niusic: What does being a musician mean to you?
John Adidam Littlejohn: Being a musician for me means finding the way that I operate, the way that I think, the way that I process information: it is the way my brain works. Ever since I was a little kid, I have always heard music in my head just all day. You see my name is John Adidam Littlejohn. The ‘Adidam‘ means: "all day I dream about music". So, for me, being a musician was really learning that I could have a career in the way that I see the world.
niusic: At the same time, you are also a pastor. How are these two connected, your faith and your music?
John: Most people that talk about going into ministry talk about a calling. Just a very clear moment in their life. For me it was a complete surprise. About four years ago I felt a voice, saying: "You are supposed to be a pastor." I thought music is the way that I help people, my method of outreach to the world. I was already serving at a church here in British Columbia, the Kingdom Life Community Church, and teaching kids choirs, adult choirs, leading the worship band, leading a men‘s group. So, that church knew about the calling and at some point, decided that I should be a pastor. That‘s kind of how it came about, after years of being a musician.
niusic: Did becoming a pastor affect your relationship to the music?
John: The relationship I have with music is so pure. It is not in a box, it flows, it is like water. And this flow is still the same. The only big change is that I had to learn to become more efficient with my practice time. But that is also because I am a dad and a husband.
John Adidam Littlejohn is a violinist, pastor, educator, and acoustic hip hop artist. As a soloist and with the beatboxing string trio Infinitus, he has toured throughout Europe, Egypt, China, and North America. As an educator, John is the founder and director of the Thrive City String Academy, which is a tuition-free residential summer intensive for string players.
niusic: For me, the question about the relationship of music and faith is really fascinating. For example, I think of Johann Sebastian Bach: his faith is crucial to his music. And in the 19th century, at least here in Germany, music itself for some people became something they believed in religiously.
John: Yes, I see. Bach‘s music is really one of my biggest inspirations. He was unapologetic about his faith. And in fact, it was his faith that formed so much of his sound. He often even signed his scores with INJ: In Nomine Jesu. I do truly believe that music is one of the languages of God. In fact, so much of the Bible is music and people do not think of it: Psalms, Lamentations, the Song of Solomon. We do not have the scores. But when they made it, they were speaking the word of God in song. So, I think that I am a part of a long tradition of people who God uses music to speak through.
niusic: Your own compositions are not only classical but also use elements of hip hop and rap music, for example. How does all this fit together?
John: ... Indian music, Algerian pop, Cuban music, gospel music – I love bossa nova! I love tango. I love a lot of music. So how do they come together? It was actually more challenging to keep them separate. When I am writing music, I just allow whatever style to come out. Sometimes I still play entirely classical concerts. But think of Bach, think of Brahms: the Hungarian Folk Songs, for example. Composers used to just take whatever music they heard and liked and find a way to write it into what they hear in their heads. I feel like I am doing the same thing. The only difference is perhaps that it doesn‘t all fit in classical music.
niusic: Yes, and this is extraordinary because here in Germany, we are still talking about classical music as something separate from all the other genres. Of course, that has its origins in the 20th century idea that culture can be created also outside this ivory box protected and dominated by old white men. It seems a little absurd, but somehow, we are still not over this step to consider that it is not that easy anymore.
John: Yes, at some point classical music became something to put in a museum, to only watch from the outside. Although I do find that ... I did a lot of performances in Germany; I did a solo tour with Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy‘s Violin Concerto in D minor, his first violin concerto. And one thing that I really loved about performing in Europe is that the audience was more lively around classical music than here. In Canada and the United States, the audience is very reserved, very like: "This is a special evening. Don‘t interrupt." But in Europe, I remember so many curtain calls, with people cheering.
But I also remember a conversation with two German violinists, I think it was on Clubhouse, about the question: "Was hat die Geige mit Hiphop zu tun?" – what does the violin have to do with hip hop music? And they were talking about how in Germany, the concept of putting hip hop and violin together is a big controversy.
niusic: This is so true!
John: So, that is not a controversy here at all because people are not only into classical music. But they said in Germany, people think the combination of classical music with a popular genre like hip hop is something they cannot trust.
"My dad used to always ask me, ‘Do you play your own music?‘ And I used to say, ‘No, dad, that‘s not how classical music works, I play other people‘s music.‘ And he would say, ‘Don‘t you get sick of playing other people‘s music?‘ He just did not get it. And he used to say, ‘I want to hear your music.‘ It was much later that I realized he was right."
– John Adidam Littlejohn
niusic: I think it is because the musicians who mix those types of music often do it trying to get young people in the concert halls. And not really because they feel it. It does not come from the heart.
