PROVIDENCE -- The Providence man stands on the sandbar near Conimicut Lighthouse in Warwick like he’s at a crossroads, the sunrise reflecting off the bay lapping on either side of him, as he raps about what drives him.
It’s THS -- “That Hope Sh*t” -- and for Harrison Mondubu Grigsby, who performs as Jon Hope, this is what it has always been about, since he was a boy performing with friends at the old Arbor Glen housing projects.
Now Grigsby, who turns 39 on Friday, has built a career out of hip hop.
His latest album, “Hope All is Well,” comes out March 3, and the first single, “Where We Come From/THS,” featuring rappers Jim Jones and Israel Wusu, dropped Tuesday. In that video is the scene of Grigsby at the lighthouse at daybreak, alone and singing about his own resilience.
He’s been recording for years, performing songs addressing challenges in Providence, while teaching about community development, art, and social justice at Roger Williams University and College Unbound through hip hop. He also formed his own Hope Scholars Initiative at Charette Charter High School in Providence where he teaches about hip hop culture.
He believes in the power of hip hop, what he calls “a truth that people want to sweep under the rug.” He quotes Chuck D from Public Enemy, who once said that hip hop “is like the CNN of the hood.”
“And so, if you want to know exactly what is going on in certain communities, hip hop will tell you,” Grigsby says. “It’s unabashed. It’s straightforward. ... There’s a saying, cough medicine doesn’t always taste good. So, you gotta be prepared to hear that truth and embrace it.”
He’s heading out to Los Angeles for a short time later this month to work on projects for REVOLT TV, the music cable TV network founded by Sean “Diddy” Combs. Grigsby started writing content for REVOLT last summer, with a piece addressing Black Lives Matter, and then for Combs’ political committee, “Our Black Party,” which demands political candidates address the needs of Black people.
As he wrote in the caption accompanying his BLM video on Instagram, “I’m still gathering thoughts and right now more than ever it’s important to dig deep and looking within and really discern whether you’re an ally or co conspirator. ... Challenge ourselves to be uncomfortable w/ our efforts. These efforts have to be for #ALLBLACKLIVES.”
“Hope” is the thread through his life, his performance name, the motto of his home state, and the name of his 2-year-old daughter. He thinks about the legacy he wants to leave her.
Grigsby knows about adversity, growing up in Providence. He’d rather focus on achievement. Especially now, in these challenging times, he’d rather talk about what he calls “That Hope Sh*t,” in his own words. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)
I’m glad that my message of hope is resonating, but I’m also sort of sad that it had to take this current climate that we’re in for it to be appreciated. For me, it’s about really trying to make people value themselves and know that they are enough in a world right now that is providing so many challenges of humanity. Whether it’s the George Floyd situation, or the Trump administration that really devalues people from marginalized groups, people are looking for something, like, “Man, where can I go? How can I get out of this rut?”
I think a lot of times we’re conditioned to look externally. And so my message is: Look within. You are enough. A lot of times by the time you figure it out, you’re like, “Oh man, I had it all this whole time.” So, with me, my music, my messaging, when I speak, when I talk, is that seed-planting moment. Whether it’s the music that got you there, or when you see a piece of content online, that’s the seed-planted moment for you to be like, “Okay, you know, I can do this. I’m going to push through.”
(NOTE: The video below contains language some may find offensive.)
It’s not necessarily “by your bootstraps.” It’s more or less: Give yourself permission to be great. When you come from the hood, man, a lot of times we’re so enamored in normalizing the struggle, because that’s our badge of honor. We hold on to that, and I get it. For me, it’s more or less like, Yo, give yourself permission to want better. That doesn’t mean you’re selling out. That doesn’t mean that you’re not from the hood, but you should want more. It’s more of a mindset thing -- because once the mindset shifts, it’s all right, I want better. I want more. And these traumas, I don’t have to hold on to them so hard. You’ll see that opportunities come.
I’ve always been a very optimistic person. I had a pretty colorful background, but I just kept pushing. I lived in the projects for a while, but I went to Saint Raphael Academy [a Catholic college preparatory high school in Pawtucket]. I was like, there’s something here. That’s all I needed to know, like, okay, this isn’t all I’m reduced to. I think I’ve always had that mindset, but I just didn’t know what it was.
It’s just the notion of tapping into yourself. Especially, I’m speaking to a specific audience, I’m talking about the streets, people that come from a certain environment that’s like mine, what we call the trenches. It starts with a mindset of not letting the circumstances swallow you.
It’s just re-imagining what it means to be real, right? There’s a lot of tropes in hip hop that can be self-defeating. This idea of [what it meant] to be real for many years was to maybe to harm somebody else, to go to jail, to participate in criminal activity. A lot of times, the underlying thing is that people would do these things, because you’re in survival mode, but then it got to a point where people were just doing it just to be caught.
So, I’m saying let’s repurpose that, you know: “THS.” You could be from the hood, but let’s talk about trying to get our parents, let’s talk about ownership, let’s talk about equity. Let’s talk about being smart, you know, smart is the new cool. Just a mindset that’s a little bit more at advancing and strength-based.
Black history, Black excellence, Black culture doesn’t need to be this struggle story. A lot of the narrative, and understandably so, is struggle. It’s slavery, Jim Crow, civil rights.
But I think now we’re in a space where what’s happening even amongst youth and overall is sophistication versus the education that we’re taught. There’s a sophistication amongst us that knows that we don’t need external validation or we don’t need to be operating under a white gaze or this white Euro-centric standard.
This sophistication breeds this confidence, which breeds this huge understanding of self, where we’re starting to challenge the norms.
You can be who you are and still have an impact. I know grandmothers in the community who are pillars -- they’re walking statues. That’s something a politician can’t have. There’s merit in that, you know?