If there’s one trait that defines BJ the Chicago Kid, it’s his laser-sharp focus on artistic greatness. Get the 32-year-old singer into conversation and, remarkably, he spends zero time dwelling on the past, or opinions, or other people’s minds. In his own colorful words, he’s a “werewolf,” eyes squarely ahead as he races forth on an ambitious hunt for legendary status.
He’s certainly on the right path. After 15 years toiling as a songwriter and featured vocalist in Los Angeles, BJ released his critically acclaimed debut, In My Mind, last winter—a soulful, sexy record with features by Chance the Rapper, Kendrick Lamar, Big K.R.I.T., et al. Though, his real breakout moment came this past January when he sang the national anthem at Barack Obama’s farewell address.
Of course, he followed that up by releasing one of the best songs in February.
On Thursday, April 6th, BJ will be performing at Chicago’s Chop Shop & 1st Ward with New Orleans’ own Pell and fellow 312 hero Mykele Deville opening. The concert is brought to you by Consequence of Sound and Red Bull Sound Select, and you can RSVP here to get $5 tickets. To get the party started a little early, we spoke with BJ about returning home, singing for President Obama, and more.
Has anything about your relationship with Chicago changed over the past year as In My Mind has gained more success?
I think just the last few episodes have drawn the city closer. It’s slightly knitted us tighter, in light of what’s going on. I had a friend that was injured not too long ago. We had to put some money in the GoFundMe; he survived. We survive, we love our home, we take care of our home and take pride in that. That part, it kind of helps us reevaluate things. It’s another mental process for us, to be a certain kind of way.
And being from the city of Chicago, it’s like being in the wolf pack; it’s like you’re back in your element. You’re back in your climate again; you’re understood. So, I totally understand it. One of the things I’ve learned from it is the attention span, how fast things happen. I definitely get what’s going on.
Last time we talked, you mentioned that moving to LA was you knowing what the fuck was up. Do you feel like you still have to get out of Chicago to make it, given the huge success of Chance the Rapper and rising artists like Smino, Saba, Noname?
Depending on your lifestyle, yes.
What’s that difference?
I’m not really the judge of character to say who needs to leave, who needs to stay. Some people just don’t feel like it’s safe there for them anymore; some people do. Some people don’t feel like it’s home anymore; some people do. For me, Chicago’s always home, I’m BJ the Chicago Kid, that’s me. I’ll always be going back there to connect those dots, do what I need to keep shit tight. That’s just naturally me.
But you didn’t feel that sense of danger?
I left because Chicago really wasn’t a music capital. I didn’t leave for any other reasons. I just left to further my career and my knowledge; that’s it.
So, if you were growing up now, would you make the same decision, or would you stick around, given the explosion?
My timing is my timing. I’m not gonna get that deep into it. It is what it is, and it’s part of the reason I’m still here.
Obviously In My Mind wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t gone to LA, and it’s done really well. Does it feel any different now, looking back on it a year later?
Nah. Everything is a marker — you know how hard you’ve worked and how hard you can work — and a judge of character. And that’s pretty much how we go.
Any songs you look back on that you really don’t like anymore? Have any grown on you?
Nah man, every one of them’s my shit.
Another huge thing you got to do was sing the national anthem at Obama’s farewell address. What was going through your mind there?
Pretty much understanding that it was bigger than me. Most songs I sing are about a woman, about love; this is bigger than that. This was a selfless act.
Was there any inclination to stylize it, draw out the notes?
Bro, bro, bro, bro, bro. Any time you get a moment that you’ve prayed for, you gotta make it short and sweet. I’m supposed to fuckin’ be here! This ain’t no fuckin’ accident. It’s not pixie dust and unicorns that fall out of the skies; this is how it is. You work for it, you get it, and that’s how it fuckin’ goes.
The country has taken a very different turn since you sang for Obama.
What people love about America is personal, man. For you to enjoy America, it has to be personal. You have to have your own love for America and your own hate for America. You have to have some sort of future sight of how you see yourself, how you perceive yourself living. And those that see that future continue to move forward, and that’s it. It’s really not that deep.
What reasons do you find in yourself to love America nowadays?
That I’m African American, honestly. Make sure you note that. We all give and take, and living in America, I think it’s a beautiful part of enjoying who you are and who you are with who you are. It’s one thing understanding you’re a werewolf, but it’s beautiful when you’re a werewolf with a pack of werewolves. It makes it more beautiful.
What’s been your guiding principle through the process of In My Mind and everything since?
My guiding principle is I follow my heart, follow my soul. Being in touch with my soul, it’s one of the things that people don’t even fucking have. To know how to judge and how to be and coexist with all the things you rock with, that’s what makes it amazing. Understand yourself, you get to understand other things.
How do you get in touch with yourself?
I never lost touch with it, dude. I’m from Chicago. That’s the place where our culture, our city, our friends, it’s very real. This isn’t the shit you can make up; you either have it from birth or you don’t have it.
Then why are there people out there who don’t have touch with their souls?
Damn, how fucking boring could this world be? I can’t control other people, tell you how they came to be. I am how I am, the way it is, because of how I grew up. I really couldn’t tell you how it is coming from another place; that would be really unauthentic. I just know how it is where I came from.
So, how does your experience connect with so many other people’s experiences?
I can’t tell you how, because I don’t know how. I’m grateful to have that connection. I think that’s part of the things that made me a fan of the artists I’m a fan of. To follow back in that chain, fall back in line and keep the inspiration line going, that’s what I love. That’s what I get out of the chain, the love, the inspiration, you stay-in-line type of thing. They teach you the rules of the game. It’s amazing to get that knowledge and then put something back into it.
I’m just so grateful and surprised that it would even out with me. This shit is not guaranteed; it’s not certain that you’d get a record deal, be nominated for three Grammys, sing for the president’s farewell address. I can’t speak for everyone else. I can only tell you how crazy it’s fucked me up trying to be regular in a fucked-up world. This is not the world we grew up in; this shit has changed totally, dude.
You have to understand that anybody who survives, who tries to go after anything, they have a focus that is not common. Otherwise, everybody would do what’s drawn you to looking at them. Everybody wants to be great. Not everybody can do it.