Body and Soul: Afrofuturism, Surrealism, and the Dream Visions of 10th Letter
10th Letter (Jeremi Johnson) is interested in cosmic shifts. The Atlanta-based producer has created a distinctive style inflected with elements of experimentation, surrealism, and Afrofuturism that transports listeners to soundscapes that can be transcendent and grounded all at once. Through his music and art, he creates a testament to his own journey and a powerful vision of humanity’s self-actualization on the individual and species level. For 10th Letter, music and visual art are powerful access points to realizations on multiple planes of lived experience.
Listening to the 10th Letter is a synesthetic experience. His background as a visual artist and graphic designer informs his composition, and songs are often the result of the interplay between the visual and the aural, emerging from dreams, visions, and other media. Beyond the diverse threads that go into the creation of each piece, the music is unified by the fact that it’s rooted in the cerebral as well as the bodily. This eclectic mixture of influences and aesthetics comes to its fruition in his new LP (and sixth self-produced album), Corpus Animus (2014). Although it might not be immediately apparent on the first listen, it’s a concept album, and it’s representative of 10th Letter’s journey so far, as well as his hopes for the future.
The album is a seamless, organic work that rewards repeated listening. In Corpus Animus, the visual element emerges in the worlds created by the sound. The album starts with the ethereal notes of “Stand at the Threshold,” which spin into the tinkling, higher frequencies of the celestial realm. The music returns to these airy notes throughout the LP as it tells the story of one soul’s journey through space and time, memory and longing, and the physical and the spiritual. The sound becomes playful in “Vessel,” a song that features the instrumentation of Saira Raza, and then drops firmly into the material with the tribal beats of “Dragon Float.” “Soliloquy,” which features the vocals of Anya Martinez, moves sensuously through jazz-infused riffs as Martinez’s silky voice cascades over the notes.
“Crosshairs,” which marks the halfway point of Corpus Animus, is one of the shortest songs on the album, but it’s also one of the most emotionally evocative. The melancholy sounds of stringed instruments wash over you in waves as more atonal, dissonant noises fade in and out of the background. The song stirs feelings of a sadness tinged with loveliness, evoking images of sitting alone by a gray sea. “Passion Fruit,” the next song on the album, shifts tones sharply, moving us into a thudding bassline that registers deep in the gut. “Clouded” includes short, jangling notes that sound like the “ka-ching” of cash registers, but it also weaves in elements that connect it to the ethereal sounds of earlier songs. The album ends with “Golden Meadow,” another track that features Raiza on vibraphone. This song opens with the soft peals of that instrument, which ring out like a clock striking. It’s an awakening, but it also feels like a return. It brings the album full circle, a testament to the natural evolution of consciousness and the return of all things to a state of union and bliss.
The Asheville Beat Tape Collective brought 10th Letter to town earlier this month as part of the Beat Life series. I sat down with 10th Letter before his recent performance, at Asheville’s Mothlight, to talk about Corpus Animus, his influences, and his ideas about life, the universe, and everything. Topics ranged from minute details to cosmic philosophies, and by the end it was even clearer to me that 10th Letter’s vision is unique and potentially world-changing.
Ali McGhee: I’m interested in the intersection between your music and your visual art. How is it manifesting in your work right now?
10th Letter: I like to create universes, and I like to think of my works as my own universes. I think that the art is definitely an extension of the music in a very strong sense. A lot of the things that I create for my covers or for the videos are images that I’ve seen that inspired the music initially. I’m a very visual person, so I’ll see something, or I’ll make something, and I’ll think of a melody that coincides with the vision I’m seeing, and sometimes it happens that way and then sometimes it’s the other way around—sometimes the music inspires the visuals. I definitely like to lean on an Afrofuturist, Afro-surrealist aesthetic. I like to incorporate a lot of indigenous people in my art.
Ali McGhee: You talk about Afrofuturism and surrealism as large influences on your work. Can you unpack those terms? What do they mean to you?
10th Letter: In terms of surrealism, I’m inspired by Dadaist art, Dali…artists that really stepped outside of this reality and looked at it from a different perspective and showed it to us, kind of like shamans. The Afrofuturism thing—for me what it means is reclaiming something that was taken away from black people. Kind of like our past was taken, so now we get to write our own future. So that’s what Afrofuturism means to me. And it’s just a projection of what that could be, whether it be the future 20 years from now or 20 minutes from now. We’re making it. We’re making our own story.
