Update: After you have read the following story in full make sure to read Part 2 as John River met J.Cole again and we got it on video!
Every once in awhile, it’s good to be reminded of why we’re doing what we chose to pursue. Too often, the routine of everyday life makes us forget what drove us in the first place. Inspiration needs refilling. This morning, I was given that inspiration. I woke up to a message from John River with an attachment to the story below. In the story, he tells how he achieved many an aspiring young rapper’s dream, how he ended up meeting J. Cole and rapping for the president of Dreamville. It’s a story of hope, unapologetic naivete, and an irrepressible desire to achieve what he set out to accomplish. It relit my flame of inspiration, and I hope it will do the same to you.
On June 26th Roc Nation recording artist, J. Cole was scheduled to come to Toronto and perform as part of his Dollar and a Dream tour. The day he was scheduled to arrive and perform, there were several media outlets that had planned for him to visit them for interviews, one of which was with HipHopCanada […] One of the main objectives HHC have been known to be very serious about is connecting the best artists in Canada with people that may not normally be exposed to Canadian talent. On June 26th HHC decided they would bring me to the interview they had scheduled with J. Cole and give me an opportunity to rap for him. Needless to say, I was ecstatic.
What most people don’t know is that Drake has a dual citizenship and progressed vastly in the United States during the early days in his career. For that reason there has yet to be a hip-hop artist that has had long lasting international success that has been strictly Canadian, because a lot of times we just do not get the opportunity. In light of that, this J. Cole interview wasn’t only a huge opportunity for me, but for any artist in this country, solely because of its rarity.
I actually bought a bottle of Hennessey. Well, my Mom did because I wasn’t old enough. I knew that Hennessey was his favourite drink so I bought a bottle of Hennessey and formulated the best verse in my life to rap for J. Cole. I was sure this was it and that after (at that time) tomorrow, I would finally have been the beneficiary of hard work and good karma, go me right!? I was wrong, very wrong.
The day I was supposed to rap for J. Cole, Natasha Paolini, the Regional Editor for Central Canada of HHC, informed me that due to his delayed flight, all interviews before 4:00PM would have to be cut, including the HHC interview. I was crushed, but amazingly enough, around an hour later she called me back and let me know that they may replace the HHC interview with a media round table which would still give me an opportunity to rap for him. She called me around an hour after that and let me know the round table would not be taking place and expressed how sorry she was for my loss.
Sometimes in life we are faced with adversity and we struggle with getting over, around and through the obstacles we find in our lives. I could have cried when I got the news that something so life changing had been taken away from me in the matter of seconds. I almost did, but at that point I decided I was going to rap for Ibrahim, the President of Dreamville Records that day or I would die trying.
I have a friend named Buraa who runs a clothing company called Richezza that sponsors me, Chance The Rapper, Spenzo and other Chicago artists. He met me downtown, I dropped off the bottle of Hennessey in Natasha’s workplace which was not too far from the train station then Buraa and I made our way down to the location of the concert. While we were at the location we saw Ibrahim and also Bas (a recording artist under Dreamville Records) walking around the outside of the venue.
We ran over to Ibrahim just as he was starting to get swarmed by concert goers and I stopped him, shook his hand and said “Yo Ib! I’m going to rap for you today, I don’t know how but I promise you I will!” He looked at me a little incredulously, smiled and he said “Ok aha I believe you, you want to let go of my hand now?” The reason I was holding his hand for that long is because I wanted him to my remember my face, I needed him to remember my face because I planned on seeing him again.
As he started to walk away from me I heard one of the members in the Dreamville camp mumble something about a flight leaving at 5:00AM in the morning, I kept this in mind and followed Ibrahim. At that point Buraa and I decided we were going to follow the Dreamville camp to their cars, take down their license plates and try desperately to follow their vehicles after the concert, bring out the bottle of Hennessey and I would get a chance to rap for them. The only problem was I had left the bottle in Natasha’s car 20 minutes away and I had no car. Shucks!
