Truth. Conflict. Peace. Scale And Victory.

Giveon in conversation with John Edmonds
Photography John Edmonds, Styling Yashua Simmons

Victory, for Giveon, isn’t a given: it’s a gift. While the LA-born singer-songwriter concedes that the public reception to art can’t always be controlled, the process and the expression can; mastering this in the most truthful way possible leads to, if not always critical acclaim, self-actualisation. Cutting his teeth singing ‘Happy Birthday’ at family friends’ parties, the singer-songwriter has deftly scaled up his creative practice, moving from a self-released debut (Garden Kisses) to a feature on a number one single (2021’s Peaches with Justin Bieber and Daniel Caesar) to a Grammy nomination in a matter of years. While his ascent may have been rapid, as the title of his debut EP Take Time suggests, easy wins are not possible; quality tastes best when it’s been brewed, not manufactured for instant consumption.

Here, Giveon discusses this and more with Brooklyn-based image-maker John Edmonds, an artist working in photography best known for his portraits of Black men in America, exhibiting in the Brooklyn Museum and winning the Foam Paul Huf Award in 2021. Sitting down together following their cover shoot for DUST, both discuss the affirmative nature of personal achievements, the power of staying true to ourselves and our collective pursuit towards inner peace. Victory is a virtue: the ultimate telos of every creative.

Giveon wears Prada AW23

GIVEON – It’s good to see you here in L.A.

john edmonds – Every time I come to L.A., I feel like I am stepping into a different world.

G. – That’s so crazy. I’m from here, my family is from here, and I feel my L.A. experience is so different from everyone else’s. When someone asks me why I like L.A., it’s not easy to answer as the L.A. that is home to me is very different from what people usually think of this city. Only in the past few years have I seen the other side of it and realised there’s this invisible line separating it from where I grew up. It’s crazy how different it is, how fast-paced it is. I grew up in a place that was culturally very mixed. My high school was split between Asian, White, Black, Hispanic and Pacific Islander students; I’ve always been immersed in various cultures, whether it be in terms of food, fashion, or anything else artistic. I grew up in a place where you could just do your own thing and let everything else coexist. It instilled in me the idea that if someone else doesn’t understand what you’re doing, then that’s completely fine. If something’s not for them, you can’t do anything about it. More than that, I grew up in a house with all boys: four of us and my mom. It was an imbalanced blend of masculinity and my mom’s soft touch of femininity. In terms of art and creativity, I was the only one of my brothers to pursue this passion.

J.E. – And what was that like?

G. – I had to learn from an early age that whenever you want to do something creatively or express something, you have to stand your ground because not everyone around you might agree with your taste or what you are doing. I think my upbringing accounts for all of that.

J.E. – Interesting. I didn’t know you came from a tribe of men. It’s actually quite the opposite for me. I was born and raised in Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Area and grew up among sisters: I have three older sisters. My mom raised us, for the most part, by herself. I think a lot of my work has revolved around portraiture and the presence of the male body as a subject because I did not grow up with that kind of guidance. When I was growing up, I was always really interested in creativity and expression. My mom tried to encourage me to get into sports, but that was something that I never really succeeded at. Instead, something I always did was take pictures. I was using my older sister’s camera, which became a tool through which I could understand the world around me. It became a way to learn how to articulate my thoughts, emotions, and my inner world. That’s what photography became for me. Eventually, it evolved into something more serious and since I did not excel in school, art was my only way to progress. It allowed me to travel, and it allowed me to be social. I was pretty shy and photography became a social tool and a way to connect with others. So, funnily enough, I’ve always thought that photography taught me how to speak. It helped me develop a sense of my identity and voice through what I do. Art serves as an extraordinary vessel for a combination of ideas to come through. The creative process, as we know, is not a linear thing. And in the same way, identity isn’t either.

