At just 21 years old, Chicago-based singer-rapper CJ Run draws from experiences both urban, rural, European and American to explore love, identity and the duality of human nature on their new album Here for Now.
Born in Germany but raised in England, North Carolina and central Illinois, Run says they’ve been the foreign kid in a small town, the black kid that’s “not black enough,” and the queer kid without a queer community.
But now, Run has found a space in Chicago to hone their art and get their name out there. They studied broadcast journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and moved to Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood in July.
“Growing up it was hard to understand who I was because it felt like I was so many different pieces,” Run told WBEZ. “But I’m okay with the fact that I’m a whole lot of different things. And I feel like that just influences my art and gives me so much more to say.”
Run, born CJ Seymour in Munich, Germany, said they started making music at age 13 after relocating to the U.S. At that point, they had lived in the United Kingdom for about five years and felt a close connection to black British culture and music through their Nigerian roots. The transition to life in the American south was lonely at times, Run said.
“My accent was a lot stronger and just fresh out, you know? Black kids didn’t buy into me being black because of my accent … and then the white kids would treat me like a token,” Run said. “I was just a novelty. So I spent a lot of my high school years pretty much alone.”
Still, Run said they found community on the Internet. They wrote music reviews and poetry in their teenage years, and bonded with people with similar interests from all over the world.
“At every point in my life, I’ve started as being a new kid, and being a new kid in a different way,” Run said. “It’s just made me comfortable in my diversity as a person.”
Through all of the moves and changes, Run said their Nigerian background is the one thing they never had to question.
“Even if my accent changes year by year, even if my gender is a question mark and I don’t know if I like boys or girls or whatever, I’m Nigerian. I know that much,” Run said.
Run collaborated with producer yourbeautifulruin on the alternative hip-hop album Here for Now while living on campus at the University of Illinois. They said they produced more than 50 songs during that time, though only seven made the final cut.
“My purpose for going to college was like to do music and to be gay in public, honestly. I just wanted to go somewhere (where) I could take advantage of being on a college campus,” Run said. “Mainly just to have freedom and start a music career because I didn’t have the space to do that in North Carolina."
Run said university was a place where they could both explore and express their identity in a new way.
“The first time going to like an LGBT club and hearing people that use the same pronouns as you or talk about similar experiences out loud in front of you was just so validating,” Run said. “And (it) honestly like saved my life.”
Run said they want their music to help others feel validated, and to be a “home away from home” for everyone.
“For all the young queer kids that live in small towns or don’t have the communities that they need, I want to make music for them. So that they can have that community in their headphones,” Run said. “It’s for them.”
Nereida Moreno is a producer with The Morning Shift. Follow her on Twitter at @nereidamorenos. Click the “play” button to hear the entire conversation, which was produced by Jason Marck, and follow him on Twitter @jasonmarck.