With The Renaissance Project launching next month, Editorial Revolutionary Juwan J. Holmes is publishing his 3 PhotoViews from his time at Humans of Hip Hop in their originating, unfiltered format, in addition to two previously unreleased PhotoViews — including this one. This serves as a preview of the kind of content or topics of discussion that will happen at The Renaissance.
You’ll be hard pressed to meet another Earth-connected, balanced creator than Yoh (shortened from Yoh the Shaolin). A portion of the Poetic Thrust and 99SUBLIME collective in addition to his solo artistry, the Brooklyn-born native regularly captivates audiences at venues such as the Brooklyn Bowl, Mercury Lounge, Elsewhere Lounge, and Webster Hall. Nothing’s Original’s Mackenzie Tucker wrote of Yoh’s body of work as including an “one of a kind sound, and his lyrical content is enough to bring tears to your eyes,” while POND Magazine pontified it by saying his work “explores the thin line that intense feelings of love and lust…”
I talked with Yoh, donning the jacket featured in the cover of his single “Vices” as we explore the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, and like 99SUBLIME’s objective, we sustained a very dialectical conversation. Even through reading it, you sense the “embedded…respect for ambience and nature” that POND also noted in their write-up. His latest solo album, Tales Over Tea and Poetic Thrust’s latest EP, All Water, are available now.
“Hip hop treats me like a student, for sure. And as a student, there’s always something to learn, especially when you have a demanding teacher…I feel like you should always be open minded to that.”
So, tell us who you are.
“My name is Yoh, I am a musician, a mixed media artist from Brooklyn, New York — that’s where I’m from and currently reside.”
What makes you a Human of Hip Hop?
“I would say a lot of things…I feel like, for one, I’m definitely just a receiver in which all of these energies are transmitted through, and hip hop is just one of the forms that it takes. At my core, I love music, and fortunately hip hop is one of my favorite genres that allows me to choreograph into, because it’s so accepting of all…there’s so many ways you can go about translating that. So many styles, so many figures, it’s a beautiful thing.”
When did you first realize that hip hop was transmitting to you?
“Probably like, junior [year of] high school. I used to listen to a lot of rock music and [West] Indian music — I have West Indian family, so a lot of reggae, soca influences but I ended up hearing some — I always wrote a lot of poetry that was very synonymous to hip hop, and similar to other guys or inspired a lot of guys that do what I do, or like, “how did they achieve that sound? Like, I want to do that.”
Mmhmm. And so, it just started from there.
“Yeah, pretty much.”
How do you — how do you feel about hip hop right now?
“I mean, I will always feel the same way about hip hop — I love it. I love it with all my heart. It’s one of the first things that I’ve ever felt truly connected to. That’s — It’s around me, family, friends, outer body experiences…there’s no way I could ever turn my back on it.”
…And how do you feel like hip hop has treated you?
“Hip hop treats me like a student, for sure. And as a student, there’s always something to learn, especially when you have a demanding teacher…I feel like you should always be open minded to that.”
Okay. What’s one thing — what’s the first lesson that hip hop taught you?
Work hard, okay. *Laughs*
“Grind. Like, bust your ass. ’Cause nothing comes easy, and, in hip hop, it’s like one of those genres where if it comes extremely easy, you’re almost like — I mean, you may be seen as like a prodigy — but if things are just handed to you, then you don’t get…there’s no respect for it…”
Then you don’t get it.
“Then like, yeah, you don’t get it. Hip hop is like a thing of struggle, though. So is music. Music is about the stories you sing… the music coming from beautiful, deep places that are meant to be explored.”
How do you connect yourself, your vibe to poetry, to hip hop? Does it come [as] natural, or do you have to force the connection, or kind of like in between?
“It’s a little bit of both. I feel like, I have an affinity for it, and hip hop is like an element. I feel like I naturally gravitate towards it because I like being open and honest and telling stories, and that’s kind of what hip hop is at its core, its people telling stories, telling tales…whether it comes in the form of some dude saying like ‘yeah, I got a lot of money and drugs’, or someone telling a love story, it’s literally just…tales.