G. – I feel the same way, as music is part of my identity. It could not be any other way. The downside is that it can become tricky as it grows, and external criticism becomes more prominent in the creative process. When you’re an artist like you or me, it starts to feel like some people are directly criticizing you because what you create is deeply personal, and you pour your heart into it to the point where you can’t separate yourself from your creation. It’s quite fascinating.

J.E. – I can relate. But how do you find the balance in that? Like being so expressive and open about your life and your own experiences through your music while also having to take criticism from the general public? How do you navigate that?

G. – My biggest advice is to surround yourself with your own network and only do what you and your group feel in your gut. I could say “Just trust yourself,” but you don’t want to create solely for yourself. However,

if you have your network, your tribe, and if you all love what you’re doing and someone else out there hates it, there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s your gut feeling versus theirs. The question isn’t who’s right or wrong, but who you prioritize.

It still takes practice, but when an artist is true to themselves and where they’re coming from, I respect it, and I think the public does too.

Giveon wears Prada AW23

J.E. – It sounds like you’re saying that you just have to be strong and trust yourself and the process, essentially knowing and relying on who you are because people don’t have to accept you. People don’t have to like you. People don’t have to like what you do. As long as you accept yourself, you’ll find your own voice and peace at the end of the day.

G. – Most of the time, we compromise peace over other goals we may have because—whatever medium we are using—we have our aims and ambitions. But, since we haven’t reached those goals yet, we don’t know what comes along with them or what price we have to pay. Additionally, there are so many distractions, and the world is so saturated that you risk becoming irrelevant if you’re not constantly showcasing yourself to everyone. It’s a difficult path to walk, and it’s easy to get lost. For me, the solution to navigating this is to stay true to myself and remain in a place where I feel strong. As you said, the ultimate goal is peace. I believe that is the destination you should aim for.

J.E. – Concerning this exact point, I want to go back to what you said about scale, though, because I find that a really interesting challenge that all artists must face when dealing with the masses. What you said about scale struck me because I remembered that I read somewhere that your mom used to encourage you to sing at birthday parties when you were young.

G. – That’s how it all started, actually. My mom noticed that I could sing when she would play songs around the house, and I would naturally start singing along because she would play the same song repeatedly. It initially began as muscle memory for me. And then she would hear me singing and pick up on the little things that you would notice if you knew how to sing, like specific vocal runs, pitches, and keys. Since I didn’t excel in school, my mom couldn´t showcase my report card with praises for good grades or perfect attendance. But she had something else to show. So at every family birthday party, she just had me sing Happy Birthday. From then, I would just start singing at whoever’s birthday. That’s how I started singing. Looking back, my early years of making music were primarily focused on self-expression. I viewed it as a means to express myself authentically. But, as my fanbase started to grow and my desire to expand my reach increased, I found myself feeling obliged to integrate certain manufacturing aspects into my creative process. This has always presented a challenge for me because blending spontaneous expression with manufactured aspects creates an internal conflict. It is easier for artists who are not purely focused on spontaneous expression to navigate the process of scaling. For them, manufacturing is more natural and less bothersome. But, when you are scaling while staying true to your natural self, relying on your own instincts and being your own strategy, the pressure becomes increasingly intense. You feel incredibly vulnerable. A big step for me in overcoming this fear was when I realized that I couldn’t control the outcome of what I put out there. It also made the whole experience much more fun. It’s about understanding that you truly have no control over the outcome and simply letting it be. You can create the best work possible, but the result is ultimately beyond your control. The only thing I can control is the process of expression, which is what I try to focus on.

J.E. – In this sense, I want to talk more about your voice and how you navigate the peaks and valleys of life, relationships, and career. I’m curious about how you think conflict brings beauty to what you do.

