FLINT, Michigan — The smells of coffee and baked goods linger in the air at Mott Community College’s Coffee Beanery in downtown Flint. In a window-seated corner, I meet 24-year-old music artist, model, social media influencer, and founder of Keeping Tabs Media and app Jonathan McKay and his photographer and documentarist Jaden Switalski.
McKay arrives with child-like energy, greeting everyone, wearing army fatigue joggers, a black t-shirt underneath a varsity jacket with the words “Free The Ghetto Campaign” and “Free Rio” etched into it. With a broad smile and open arms for a tight embrace, it is immediately evident that Jonathan McKay, known affectionately by his creative name, RoarJMckay, is different.
McKay is not the typical, the ordinary, or the mundane. He is, in his words, “alternative” and part of the rising generation of late-teens and early twenty-somethings born in a society driven by social media, political unrest, spiritual affirmation, and colorful authenticity. But this is not to say he is misunderstood — in fact, quite the opposite. Like so many of his contemporaries, he is breaking barriers around social norms and traditional American beliefs and paving the ground for new creative business ideas to manifest. And so, it has sparked the alignment of our lives.
As he’s posing for photos all around the shop, he reveals the news of finally getting a printed copy of the global magazine MENCRUZE — which featured him as the cover model, shot by Fir3fly Photography — and is anxious to show it. The accomplishment is heartfelt and comes as a reminder that’s he far away from the tumultuous life he lived growing up on Flint’s Eastside and his initial battle with Adenoid cystic carcinoma (ACC) due to the Flint Water Crisis.
"I was so consciously aware of what I wanted that sometimes I would say f*uck the traditions.” — Jonathan McKay
Flintside: Talk to me about growing up on the East side of Flint. How would you catalog that time?
“Being right between the East and the North — a warzone is the best way to say it. While my mom was trying to work with the city, she was always teaching me so much educationally, but I still had to go outside to play. So you pick up the tips, tricks, and survival tactics. I came from a background that included the aspects of being tied into the city and the underground, so I felt a disconnect that led to my own avenue in societal living.”
Flintside: You call yourself and your lifestyle alternative, but how do you define that for yourself?
“Really, whatever I want to at the time. I’m super into anime, European art, and music, Australian and Asian culture. When I was 13 years old, I realized there’s a bigger construct that you can only build by getting there. I was so consciously aware of what I wanted that sometimes I would say f*uck the traditions.”
Flintside: Do you believe your spiritual awakening and getting cancer due to the water crisis align with each other?
What McKay calls alternative, I call queer — not about his sexuality but in his daring to be and remain authentically himself. And the convergence of that lifestyle, coupled with getting cancer and taking psychedelics, led McKay down a path towards spirituality — different from the Christian Baptist religion of his mother and Catholic religious schooling. Through reading, meditating, and life experiences, his newfound spiritual beliefs are at the center of life. So much in fact that it became a “life or death moment” or choosing whether to be “aware and conscious,” go to the library, or “be a part of the trap activities.”
But an opportunity to present a business idea at a Factory Two event catalyzed for McKay to utilize his experiences to create an app and movement centered around opioid addiction. Failing to win the competition and secure funding, he turned his eyes back to school. Instead, he began developing his mobile app, Keeping Tabs, through student and networking opportunities at Mott Community College. The app is designed to assist doctors who prescribe medication to patients to “see if they’re starting to develop an addiction or getting better or worse in treatment terms.”
As the app grows and prepares for commercial launch, McKay holds a desire to see Flint rise above its multi-faceted problems. As such, he’s partnered with local churches, Richfield Public School Academy and McDonald’s for a food drive, and Flint Innovative Solutions. A big partnership of his comes from the cannabis brand STIIIZY and a marketing promotional for Rio Da Yung OG’s FIEND LIVES MATTER project and Free The Ghetto Campaign which “aims to highlight those making a positive difference in the community.”
“The Flint Water Crisis definitely directly impacted my consciousness. Spiritual is more abstract. I went through this crazy psychedelic experience in 2020, just doing a lot of meditation and dealing with many internal thoughts. Spirituality has always been there because my mom raised me in the church. But spirituality and religion are not the same things.”
Flintside: With Keeping Tabs, your partnership with STIZZY, your FIEND LIVES MATTER, and Free The Ghetto campaigns, what’s the message you’re bringing around opioid addiction, and general drug usage.
“Honestly, I [wasn’t] sure if I wanted to push that psychedelics are what I used to get me here. I used a lot of willpower and self-discipline, and I’m not trying to account it to drug dependence. [I want to] make it a tool to show people these are the things you can develop by using this. Not necessarily you need this to do it. That’s how I made my alternative lifestyle. If you come on a psychedelic tip, people are looking for that, whereas before, it was careful. We don’t know what that is.”
There’s a slight shift in McKay’s energy coming to the end of our conversation. His child-like presence is replaced with someone still figuring out what life, spirituality, and running a multi-media business in the modern age all mean. However, that isn’t stopping him from pursuing his dreams, and understanding who he is and where he’s come from.
Flintside: With all of your experiences and alternative lifestyle, what do you tell people around your age who aim to create their own lane?
“I was that person where people were like everybody else can get it, but you don’t deserve it, and I still got it. And not only that, I’m making sure other people get it. I’m a gatekeeper that lets people in. That lets me know that anyone can do it. I was out here strung out on [drugs]. So you can go from that to being this conscious, articulate, put together, and making new ways for other people.”
For more about Jonathan McKay, find him on Facebook and Instagram. Also, find his videographer, Jaden Switalski, on Instagram. In addition, find Keeping Tabs and Flint Innovative Solutions on Facebook, Instagram, and their website.