Motown signee on working hard, Marvin Gaye and how his city shaped him as a man

The dark, intimate space of Toronto’s Velvet Underground fills rapidly as fans draped in their finest Topshop-esque, grunge-chic apparel arrive for a performance from BJ the Chicago Kid. From the minimalistic décor to the dim to gradually pitch black lighting, the venue is perfect for an artsy, alternative 20-something to be serenaded in.

After a well-received opening from North Dakota native, Elhae, the stage goes black and a single spotlight highlights the eagerly anticipated and vocally endowed, BJ the Chicago Kid. BJ sounds just as good live as he does on his studio album.

As he opens with a few lines of Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” the crowd goes from lit to stunned, swaying in awe and admiration. BJ makes his way through sultry love ballads to upbeat tracks from his debut major label album In My Mind, breaking every so often to demonstrate his instrumentalism on the drums.

After the show, BJ the Chicago Kid takes time out to speak on his new album, how he’s managed to bring us back to an R&B sound known and loved by so many and how Chicago shaped him as both a man and an artist.

Even after getting more, and earning more, and reaching a level of success, you still have to maintain.

YOU HAVE A VERY CLASSIC, GOLDEN-ERA R&B SOUND. WHY IS HAVING AND MAINTAINING THAT SOUND IMPORTANT TO YOU?

That’s the music that moved me. It’s a part of my DNA. I was raised in church and from that I was able to understand and create for my people.

YOU’VE BEEN IN THIS GAME FOR A LONG TIME, WRITING AND SINGING BACK-UP FOR MANY OTHERS. WHAT ARE SOME OF THE MOST IMPORTANT LESSONS YOU LEARNED ALONG THE WAY THAT YOU APPLY NOW TO YOUR CAREER AS A SOLO ARTIST?

One of the coolest things I’ve learned from working with other artists is that we all share one main ingredient, which is hard work. Hard work can take you to a million different places. The level of artists that I worked with that still work hard, that didn’t settle, that didn’t have time to complain about certain things . . . I think it just woke up the warrior in me even more than what I already had naturally embodied. Even after getting more, and earning more, and reaching a level of success, you still have to maintain. Whoever you may work with or work for, there’s always something you can take away to incorporate into your own life.

WHAT HAS BEEN THE MOST MEMORABLE ASPECT OF RECORDING AND RELEASING YOUR DEBUT PROJECT IN MY MIND?

The actual process itself. I did this with my friends. I made a lot of new friends while making it. I slept in the studio for 28 days out of 30. I make my best music waking up to it, going to bed to it. There were so many memories, creating so many songs, and so many songs that weren’t released with the album. It was just so much. I think the whole overall process was beautiful.

HOW DID GROWING UP WITH A GOSPEL BACKGROUND SHAPE YOU MUSICALLY?

It shaped me in the coolest way possible. It helped me connect with my emotions a lot faster. Understanding what you’re singing, the meaning of the words, the meaning of the songs, or the condition of the songs.

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WHY DID YOU OPT FOR AN R&B CAREER OVER AN EXCLUSIVELY GOSPEL ONE?

I wasn’t necessarily shooting for a gospel career. I followed what I felt was best for me and it led me to this. It definitely wasn’t a long drawn out plan. People just introduce you to different people, and that happened to me so many times in my life where I’d be learning more and more about myself.

YOU’RE VERY SOULFUL. WHO WERE SOME OF YOUR MUSICAL INFLUENCES GROWING UP?

A lot of my influences growing up were musical and non-musical. Growing up in Chicago, Michael Jordan was one of the biggest inspirations you could have. I thought it was pretty cool that I could transfer the energy he had, to me still wanting to be Michael Jordan in whatever dream I had in life besides basketball. He was such an inspiration to my city that you could use his name as an actual level of successful greatness.

YOU REP CHICAGO IN YOUR STAGE NAME. HOW HAS YOUR HOME CITY INFLUENCED YOUR MUSIC?

Chicago didn’t just influence my music, but myself as a man. Taught me rules about how to get around the world, and how to get home safe. Chicago has taught me how cold the world can be too. It’s taught me the beautiful things, the ugly things, and those things will never be forgotten.

Chicago didn’t just influence my music, but myself as a man. Taught me rules about how to get around the world, and how to get home safe.

YOU’RE SIGNED WITH MOTOWN RECORDS, A LEGENDARY LABEL IN R&B/SOUL MUSIC. WHAT DOES THAT MEAN TO YOU?

It’s one of the coolest places to be for a young man like myself. A lot of the artists that previously came from Motown, who were birthed in Motown, or are Motown representatives, all kind of share that thing. That mix of stories that come from the streets, but the music that comes from the church. Being raised in church and understanding that living life and not being afraid to make mistakes, and making mistakes so you can write about it. That combination is one of the most important things to me rather than the thought that I’ve been signed to a musical family’s history.

HOW DO YOU WANT YOU AND YOUR MUSIC TO BE REMEMBERED?

I would like my music to be remembered as building a building, brick by brick, layer by layer. Sometimes you don’t understand what it’s going to become until you get halfway and then what looks like halfway isn’t how it’s going to look at the end. I feel like people will sooner or later in time, understand that we’re trying to build one of the most beautiful buildings we could ever build. Something that will stand the test of time.

YOU RECENTLY RELEASED A DUET WITH MARVIN GAYE’S “WHAT’S GOING ON”. HE’S AN R&B AND SOUL LEGEND. HOW DID HE INFLUENCE YOU AND YOUR SOUND?

Just being a fan of Marvin Gaye, I’ve been doing homework on his life long before I was at Motown. I’d been trying to find out about his life, and about who his heroes were. I just began to see the parallels of what made us connect. I call him Uncle Marvin.

YOU’VE BEEN PRETTY VOCAL ON SOCIAL MEDIA ABOUT YOUR STANCE ON CURRENT EVENTS SURROUNDING THE BLACK COMMUNITY AND POLICE BRUTALITY. HOW IMPORTANT IS IT TO YOU, AS AN ARTIST, TO USE YOUR PLATFORM TO SPEAK UP?

I think it’s important to use my platform even beyond that. Being raised in the south side of Chicago, I feel like there’s a certain way to behave as a man. If I grew up across the street from you and you’re out of town for a while, and I see your mom carrying grocery bags in the house, I could at least help her bring them in, or to the door if I’m not allowed to go inside. But it’s still a way to help, still a heart, and still a mind that comes with that. That’s just me as a man.

Photos © Isa Ransome & Urbanology Magazine