In our latest print issue, we sit down with John Glacier, the rapper with renegade blood whose bars contain multitudes – past, present and future
Dialling into our call under the name ‘iPhone John’, John Glacier is coy at first, shadowy as she was onstage at Corsica Studios last year on a bill next to Dean Blunt, Klein and Vegyn, her regular producer. She often seems immersed in her own atmosphere in live situations like these: eyes closed, head down, mic held close, enveloped in a crouch. It doesn’t take long for the ice to break, and ten minutes into our conversation iPhone John loosens into the Glacier we hear on record, whose bars stitch and twist over mutant boom-bap.
The heat of Glacier’s debut LP SHILOH: Lost for Words spread like the best kind of gossip when it dropped in July. Just like the London-born rapper’s biography, it’s an album caught somewhere in the ether, between the hard realities of the city and the listlessness of the tropics. For three or four years before its release, those who knew would catch glimpses of Glacier via ephemeral feature appearances or live cameos with the likes of Shygirl, Babyfather and Jeshi. But for those who didn’t, the rawness and originality of SHILOH came like a bolt out of nowhere.
This is especially true on album opener “If Anything”, with synths that sound beamed in from another planet shrouding syncopated breakbeats in a way that feels panoramic and soaring. “Boozy” sketches the textures of nights blurred by drinks and highs – bad decisions and imperfect connections – over a hyperactive Vegyn and Psychedelic Ensemble loop. “Words of heaven made of hell on this Earth,” she spits, skipping beats and cues, “Come with pebbles, full of dirt, need the money for the hearse / White lines lead you, leave you in the lurch / Pour liquor after church, on the roads, but we will never learn.” Flowing through these short but distinct vignettes is the full spectrum of sensation, from yearning and nostalgia to embarrassment and despair. Much like Glacier, it’s an album that seems unafraid to fall into the offbeats and spin on its heels the moment you think you’ve grasped where it’s headed.
“I’m one thing and another thing at the same time,” says Glacier when I ask about her name. I remember the first time I saw it, captioning an image of a statuesque woman adorned with oversized afro puff pigtails. It was enough to stop my scrolling in its tracks. Pressed, Glacier reaches for her go-to tautology: “Because I am John Glacier.” Firstly, her first name is actually John and, secondly, “I like glaciers because you see them for what they are but within that one thing, there are so many layers,” she says. “In my mind, glaciers are these blocks of preservation.” As emblems of a rapidly changing climate, says Glacier, ice caps will uncover archives of information about the world before us when they finally melt.
“I’m one thing and another thing at the same time...When you break down a glacier, there’s more to it than meets the eye – your understanding of what you thought it was isn’t exactly it”
I ask if that’s something she wants to do with her music: to preserve and immortalise, or act as a historical artefact for the future. “It uncovers my own existence,” says Glacier. “My existence isn’t what it looks like. When you break down a glacier, there’s more to it than meets the eye – your understanding of what you thought it was isn’t exactly it.” She pauses, and adds with an audible smile, “And at the same time, they’re cold and icy as well!”
As a kid, Glacier would give out short-form poems she’d written as birthday gifts because, she beams, “It was just a need.” The next step, from poetry to music, felt just as vital. “I have these shifts in my mind where it’s like, if I want to do something, I just switch and do it,” she explains. Surrounded by gospel music as well as soca, dancehall and R&B in her family home in Hackney before becoming obsessed with Anastacia and Britney Spears, Glacier remembers recording comedy covers of pop songs on the headsets that came with vintage PCs, “the ones that make your voice all tinny”. For Glacier, all this seemed to fit under the banner of poetry – she didn’t quite realise she was making music.
“I believe in outlets, and feel like if I were to write something and keep it to myself I [would] still have the problem, or the emotion,” says Glacier, stressing the importance of putting your work out into the world as part of the artistic process. “It’s all a form of energy: if you’re releasing the energy but it’s still around you, you haven’t released it! You’ve just given it life in another form.” Often described as a stream-of-consciousness narrative, Glacier’s flow invites us into her tangled inner world, as intimate and raw as it comes. Transparent in parts and opaque in others, at once straightforward and messed up, the lyrics paint a frighteningly vivid picture of the mind.
Glacier lives with a chronic condition called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS) that affects various bodily functions. At 14, her doctor told her she’d probably never be able to hold down a nine-to-five job. “I spent a lot of my time reading alone, writing alone – I had to create my own world,” she says of her childhood. “If I was too unwell, at least I could go wherever I wanted in my mind. It’s like you’re limited to a degree, but it also removes the layers of restriction at the same time.” In particularly bad bouts, when Glacier would be confined to her bed or unable to move for days at a time, the imaginative realm became a place of solace, healing and escape.
