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John FM – Summer 2021
John FM wears all clothes Carhartt Wip, watch Swatch, canvas sneakers Camperlabphotography Paul Kooiker styling Imruh Asha

John FM wants to make protest music for the masses

The Detroit musician on the intricate political reality of his city and why radical music should never be a commodity

TextChal RavensPhotographyPaul KooikerStylingImruh Asha

Taken from the Summer 2021 issue of Dazed

“We serve as a reality TV show for the rest of the world; that’s America’s place right now,” says John FM, sermonising with dark humour about the contradictions he wrestles with on his new house-rap-techno-noise outburst American Spirit. The EP’s five tracks had been gestating for several years, but, when 2020 unravelled into a televised spectacle of protest and disorder, they finally made sense together. Touching on gun violence, spiritual battles, vice, glamour and oppression, it’s a soulful epic of miniature proportions.

“We do so many terrible and atrocious things,” FM continues, dialling in from Detroit’s Belle Isle Park, “and still we still hash out the same issues over and over, as a form of entertainment.” Born and raised in Detroit, the singer and producer is embedded in its unique musical lineage. With one foot in house and techno and another in hip hop, he’s a protege of one of the city’s most cherished dance producers, Omar S, whose muscular grooves are the ideal vessel for FM’s street-soul vocals, as demonstrated on their 2020 cut “Second Life”. Still, the Detroit legacy can be a heavy load to bear. “The thing about Detroit is it’s hard to get noticed when you’re already competing with people who have established themselves,” says FM tactfully. The rap scene was never right for him either, being “so volatile, so interconnected to the street life. I’m not always cut [out] for that shit.

Too fast, too bright.” His proximity to that volatility is the basis of “Holster”, a song about a near-death experience in the club: “Remember the time you got shot, Hennessy Black, mama, saved my life,” sing a chorus of Johns over a creaking soul shuffle. “I was too drunk to be at that party,” he explains, “and because I took that last swing of Hennessy Black I decided to leave, moments before that place got shot up.” On other songs he sings and raps about identity, death and desire over bleary deep house and skeletal piano, leaving space for self-composed strings and freeform sax blasted by collaborator Nolan Young.

A year ago, FM was taking a break from music, working in a bar and fixing up his motorcycle. The pandemic knocked him sideways, but gave him time to “think about what I would be doing if I wasn’t faced with gruelling nine-to-five capitalism every single day. What am I actually worth, what are my values?” He went to Black Lives Matter protests; he also went to therapy, reasoning that “if you can fix yourself, you can work on helping others as well”.

“I never want to make money off of protest music. When it’s danceable music, something that people can catch on to, I think it should be more like a pamphlet than a commodity” – John FM

His own protest music takes many forms. In 2019 he scored an underground club hit with AceMo on “Where They At???”, a riff on Daft Punk’s “Teachers” combining the iconic synth riff of Robin S’s “Show Me Love” with shout-outs to women around the world, from exotic dancers to single mothers. “I just wanted women to feel seen, women who don’t really get shouted out that much,” he says. He didn’t plan for the song to be released; in his book, political messaging should be freely available. “I never want to make money off of protest music. When it’s danceable music, something that people can catch on to, I think it should be more like a pamphlet than a commodity.” 

A low tolerance for bullshit is standard protocol for midwestern musicians – exemplified by Omar S – but FM’s ability to remove himself from the story and write from a “God’s eye perspective” says a lot about his mutable relationship with Detroit. “I’m lucky to have knowledge of all sides – the wealthy and the not-so-fortunate, everything in between. I’m very much aware of my Blackness and my whiteness, being mixed. I am able to speak all languages here.” He’s warming up to another political sermon when he catches himself. “I don’t want to sound like I think I’m a genius,” he laughs. “I’m just a simple motorcycle-riding man!”