Jonathan Emile is only 27, yet he’s already overcome one of the toughest challenges anyone can ever face.
The 27 year-old Jamaican-Canadian musician, Montreal native, and McGill student-on-hiatus fought a lengthy battle with cancer after being diagnosed at the age of 18. Today, he’s an artist on the rise with his own record label, and a soon to be released collaboration with rapper Kendrick Lamar.
“I only started taking [music] seriously when I went through my illness,” Emile tells the Tribune. “That’s when I really found a love for it and decided, ‘Hey, if I make it through, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.’”
Emile defeated the cancer and followed through on that life-changing decision. During the recovery period, he began to lay the foundation for Mindpeacelove Enterprises, a label that would aim to become a creative hub for so-called “conscious” artists.
“It’s a label in the most basic sense of the word,” says Emile. “We just produce records with a certain sound, a certain aesthetic. It’s a sonic aesthetic, but also thematic. Our records are all positive records; they’re all conscious hip-hop, R&B, rock, reggae. It’s all conscious social music. It’s like neo-soul.”
In 2009, Emile’s debut album, The Lover Fighter Document, was the label’s first release. In 2011, the EP was long-listed for a Grammy nomination.
Even on the heels of such a successful first effort, Emile has been focused on more than just his career. He backs up the message of his music with social action in the Montreal community. Emile is greatly involved with the Montreal-based organization Overture With the Arts, a group dedicated to bringing performance arts education to youth.
Overture is also responsible for the Songs of Freedom Tour for Black History Month, which brought Emile to McGill on February 20th. In the SSMU ballroom, he delivered an inspiring hour-long presentation that educated and excited the hundred or so high school kids that were invited to attend.
As he explained to the students, the thesis is simple: “Music is a tool for communication and social justice.” Then, he took them on a chronological musical journey that jumped around from early tribal music to legendary anthems of change “Redemption Song” and “A Change is Gonna Come,” and eventually freestyles and written raps that he authored himself.
A few years ago, Emile was working on his music while studying Philosophy and Political Science at McGill, but realized that he couldn’t juggle both at the same time if he was going to make a serious run at the music industry, so he took an “extended sabbatical.” He speaks fondly about his passion for both disciplines (eagerly recommending Professor Buckley’s class in Phenomenology), and plans on eventually finishing his degree, then either exploring more academic opportunities or working in education.
The way things are going, it could be a while before he finds himself on campus again. Emile is working hard to try and get his second album released sometime in the fall, and when Kendrick Lamar isn’t busy living the high life and hosting Saturday Night Live, the two are planning to get together to shoot a music video for their collaboration, “Heaven Help Dem.”
Emile is excited to meet the celebrated rapper in person, but his most anticipated event will come in the spring when he will get married, and travel to France and Spain for his honeymoon. It’s a big step for Emile—but then, he’s taken quite a few of those since conquering cancer and committing himself to pursuing his musical dreams.
Check out Jonathan Emile on the last stop of his tour on Feb. 28, 5:30 p.m., Riverdale High School (5060 Sources Boulevard). Free admission.