G. –Does conflict bring beauty? Absolutely, I believe it does. I think the most beautiful things come from conflict because conflict is honesty, I think. And if you get to a point where you can tell the story of how the conflict is resolved, then that’s the payout for the audience and whoever is listening. It’s just a part of my upbringing, too. The music my mom played around the house was pain that had turned into beauty. Just the fact of being Black in America is about finding a way to turn pain into beauty. The more I look around and look back, the more I see it. Now, reaching the point I am at in my life, I can see it’s beautiful, but it took a lot of pain to get here.

J.E. – It’s inevitable.

G. – Conflict is inevitable. So, the idea of just creating things without conflict being a part of it, I don’t know, it feels unrealistic.

J.E. – Yes, I would say that it feels untrue. You once spoke about what you wanted your legacy to be and said you wanted to be remembered as an artist who has told the truth. And I think if you tell the truth, you constantly find yourself in a space of conflict because it becomes a question of whose truth it is. I believe it requires an immense amount of courage and clarity to walk down that path.

G. – Yeah, it’s a big ambition. Look, so far, the keywords we have used are truth, conflict and scale. Within truth, in conflict, with scale. This is what I think it takes to be a pure, truthful, honest artist.

J.E. – It is, indeed. Returning to your upbringing, what was the first song you listened to that profoundly affected you?

G. – I think it was Frank Ocean for me, the whole Channel
album. This was the first time that music felt like art to me. Before then, music was just like a thing. I didn’t associate it with art because it was ingrained in our house and our culture. But then Channel
made me realise that the term artist can also be used for a musician, and that changed my whole approach. I always used to associate music with a feeling because whenever my mom played a song, you could directly tell what mood she was in, based on the song she was playing. She’d either be in a good mood, and we could all talk to her and try to ask her for stuff because we knew she’d say yes to everything while in that mood, or we wouldn’t talk to her because she’d probably be in her cleaning mode and she’d be focused, and we’d have to leave her alone. For me, Channel
as an album is a masterful example of how a musician can evoke feelings.

J.E. – I know what you mean when you say you could tell how your mom was feeling. I remember hearing my mom play Real
by Mary J. Blige—or Not
. I knew what that sound was channelling. Whether it’s music or creating images with a camera or through painting, it’s about the medium and music is a medium. Art is the kind of kaleidoscope to understand the world, life, and experience. And understanding your humanity through what you do is a deep human desire. I like to use art as a container for everything that comes up within me. It’s a fantastic way to understand who you are, where you’ve been, and where you want to go—releasing the control of it all. There’s no good or bad, just your own journey.

G. – It’s like a dance, this journey we’re on. And the goal is to navigate it without stepping on our own toes. I know so many people who are still searching for their purpose. It’s not that they’ll never find it, but they haven’t quite discovered it yet. Despite any conflicts or problems I face, I’m always grateful to have a clear sense of purpose and know what I’m here for and what I want to do. Figuring that out is the most complex than anything else.

J.E. –

It’s the ability to trust that art can speak the truth about what you’re feeling, what you’re going through, and what you’re searching for. In a way, it can seem so simple, but sometimes it’s just difficult even to reach that point. It’s not a linear path; as you said, it’s a dance.

G. – It most definitely is.

J.E. – Let’s introduce a new term that captures our discussion, which also aligns with the title of this DUST issue—Victory. What does Victory mean to you, and how would you define this word?

G. – When I think about Victory, I think of results. So, it’s like my first time getting nominated for a Grammy, for example. That was one of my happiest moments ever. I called my mom, and I called everyone. In a personal sense, Victory is seeing how my music touches people, and I am not even talking about the masses. Nothing could compare to the feeling I had when I saw someone singing a live song I had made just sitting at the piano in my living room. My music’s effect on people is just one of those victories that keep giving, and I’m just like, wow. This week I leave for Europe for my first European tour, and every show is going to feel like a victory knowing that people in London, Paris, Oslo, Berlin, Stockholm or Brussels are taking that night off; they wait for the event with anticipation, maybe they are buying an outfit to wear, they will have to drive all the way to the show, waiting in line and then standing there just to see me sing and sing along with me. That feels like a victory to me. My favourite part of being an artist is performing and playing a song live; that always blows my mind. It doesn’t matter how many people; I’ve played in front of 20 people in Long Beach and around 60,000 in Coachella. It always feels like a win. These are transformative moments.

