For Sean C. Johnson, squaring his shoulders and looking the year of 1993 in its eyes had to be done if he wanted to move forward as an artist.
From the death of his mother to his introduction to pornography, Johnson needed to come to grips with the fact that his music would only go as far as he was willing to address everything he had faced up to this point. As bad as he wanted to grow as an artist, it was contingent upon identifying the roots from which he would spring forth. Those roots spread deep and wide and have much to do with the neo-soul, gospel and hip-hop diversity of the artist who fans have come to enjoy.
Johnson’s roots trace back to Tampa, Florida where he was born. As a son of a father in the Army, Tampa was just the starting place for many of the destinations where Johnson would end up as a kid. From Germany to Tennessee to Philly and Kentucky, he used the constant moving as an eye opener.
“I thank God for it because it allowed me to see the world in more than just a four-block radius,” Johnson said. “My perspective on life was totally different because I was able to see the world as a little boy. It made me come out of my shell no matter what setting I was in.”
When his father’s profession brought his family back to Clarksville, Tennessee in 1993 from Germany, Johnson soon discovered there was another layer under his shell yet to be uncovered. At 11 years old, Johnson lost his mother in February of 1993 and attended four different schools in the process.
Johnson’s year of test and tribulations had only just begun. With his father often busy with work, Johnson and his brother went back to Tampa the summer of ’93 to stay with their aunt and cousins. He realized that summer just how much he had yet to see.
“My aunt was a nurse and worked the midnight shift and she would be tired and sleep during the day,” Johnson said. “We just kinda’ went wild that summer. That was the first time I ever saw an adult movie or any pornographic material at all.”
From pornography to his first opportunity to listen to secular music in surplus, Sean C. the artist and person was being formed.
“My story was significantly affected by four events that happened in 1993: The death of my mother, falling in love with music, viewing pornographic material for the first time and giving my life to Christ,” Johnson said.
Growing up in church, Johnson was already familiar with the gospel musical influences of those like The Winans and Commissioned. That summer of ’93 exposed him to artists who his parents did not regularly, if ever, let him listen to. The Chronic album by Dr. Dre had just released in December of 1992 and Sean C. got a hold of it.
“It dropped right around that time and it became my anthem,” he said. “It was a whole world that I had no idea existed. I was so unfamiliar with the gangsta’ lifestyle.”
Johnson, his brother and cousins had fallen in love with music and began writing that summer. Later that same year, Johnson gave his life to the Lord.
“I was kind of getting by on grace and relying on my mom’s prayers up until that point,” Johnson said. “I had not repented of any sins or anything like that.”
As his relationship with the Lord grew, so did his musical interests. He was later exposed to soulful styles like Jill Scott and D’Angelo. It was not until 2005 when he recorded anything and in 2006 he released his first album Simply a Vessel. His diverse styles continued to grow and were heard on his next four projects.
When it was time to decide a direction for Circa 1993, which is set to release March 10, Johnson began to wonder just who he was and where he wanted to go as an artist.
“I wanted to reintroduce myself to a bigger audience,” Johnson said, “I was trying to figure out where do I start. Who am I? What made me? All arrows began to point to ’93.
“My mom dying was the fork in the road point in my life. Everything started from right there. To watching BET and looking into music all day, everything started right there. I wanted everything to be told through that lens.”
After a closer look at his most recent project, Grateful, Johnson reflected on how he has expressed his experiences in ’93 in his past music without intention. On the song “Thirty” off of the Grateful project Johnson said, “Wish I could erase the images I’ve seen / year was ’93.”
“I didn’t even think about that,” he said. “You can hear the influences musically on my past work. I guess this album is me just drawing more attention to it.”
On the brink of the release of Circa 1993, Armond Wakeup, who is also featured on the record, is confident in the expression of maturity as an artist and person Circa 1993 will exemplify for Johnson.
“Sean is an example of longevity in a genre that is very fickle, uncertain of itself and fly by night,” Armond said. “To me, he exemplifies Jesus by meeting his audience at their need, but he will also give them more; often what they didn’t know they needed.
“Circa 1993 is deceptively challenging because Sean makes feel good music, but the content is heavier. You’ll find yourself dancing and getting pricked at the same time. A lot of [Christian hip hop] lacks balance. Either its all substance with not so great music or good music lacking any sort of tangible content. Sean’s album marries both very well.”
Songs like “Mountains” and “No Flex Zone (Re-Imagined)” will help Johnson tie a bow on the events of 1993. Johnson hopes listeners will hear the progression in his music and life on tracks like “Made of Love,” which is dedicated to his current girlfriend, and “Final Frontier,” the direction Johnson said he hopes to explore musically in the future. Though his artistic expression of ’93 will be addressed intentionally on his new project, Johnson said the ultimate mission has remained the same since day one.
“In the beginning, it was to edify God’s people, and that still is the mission,” Johnson said.