So what does your tale look like? Is it like a Lion King story — I thought of that ’cause we’re in the desert exhibit — but is it more like a Mulan…Is it Disney or is it like, um, Tarantino?
“Neither, because those are all someone else’s story. I’ve…I’ve figured out my purpose — not even in hip hop, but my purpose as a musician is to create energy and good vibes so people can receive them, in the same way that I am the receiver to certain things that I transmit, and it’s my duty to transmit that energy. I feel like it’s my purpose to take in the energies that are kind of just floating in the æther, take them in, channel them and redirect them outwardly to people that don’t necessarily know how to…or rather, don’t understand, what it is they want… or sort of how to vibe out.
“I seriously just want to create spaces in which people can feel. Some sort of healing or like, spiritual…just a deeper connection then something that’s very surface level.”
In every show that you do, what’s the feeling you want to give everybody there?
“Chills. So, at the last show I played — at most shows I play, I always repeat a mantra. I’ll always start by saying, ‘Yo, you know, everybody’s vibing, drinking, having a good time, but let’s reset. Let’s cleanse our palette. Join me in a couple of deep breaths before we start.’ I’ll just have everyone inhale, exhale, do a couple of deep breaths, and then I’ll be like, ‘alright, let’s get into it.’ That sort of brings everyone to a nice hush.”
Do you ever feel frustration, or any type of negative feelings about anything in hip hop, or like the state of it?
“Oh, yeah, obviously. I mean, sometimes, I feel like people…it’s like, at its core, it’s power. And any time people get power, people can either use it for good or something bad. And I feel like when I see something I love being used for something negative, it does make me feel a way…but at the same time, it’s not my job to tell anybody what to do with their gifts or whatever. Just as I’m choosing to do with it what I will, it’s also up to you to do what you will, you know? I’m no different from the next guy, to tell you how to go about doing what you do…what does that make me?
Do you feel like you have power?
“Oh, yes. But it’s like, tapping into it, that’s the form.”
If you could set the example to others…or at least teach them about your power, what would you tell them?
“Tell them to relax, tell them there’s whole…not even a world, there are worlds outside of what yours and mine is like, just when you think your scope has broadened-”
There is more.
“There will always be more than you…and, you know, a lot of people never get that opportunity to see outside of that, but it’s just knowing that it’s there, that there’s something bigger than you, that’s the important factor as to how we got here and where we go.”
What’s your favorite part about hip hop?
“My favorite part is learning, and meeting people. All the people and experiences this has bought me, the places that it’s bought me, the places it’s beginning to bring me, that’s definitely my favorite part about hip hop. It’s a beautiful thing.”
So what about nature, cause we’re in the Botanical Garden right now — what about nature speaks to you through hip hop?
“So, like I said, I firmly believe in learning and expanding and breathing and just taking in. I feel like I’ve learned a lot of that, just by feeling or being in the proximity of plants. I feel like no one knows more about birth than plants. So it’s like, whenever I’m at a stagnant point, or if I need inspiration, I’ll say, “let me go learn from the grandmasters, let me surround myself with the wisest.” They’ve been doing this shit for years. I’m only ! I’m only a speck of dirt in comparison.
I see, like this plant here — it was 76 years old, but it’s 97 now.
“They’re so familiar with the life cycle. I’m already…learning this shit now. I’m still at a very infantile stage of my life, and they’ve been doing this for years. They’ve had roots and leaves die, and then give birth to them again and again. It’s one of the most beautiful process. I’m just saying.
I feel like this is a double-edged question, but do you ever feel like nature rejects you? In the same way, do you feel like hip hop rejects you?
“No, and yes. I never feel like nature has rejected me, because I’ve always felt super welcomed, I’ve always felt safe in nature…whereas hip hop, that’s another demon. Hip hop is man made, whereas man is involved in anything, there’s sure to be some sort of problem, whereas nature…it just is. Nature was here first; it’ll probably be here last — if we take care of our planet. Nature doesn’t have to worry about how many followers it has on Instagram. It doesn’t care, it doesn’t give a fuck. So it’s like, ‘if it doesn’t, then why should I?’ This is who I want to learn from, these are the little things that last forever.”
