Producer Jahaan Sweet Speaks Black Art and the Joke that Helped Him Graduate from Juilliard
By: Imani J. Jackson
Asking people how they self-identify is more instructive than presumptively assigning them labels. So I asked Jahaan Sweet, during a recent hour-long, sit-down interview in an artsy enclave, who he is. “I consider myself a music maker.” He added that he is a burgeoning businessman, “I just like to create shit.” That spirit of Black creation, whether during the Depression Era Harlem Renaissance or Reagan Era rap movement, continues to thrive despite our oppressive conditions.
Sweet and I discussed how other people view the Juilliard School Jazz studies graduate and artist. Some might recognize him as the acclaimed producer who collaborated frequently with singer Kehlani on her SweetSexySavage album. He also produced a half dozen songs on her mixtape You Should Be Here, which earned a 2016 Grammy nomination in the Best Urban Contemporary Album category. The Weeknd won the award. And while Sweet chalked the nomination up as a personal “L,” he is not dismayed. Sweet expressed more focus on sonically contributing to Black culture than majoritarian validation.
Sweet strode in with an unassuming demeanor, ripped jeans, manicured locks and colorful Nikes. He was conversational and respectful. He was punctual to our interview, despite its occurrence the morning after his 24th birthday. Sweet asked if he could curse. He shared an anecdote about his travels from Dallas to his hometown, Jacksonville, Florida (where we met up).
Apparently an elder asked whether he attended a prominent Black church in Jacksonville. The woman believed Sweet was still a church pianist, which he had been. Time had stopped for the woman. She did not know he bounced between Los Angeles, New York City and Jacksonville, places to which he returned after touring, traveling the world and/or spending all day in studio sessions with popular rappers and singers. Sweet did not disabuse the woman of his nice young man bona fides. He still loves to connect with family and friends. He still plays piano, although not as much as in years prior.
Jahaan Sweet, also known as J. Sweet, told it to me straight on topics ranging from self-understanding to creating black art against an increasingly polarized national climate. He also shared how a quip kept him in school.
“The hardest thing sometimes is self-awareness,” Sweet said. “I know my role, like what I’m supposed to do.” He talked about the power inherent in producing music that masses won’t hear until much later and how that positions creative people to influence culture.
It’s hard not to like J. Sweet. He is an only child who prioritizes community. He taps into the emotionality of R&B through SWV, Jodeci and Ginuwine inspiration and nods. He is practical about vulnerability and cautions people in the industry not to lend random people so much authority in their personal lives that it destabilizes their creative genius or undermines their confidence. He is close with his parents, and their family was slated to eat at a Cajun restaurant when the interview ended.
When Sweet called himself a person who creates for the performer it reminded me of when super producer Pharrell Williams said, “I’m used to being the guy standing next to the guy.” Much like Williams consistently collaborated with wide-reaching artists and paid more attention to his creations than acclaim, Sweet could be on a similar trajectory. My prediction is that Sweet, and his decidedly “lover boy” music (his term) and his work ethic, will gradually build, like Williams, to household name status.
During our conversation, Sweet inverted the popular narrative that white culture improved on Black culture. “Our music influenced white music,” he said. And with an overtly racist, xenophobic and othering national climate, now is a great time for internally building Black cultural capital and extending Black influence.
Sweet appreciates Black music and said he wants to work with everybody else who contributes to the art form. He expressed race pride and inter-ethnic agility. He has opened his eyes to the intricacies of being in the moneyed white spaces to which Juilliard granted him access, the “mad cultural” components of New York City generally, and the multi-faceted Black spaces in which he grew up.
I asked Sweet why he remained at Juilliard. It’s easy to understand why a school whose mission is “to provide the highest caliber of artistic education for gifted musicians, dancers and actors from around the world, so that they may achieve their fullest potential as artists, leaders, and global citizens” would appeal to someone who has played piano since he was six and loves to create. But when the door is already open, culturally, why remain in the classroom? Sweet acknowledged seeing diverse lifestyles in New York, including opulence and musical knowledge without higher education. He also spoke of greatness and alluded to stretching oneself being integral to breaking through.
Jahaan then shared a “fight or flight” response he had when the rigor intensified mid-way through his Juilliard matriculation. He thought about dropping out and going on tour with an artist who wrote a sexy track Rihanna later popularized. And then his big cousin, comic Lil Duval, flamed him.
“You finna drop out for this girl [the songwriter] that don’t nobody know?” Lil Duval followed up with, “Maaaaaaan, nobody know that girl. You better stay in school!” When Sweet told me about the exchange, it sounded like a familial equivalent of “Boy if you don’t get…” Big cousin then punctuated the discussion with a call to Jahaan’s father.
“My dad called me trippin’,” Jahaan said. That trippin’, when woven with his personal aha moment, inspired Jahaan to finish his degree.
Jahaan also expressed a dynamic blackness that resonated. Whether like the spiritual resilience and political commentary in Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” or the memory-making grandiosity Migos encapsulates, J. Sweet just wants to keep building. With an awareness of many people’s dreams, Sweet emphasized hard work and shared his long term goal, “To help as many people as I can with the tools that I have.”
Photo via Imani J. Jackson/Jahaan Sweet
Imani J. Jackson is a columnist and policy adviser with Dynamic Education Foundation. She earned a mass communication B.A., with a journalism focus and psychology minor, from Grambling State University and a J.D. from Florida A&M University College of Law. She has written for a variety of publications including the Black Youth Project, USA Today, Teen Vogue and Politic365.