Originally HHC’s name was going to be vouching for the quality of me as an artist so when I did rap for the President of Dreamville he would know I was an established artist. The moment HHC interview got pulled, the only thing I had left that would separate me from the other 5000 people at that concert and let them know I was serious was that $87.00 bottle of Hennessey, which I no longer had on my person. While I was realizing I had a big problem I happened to run into a friend Mazher who used to produce merchandise and clothing for me when I first began rapping. I briefly told him the story, and miraculously, he and two of his friends drove me to get the bottle and back to the venue in an hour’s time.
When I arrived back at the venue, the doors to the concert were opening. I had used my brother’s identification to get a wristband to go in, but I decided at that point I had come too far already to try and rap for Ibrahim and that I would have to forego the concert. I told Buraa that our main objective was to find the cars we had seen earlier (we would identify them by their license plates) and set up Mazher’s vehicle in position to follow them when they left the venue. We found the cars for the Dreamville camp and for the first time that day everything seemed like it may actually work out… Until 20 minutes before J. Cole came out Mazher told us he had to leave.
20 minutes later, J. Cole left, and we had found another friend around 2 minutes before, but at that point we could not follow the vehicles, it was too late. He drove me back to my neighbourhood and that was it, it was done, after everything that I had done that day, that we had done that day, I failed. No two ways around it, I said I was going to rap for Ibrahim and J. Cole and I had failed.
When I was walking home that night I was reminded of a video I had watched two nights before about a North Korean girl speaking about how she escaped and rescued her family from communism. I thought to myself; if the Government, police officers, border officials and the fear of being publicly executed couldn’t stop her, am I going to let a delayed flight stop me? I think that was the moment when I stopped feeling sorry for myself and decided I wasn’t quite dead in the water yet, all I had I had to do was push harder.
I got home and I told my mom she needed to drive me to the airport. She said no, and then called me bat crazy. I said it must be the genes. We’re actually quite funny at times, like really funny – we could have our own sitcom series – but that’s not the point. “I can’t pick you up tonight if I do drop you off, you’ll have to be at that airport over night for around 10 hours that is crazy!” she said to me. After around 20 minutes of debate, I packed up my laptop, the bottle of Hennessey, some black headphones and we were off to the airport.
The moment I got to Pearson Airport I realized I had a few serious problems:
1. There were two departure terminals and I had no idea which one they would be flying out from.
2. Toronto was the last stop of the tour, so I had absolutely no idea where they were headed next.
3. I was by myself at an airport overnight and if I fell asleep there would be no one to wake me up.
It was 1:00AM and I decided to take a guess and go to the New York section and the American Airlines gates and pray that Ibrahim or J. Cole would walk through those doors sometime over the next 2 hours.
I sat and I waited for what seemed to be the longest, most gruesome hours of my life. I couldn’t fall asleep, but I also couldn’t leave to go buy a coffee at the fear of missing them. Eventually 5:00 AM came, I had been waiting on a luggage weighing machine for 4 hours and there was still no sign of Ibrahim or J. Cole and I really began to doubt myself. 2 to 3 hours before flights is normally when people arrive, I asked myself “Why weren’t they here already?” “I must be in the wrong terminal or at the wrong gate” I said to myself. “What if they just decided to leave later?”
The clock turned to 6:00AM and right as I was about to pack up my stuff and head for a bus stop outside the airport, almost unbelievably J. Cole walked through the gate in front of me. I didn’t know what to say or what to think, but I knew I couldn’t miss my moment so I scurried over to him and I said “Yo Cole! Can I holla at you?” Only with one other person in a fairly empty airport he looked at me and said “No. I’m sorry but I am so late for this flight.” “I got you this gift though” I said, as I slowly fumbled the bottle of Hennessey out of my bag. “It’s your favourite.” “I can’t take it across the border; it’s too late to accept and it’s liquor,” he said to me, and then he got in line.
I stood there, dumbfounded. So many thoughts ran through my mind. What just happened? Why did that happen so quickly? Why on the earth was that not the conversation I envisioned having at all? Did my favourite rapper just brush me off? Sure, the flight was about to leave but was he really that short with me? Or maybe I was thinking selfishly? I didn’t know what to think. I packed up laptop and figured I would wait outside of the gate until he went through to customs. To me, it seemed like he was thinking about what just happened almost as much as I was and then something incredible happened.