Do you feel like hip hop has to worry about its followers on Instagram?
“The people within it sometimes do — they don’t have to, but they choose to…and that’s cool. I mean, I get concerned about things like that sometimes until I realize how stupid it is. Like, all things that you actually, truly want, come with time, come with hard work, if you’re active and passionate about it. If you’re working, literally all those things come to you. I actually had to remind myself, because I forgot about that until I walked in here. Looking at this, here’s a tree that’s not worried about how big it’s going to get. You know, this process literally takes years.
“I think about this tree that I have outside of my house, and I remember when I got it, it was smaller than me and now it’s three times my size!”
Do you feel like it grew with you, or do you feel like it grew alongside you?
“It outgrew me! Like, it far exceeded me. It’s like, we grew together, but it’s taken in more energy, more natural energy, but the fact is it’s different, so it thrived. Its roots are planted way deeper in — but it’s beautiful to say I’ve been able to care for something that was able to outgrow me.”
So, in nature you have trees, and trees produce oxygen, and that’s what keeps us going, for the most part…
This is facts.
So, what do you feel like is the tree equivalent of hip hop? Is it an era or a person, or something specific that keeps it going?
“It’s music. You can break it down all you want into different genres, like hip-hop, ambiance, electronic…if you think about it, music is literally just the imitation of nature. Every sound that you can possibly think of, is something that can be found in nature. No matter how digital it sounds, it’s going to come from something like that. All these airy sounds, that’s wind, kicks are like thunder, all those fluid, loose textures, they have airy and aquatic elements. Fast, powerful — even peoples’ delivery in their vocals, all of those can be broken down into elements. You know, when you hear a trap song, where it goes super hard, there’s so much fire in that person’s voice, even their body is rigid, whereas when you hear a love song, it feels liquid-like — the atoms and the vibrations are moving so differently. It’s just a matter of tapping in and being open to the connection.”
So you were saying hip hop is man-made, as compared to nature… do you think hip hop, do you feel like it’s close to its end? Or do we have a long way to go?
“No, hip hop is still in its baby stage. I mean, yeah, there have been many predecessors and it has taken many forms…that’s like the funny thing, ’cause there’s all these new subgenres coming out, people are talking about things like mumble rappers, x, y, z…how they don’t like this, but if you think about it, that’s literally what hip hop was when it stemmed from jazz, or when jazz stemmed from, when it came from other forms of music. It broke all the rules, that’s what it was, hip hop and all of the music is — it’s really just dismantling of a system that somebody else placed, so it’s like, if you’re not following any sort of convention or doing things different, obviously the people that are purveyors and pioneers of it are not going to feel threatened, because…that’s different. ‘I don’t like how that sounds, It doesn’t have this, it doesn’t have x, y, z…’
“I think as long as it connects with somebody, that’s cool. You know, there’s millions of songs, probably trillion of songs. Like, just think about America alone, think about the rest of the world, the different continents, the different countries, the different dialects, the different scales, the different sounds…like, there’s no way that somebody can’t enjoy music or can’t sync up with something. There’s really just too much for there not to be room for creating.
How do you view your peers? Do you feel like, it’s competition or is it like, all together in a group?
“Oh yeah, we’re family. And, I think, at this point, we all know that, our place in music, hip hop and history, it’s…engrained, it’s literally not going anywhere. I feel like before, when we were coming up together, it might have felt like that because we were in such close proximity to each other, all testing out new sounds and when you see how — you see the effects of what someone’s music has on a larger audience, that may make you feel like “why doesn’t my stuff illicit that same reaction?” but then, I think all of that comes with growth. Learning, being open to understanding…looking at the last couple of months, I feel like I’ve had a crazy growth. Um, just like, man, I’ll hear sounds and it’s not even a type of jealousy, it’s just like…“wow, I want to learn how to do that…” or rather, I want to work with the people that learn how to do this, because they’re obviously tapping into something deeper and I want to learn how to do that.”
