In Conversation With…
Jaha Johnson, Music Executive
“I have now come to realize that life is made of all the moments and the decisions we make. The man I choose to be, the father, the friend, and the son. It all comes down to the moments."
Head of A&R for HitCo Records
Each morning I awake at the crack of dawn and run, swim and/or box. Sometimes I run 4 miles and other times I run 10 miles. I run because it helps align me in my purpose—my super powers. It’s mental for me in that if I can do this—push my body to the extreme, do a ten-mile run when I was only thinking and feeling five—then I can do anything put before me at work or for my family. It gives me new purpose in my day and perspective so that there is no stress about how I am going pay a tuition hike at my son’s school or about this or that deal closing.
Running is so important to me because it crystalizes my approach to the world: endurance. When you get to that point of physical exhaustion and you think that you can’t go any more, but you can-you will it to be. In 2013, my belief was put to the test.
IN THE WATER
I never saw the wave coming, so when it took the board from under me I didn’t remember the impact. All I remember is my Surf Instructor pulling me out the water onto the shore and the moment of immediate recognition that I couldn’t feel my legs.
My first reaction was anger because I thought I was going to be paralyzed forever and I never wanted to live like that. I would rather have died than live weak and paralyzed. That is not to put judgement on anyone living with or born to a disability, it is just my own fear. With how active I am, and how independent I am, the thought of not being able to do for myself made me very angry, and in that moment I just wanted to die. Not because I couldn't still have a great life, but in a, “I don’t want to be anyone’s burden” kind of way. I don’t want to be anyone’s responsibility. If I can’t take care of myself, then I don’t want to be here.
I accepted a long time ago that I am here to take care of other people; to provide for people. That is what I have done in my professional life and in my personal life starting at Laface Records with LA REID and BABYFACE to being at Def Jam with RUSSELL SIMMONS and LYOR COHEN. I don’t do it for money. I don’t do it for a pat on the back. I do it because I always felt that part of my reason for being here is to help others and not to take. With the people I have given advice to over the years, talked out of troubling situations, guided their careers or given jobs to over the years I enjoyed being of service. Better yet, I enjoyed knowing that I could help them. So now in that moment, having no sensation in my legs, I could see all of that being taken away.
Most people in near-death or traumatic situations talk about the light that flashes before your eyes, but no one seems to talk about the moments and the slow down. Everything immediately slows down at that moment because the reality of what is happening is not as important as the feelings of the moment. You don’t know if you are okay or not so you are trying to process it with the last bit of rational organized thought you have. It’s like that scene in City of Angels with Nicholas Cage when he is on the bike at the end … everything flashes before you and then it slows down.
For me, everything was, “what were my last conversations? Who would be at my funeral, seeing my mother or thinking about my son?” You really take count of your life—everything that is right and the things you had yet to correct. Had I done enough? Was I at peace with how my mother was going to live her life without me to provide? Was I at peace with how my son was going to grow up? Had I done enough to prepare him for this world?
Another thing that really stood out to me in the moment was my best friend who I had lost to suicide SHAKIR STEWART. At the time of his death, he was EVP of Def Jam. To me he was family. We both went to college in Atlanta and him being a bit older he was the first to really put me on in the music industry. True, I interned at Laface, but when time came for LA to put someone in NYC for publishing Shakir opened that door and championed me. I thought of him and it gave me a different kind of clarity about him. Am I going to see him on the other side?
The moments felt like hours although it was probably just minutes. It gave me perspective on the term “dying young.” For the first time, I realized that the act of living is about maturing in the way that you are supposed to have opportunity to grow and learn. I never had a specific age in mind for how long I was supposed to live—maybe 80 or 90 years old if I am pressed on it—but I knew in that very moment that I was not at peace with dying young. I had not done enough. I had not seen my kids grow up yet. I didn’t want my mother to put me in the ground. It should be the other way around, you know. I have a very simple view that no mother, under any circumstances, should ever have to bury their child.
ON DRY LAND
A few minutes after being on the shore, as they are checking me out, there was momentary relief because some feeling and sensations started to happen from my waist down into my legs, but it was short lived.
“Wiggle your toes,” said my instructor. “Ok, now lift your right arm. Can you lift your right arm? Lift your left arm. Can you lift your left arm?”
“What are you talking about,” I said, “I am lifting my arms!”
That’s when the panic started to set in—no more anger, no more wishing for death and just acute awareness that I would live through this, but now must face, “how?” On my back it felt like I was waving my arms wildly. When I looked down to my sides, my arms were dead still at my side. In my mind they were moving. I was moving them just as I willed my body to push harder each morning when I ran. This time, however, they weren’t responding.
Soon I am helivac-ed to UCLA. During the flight there was sharp tingling pain piercing through me that I took as a good sign. At least I am feeling something. The CAT showed that the paralysis nerve damage was temporary and there was no internal bleeding. Despite the intense pains shooting through seemingly every nerve-ending in my body, I was relieved and started to think about being able to get up to run 10 miles again and put this whole episode behind me. The accident was a on a Sunday. I discharged myself from the hospital on a Monday. Sharp pains force me to see a specialist on Wednesday. I returned to the hospital for emergency surgery on a Friday.
I don’t like hospitals and never have so when the doctors said it was temporary paralysis, I checked myself out of the hospital against their wishes. The sharp pains on my left side that they said would settle, however, only increased leaving me to concede the battle was far from over. I went to a specialist who works with a lot of athletes and specializes in surfer related injuries.
“I don’t know how religious you are,” he said, “but it is purely by the grace of God and the amazing physical shape you’re in that you are sitting here. Based on the impact of the hit and the extent of your injury, you should be a complete paraplegic at best or you should be dead. You tore through some vertebrae so I need to know the extent. That pain you are feeling, it won’t go away. It will actually increase and eventually, you will lose all feeling in your left side.”
