I was 17 years old and had just discovered the worlds around me. At the time, my grandmother’s home felt a little uneven; it was El Salvador, after all. Before the sun rose and reminded its people why the bonds—the blood boiling ones—are never bulletproof. It was around this time I began to read John Vietnam’s “One Life: One Love,” and wrestled with the idea of knowing that the greater wisdom of any decision can feel undeniably close. It was the only book I was interested in pursuing while 300 miles into the silent Salvadoran mountains.
John “Vietnam” Nguyen was an Uptown Chicago poet, First Wave Scholar, friend and family member who drowned Aug. 30, in Madison, Wisconsin. Every year, the JVN Project expertly strings together a list of events to assure the greater Madison community that hip-hop continues to live and lift us from the grief and doubt around us.
First Wave is a multicultural artistic program and the only one of its kind in the country; a program rooted in harnessing new ways of perfecting and protecting the value in our art, academics and activism. It serves as the blueprint for a hip-hop and spoken word community that has proven resilience in the coldest of times. In different ways, First Wave is returning to the drawing board to continue reaching the worlds between us.
This year, a closing kickback with headliner CRASHprez introduced a new way of relief. First Wavers Quaan Logan and Synovia Knox redefined the possibility of connecting in 20 minutes. Knox, a junior and dance team champion, rapped for the first time on stage. New Orleans native Logan seamlessly flowed back and forth, piecing together a feeling of forgiveness and igniting freedom all in one verse.
Lyrically, visually and quite literally, Zhalarina Sanders, executive director of the the JVN Project, possesses the power to move rhythm like water and lava, framing a new surface. Ahead of the pack, a wolf community attributes to territoriality—its leader meticulously defends its unavoidable truth and knows its family well. On stage, Sanders led a family ready to chase and attack—“Who want it, I put my life up in this track / it’s apparently that I had to go and lose my life / Just to get it back.”
Basi, an Oakland, California native, followed suit on a high-energy performance of “Zeitgeist,” the lead single from Basi and Bhairav’s debut project titled “Son of the Moon,” which will be released next July. Basi reflected on some misguided relationships, his new found stamina and his ability to keep gravity and guns at two separate distances. “Zeitgeist,” was a roaring introduction and an easily captivating way of determining the moment when the spirit within you realizes that you are more than you expected. Basi effortlessly combined his flow with Bhairav’s booming 808s and tolling bells to create a cinematic experience as he raps, “I just want to bang my name in them bright lights / They just want the moment but I’m tryna be the Zeitgeist / Life is such a game you can lose it for the right price.”
jonnychang, a California native and First Wave scholar, quickly builds energy on an uneven playing field of race in America. In a less censored and politically correct way, jonnychang swept bar by bar on at least two breaths and sent a very important message—“These bigots going through withdrawal when they’ve always had it all / Brown boy you were born to be a star / Know that you can come as you are.” Alongside him was a fellow cohort member and Chicago-born rapper Noah “Matan,” who added arsenal with a defiant mood many can get behind— “Everyday it’s fuck Donald Trump / I hope these nazis get punched.” Elephant Rebellion took the stage and showed us a bit of John Vietnam’s beginnings, how his artistry shaped so many lives, and continues to do so to this day—“One time for John Vietnam / Two times for JVN.”
An artist’s greatest challenge is finding consistency and seeking out the resources that are sometimes not readily available. For Southside Minneapolis rapper Lucien Parker, his consistent demeanor of “Get it if you want” has fabricated an unstructured and successfully emerging pathway that has been guided under the Strange Oasis Entertainment team. Parker’s set placed us at the crossroad of wanting someone and ultimately knowing it isn’t always worth it. Parker encourages us to continue the journey, the one we are writing right now, and to take the steps to change and break the routine as he raps on a BNJM-produced beat, “Made a peace with it / I originated from the impossible / We are not the same you just gotta look / Way I play this role have these ni***s shook.”
The years seem to merge together, but the distant memories always provide some familiar feelings. CRASHprez, a fifth cohort member and a cohort brother to John Vietnam, headlined the JVN Kickback five years later. It’s needless to say the passion is still pulsing as CRASHprez gives us some wisdom on explaining how the most intricate parts of our lives can often follow us even years from now.
Rightfully so, the JVN Project continues to bring worlds together and mend some of the pieces we tend to leave with our most beloved ones. JVN Day is one of the main reasons love has never, and will never, die for First Wave. In reflecting on the 5th Annual Hip-Hop Festival in honor of John Vietnam, the executive board shares what this festival means to them personally:
“I think that for me, JVN Day was a chance for us to really get back to the roots of the project, an opportunity to center ourselves in the work that we do. It's the time for fellowship, the long meetings, the hard decisions, the growth, all in the name of carrying on the legacy with as much integrity as possible.” — Amina Iro
“Planning this festival this year has solidified how much this organization means to me. It has taught me patience, professionalism and given me not just an amazing staff to work with, but a group of friends who know what it means to stay up all night and sit through long meetings to create something bigger than ourselves. I am truly humbled to be a part of this legacy.” — Tiffany Ike
“This year was the fifth year of the festival's existence. John and I met as part of fifth cohort of our scholarship program. Our cohort celebrated everything that came in fives so this one was a very significant milestone. To have another member of our 15-person cohort be our festival feature was also very special to me. This year's festival has had me reflecting a tremendous amount on our foundation and how the JVN Project was started on a Google Document on my laptop.” — Zhalarina Sanders
“This year's festival was very much one of reflection and love. I've been really fortunate to work with some incredible women since my freshman year to continue the legacy of John Vietnam. This year's festival has gotten me to look at this legacy and how invested John was with his art and activism, and to look into myself in how I can be better and unafraid of the gifts and opportunities I've been given, and the hard work that goes into that process.” — Tehan Ketema
“For me, JVN Day this year meant building the strength of an organization that is both a community and family. All the work that was accomplished by such amazing women of color was done with a passion and drive that is, and forever will be, incomparable to what can be found in any other work environment. These women are my sisters, my mentors and my lights. They are the physical embodiments of the soul of the JVN Project. They are what made JVN Day what it was, is, and will continue to be.” — Sam Arriozola