So even for the people that may not like you, or may be the opposite of what you’re trying to gain or go with, do you feel like you’re still family?
“Yeah, well I mean, it depends. If it’s within my circle, that’s the most beautiful thing about it. Like, the collective that I’m part of, and the band I’m part of — the collective is called 99SUBLIME, the band is called Poetic Thrust — 99 is the first time that I’ve ever felt connected to people that all come from such different walks of life, and music, and sounds. So it’s 7 of us, and we all make various types of music, and somehow they all blend together and fit so well. It’s crazy.”
How did 99SUBLIME come together?
“In college. It’s kind of crazy, just the path of how we all got to meet. My boy Jak had seen me played my first show at Purchase. And, that first semester was weird, and I was thinking of not coming back, and this girl Alice introduced me to the music of my boy ENxVE, and I checked out his stuff, and I was like, “this stuff is insane. I’ve never heard hip hop like this. This stuff is, like, absolutely out of this world.” Then I met him and our other friend, [Devoye], who’s a producer from the same town, they went to high school together. And then, right when I thought about not coming back, I went to this event during the summer called ‘Free Candy’ and, I ran into them there. And I was like, “wow, this is like a pretty underground event and you guys found your way here, you’re not from the city, that’s tight.” Then we just chopped it up a little bit, and we found so many similarities and realness between us, and we were like, ‘yo, when we get back to Purchase, man, we have to hang,’ And when we got back, we found out we were all living on the same floor, just like, a few floors down, and we were like, bet.”
So it sounds like (…ooh, the fragrances…) it came together naturally, like it was set up to be this way.
“Very naturally. That was fate, man. Like, it’s funny, I say this shit to them all the time, but that shit’s destined to happen.”
Are you a person that believes every single thing is destiny or just some things…?
“I think you create your own. Yeah, I do believe, but I also believe that you have the ability to move things forward. I’m a strong believer in manifestation. Like, if you want something, if you truly want something, the universe will conspire for you to have it.”
Okay…What are you and the universe conspiring to get right now?
Everything? Oh, that’s big. *Laughs*
“I know, but I know I can say it, because I — not even in a cocky way, it’s like I’m truly am passionate about, like — it’s not even something I can put into words. It’s like, you kind of have to be there. You got to hear it, you have to feel it.
Does trying to get everything ever get too big?
“Always. Everything is infinite. You know, as people, we’re infinite. It’s just a matter of taboo.”
So if you weren’t doing hip hop, as if hip hop was not part of your life, what would you be doing?
“Probably some other sort of genre. I mean, I want to encompass all the styles of music. All of those styles.”
So you would be doing some type of music, no matter what.
“Yes, definitely. Hip hop is not the only genre that I dab in, but it’s definitely the one that I’m most proficient in.”
Before junior year of high school, what did Yoh, the musician, look like?
“He didn’t exist — or maybe he existed, but in a different form. I wasn’t him yet. It was like he was there, but we didn’t link.”
So what was the form that was there before?
A person, who shall remain anonymous.
“Yeah. The vibe is always there until you tap into it, you know? That’s when you bring awareness to it.”
You were saying that hip hop was a really tough teacher, have you ever considered, like, getting a new teacher? Or, not a new teacher, but quitting the study? If so, what bought you back?
“Well, it’s interesting, I would describe, I would actually say the music is like the tough — the loving teacher, and hip hop is probably, acts as the tutor, the student that came before you, that wants to guide you along the way, you know…there’s so many genres that really all link and play into one another, but again, at its core, everything is music, and you can go into rock or do any genre you want, as long as you’re willing to do it.
So what’s the latest lesson you’ve learned, whoever gave you your last lesson.
“Just be open. Trust the process. Trust the process.”
What recently taught you that? Was it something recent or…?
“‘I had a pretty crazy otherworldly experience in a national park, there were just shooting stars and among deep conversations and heavily immersed in nature, and it was lifechanging. Somehow, when I left, it was like entering another world when I left that. I just, I understood. I was like, ‘word, okay. I get it.’”
