Spoken word artist and rapper John Bernard is known for his social commentary on youth empowerment, faith and purpose. A finalist on 1Xtra and Asian Network’s BBC Words First programme, he will be joining a stage filled with local talent at B:Music’s Beyond The Bricks of Brum at Symphony Hall. We caught up with him to find out more about his work and the issues that continue to drive him.
Tell us more about your involvement with the Beyond the Bricks of Brum concert? The show is curated by Casey Bailey and B:Music and incorporates different creatives from Birmingham. Myself, I’m doing poetry, but the show is going to incorporate rap, it’s going to incorporate poetry, gospel, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra as well.
You are an advocate for the written word, what does this mean to you? Words are powerful. Words are the foundation to everything. Life and death. We can use our words to motivate, and we can use our words to destroy. For me it was one of those gifts I just focused on earlier on. My mother was a big creative, she saw that I had that creative energy and she pushed me towards that. At school I was good at English, and that was my main focus, and that was meant to be it, but what I do now, and how I use my words to inspire and encourage the next generation, I can really see the impact from that. I can do a workshop and months later the kids will remind me of a sentence or a word that I have said; they’re carrying on, they’ve accommodated it into their way of thinking, so the written word is very powerful.
How do you feel social media has affected the ‘written word’? In a positive way, it’s given people the opportunity to share. What social media has enabled me to do is put my written word into a form that can reach the masses. For example, I can do a video, send it across and it will reach quite a few people. The disadvantage of it is that I think less people are reading now than before. I was having this conversation with one of my mentors and they were saying how it was great to pick up a book and read, and to talk about the different books that they are reading, but I feel that’s a lost art in this generation. People focus on social media, and the clips and posts out there. The majority of people don’t take the time to pick up a book, pick up a poetry book for example, and take the time to take it in.
Which brings you back to your advocacy for the written word then, that’s part of that approach? Yes, the written word is very important. We have to remind people, the generation that we are in, that there is a beauty behind the written word. It’s up to us to encourage young people to discover that, just as we were encouraged to discover it by our elders.
Poetry and rap use language in similar ways – both are lyrical, emotive forms of expression and storytelling. But do you think people have very different perceptions about them, their artists and audience? Oh, a hundred percent, a hundred per cent. You know, the funny thing is the difference when you approach a person and you say, ‘I’m a poet’, and depending on who you are talking to, they say ‘Ooh, that’s great’, but you tell them ‘I’m a rapper’ and it’s like, ‘Oh, really?’. There’s a different look on their face. The media is a part of that; but the energy behind rap has always been the language of activism and the language of disregard of authority, authority that’s abusing power; rap has always had that. Poetry is seen as language that’s soft, the language of love and all of that kind of stuff. What I’ve always understood about poetry is that poetry is literally your heart’s lessons in the world; your experiences, your thoughts, your views, your ideas, it’s literally that. Where poetry and rap are similar is that a person is using their creative format to distribute a message. And some poems can be like the lyrics of a song, one by Eminem for example, in terms of how intricate they are, their use of metaphors and similes.
Do you think we’ll ever have a Rapper Laureate then? (Laughs) I hope so, I hope so. People think rap is such a saturated market you know, but that would be really cool one day, a Rap Laureate.
What motivates and inspires your work? My experiences. I grew up in a working-class area of Coventry and it was very disadvantaged. It was predominantly a white area, but you didn’t get any sense of racism. It was a very community-based too, we all understood our struggles. If I didn’t go to school my neighbour would say you know, ‘John, you better go to school’, it was that kind of area. That inspired me to be very community-based, very community led. I really use my art, my work, to inspire the next generation of kids to see that they can become more. I grew up in foster care so my battle was different. I’m not saying my battle was worse than other people’s, it’s just that was my experience, and I have to use my experience for the benefit of other young people who are in the same or similar sorts of circumstances.
You work focuses on socially political and relevant issues? I’m aiming to try and bridge the gap that exists between much of society and the young people coming from disadvantaged backgrounds; to see that they get a chance. I think that’s a really important thing. In Coventry for example there are young people who don’t get chance to go to college, never even get to leave the town. For me, it’s important to shine a light on that and try and get as much help for them as possible.
Do you think you’re making progress? We’ve made some kind of progress. We go into a lot of schools, both in Birmingham and Coventry. We do a lot of mentoring and one-to-ones, working with youth offenders and young people in care. I do hope that there is a difference being made, but all we can do is sow the seeds of words and encourage them, see those people grow, achieve and become the people they need to be. You can never really tell until a couple of years down the line. It takes more than one person to do it too, it takes the whole community. There’s a saying that goes, if young people aren’t feeling the love then they’ll burn the whole village down just to be warm. After the pandemic, you can feel it. Young people need help, they need counselling, they need mental health support and we’ve just got to do what we can do.
In terms of racial harmony and opportunity how do you think things have changed since Black Lives Matter? Things haven’t really changed. Lack of employment is still a problem. With austerity and the issues in the economy racism rises, people are blaming foreigners. The issues are still here; the murder of D’John Reid in Birmingham, that’s another case like the ones of Stephen Lawrence and Pat King. The issues are still here but the great thing is in terms of racial harmony you’re having more and more people of different colour and different races coming together to demand racial equality. We had a Black Lives Matter event and it was such a beautiful mix – black people, brown people, white people, Asian people – and I feel like that’s a blessing and where we are heading. People are coming together more and more than ever.
Do you think Birmingham’s cultural diversity has allowed more positive outcomes for people than other parts of the UK or are we on a par with everyone else? Any city that has a multi-cultural scene has got to be a progressive one. It allows the next generation to understand that we are all different yet we can all come together to be part of something. We’ve been doing the Commonwealth as a poetry theme in Birmingham schools, and it was so great to see young people of different ages and different religions all loved one thing, and that was being a Brummie, being from Birmingham. The poem they wrote said: Birmingham is nice, Birmingham is kind, Birmingham is full of different restaurants, Birmingham is full of different cultures and we all come together. All these positive words, and these are primary school kids. So, them growing up and appreciating different cultures means things are only going to get better, and that Birmingham is getting more and more progressive.
You were a finalist on BBC1 XTRA. How has this supported you? It helped me a lot and really propelled my voice and career to a whole different degree. I still stay in touch with the organisers who facilitated the poetry stuff and they still give me work. Things really progressed after being a finalist, so it was definitely life changing for me.
And what are your future plans? I want to record an EP and I want to launch more youth clubs, but my aims are really to inspire the next generation to hone their gifts and to use them to the best of their advantage. I don’t want them to feel intimidated because of the area they have come from, the area they have grown up in or the situations that they have had to overcome, but to really use what they have to develop themselves and the next generation after them as well. That’s my ultimate aim to be honest.
Will that be more through rap or poetry? I think both. I always say, words are the foundation. Whether there’s a beat on it and it’s a rap song, or whether the beat is stripped and it’s a poem, or it’s a story I am telling. For me, so long as the message is distributed, the message is heard, and the message has come from out of the way I believe, then you know for me, that’s the way forward, whatever the art form or medium.
Tell us about Bake off? I did a song called British Bake Off and it was meant to be just a song of gratitude, of joy, of being grateful after the pandemic, and one of the Junior Bake Off hosts really liked the song and he posted it everywhere. I said ‘make sure the producers hear this, I want that song on Bake Off properly!’.
For you, what is your most poignant poem? Loaded Handgun; Loaded Handgun definitely.