Baliva (real name Mark Johnes) is a rapper who has worked with several big names in the industry, including Mobo Award winning artist Jahaziel, Grammy-Award winning producer Tony Stone, Ooberfuse, Cross Beam and many others.
He recently released his new album, Imperfect, and we caught up with him to find out a bit about the album and the vision behind his music.
How did you first get into music?
My family are really into music. Between my Dad’s career as a radio broadcaster and my mum’s eclectic music tastes, I developed an appetite for all kinds of music. I eventually found my voice as a rap artist in my late teens during the Fugees / BadBoy Records era of Hip-hop. My friends and I would learn all the words to the songs and recite them between lessons at school. This eventually led to us realising we were good, then recording our first professional original song in 2001.
Tell us a bit about your new album, what can we expect from it?
My new album is called Imperfect. It’s a Hip-hop record that’s inspired by a lot of soulful sounds. Lyrically this project is quite introspective. The main theme is imperfection; we live in a society that rejects anything imperfect, so we spend our lives chasing perfection so that we can be happy, accepted and loved. But I’m here to say that God knows you’re imperfect and he still loves and accepts you.
Your last album was in 2008 and I know you feel that you’ve somewhat reinvented yourself with this new record. What are the main differences?
I guess as artists we are always seeking to reinvent ourselves with every new project. In the past I was pressured to approach my art like a preacher, so the focus was more on the message than the art but now I approach my art less like a preacher and more like a rap artist.
In the past I was pressured to hide personal stories from my music, so my music became a case of hiding behind theology rather than being vulnerable about my life. I believe we should be vulnerable about our lives so we can share that light that shines from within. I found that my music became unhealthily driven by the desire to convert people to my way of thinking rather than being creative, transparent and expressing what was going on in my life.
I watched a documentary on Hip-hop culture that inspired me to go back to the original roots. Rap music is all about artistically sharing personal stories, wordplay, knowledge and so on. I’m trying to get a better balance between sharing my message and improving my style. As a result I’ve experimented with different flows, topics and so on.
Tell us about the first single. Why did you choose to release this song first, and how does it reflect your overall vision for the album?
The first single is called Got to Go. I chose it because it was the most popular from my live set during the summer as I did shows around the country. The message of the song is all about learning to go for things in faith even though you may not know the outcome. A lot of times we wait for perfect conditions before we make big decisions, but the perfect time never comes and we remain in the prison of indecision if we don’t walk in faith. It’s a light-hearted track that’s inspired by Ecclesiastes 11 and London weather and I thought it fit well with the theme of the album, calling us to live with imperfections
So how does the writing and recording process work for you? Do you do most of it by yourself, or is there a lot of collaboration involved?
Lots of collaboration. My new album took about 4 producers, 6 singers and 5 rappers across two continents. There are so many different methods to coming up with a song, it literally differs from track to track, but generally I start off alone listening to the beats the producer makes. I then come up with lyrics and concepts, then approach featured artists who I think would compliment the track. I normally record the song as soon as possible then listen to it over and over, and rerecord until I’m happy.
Do you have a preference for recording or performing live?
I love a healthy balance of both. I get drained if I do one more than the other.
What has been your career highlight so far?
Performing on the streets of Piccadilly Circus to an audience of about 300 when the clock struck twelve on New Year’s Day 2010. It was mad!
Who are your biggest musical influences? And who are you listening to right now?
Fugees, Nina Simone, Bob Marley, Lecrae, Nas, Jahaziel. At the moment I’ve had Lecrae’s Anomaly album on constant repeat.
What are the particular challenges you have faced so far, and how have you learnt to overcome them?
Learning to resist the temptation to obsess over fame. In a culture where the music industry is saturated with artists it’s easier to win the lottery than it is to achieve fame! It’s easy to feel inadequate as a professional relatively unknown artist, but I’ve learnt to pursue contentment and foster gratitude for my existing fanbase and opportunities to express my art. The more I do that, the more free and happy I become as an artist.
I’m guessing from your name, that your faith plays a big part in what you do. How did you become a Christian in the first place? And what made you choose Baliva as your stage name?
I became a Christian in 2005 after spending a few years hanging out with friends of mine who were Christian. I loved the joy and contentment they had and wanted a piece of that. I got to a place in life where I realised all the pursuit of success is meaningless without a deeper purpose than the accumulation of things. I always wanted a name that would reflect my values as an artist while also letting you know I’m a believer. B = believe. A = achieve. L = learn. I = inspire. V = value. A = authenticity.
How does your faith influence your work?
There are many opportunities to lose my integrity in exchange for progression in my career but I’m leaning not to be selfishly ambitious. I’ve found that putting my faith and trust in God results in God blessing me better than I could bless myself. As a result I focus on being faithful to doing my job well and leaving the results to God.
So do you think your music will only appeal to a Christian audience, or does it have a broader message that anyone can enjoy?
My recent album was written to appeal to those who struggle with being imperfect. Whether that’s feelings of acceptance, rejection, fear, love, contentment and so on, if that’s something you go through then this is for you.
What advice would you give to someone who’s considering a career in music?
A career in music is not about getting a job as an artist or waiting for a record deal. Those are quick fixes and short-sighted ways of surviving as an artist. You’ve got to approach it as your very own business. It’s tempting to approach your business like you’re a major corporation and fake it till you make it, but the realistic approach is to treat it like a small business with slow and steady growth. It’s also important to see your business as a means to serve people. It’s lots of hard work like any other business but very rewarding.
What are your dreams for the future?
I’d love to be able to make about 50 quality albums!
Where can people hear more?
Best place is balivamusic.com. Or spotify, soundcloud, itunes or your favourite digital store.
Check out some of our other interviews, including ones with Opera Singer Samantha Crawford, Novelist Joanna Rossiter, Social Entrepreneur Kelvin Cheung, Actress Elizabeth Carter, Freelance Film Editor Jonny Elwyn, Singer-Songwriter Niké Jemiyo, and the founders of crowd-funding platform GOODFRUIT