Ali McGhee: Have you had training in studio art and art history? Is making art something you’ve always done?
10th Letter: I’ve always drawn, even as a kid. But I also went to the Art Institute [of Atlanta]. I studied graphic design, I studied film, so it’s definitely I have training in that department.
Ali McGhee: You talk about creating universes, and I feel like I totally get that from your music. It feels like a synesthetic experience. I noticed there’s a song called “Chromesthesia” on the album. I know what synesthesia means, but what does chromesthesia mean?
10th Letter: It’s a form of synesthesia but it’s more related to music. It actually is inspired by a mushroom trip that I had last year. I was playing my set and each sound triggered its own set of colors, and from there—when I was able to write music again, when I wasn’t really out there like that—I made that song,. I’m all about spiritual medicine, and I believe that psilocybin, marijuana, ayahuasca, and DMT are all spiritual medicines, so I use them as such.
Ali McGhee: Is Corpus Animus a concept album? It feels like it has a real narrative. Can you talk about the process of putting it together?
10th Letter: It is a concept album. I’ve never had the opportunity to talk about it before. It’s a story about a soul venturing to earth and finding a vessel, and inhabiting this vessel and experiencing this world in the physical, and forgetting that it’s a spiritual being, forgetting that we are spirits inside of these biological computers. It’s just a journey, you know? It’s an arrival story of a spirit that is coming to age in its new flesh. It’s supposed to reflect this human experience that we’re all going through. How we tend to get caught up in our physical appearances, and materialistic things, and the way we identify ourselves with these things instead of identifying ourselves with our consciousness—which is what we are, which never dies. So it’s a story about that.
Ali McGhee: And at the end, does he make it? Does he get to this realization, this gnostic unveiling of his essence?
10th Letter: Yes, I think the ending—and I’ve never really explained this to anybody—is gaining consciousness—enlightenment—as a human. The spirit has found the vessel. You were born, you’re here. Through conditioning you’ve forgotten about this side of yourself, your true self, so I think that the end of the story is you discovering that “Oh no, I’m more than this flesh, I’m more than this shirt, my haircut, my earrings, my car, I’m more than this. I’m consciousness, I’m energy, I’m infinite, and I’m full of infinite potential.” So that’s what happens at the end—the awakening.
Ali McGhee: And that fits with the name of the album. Corpus Animus translates to…
10th Letter: Body and Spirit.
Ali McGhee: And you did the art for that album cover?
10th Letter: Yeah. That’s me on the album cover. It symbolizes the spirit man within—what’s not seen from the surface. I chose to go with the marbled paint just to show how colorful we are, and how complex and multi-layered we are. I thought it represented that well.
Ali McGhee: In terms of the music itself—you’re using Saira Raza playing cello, vibraphone, and other instruments, Anya Martinez on vocals, others. Is collaboration important in your music-making process? Is it important to bring other artists in?
10th Letter: I have to be honest. I moved to Atlanta from Anderson, South Carolina, a year and a half ago and I just didn’t have that many friends. Anderson is a very small town, and all my friends are gone, and I didn’t have that many musician friends around me. In Atlanta, I was just taken with all the people that gravitated towards me and I just wanted to incorporate them in my world. I don’t know if live instrumentation is something that’s really important to me. I’m working on a record right now that doesn’t incorporate a lot of that. It’s more back to the basics of electronic music. But at the time I just wanted to bring these people into the story. I needed their help to tell the story that I wanted to tell.
Ali McGhee: What made you choose Atlanta? Do you feel like you have a niche in the scene? When people think of Atlanta, they often think of hip hop. Can you talk about the electronic music scene in Atlanta?
10th Letter: I’ve always gone to Atlanta, ever since I was a child. It was always this magical place to me, since I’m from the country. I’m from a very small secluded area, so going to the city was always like, “Wow, this is amazing. This is so huge.” I’m really into architecture too, so seeing all the building and all the structures was always really cool for me. Then I decided to go to the Art Institute, where I studied film. In my time there I met a guy by the name of Drew Briggs, who goes by Divine Interface, and I met Brannon Boyle, who runs Psych Army and Speakeasy Promotions, and at the time none of us were where we are, doing what we’re doing now. We were just dreaming, like “One day…”
But I was always making music, digging through record stores. Everybody knew me in my dorm for making music, 24/7. I did not leave my room. My roommates in my dorm used to be party animals, and I would just be in my room making beats and smoking weed all day. So whenever I linked up with Drew, he was like “Oh, I make music too” and we started to hang out together. I met Ryan Parks, who now runs Harsh Riddims, and we connected because we were both into skateboarding. We just formed a strong bond and throughout the years we’ve encouraged each other to keep going, and now we’re doing really awesome stuff.