He turned around, looked right at me and called me over. He apologized for being so short with me and explained he was upset that he had gotten to the airport so late and then he asked me why I was there. I told him this story and he “Ouhhhhh’d” and “Ahhhhh’d” and I smiled and laughed as I described the insanity I went through to rap for him. He told me there wasn’t time for me to rap for him now, but he took my CD and he said something I will never forget. “John River your time is coming soon, your story is incredible and you have the drive and your time is coming soon.” He embraced me, thanked me and headed to his gate.
I don’t cry. Ever. But, as I walked to the doors of the terminal I started crying, balling my eyes out, jumping up and down and screaming at the top of my lungs. I did it! I met J. Cole, gave him my CD and even when all the odds were against me, I still managed to find a way to persevere because I wanted then just as much as I do now, the opportunity to be the voice of my city and I was willing to work harder than everybody else to get it. There was only one problem; I still hadn’t rapped my verse for Ibrahim.
The next day I read that Ibrahim used to work at a Country Club in New York, so I called 7 of them. I told them my name was Sean Anderson working for a magazine in Toronto and we had an application from an Ibrahim and we needed to confirm his last name and his residency with a reference and your country club was listed as a reference. My goal was to find out his last name and where lived. On the 5th attempt, I struck gold […] I told Buraa that day “We need to go to Queens to find the President of Dreamville and rap for him, and we need to do it now.”
2 days later, Buraa sold his Canadian Goose Winter Jacket and I sold 3 of my sweaters and about 6 days later from June 26th we were on an overnight bus to NYC. When we got there we were staying at this motel in an area called Crown Heights that is known to the local as a dangerous area. We were to spend 5 days there and we had little money, so I decided we’d buy 1 case of water, 2 loaves of bread and 1 jar of peanut butter and that is all we would eat. The rest of the money had to pay for a cab to Queens and on the first day there, that’s exactly where we went. The cab stopped, we got out and I saw the same house from Google Maps. I had arrived at the President of Dreamville’s house.
As I was about to walk onto the driveway a car pulled up. It was a Dreamville member so I asked him if Ibrahim lived there and he said yes. He asked me what I was doing there and I briefly explained and I could tell he was a little skeptical. Regardless, he told me to wait outside and he entered the house to relay the news.
The door opened and to my surprise Ibrahim walked out of the front door and he was not happy. He immediately asked me why I had come to his house, how I found him, what type of person invades privacy like I was doing? He lectured me aggressively for the next 5 minutes, it seemed like forever, but he had every right to do that. I was apologizing profusely, but there wasn’t much I could really say, I had crossed a line and come to his home and the situation was tense.
He happened to have a cousin visiting him from Toronto who had come out with him and who I felt was really rooting for me. The more his cousin spoke and related with me, the more relaxed and calm Ibrahim became. When there was a pocket of ease in the conversation I took my chance and told him my story. I said I was sorry I came to his house and invaded his space, but I had gone through hell and high waters, travelled 500 miles on a bus, waited and cried in an airport, sold my clothes, missed the J. Cole concert, followed cars, taken down license plates and spent all the money I had just to rap for him for 40 seconds.
It became very silent; he looked at me and said nothing, just stared. Then he smiled and said “This is insane and don’t ever do this to anybody ever again, but the drive and determination for you to do all of that shows me you want this, so let us go for a walk.” All 4 of us went down the street, and there, I finally rapped for the President of Dreamville, on his street in front his house, in Queens NY, 7 days after I had seen him in Toronto. When my verse finished he said I was incredible. He also gave me his email and told me it is difficult for him to remember to respond to everybody so try my best to get his attention. He bid us farewell and walked back inside his house. Finally, I did what I had set out to do.
They say God laughs when we make plans, but they also say you get out what you put in. I emailed Ibrahim and I can’t really elaborate on what happened after that at the moment. Some people take obstacles as rejection but I choose to take it as an invitation. I typed this story and sent this email as a symbol of my refusal to quit and my refusal to fail. Always believe, that anything is possible.