This time there was no slow motion so when he needed to do additional tests I agreed. That evening when he called with six other doctors on the phone and said they all recommend immediate surgery my mind was alert. I never contemplated if I was going to do it or not. It was really about why this was happening to me right now and finding the peace and acceptance in this being my journey.
When he opened me up there was even more damage than even his x-rays had seen. There was blood in my spine. I needed 3 screws to release the pressure and stabilize the bones, but I would run again. Within a month—that was September—I was back on the road with Usher for his tour. In October, I was on a flight with Common.
Any time someone tells me they can’t do something that is the worst thing they can say to me. Don’t tell me what you can’t do. There is nothing you can’t do if you want it. We can do anything. I try to remove negative verbs and ideas from my mind. It is why I try to limit my intake of political propaganda.
In June, months before the accident, COMMON had told me about the book Between The World And Me by TA-NEHISI COATES. I bought it—downloaded it actually—and put it to the side. I actually had forgotten about it. Then it was October, I am 2 months out of surgery and we are on a flight to Tokyo. For some reason I remember it and decided to read a few pages before going to sleep.
It blew my mind! It was raw. It did not feel like some overly intellectualized black man trying to show you how smart he is. It’s was a father and son love story.
My son and I are close, but there is an absence in sharing streams of consciousness or the frequent conveying of that, which I find eludes a lot of black father-son relationships—not just mine. That is one level on which Ta-Nehisi’s book hit me and that is what made it raw for me. I felt like he was grappling the same issues and writing. Putting it down on paper gave him the opportunity to say to his son everything that you can’t always find the words for in real time. There is an emotional sharedness that we as black men—fathers, sons, and brothers—are just now being made aware of. The deficiency of that has crippled us.
I was so impressed that I had to track him down. I called his agent. He was due to speak at the Schomburg (NYC) so I took Usher and Common down with me to meet him. I like that when I met him he was really real. You can tell he has his own fears.
Ta-Nehisi writes in the book that he is an atheist, but I don’t think that he doesn’t believe in God. I just think that he has a lot of questions and a lot of fears to which we can all relate. I know this to be true for myself as well because I had a lot of questions about God when I was growing up.
When certain things happened in the world I used to be very angry with God and ask, “why would you let that happen? Why would you let that person die?” This past week was hard for me. Watching the coverage of what happened to NIA WILSON in Oakland and listening to her father speak was hard. I have a daughter now. You felt that pain in real time.
If this had been 20 years ago and what happened to Nia had occurred, I would have been mad at God. As I have gotten older, I’ve accepted that there is purpose in everything as painful as that may be. We all have to live in our purpose. My belief is that you try to live a life where you don’t go out and intentionally hurt people. You live a life where you try every day to be the best person you can be. Since the accident, I don’t question things as they occur. I don’t fight.
The MEDITATION (legacy and heritage)
I don’t have an unrealistic view of the world, but I do believe that things can be better especially for my children. I worry every single time my black son leaves the house, but I have to trust that I have raised him in the right way and that he will not only make the right decisions, but also that he will be covered in whatever he does. Though in saying this, I also have to accept life and its purpose.
I now have a daughter. She is 8-months old. Her mother is Italian so I have the realities of a black son and a mixed daughter that I pray both thrive and are protected. I am learning every day, in every moment.
I am learning that I want my son to learn by example. Not to say that we don’t talk, but he is very much like me in that he doesn’t just come and talk to me and say, “hey dad, what do you think about this?” He is trying to find his own independence and he also watches. I realized some time back that he is watching me and paying attention to what I do. For example, if we are in the car, he watching how I react to certain to things or what I say on a phone call or how I handle a work situation. I am very conscious of what he sees—the good and the bad. I am not reckless around him, but I am also not perfect around him. I want him to have a very realistic view of the world.
HitCo is LA Reid’s new label. It is the largest independent record label and media company. In addition to giving me my start in 1993 as an intern at LaFace, he has been vital in my career and part of my fitness journey. Our reconnection started at Soul Cycle and then on the track running together, which turned into talks about me coming aboard HitCo. LA allows me to bring all my years of management and skill to the table. We are not a company about titles, we are a company about execution.
“If you don’t get poached, and get offered double, triple than what I’m paying you, then I didn’t do my job,” he says.
I have respect for a lot of executives, but LA, RUSSELL and LYOR; their “artist first” approach really speaks to me. I learned the management of artists through Lyor. LA’s focus has always been, “what are the best records and who are the real stars not just as artists on the roster, but also among the executives throughout every rank of my companies?” I respect him like no other. There has never been anyone—not Barry Gordy, not Ahmet, not Quincy—who has had as much success as a writer/producer. He launched his own company, broke some of the most important stars for the culture (Toni Braxton, Usher, TLC, Outkast), left his label for to Arista then Def Jam (where he broke Justin Bieber and Rihanna), brought Mariah Carey back and then went to Epic—the coldest nearly dead label in the business—and brought it back to relevancy with stars like DJ Khaled, Travis Scott, Fifth Harmony, and Future. His batting average is unparalleled. Every label he has been at, every label he has run, he leaves ICONS.
The soundtrack of my life is a combination of 2 songs and one album:
Donny Hathaway – A Song For You (1971)
Coldplay – O (Ghost Stories, (2014)
Stevie Wonder – Innervisions (1973)
5 THINGS I CAN'T LIVE WITHOUT
iPhone – The smartphone really works. It’s life. I can travel without my laptop.
Toiletry Kit – My fragrances, deodorants and soaps: Dries Van Noten, Maison Margiela—sweet but strong.
Camera – Leica, and a Sony RX104.
Watch – Panarei matte black vintage.