FLINT, Michigan -- The story of Jon Connor, born Jon Kevin Freeman Jr., is a fusion of both the light and dark. As he arrives at Comma Bookstore and Social Hub in downtown Flint on a cold and cloudy Monday evening, the aura surrounding him and his crew is light. A far cry from his musical persona known to produce magic from words and music, and who's aptly dubbed "The People's Rapper" from his 2012 mixtape of the same name. He sits, mature and disciplined in body, spirit, and craft. There's a feeling of freedom, heightened by him saying that no question—even about Aftermath—is off-limits.
Connor's journey isn't unfamiliar to anyone in pursuit of entertainment dreams—or any goals for that matter. However, the story we don't know is that he's a son, brother, uncle, artist-producer, C.E.O., but most notably, an often forgotten, a 35-year-old Black man who "wakes up, meditates, prays, works out, and then [hits the] studio." At his heart, he is still the same young boy who found himself immersed in wrestling, comics, and cartoons, stating that "Batman, X-Men, WWE, DC Comics, and Marvel Comics were my nerd-isms."
Raised on the northside of Flint, his musical aspirations and his mother's blessings gave him the initiative to work hard as a teen and build a basement studio. This studio birthed his current Flint-based label, All Varsity Music, alongside business partner and former Michigan State University basketball star Mateen Cleaves. A studio that made it possible to release "music every two months," and that led to a tour with rapper Xzibit.
The connection became the catalyst for Connor and one of music's legends — Dr. Dre — to meet. The 2013 B.E.T. Awards Show cypher saw Connor say his famous verse, "and y'all knew that I was ill/but now my doctor is Dre," revealing that he inked a deal with Aftermath/Interscope Records. The next year saw him featured on the cover of XXL Magazine's Freshman Class of 2014. And for the next five years, Connor stayed at Aftermath, entangled in the machine known as the music industry. What manifested was a handful of features, including a song with Keke Palmer about the Flint Water Crisis and an unreleased album. All of this provided invaluable life experiences and personal growth that he says was similar to getting a four-year-degree, but one that came with "good times and bad."
"I got a college education on music by one of the greatest professors that could ever do it," he says. "I'm not a fan of the major league. There's a system that the music business has implicated since before I was born. Spiritually, I'm at peace, [but] I believe the issue is we have to educate young artists to know the power within themselves."
Eventually, in 2019, he left Aftermath and returned home to Flint. Seasoned by the experience, he poured everything into his newest album, S.O.S., and in making All Varsity Music the "opposite of what I saw the music industry as." The album, which garnered over 500k streams and counting, features industry vets like Kelly Price and hometown favorites like The Sister Tour. Bold statements about the Black American experience, women empowerment, self-love, and lessons learned flow as a testament of his resolve to never give up during moments where he questioned himself, his passion, and at times, his life.
"[S.O.S.] was me thanking God, my family, friends, and supporters of my music. [There were] times in my life where I didn't want to be here," he says, recalling the memories. "[People] sent messages asking, 'are you okay?' That's love. I'm human, just like everybody else. I read the comments too."
As he reflects on this new phase in his life, the freedom to release music whenever, conduct himself how he sees fit, and speak his truth sets the tone of a man who knows who he is. Endowed in spiritual beliefs and practices, Connor is determined to elevate and bring balance to music. It is one of many revelations that come during his early morning walks feeding birds.
"It brings me peace," he says, looking out the window proud of this fact. "This is when I have my talks with the Creator. [One day] I went to feed the birds, but a bunch of ants were eating the food. God was sending a message like, 'don't worry about what you feed and just do what I asked you to do.'"
That spiritual connection is what has kept Connor grounded amid turbulent times. It is now what gives him continued inspiration for producing music and cultivating talents like 24-year-old Ace Gabbana. Modeled in some respect after Dr. Dre's and Connor's artist-producer relationship, Connor's work with Gabbana symbolizes the turning point in both their lives and careers. The focus on creating Gabbana's forthcoming album, MoonWater, allows Connor to tap into the time spent and knowledge gained at Aftermath to usher in a new generation of musical artists and classic Flint albums. Connor's role as a producer returns him to his roots, gives All Varsity Music the ability to create in-house, and the opportunity to learn from his artist.
"Ace is my little brother. I have to understand his world and where he's trying to go with it," he says with a smile. "When [I] can take an artist's ideas, or see the words coming out, or it's exactly what they wanted it to be, to me, that's the greatest feeling in the world."
The project with Gabbana, set to be the label's arrival into the current musical landscape, aims to change music's vibration and restore balance. But, an essential thing to Connor, at this time, is making sure that somebody is going against the grain, speaking truth to power, and trying to uplift the people—much like himself.
"I hope that [Ace's] generation gets that it's okay to be yourself—to not sound like everybody else. I hope they accept [MoonWater], accept him, and that his music gives them another option. I think there is time for somebody to be what I was. I feel like [Ace] is that for the next wave of Flint music."
You can find Jon Connor on Facebook, Instagram, and his label, All Varsity Music, on Facebook and Instagram. You can also stream Connor's newest album, S.O.S, on all media platforms.