Patience and finding his ‘why’ helped singer Leon John transition from disillusioned young adult to embracing maturity, writes

S’bonakaliso Nene



Arena Holdings PTY



If the transition from preteen to hormonal teenager is awkward, then there’s a word missing in the English language to encapsulate the tumultuous procession from early 20s into true adulthood. Either responsibilities are glamorised by our favourite sitcoms or our young, impressionable selves are naive to the reality that rent doesn’t pay itself. Perhaps it’s a combination of the two. After a debit order or two, suspicion of the world is heightened and, naturally, the blame game begins. The disillusionment that festers during this transition is what compelled Leon John to tend to the wounds that had begun to erode his sense of agency. He did this the way he knew best, through music. “The world I’d prepared myself for isn’t the world we live in now,” he said, referring to the stark realisation he made between the release of his debut EP To Be Continued and his latest offering, the debut album License to Feel. “I kept my side of the bargain, but I felt cheated and punished for making choices for myself.” Accepting that things weren’t going to change unless he took matters into his own hands, he took the first step: self-awareness in the form of allowing himself the licence to feel — under one condition. “This is the one time you can scream, shout and blame people. Moving forward, girl? No. If you continue to give people custody of your emotions, that’s on you. That’s a fundamental part of being an adult.” In as much as he projects and sheds these sad sentiments in the occasionally petulant manner of an expectant youth in his song Lies, the project is rooted in accountability. “People are catalysts I use to express certain feelings but this album is an analysis of how I react, feel and express emotions.” Take Your Meds is the most contentious track on the LP. On first hearing, the song seems problematic. But after analysis, the song becomes a vessel to examine mental illness. John confronts a figure in his life who neglects to take their medication and absolves themselves of responsibility. Drawn from a real experience, he encourages the person to “stop using your mental illness as an enabler to not take accountability”. This understanding of such intricate dynamics and the artist’s lived experience is what gives the project balance. Inner work on the self is reflected in the album. The singer had to be patient with his growth as a person and with the development of the music. “Becoming an independent artist is about forced patience,” he says. From challenges with resources, time and technical know-how at the start of the creation process, John reconciled himself to becoming a different person by the end. By his own admission an impatient and impulsive person, it took persuasion from those close to him to stop him from releasing an album of voice notes. This obscure idea came from his desire to be understood. He believed that if he enjoyed his ideas in a raw state, so would his listeners. Instead, he’s released a cohesive audio diary embellished by sterling sonic textures evoking introspection leading to resolution. “There are no superfluous moments on the album. Everything has its place — that came from being patient,” he asserts. The beauty of patience is the perspective it provides. John had to be careful not to be myopic in his view of the world nor overly conscious of his suffering to give the album the depth it required. Winds of Change, the sixth song, is pivotal. It describes his acceptance, understanding and embracing of his transition. He sings: “If they must blow, I hope these winds are winds of change. To blow away the sin and restore me into who I want to be.” John says he’s opened up to people personally and in his music. Having collaborated with Thato and Josh Mokoena in production and songwriting, the ensemble could influence one another. Though some things are easier said with a chorus of friends and loved ones, others, like culture, don’t need that kind of validation for John to sing about them. He is a Zimbabweborn Xhosa and Karanga man based in South Africa (his identification as a man is loose — he doesn’t identify as a man but was socialised as one; his pronouns he/they). He was partly raised in Egypt and his father emphasised culture in their lives. He attributes his inability to be swayed by trends in music to being anchored by his culture. “I’m most free vocally when I sing in vernacular. My songs take on a life of their own,” he says with confidence. “I’ve stopped showboating or trying to show people I can sing. I don’t have that complex because I’ve figured out my ‘why’.” Figuring out his “why” is the seat belt that’s made the roller-coaster transition from a young adult to adulthood bearable, if not enjoyable. As an independent artist, it’s easy to fall into the trap of running the rat race, as it is with any young adult. Finding his “why” was the dose of reality that transformed John’s disillusionment into determined purpose. “I’ll never again make an album like this one,” he said.