Warrior Poet: The Music of JM the Poet
In both Deja Vu and Insomniac Pack, JM the Poet presents a vision of strife, perseverance and eventual success. Ahmed Ragheb speaks with JM about music, professional fighting, and that journey to success while trying to get at what exactly makes his music so compelling.
JM the Poet makes music that fights; it punches, kicks, shoves, dodges, ducks, and delivers counterpunches that leave you spinning. It is determined, combative, almost aggressive music—and it is brilliant. This kinetic movement and energy is present throughout all of the South Carolina-raised, Pittsburgh-based rapper’s music but especially so on his 2020 Deja Vu and the excellent 2021 follow-up EP, Insomniac Pack. The music is combative, yes, but it is not violent—this is an important distinction. Violence is ignorant and cruel but the music of JM is nothing of the sort; rather, there is a wisdom and a tremendous control to the combative nature of his music and lyrics. When really heard, his music is less an expression of aggression than it is a study in it.
Imagine my strange satisfaction, then, when I discovered that JM is in fact a fighter. An actual fighter—a competing mixed martial artist with two wins under his belt. I met with JM to talk about all things relating to his art, which included his fighting. “Martial arts is an art. Music is art,” he said. JM views all of his outlets, from photography (he’s also a photojournalist) to fighting to rapping, as art, which means he doesn’t have to change his mentality when navigating his various passions. “I can just go from working in the studio to going to the gym and not have to switch.” Among his passions is poetry. “Before I even started performing rap for real, I was performing poetry. I used to write verses and perform my verses as poems. And then I got into spoken-word even deeper because of that,” he said. “People knew me as a poet before they knew me as a rapper.”
On Deja Vu and Insomniac Pack, JM dives headfirst into worlds of sleepless hustling, blood, sweat, tears, failure, progress gained and progress lost, successes achieved and successes yet to come. The two together paint a musical picture of a man making his way through a seemingly endless cycle of trials and tribulations, the lines between exhausted waking moments blurring with dreams, fantasies, and nightmares. With music and martial arts, JM has learned to push himself to the limits of human endurance. “[It’s] that mentality of getting rid of distractions, getting rid of that feeling of I don't want to do this anymore, I can't do this anymore or I want to quit and completely ignoring it while continuing to put yourself in a situation that makes you feel it even more,” he said. “But that’s how you make progress; you get comfortable being uncomfortable.”
Deja Vu is also, despite its pain, an exercise in the power of positive thinking and visualization. Several times on the album, as the title suggests, JM refers to the concept of turning his “dreams into deja vu”—visualizing the goals and lifestyle of his dreams so clearly that, through his waking struggles, they eventually become real and, as he lives them out, he will faintly recall, with that bizarre and mysterious feeling we’ve all experienced, having already lived this or that life before. Wanting something and visualizing it until you have it sounds simple enough, sure, but how do you actually get there?
Lurking behind every corner of JM’s musical world is an obstacle—to put it lightly—something seeking to crush him and set him back, hold him down, keep him locked in his Sisyphean struggle. “It doesn't matter what I’m going through. I know what I’ve got to do—I’ve got to hustle, I’ve got to keep going. I’ve got to make something happen.” he said. “That's the mentality I have in a lot of my music.” It is through a kind of Olympian determination that he breaks himself free of those tormenting cycles, fights back, and makes “something happen.” He manages, in his music, to “punch back,” but not at a person or even a system of oppression (per se) but at that intangible, amorphous thing that keeps us all from success and happiness. But he’s not punching blindly or madly into the void; on the contrary, he is laser-focused. “You’ve got to learn how to direct it,” he said. “You’ve got to learn where to place it and how to place it.” In many ways, the album is about two (roughly defined) categories of struggle: the outer and the inner.
JM defines the outer struggle acerbically throughout his music. It’s a struggle against shadowy figures who seek to do him harm (fellow—albeit, less enlightened—strugglers, perhaps?) and a country explicitly designed to hold him down. Insomniac Pack, an EP whose cover features two piercing eyes set against an all-consuming black backdrop, closes out with a track that perfectly calls to mind those shadowy figures. “Downfall” begins quietly, almost deadpan, with JM asking, “Why they been praying for my downfall? / They can only see me when I’m down dawg / I can see ‘em talkin’ shit but the sound off.” This track is as clear an elucidation as any of the very real-world arena we find ourselves in while listening to JM’s music. We are in it now, paranoia setting in. Kill or be killed—the fighter must come out. “Ain’t gon never let a n**** knock my crown off / They don’t want the one on one….” He then breaks off into a fevered high pitch, a sort of mocking tease that invites you to try him—or rather, bets that you won’t. The whole thing has the feel of those short, frenzied seconds before fists (or bullets) begin to fly; it’s the moment when you can feel the weight of the air turn heavy and that heaviness moves into your bones and teeth as you realize the course of events cannot be changed. It’s incredibly powerful and frustratingly short—I’ve never once listened to that track (it’s 1:34) and not wanted more.
