So I slept. I started taking blackseed oil — I didn’t even know what that was before! Things that were better for me as a human being, things that made me have a greater sense of purpose and feel stronger, more flexible, more confident, more comfortable... I got to do that. I didn’t have to look in a mirror for any other purpose besides becoming a greater person. In these ten months, I stopped. I paused. I made music. I reflected on where I was trying to go next. And I replanned the next five years. On my song, “Reflex,” I said that, “I spent half a decade working on a blueprint”. That half a decade is already up, so I’ve got to replan the next five.
What was it like to see Imanbek's "Roses" remix take off over the past year?
So in 2016, I put "Roses" out. I put it out because I believed it was good enough, and it took me around the world. I performed in Russia two years consistently, back to back. Selling out thousands of seats, performing this record. In the fall of 2019, we hear a remix to “Roses,” but it’s a hit record in Russia.
I’ll give you a really short story: I remember going to the radio station last year. I sold out two cities. I’m doing Saint Petersburg and I’m doing Moscow. I go on the radio station, they want to interview me so I go, “Cool, let’s talk”. And I’m pretty direct so I go, “Where my records at? Start spinning my records." Because, in America, you’re coming from the underdog, the little guy’s point of view, fighting to get recognition, fighting to be remembered, fighting to stand out. Pushing to be specific and be an individual. So my approach from the start wasn’t to ask them. I just said, “Yo, put my records in rotation”. They said, “Yeah, we’ve got some of your records”. I said, “How many of my records have you got in rotation?” I shut the fuck up so fast. (laughs) But that was because my traction was so strong there... they had already taken a liking to my music, my identity. Long before other people on the planet understood me, in Russia, they got me. “Roses” had been a hit there for probably two years. So when I heard the remix, I was like, “Alright, this is cool”. But I had heard remixes before so I wasn’t necessarily moved... I didn’t think this was the record that would blow up. In my mind, this was already a record that had been working for me and would always be a record that stood tall in my catalog.
The audience grew. It went from just being a dark, brooding, incredibly cool-sounding record to being a record that could be accepted. That children could sing. Two-year-olds would want to sing. Just because it became easier on the ears. I like making things that are sharp. But sometimes the sharp edges cut deeper, and you don’t always need to cut deep for it to be impactful. It just needs to sometimes skim the surface. I say that in a really good way.
Sometimes the listeners don’t want to cut deep, they just want to take a ride and enjoy, right?
Absolutely. That makes sense. We don’t all wanna own something, some of us just want to have fun for three minutes.
The remix took a record that would normally cut deep and made it so it would only scratch the skin.
Yeah! In the most beautiful way. I’m just an inherently deep person, and I think about the things that I do. Things aren’t just casual for me, they’re real. I come from a real place. All the things I believe in are real and all of my heroes are real people. So I make things with a real purpose. So when this had a new face lift, when “Roses” got a new face lift, it just became fun. And it worked.
What's the inspiration behind your new single "Gorgeous?"
“Gorgeous” is like an affirmation. It’s almost like a selfie. If I took a selfie, made a song to it, and gave it to you in real time. Often times, by the time you get the photo, the photo has already been doctored and been passed around to three hands, the video’s already been enhanced, it’s already been edited and scrubbed a thousand times. I’m giving this to you in a metaphorical sense. So “Gorgeous” is just a selfie. Where I’m at right now, the time that I’m there with the colors in the background, my shirt wrinkled or not wrinkled… But in that picture is all my childhood dreams. Not all of them, but I’m a 12 year old boy in my head in that way, right? Because we’re all stuck in some sort of age in our minds — all of our dreams develop from that time and we add to that list. My dreams are from when I was like 12. So 12-year-old me got his Ferrari, I’m just taking a selfie. It’s not purely an end with a material gesture. These are my dreams. It could’ve been anything! It could’ve been a stone roof, it just happened to be a recognizable automobile. And I took a selfie.
What motivated you to launch the Christian Sex Club and NOT A CULt clothing lines?
All of us poor kids want more. That’s it. That’s the motivation. Depriving me from everything I have in my youth. I remember my Mom telling me a story. My pops used to wear one pair of pants, and he went to school with these one pair of pants forever and ever and ever and ever and ever. He told his mom, “I’d really like some pants. Could I have some more pants?” So my grandmother tells my dad, “Son, one day you gon’ have so many pants, you can’t count them”. And that happened for him. And then it happened for me. I remember those same deprivations. I remember counting those clothes that made me feel sexy, beautiful and certain about myself. I remember I could count how many of those pieces I had, and I would try to add to that. Now I’m gonna make them so people know where to find them. So people who feel the way that I felt have somebody, an architect, designing things for a future that they want to be in. So that they don’t have to relive a past that they didn’t want for themselves.
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What else is on the horizon for you?
I want to design wallpaper. It’s always been something that I’m interested in. Home goods. Wallpaper is the start of it. So just know that that’s probably something that I’m going to do. You’ll see all types of things, and I prefer to move quietly. I prefer to lead with my actions. I don’t speak too much about the future that I hold in my mind, but wallpaper. Whatever I do after that, just clap like it’s a surprise. But know I’m gonna do wallpaper.
Because I wanna be better. And I want the people that are inspired by me to want to be better. My thought process is... if you’re nine years old and you came to school and your friend told you, “Oh man, I got a SAINt JHN poster that’s really cool”, you would say to him, “Oh, that’s cool, that’s cute”. That’s a wallpaper. Just that... that idea for me.
Just doing it bigger.
Just doing it bigger, yeah. The canvas has grown, and I’d like it to be a plot across everything. The canvas ain’t just the canvas — I want the whole wall, I want the whole room. Give me the house and then give the lawn. And when you’re done with that, I’d like the neighborhood. And if you don’t mind, I’ll take the country with it.
Wallpaper the whole world.
Photography by: Jason Denison