CJ Run is Bringing Complicated Identities to Hip-Hop
By Alyssa Klein
Welcome back. This week, meet rapper and singer/songwriter, CJ Run.
CJ, who uses they/them pronouns, was born to West African parents in Munich, Germany, before relocating to Northampton, England at eight, and then to a small town in North Carolina at thirteen. Now 20, CJ recently left school at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to pursue music full time.
“Let’s get one thing straight, I’m not,” they rap on the opening bars of “Spaghetti,” the song that first put me on. The song is a few years old, but because of the internet, it’s spread CJ’s fanbase beyond the state of Illinois, where they have something of a cult following. Of course, even within Illinois, that cult is growing. Just last month, a Lyft driver in Chicago recognized them.
It’s a funny feeling for CJ. For better or worse, they’re a representative of complex, intersecting identities and cultures—Black, queer, non-binary, British, second-generation, African-European, the list goes on. And for better or worse, “making it” means the potential for young folks like CJ to see and hear themselves in music for the first time. That’s a lot of pressure for anyone. But CJ is ready and excited to step into the spotlight as a voice for people too often underrepresented.
In this week’s Storyteller Spotlight, CJ shares their story of growing up a child of the Diaspora—in three separate countries, at that—and talks queer love and gender neutrality in hip-hop.
The following interview has been edited and condensed for the sake of clarity and readability.
We Have Stories is all about storytelling. What’s your story?
I was born in Munich, Germany. My mom is Afro-Caribbean. Our family is from Nigeria originally, so I grew up eating a lot of Nigerian food. I lived my life as an African-European, so to speak. After I was eight, I moved to England and lived in Northampton until I was thirteen. That was where I developed my love for my music. I’d always listened to the things my mom would play at home, like Anita Baker or Whitney Houston or Luther Vandross, but it was there that I had my formative years where I started to get more interested in electronic music, like dubstep and garage and grime and UK hip-hop. At thirteen I moved to a very small town in North Carolina. It was very different from the big, diverse populations I grew up in. High school was very odd for me. I was the British one. I was the one with the accent. But in the South they didn’t really believe that you could be Black and British, so there was a bit of xenophobia, a lot of bullying. It was very isolating. I think that’s where I started to get into writing more and doing poetry. I also used to write my own music reviews. I started making music as well. I picked up a guitar.
And then when I was seventeen I graduated high school. That was around the time that I realized I was queer. And I came to university at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. I just finished my third year but I’m taking a year off of school because I want to pursue music full time. I still live in Champaign but I’m kind of going back and forth between Champaign and Chicago.
Everywhere that I’ve lived and grew up in shaped my musical taste and what I want to say and what I want to do. Me being queer is a recent development, like three years ago, so only three out of twenty of my years have been spent as a queer person. I definitely think that being blessed enough to live in three different countries before twenty is the thing that inspired and helped shape my musical stylings.
What inspires you to tell stories?
My upbringing made me feel like I was always bits and pieces of something, but never enough of one thing. I lived in Germany for eight years, and I do speak German, but now German people tell me that I speak German with an American accent. Or I grew up in England so I feel British, but I haven’t lived there for seven years so now British people ask me where I’m from. Being queer and also being of Nigerian descent it was hard coming out initially and getting my family to accept that. The one thing in my life that’s always been constant, that’s always made me feel like I belong, is music.
The thing that inspires me to tell stories is being able to give people a chance to hear themselves and feel at home in my music. Sometimes people feel like their experiences are very isolated, and something that only they experience because they don’t hear it often enough. If I can use my life, which has been full of diaspora, full of intersections, full of different identities at different times, and be able to translate that through stories and songs, I can give other people that sense of comfort. I can give people that sense of confidence to be the complex human beings that they are.
What kind of stories are you trying to tell through your music?
Queer love is something that I talk about a lot. This goes not just for romantic and sexual relationships, but also platonic relationships. There’s not enough about romance and queer relationships in mainstream music, although it’s kind of getting there.
I also talk about the idea of non-binariness through music. Music, especially hip-hop, is very gendered. Being able to talk about yourself in a neutral way in song is not something that I hear very often.
Also just this idea of being Nigerian—I’m Igbo—and living in the west, and being able to showcase that for all my second-gen, Nigerian-American, British-Nigerian people. Also, as someone who’s also German, there are a lot of Afro-Europeans, a lot of Black people that live in France and Germany and Spain, and I feel like our stories don’t get represented a lot. Mainstream Blackness is very specifically African-American, and that kind of makes Blackness seem very monolithic. So I tell stories of what it’s like to speak German and be Black, and what that means to me.
Music, especially in terms of gendering relationships, can be so hard to relate to for so many people. That’s something I really appreciate about your music and it’s what made me want to reach out to you.
Well thank you. I’m all about perfecting my craft and making good-sounding music, but at the same time, when you have all these identifies, you can’t really make it very normative. Like if I want to talk about a relationship, even though I don’t want to make it something radical, I still have to use she/her, or they/them. And I think whenever people listen to a song they say “oh this sounds pretty normal or catchy,” but then they listen to the words, they listen to the pronouns, they listen to what I’m actually saying, and they’re like “oh, you’re talking about something gay…” And it’s like “yeah, yeah, that was the point of this...”
Why do stories matter to you?
There’s so many different ways that you can tell a story, and especially in the world that we live in, a lot of the time you only hear stories told one way or from the lens of the privileged. When you’re not one of those people, it kind of feels like music isn’t for you, TV isn’t for you, film isn’t made for you, because it’s all about them and not about you. When you have artists and entertainers or just people in general who are brave enough to tell their stories through a non-conventional lens, that’s really important for younger generations. I wish that there was someone like me when I was like seven or eight years old and I had feelings that I couldn’t describe and I couldn’t explain. Stories are important to me because I don’t want people to go through the struggles of non-acceptance that I had to go through, especially in my younger years.
What’s something that’s been on your mind lately?
I feel like whenever you’re part of a marginalized community and you do anything, whether it’s art or business or even going to college and graduating, everything is seen as such a radical, revolutionary act. I feel like a lot of that gets placed on you, just being like black and queer and trans and this and that. But it’s really just me having fun, and doing what I want. It’s very interesting navigating that space of just doing this because I want to be a musician, and because of all these social identifiers I have, having to be representation, and having to put on for people like me at the same time. It’s something that I will gladly take on, but it’s just interesting that as a marginalized person there’s a lot more weighing on my career than just my own personal success. My personal success means success for other people like me. The fact that this is bigger than me is something that I’ve been coming to terms with. This is bigger than my career.