On Deja Vu, though, the outer struggle extends far beyond these individual agents of terror, as JM himself sings it, “Still feel like the universe is after me.” On “Live” he cries out, “Me and all my n***** tryna live / [...] Ain’t nobody out here playing fair / Me and all my n***** tryna / Get it out, get it in / Fuck tryna be a citizen.” So begins the track that asks without asking why bother trying at all in a place where the deck is stacked against you, why bother trying to be a civilized member of a society that is only civilized on the shallowest of surfaces? On “Deja Vu,” JM pulls the question out further, proclaiming, “the government knows no loyalty,” and points a righteous and accusatory finger at the “strange fruit [still] hanging on your tree.” On “Muthama’s Interlude (Function, Pt. 2)” JM gives the spotlight to Kenyan-born, Pittsburgh-raised Victor Muthama for an incredibly cutting political indictment of our broken system. The outward pressures of a world and government out for blood are eclipsed only by the inward struggles that exist on the rest of the record.
JM the Poet may well be the protagonist of his music but what is so arresting is that he is not always the hero. That inner struggle is just as consuming, just as wrenching as the outer struggles mentioned above. On “Get Up, Get Right” JM, by his own description a villain, tries to balance his ambitions and mental well-being with the needs of those he loves:
I’m feeling like a villain
Like I’m willing to be distant
Feel more guilty when I’m chillin
I’m healing but not really
I’m in a different city
While my family cry
I’m Mr. Freeze
Keep my heart colder
It’s putting my mind at ease
Emotions are a boulder
I’m bolder without them, please
I need to get myself on a level where I can breathe
The outer and inner struggles explored in Deja Vu merge on the final track, “Diamonds.” JM’s ability to push through the pressure, weight, and strain of the world forces out a stronger, better version of himself—just like a diamond transformed under the most extreme of conditions. The song is a look back on all of the struggles presented on the previous tracks—the constant uphill climb of someone unwilling to allow a single moment to pass them by. Whereas tracks like “Insomniac” are about the heat of the hustle while you’re in it, and a song like “Deja Vu” presents the strange semi-disbelief at success, “Diamonds” reflects on the painful process of getting there. It’s a remarkably honest track and not at all surprising that JM picked it as the song most representative of his personality and his story, when I asked him. “It’s a song speaking to myself,” he said of it. Indeed, the song, which closes out the album, features JM speaking directly to himself in second-person, recapping the pains of the pasts but reframing each of them as victories, moments of self-improvement and perseverance: “You kept your head down and kept pushing forward / Not a thing can stop you not that heartbreak when you lost your woman / Not that new cat either / No distractions you keep marching on / Might not know the reason but I trust the process now I’m doing / The things I dreamt in dreams in cold nights without the heat / Trying to build foundations that can last even through defeat.”
No matter what it is he’s fighting, it’s clear from the first few seconds of almost every song that JM the Poet is a fighter. He writes and performs with an aggression that is not wild or reckless, but that, in fact, has been refined and sharpened to a point, like that of a blade, but not of a dagger—one designed to hurt—instead more like a sculptor’s knife with which to carve a better life for himself and those around him. That careful process of refinement takes the dedication of a true warrior.
I’m not a combative person—at least, I don’t think I am; I don’t raise my voice much, I’ve never been in a fight (garden-variety roughhousing aside, of course), I don’t like action movies, I don’t even watch (or play!) contact sports. I’m not a pacifist either, mind you, I’ve just always felt there were more efficient ways to expend my energy; but fighting, it has its place in the world, in all of our lives—a variable piece of our collective and individual personalities—and in our art. So what does JM the Poet, through his brilliant Deja Vu and Insomniac Pack,teach us about fighting and aggression? That they are misunderstood and often mismanaged, being so closely related to the chaos that we, in our daily lives, try so hard to avoid. Likewise, they are closely tied to hate and violence but they need not be. Aggression is both an outcome and a tool—at once an outcome of harsh and difficult circumstances and a tool to extricate oneself from said circumstances. It is the fire within each and every one of us that gets us through the day, whether we appear outwardly aggressive or not. My love for JM’s music and my admiration for his drive, I realized, came from this very idea, that my apparent lack of aggression did not equal a lack of fight, that his message—as a poet and a warrior—applied to all those who struggle against something, inner or outer. I asked him who his audience is. “Anybody that has a goal, anybody that has a dream, anybody that wants to do something—period,” he said. His album comes out swinging—not at you but for you. Even if you’ve never thrown a punch, I’m sure you’ve taken one—literally or figuratively—and if you’re at the end of your rope, queue up JM the Poet, turn the volume up, get your gloves on, your mouthguard in, and get ready to finally fight back. ▲
Ahmed Ragheb is an independent filmmaker from Cairo, Egypt. He is now based in Pittsburgh and, with his partner, Lily, he is working on a series of short films. You can follow along with them on social media at @dogdoorfilms!