You know how, right now, the environment is going through — let’s say a crisis, where it’s like, a lot is happening, and people are saying the nature, as we know it, is going to end soon. How do you feel about those environmental issues and things like that?
“Honestly, I’m very passionate about it. That’s another reason why I want to use the platform that I have, because I feel like once I build that up enough, that’s when people will listen and take you seriously. I would love to be actively out here. I would love to partner with National Geographic Wild and be on these excursions, like bringing awareness to plants and all of those things, that would be really dope because that’s important.”
Other than nature, what about National Geographic would you love to be part of?
“I think they’re just an amazing organization. I watch a lot of NatGeo Wild and it just brings so much awareness to the things that people don’t think about, or people never see up close in their lifetime. Like wolves and sharks and different creatures, so many things different creatures that inhabit our planet…but somehow people don’t believe in things like climate change, or [life on] other planets or other solar systems…if we can exist as we are here, on this piece of a planet…what the fuck makes you think that there’s nothing else out there? Like, you’d have to be the most small-minded person on the planet.”
*Laughs* That’s a pretty strong statement.
“It is. I’m sticking to it.”
What is your favorite place of nature that you’ve been, and what’s one natural place that you would like to go to?
“I mean, I love the [Brooklyn] Botanical Garden, that’s why I chose it, here, literally here, y’know? There are so many places, it’s hard to say…I’d love to go to Yellowstone. Yosemite. More national parks. Places around the world…Tokyo’s national parks, different mountain ranges, which is why I can’t pull away from being outdoors, because it’s different.
I assume forest type places would be your favorite type of range, region to be in…
“Oh, yeah. Deep forest. Canyons…”
Have you ever been…scared? Or ever felt fearful when you’re out, in general?
Actually, let me say it this way. Do you feel safer in the forest compared to the street?
“…Nope. I mean, it depends where you are, [but] forests don’t have laws, doesn’t have rules. Here, in the city, everything is so contained, and man-made, and people can break those rules, but there’s still a confine of laws that you’re meant to exist in. When I’m not in that, there’s no laws, you are literally…out here. If there are wild animals that want to attack you, they will attack you. Like, you have to have a deep respect for it.
Do you ever feel scared of like, a wild animal popping out or coming for you or something?
“Yeah, sometimes, but again, you have to have respect for it. If you’re around, like, a baby deer…or like, I was in Alaska for a few months…”
“If you see a baby moose, you should stay away from it because its mother is nearby, and the mother will kill you. If they perceive a threat because you’re in range, and you’re actively getting closer, you’re not respecting that space. You’re not respecting their land.
“It’s like, the ocean. The ocean goes deep and it’s a beautiful thing, but it’s also powerful and it’s claimed…hundreds of thousands of lives, probably millions.”
You know, they say we’ve only explored 10% of the ocean.
And it makes up, like-
“¾ of our planet.”
Right, so that means that like, half of our world has not been explored.
“Yeah, that’s true, and if you barely know what’s going on on ¾’s of your planet, how can you begin to have an idea, or an understanding, out there. It blows my mind, it’s like, you literally can’t even have the conversation, you’re not smart enough to have the conversation.” *Laughs*
*Laughs* …What’s your favorite animal?
“Favorite animal, I have lots of favorites…there’s also a lot of animals I haven’t encountered that could become a favorite, but I definitely love…sea turtles, for sure. They’re like, my spirit animal.”
Sea turtles, interesting. So, you feel like you’re a sea turtle, in a way? Is that synonymous with you?
“To a degree, I remember the first time I encountered sea turtles, I was like — woah. These things are trippy.”
I feel like turtles are also good indicators of nature. Like, they live for hundreds and hundreds of years!
“Yeah, they have very long life spans.”
As opposed, to the average human is 70…90…100, if they’re lucky.
“A minute, it seems like.”
So, you went to Alaska…did you like it? Was it cold?
“I loved it. I was there for, a month or two? It was during a springy, summertime, so it’s like, 24 hour daylight, pretty much.”
Ohhh, because it’s that close to the sun.