But I think Atlanta in itself is so open musically. It’s so accepting, but also savage. It will accept you but if you’re whack you’ll get cut off—they’ll let you know. I think that I was drawn to that, I felt like I could thrive in that environment. Not too snobby, not too stuck-up, willing to listen to you but definitely will let you know if this is not good, like “Hey man, this sucks.” It’s just a really open, free place. There are a lot of artists—everybody does something. It’s like the new Hollywood. Movies are being shot there all the time. It’s got a really great energy, an up-and-coming energy about it, and I got down with that.
Ali McGhee: Your producer name is 10th Letter. The 10th letter of the alphabet is obviously J, and your name also starts with J. Is that why you picked it, or is there anything more to it?
10th Letter: I was in a rap group before I did electronic music, and my group broke up. But at the time I was getting really heavy into production. I’ve always been into it, but I was getting really serious, buying gear and stuff like that. I was just in my room one day, and I was like “I have all these beats. I want to package it.” So I started getting serious about production. I had a voice in it. I could speak more with the music than with lyrics at the time. It was easier to get a point across sonically, and I felt like music was so universal. People might not be able to speak English but they can feel the frequencies. I just gravitated towards it. And I’ve always listened to electronic music. So it was natural and pretty organic. But 10th Letter just came to me. I was studying a lot of metaphysics, the dimensions. The 3rd, 4th, 5th dimension, going up. At the time I think the 10th or 11th dimension was the highest that they knew of, so I was like, “That’s pretty awesome, I’ll call myself 10th Letter.” So it’s J, it’s very simple, but it also has a very metaphysical meaning. I want to occupy that space—the 10th dimension—infinite possibilities, no limitations. This came out of a lot of reading. I was reading a lot of people like Stephen Hawking. I was heavy into people like Joseph Campbell, Terence McKenna, people like that.
Ali McGhee: That level of mindfulness and awareness seems like a key component of your music.
10th Letter: I’m really really into TM [Transcendental Meditation] thanks to David Lynch, a director that I look up to. TM is vital for creativity, I feel. Being able to clear your mind, activate those creative chambers that tend to get blocked by a lot of the distractions that we have, I’m about it. I started doing it a few years ago in Anderson and I continue to do it every day, it’s a practice I try to implement in my daily routine. I love it. I highly recommend it to anybody. It’s great.
Ali McGhee: You’re into David Lynch and you studied film. What other films and filmmakers inspire you?
10th Letter: I’m seriously into film. I’m kind of obsessed with vintage J-horror [Japanese horror]. I recently watched Sans Soleil. And [documentarian Chris Marker] is talking about being in Japan and watching all these crazy films. I’m obsessed with Japanese culture, like a lot of Americans are. Alejandro Jodorowsky is the man. I look up to him so much. El Topo is an amazing movie. If I were doing my visual set tonight you would have recognized some scenes from The Holy Mountain. I love that guy.
Ali McGhee: Are you working on anything now? What’s your next project?
10th Letter: The Revenge is the next album.
Ali McGhee: It sounds like a different kind of narrative from Corpus Animus.
10th Letter: Yeah, it’s a different story. The Revenge for me is about reclaiming energy that you’ve either loaned to someone or someone’s taken from you. A revenge on your own self. Let’s say you used to be a painter. But for some reason something stopped you from painting, something discouraged you to the point where you just shut down. Maybe one day you were like, “Hey, I used to be really awesome at this. Why am I not doing it?” So it’s like you’re reclaiming your gifts. It’s an album about reclaiming energy. It’s The Revenge.
Ali McGhee: Do you have a release date yet?
10th Letter: It will tentatively be out in late February or early March. Probably March.
Ali McGhee: Any big shows coming up?
10th Letter: I’m opening up for RJD2 on March 19 at Terminal West. It’s a Red Bull Sound Select Show. It’s going to be me, RJD2, and Kebbi Williams and the WolfPack—an amazing, amazing brass band out of Atlanta. The Outkast song, “SpottieOttieDopaliscious”–that’s the horn section.
Ali McGhee: What would you say to someone new to your music?
10th Letter: When you listen to my music, just be open. Try not to step into it with any preconceived notions about what it is or should be about. That’s a good way to experience it.