“Nice day to die, huh?!” a pedestrian jokingly yells to a grinning John Givez who nearly runs him over in Super Ranchito’s tiny lot.
Apparently the carne asada tacos here are amazing. John orders five along with a Corona. I follow suit but with one less taco. The restaurant sits only six blocks from the coast and is nestled against a virtually empty donut shop in John’s native Oceanside, Calif. The donut shop owner occupies herself by sweeping what appears to be an already swept welcome mat. With each robotic stroke of the broom, no visible dirt is flung from the doorway.
Rewind to last summer, Givez opened for his Kings Dream label mate and brother-in-law, Beleaf. The suburban crowd was small and slightly unfamiliar with John’s catalogue—or at least their low energy gave the impression. Rather than seeing this as a hindrance to his performance, he saw an opportunity for vulnerability. Just before performing “Westside Blues,” John has a moment—a genuine moment of grief caused by the incarceration of a friend. The friend he mentions in the song saying, “God tell me how I’m rocking all these stages / When the homie was just issued an arraignment.” The day of the performance was the day he was sentenced. From that moment forward, every concertgoer who was unsure of how to receive the music knew that every lyric’s point of origin was John’s past and current reality.
Givez’ life is one of constant juxtaposition and near misses. Think Super Ranchito’s parking lot but way worse. He’s the youngest son of a preacher and choir director in a gang-influenced neighborhood. Dad ran a tight ship, ‘a non-hood household in the middle of the hood,’ as John would describe it. Some of his earliest memories are of his father waking him and his siblings up in the middle of the night to discuss what he calls the six P’s, “Proper prior planning prevents poor performance.” Chalkboard and all. No amount of planning could have prepared his parents for the trouble John would see and the dangers he’d face. We hear this in ‘Eastside Church Boi’ with lyrics directed at his mother, “When I walk outside they be asking where I’m from or / ‘Who them black niggas that you hang with?’ / Mama why this church so dangerous?”.
“If you talk to a true Oceansider and ask, ‘where you from?’ They’ll say, ‘Oceanside’ and if you say, ‘Oh yeah, San Diego?,’—’No, Oceanside!”
Oceanside is a small, diverse beach town—which on paper seems like the perfect place to raise a family. At least those were my thoughts based on its location and name.Naiveté, I know. Talking to John I gained insight. “If you talk to a true Oceansider and ask, ‘where you from?’ They’ll say, ‘Oceanside’ and if you say, ‘Oh yeah, San Diego?,’—’No, Oceanside!” Despite the 30 minute drive separating the two, Oceanside and San Diego are cities at odds. Being that there were rival gangs in close proximity, the proverbial fecal matter was bound to hit the fan. In his early teens, John ran with a crew comprised of guys from neutral neighborhoods. “It was called NWS, Niggas with Swag,” he chuckles. “It was a dance crew just in the garage kickin’ it, ya know.” At least that’s how it started. The younger members of the crew began to proudly broadcast their NWS affiliation throughout the city and consequently caught the ear of more serious gangs. Along with unwanted attention from newfound rivals, NWS became public enemy and much like a child-star in the months leading up to their eighteenth birthday, began to shed their innocent image—getting involved in pimping, drug sales and burglaries.
“I realized I didn’t want life to go this way.”
As John reminisces about his teenage years, I can’t help but think of Kendrick Lamar’s “The Art of Peer Pressure.” John’s story of a home invasion gone wrong ran a strange parallel with Kendrick’s descriptive tale of the same activity but with an alternate ending—like the millennial, Black male version of “The Hours,” substituting Derek Luke in place of Meryl Streep and Michael B. Jordan for Nicole Kidman. As Kendrick and his crew ramsack the house for “any Nintendo, DVDs, plasma screen TVs,” one of his accomplices realizes someone is in the house. Recognizing they only have a few short moments before the police arrive they rush to the car to begin their getaway. With sirens blaring they “made a right, then made a left, then made a right, then made a left” and to their good fortune, the pursuing officers made a right, left, right and another right.
K Dot got away. John did not. Immediately following his eighteenth birthday, John was arrested for burglary and possession of oxycontin. Those charges came with a three-year minimum sentence in California. “I’m sitting in the holding tanks and it wasn’t that I was scared to be there. It was just, I realized I didn’t want life to go this way. It was an overwhelming realization of how mad all of us were in there. So mad that we would get off on each other. It’s like a misguided hate for authority because it’s been abused—whether that’s in the home or by the police. It kinda just perpetuates itself. It’s messy. I think that was God beginning to give me his perspective on people who come from my background.”
With a mouth full of tacos he says, “My music is for rebels. One thing about rebels is that there are rebels with no cause and rebels with a cause. But even that cause can be misinformed.” At the heart of John’s next full length solo release “Soul Rebel” is an effort to make the rebel more aware of their soul and the powers which war against it, in turn, giving them a cause. With a solo record, group album, multi-city tours and a Lecrae co-sign under his belt, John still identifies closely with the guys from around the way. “I’mone of them.” He’s critical of the church’s typical methods of outreach towards at-risk youth in the inner city, suggesting that rather than telling them “we’ve got what you need, come to us” they should listen to youth express their own felt needs. “I’m with the rebels, I believe in Jesus and I got that with the rebels, it came with the experience of the streets. I want to be the dude that lays his life down for the unchurched to walk over the bridge of my life into the church.”
People offer critique without fleshing out an alternative method in their own lives, John isn’t one of them.
Often times we hear people offer critique without fleshing out an alternative method in their own lives, John isn’t one of them. John finishes his beer and we head to the barbershop. Here I witness firsthand how he remains himself in various settings amongst different people. The “rebels” are here. Blunts are being rolled, Sprite is changing colors with the help of cough syrup and the jokes are plentiful, as well as daps and hugs, being that John has been on tour for the last three weeks. One of the homies, donning a facial tattoo, a la Gucci Mane, replacing an electrified ice cream cone with the outline of California, begins to share a story about a recent trip to Los Angeles while mixing his Sprite. “They asked where we was from, I was like ‘Oceanside’. They was like, ‘Oh, San Diego?’. I said, ‘ Hell nah, we ain’t the same. We different from them niggas!”