“Sun barely went down…lots of nature. Clean air. I did go up to the mountains, the mountainous region, saw some orcas, some otters, went crazy…”
Is there…hip hop in Alaska?
“Good question. I didn’t really get to explore it, but…there’s hip hop everywhere.”
Do you think it’s like, crazy different from New York hip hop?
“No, New York is the birthplace, I feel like wherever hip hop is, it’s a derivative of the O.G.”
“So, it could be different, but at its core, it’s — not trying to be — but like, stems from the birthplace of it.”
I’m going to try to roll with Alaska here. Let’s say — I just can’t imagine, because I don’t like the cold, but — say there’s no hip hop in Alaska, would you be the one to introduce it…
“Oh, I would love to.”
So, would you go to any space where you would be the one to introduce hip hop, or would you rather –
“Yep, as long as people are welcome and open to the idea, totally.”
Do you feel more comfortable doing that than a space where you already feel hip hop has been established?
“Nope. Not necessarily. I would totally love to introduce it into a space where, it’s not already. To be honest, I feel comfortable in any environment, introducing hip hop, because I know my style is definitely going to be different than someone else’s or I have ideas and different experiences than somebody else’s. So it may resonate with some people, or they might not like it at all, but I guarantee they would definitely tune in to it all.”
What’s an identifier for you to recognize [another] hip hop person? Can you smell it, can you see it, can you hear it?
“Oh, like another performer?”
Just in general, like, how do you know that someone is, like, a person in love with hip hop or in hip hop?
“You don’t; how do you know anyone is anything until you talk to them, until you share an experience…
“It’s like, I don’t know if you like hip hop. You’re asking me all these questions about hip hop, but I never asked if you like hip hop. You can hate hip hop and I wouldn’t know that about you without asking, you know?”
That’s, that’s a good point. That actually could be true, I mean, it’s not — I don’t hate hip hop — but it could be.
“People come with a lot of preconceived notions, like, I know people that are adults and — this is why parental approval is some of my favorite when it comes to music — because there’s like, there are people like, all these older people that are like, ‘I don’t like to listen hip hop, it’s too violent,’ but when they see me perform, they’re like, ‘wow, I honestly didn’t even know that could be a thing…’ and I’m just like, see, I don’t need to drop a ton of n-bombs and shoot-this, shoot-that, there are other narratives, there are other things to say.”
What’s your narrative, or what you’re trying to say? If you had one sentence, one phrase to get your narrative across, what would it be?”
“It’s cool to be different.”
Oh. I like that.
“It’s definitely cool to be different. You definitely could…trust the process.”
What’s the one thing you have to say to other Humans of Hip Hop?
“Love what you do — treat it with respect. It’s a powerful thing. Don’t underestimate it.
“That’s about it — or, that’s at least what I’ve learned for now. I mean, I’ve been on this journey for a while, but I still haven’t even put in close to as many hours as my favorites, or people I consider as legends, and they have at least 30 years on me, 20–30 years…”
…Do you think you’re nearing graduation? …Are you in middle school (of hip hop)? *Laughing*
“I hope not, I don’t even want to place myself in a category. I just know I’m always open to learning. Like again, we’re not whole and on our way to a graduation, and yes, I always want to grow and reach the next tier, but yeah…I just always want to be a student. I always want to learn. There’s so many styles of music I want to learn, and like, so many scales, so much…so much stuff. It’s beautiful.”
Okay. When it’s all said and done, what will they say about you, and what will be on your tombstone?
“Infinite…Or holographic. Or both!”
Infinite and holographic.
I like that.
When he’s not engulfed in his appreciation of life, Earth, and plants, Yoh is engulfed in his music and empowering audiences everywhere — you can see him with Poetic Thrust headlining the Elsewhere Rooftop on August 15, 2019. Learn more about 99SUBLIME at www.99sublime.com, and Poetic Thurst on Bandcamp, Instagram, Soundcloud, and Twitter. Follow Yoh on Facebook, Instagram, Spotify, and Twitter, and listen to his single “Vices” available everywhere now.