J.E. – Totally, Victory means that you essentially have won at something or that you have conquered it. And I think victories only come from long, tumultuous, hardworking times. Somehow it connotes a physical battle. When I think about someone achieving Victory, I envision them overcoming a challenge or fear. It’s about setting a goal and not only reaching it but also experiencing personal growth and strength in the process. That’s what Victory means to me. Interestingly, My personal sense of victory doesn’t revolve around art but rather my everyday life, and that is running. I do long-distance running, and when I hit that seven-mile point, that feels like a victory to me. It feels like I’ve done something I didn’t think I would or could do before. Somehow Victory to me means surprising yourself with your own achievement. We have big victories, and we have small victories. I believe that engaging in conversation with someone who shares a similar mindset and open-mindedness and experiencing a genuine connection based on authenticity, is also a victory. Ultimately, that means the universe is telling you that you are doing something right. When you get those affirmations that are not about numbers or purely based on monetary gain, but when the universe tells you something and confirms that you did something right, that’s a victory. Who can truly validate the essence of victory if not the universe itself? It is a feeling that resonates from within. It occurs when our heart and mind are in harmony, even in the presence of conflicts. It is a state of being complete. That’s where we get to when we are deeply invested in the craft and the art of what it is that we do. Victory is what is driving your spirit because nothing can interrupt what the universe is giving you. And that’s truly a victory. Giveon, I don’t know if you know, but when we were on set, I was observing Ramadan and didn’t have any food or water. I was on my feet the entire day. But in a way, that whole time, I was so zoned in on what we were doing. I think that’s genuinely a victory when what you’re doing brings you to that level of satisfaction and concentration. There can be chaos in the world, but you find peace in what you do, and you can actually feel better from it; it’s not something that somebody can give or take away from you. It’s something that you cultivate from within. And I think that is one of the things I learned throughout my Ramadan period; when you go through these kinds of moments, be strict and disciplined with yourself. When you set and achieve a goal, it is something that no one can take away from you. You genuinely feel empowered because of that. And I believe that is the universe communicating through you and sending you a message. It brings forth a truly beautiful feeling, and it is indeed a gift.

G. – It is truly a gift, and I hope more and more young people will realise it. When I look around, I just hope the superficial, materialistic, self-centred and narcissistic way of being social will start to die down and that things will slow down again. I wish projects could take more time to develop so that quality could return. Because at the pace that everything is going now, quality is at risk. It really takes time to produce quality. We should allow more time for creators, even if I don’t know if that could ever be possible. But if there was a way things could slow down and we could process things slowly, and everyone could become more present, that would be our most significant Victory.

J.E. – A victory over this imposed timeline.

G. – If only we could find a way to do it collectively; it does take practice because your environment could be much more powerful or influential than your goals. I have to ensure I’m immersing myself in an environment of slower-pace quality.

J.E. – That’s right. The Victory I hope to gain is for everyone to take the time to be true to themselves. When you’re in conflict, it is one thing to deal with the conflict itself, but it’s another thing to perpetuate this state of conflict. When we accept ourselves, who we are, and our own truth, we can gain Victory. Especially right now in America, where we are so polarised and have many social concerns, we must remember that to change the world, we must first change ourselves. And that’s not something people really want to accept. We often think that change has to be something external, but when we accept change and allow ourselves to be the change we want to see, I believe that whatever the outcome may be, it will come with a great feeling of Victory.

G. – Truth. Conflict. Peace. Scale and Victory. Look what we have here: these are not just keywords. 

J.E. – This is the trajectory of the artist’s path or whoever stops and listens to their purpose.

Giveon wears Prada AW23

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Giveon in conversation with John Edmonds