John: Right. I agree, and I think that is not the way to go. People have always used music to be popular or for politics or whatever. But often it just does not fit. I think the idea of making music from who you are, has always been essential.
niusic: You just talked about differences between the audiences in Canada, the United States, and Europe. As I do not know a lot about the music scene in Canada, I would like to ask you what the situation is right now and in general.
John: Canada is very supportive of the arts. The thing about Canada is ... tell me: what is the population of Germany?
niusic: About 80 million.
John: Canada is like 40 million. And it is the second largest nation land-wise in the world. So, it explains why coming together in Canada is just challenging! I am from the States and I moved here in 2007. And it was like coming to the Wild West: like if there was a saloon in the middle of nowhere that everyone loves because it is the only one in the area. What I find in Vancouver: If you can find a space to be creative, making a concert series or whatever – and you keep doing it, people will come to it. It is not like New York, where there are so many people, so many artists, making it very challenging to start something new. And the government of Canada does give lots of grants for new things.
Here in British Columbia, I find people are very open to new music, new ideas. Whereas in Alberta, people like fiddle music. With our string trio Infinitus, you know, usually we were just doing our beatboxing music, which is a very sophisticated fusion of jazz, classical, hip hop. And in Toronto, Montreal they love it. But not in Alberta. So, we talked to some people and they said: "you know, it‘s hard in Alberta because they just like fiddle. All the time." So, to prove the point we made this piece that was a combination of fiddle, classical and hip hop. They loved it! And it was actually a great feeling finding a way to put what they love in what we do. Since then, we‘ve been much more successful in Alberta! So that‘s Canada, that‘s the Wild West.
niusic: You‘re also a very committed music educator – but before we talk about that, I must ask: have you ever felt the wish to be just a classical musician?
John: Well, I did. For eight years I went to school and I received a classical violin education. A bachelors and a masters degree at the Peabody Conservatory, and then a performance diploma – all classical. Earlier in school, they would have jazz classes. I would take jazz lessons. With hip hop, I grew up in that sort of culture, and I was rapping as long as I was playing the violin. Later my dad used to always ask me, "Do you play your own music?" And I used to say, "No, dad, that‘s not how classical music works, I play other people‘s music." And he would say, "Don‘t you get sick of playing other people‘s music?" He just did not get it. And he used to say, "I want to hear your music." It was much later that I realized he was right. I do hear music a certain way. And I was just afraid to let people know how I hear music. Then at some point, I didn‘t care anymore if others were happy with it. I want to put out something that I like, that sounds like me. You can like it, you can hate it, but at the end of the day it‘s me.
niusic: Did you ever have the concern that you could not return once you started to mix musical styles?
John: Not so much. It was sort of like: who is making the rules here? Who owns music but God? Only God can tell me that I can or cannot go somewhere musically. But in fact, that‘s also why marketing has never been something easy for me. In marketing, people often say you must pick one thing, you must be consistent. I don‘t want to choose one thing.
niusic: Keeping that in mind: do you think something should change about the education of musicians in general, to also change the music scene?
John: I really do. I think every musician should have to learn to teach, to take education courses because almost every graduate starts to teach music. And there are so many musicians who do not know how to teach but just to play. I also think that schools need to be more culturally aware. Right now, there is just this clear focus on Western European classical culture. And they do not seem very interested or understanding of students from different backgrounds. Teachers sometimes can be very ... almost scarring not understanding students from other cultures with other ways to approach life and music. And they just say: If you want to work in this business, you must adapt these Western standards. And they complain if you do not fulfil this expectation. But I wonder, as a teacher who is creative: shouldn‘t you be more open? Shouldn‘t you be able to be more flexible and teach student the way that they learn? The students are always the only ones who must change. This cannot be right. Back to the question, I think musicians should learn how to speak to people and present themselves. How to make deals, how to talk to parents, audiences, agencies. How to solve conflicts and negotiate things professionally.
niusic: I will embed the video to your song Better from your last album Caterpillar Chronicles in this article to give everyone an impression of who you are and what you do. What would you want to give people on the way before they watch the video?
John: If you listen to Caterpillar Chronicles, it is all acoustic hip hop, all the beats and sounds are created acoustically with my voice and violin: the beatboxing, the singing and rapping, the violin lines. I call myself a caterpillar because caterpillars do not fly. They just go one step at a time. A lot of people say they want to be a butterfly. I thought about it and said: no, I do not want to be a butterfly but a caterpillar. I am still going step by step by step. I feel every piece of the ground. I am not in the air. So, the music on Caterpillar Chronicles brings together all the stories of everything that I feel. And the most special thing about Better is that part of me being on the ground is being connected with my family every day. That is something people do not see in the concert hall.