“I’m grateful to my ancestors so I’m gonna speak that out. We’re a naturally rebellious people and it lets people know who you are and where you come from”
Her family tree traces back to the rich, tropical region in north-west Jamaica known as Trelawny Parish, its boundaries gracing the edge of Glacier’s uncle’s home. Famed for birthing record-breaking athletes like Usain Bolt and Veronica Campbell-Brown, it’s been a cosmic anchor for Glacier to return to through adulthood. “Caves, mountains, trees, plants, music everywhere... What more do you need?” she says, searching. A large part of the parish forms Cockpit Country, a name given by the British to a section of hollowed land to the north-west of Jamaica deemed uninhabitable by most, but historically a place of refuge for those fleeing slavery. “Some people would say it’s ‘underdeveloped’ but [Trelawny] isn’t underdeveloped. It’s raw, it’s natural. It’s Earth.”
A connection to nature isn’t all that Glacier inherited from the dense green lands of Cockpit Country. Her track “Trelawny Waters” is a heady meditation that feels like the brisk, cold air in the “I’m grateful to my ancestors so I’m gonna speak that out. We’re a naturally rebellious people and it lets people know who you are and where you come from” small hours of the night. Chords warp and reverberate as she sings, “sublet in Norwood, outside of town, found bliss in an orchard, Trelawny Waters, Queen Nanny watch me”. The last line nods to the 18th-century figure who led the Jamaican Maroons, a community of formerly enslaved peoples famed for their rebellion against colonialism and slavery on the island. “My family are actually Maroons on my dad’s side. I think the more we become westernised, the more we can stray from who we truly are and it’s important for me to stay true to that part of myself because if it wasn’t for them fighting off the British at that time, chances are we might still be enslaved,” Glacier explains. “White people didn’t just decide to end slavery one day, they were literally attacked and driven out of countries. I’m grateful to [my ancestors] so I’m gonna speak that out. We’re naturally rebellious people and it lets people know who you are and where you come from.”
As for how much of that renegade spirit she assumes as a descendant of the Maroons, Glacier says, “I do believe DNA literally makes you who you are – so much of it is coded.” Growing up in an “extremely traditional” household as the second oldest of seven siblings, Glacier refuses to be easily defined even in the confines of her own family. “I don’t really think I have a place anywhere, but not in a sad way! I was just born this way.” The rapper’s Instagram bio is just as ungenerous: “I have no name nor number but I do have email.”
“I’ve been chasing steps of the past, and I’ve met with my scars / Put them aside, hand in a cast / Step with the times, mould made of glass,” she unpacks on SHILOH’s “Platoon”. “I had a lot of stuff to say [on the record], but I realised there are different ways to do it. It’s like saying a lot without saying too much – or saying exactly what you mean, but leaving enough room for people to find their own meaning in it. Hopefully, you can get lost in this world and create your own [at the same time].”
Reflecting on folktales she learned growing up and the culture of oral history as a means of preserving Black truths in Jamaica and beyond, Glacier sees storytelling as another trait inherited from her ancestors. It’s a quality proudly and complexly woven into the fabric of Jamaican art and culture, and the work of her favourite writers, like Capleton, Super Cat, Bounty Killa and Buju Banton. “It’s personal, but still concealed,” she says of her own approach to narrative.
“I’ve run into an issue recently, now that I have an audience and am prone to overthinking,” says Glacier, as we begin to sign off. “I’m trying to navigate the process of how to remove the imaginary expectations of other people. Whatever I do next is whatever comes out and if people like it, they like it. If they don’t, it’s like, ‘Thank you for the run, we had fun!’” For the rapper, SHILOH was both an end and a beginning. “It’s a closing story, of parts of my life, of the person I was before. It’s about closing chapters.” And perhaps that’s what makes the album really glisten: it is at once the sound of a full stop, of youth in transition, of something ancient bubbling away in the distance, and of something untapped, something essential racing down the slipstream. Of fireworks.
Hair TAIBA AKHUETIE, make-up SIDDHARTHA SIMONE at JULIAN WATSON AGENCY using GIORGIO ARMANI MAKEUP & SKINCARE, photographic assistants LAURIE BROUGHTON, styling assistants BELLA KAVANAGH, HARRIET CUMMINGS, production assistants MARTHA BARR, GABRIEL SILVER PARKER, special thanks CRYBABY JAZZ ROOMS