Noa James’ art is a product of mindfulness; it’s deeply introspective and keenly focused on life’s silver linings. Raised in various foster-homes and a juvenile detention facility, the Inland Empire rapper once found himself homeless in a Mazda. At another point, his mother used him as collateral for drugs. For the average person, this might fuel rage and malice, but for James, it’s the opposite. He’s recognized the magnitude of his experiences and translated that negative energy into unwavering positivity, rechristening himself, “Love Monster.”
By the time he hit 7th grade, James was 5’ 10” and weighed in at about 250 pounds; yet he was never an antagonizer. Originally from Queens in New York, he once carried a knife in his Timbs, but out of necessity not malevolence. Moving from Queens to Jacksonville to Pasadena, he finally wound up in San Bernardino at 16. Kids called him “dirt,” but even from a young age, he knew that leading with love and compassion would get him further in life than hatred.
While his music preaches positivity, James’s career began in the punk and battle rap scenes of the I.E. and downtown L.A.. During stints with the bands Neighborhood Watch and Love Monsters, he began honing the grime and grit in his voice. At these punk shows, James became infatuated with the mosh pits that his fans formed. Sprained ankles and bloody noses followed, but while the crowd moshed, they’d simultaneously roar sardonic and uplifting lyrics like, “keep that shitty energy to yourself!”
The punk scene nurtured James’s message, but as a battle rapper in L.A., he became steeped in negativity. Lyrics about growth and self-betterment became vicious one-liners about “fucking bitches,” aimed to get a rise out of his opponents. He felt like he was developing bad karma, and as an individual who found solace in spirituality, he could no longer bring himself to go on stage and disrespect his peers.
Exiting the battle scene, James focused on his recording career, complemented by work as a promoter and host. He booked artists for shows and festivals, learned the ins-and-outs of marketing, and put money directly into the pockets of other rising stars. Utilizing the relationships forged as a promoter, he successfully developed his own brand, Be Majestic; collaboration with Stonedar and The Minx yielded Buu Bars, an adult-friendly chocolate bar that combines shrooms, CBD, THC, and caffeine. It’s no surprise that Noa James created what are essentially edibles with shrooms in them, because his music serves the same purpose as a psychedelic experience. He promotes acceptance and self-love, all the while pushing for you to confront your demons.
Dirty Gospel, James’s latest album, is a therapeutic reflection on past trauma. The project was created in tandem with Pomona-based producer Cas1 after Noa was faced with his brother being diagnosed with schizophrenia, which led his mother to return to his life. The record is filled with meditative lyrics about healing and forgiveness, and using hallucinogens to understand his purpose in the world; he sermonizes that you can overcome any challenge as long as you approach your opposition with love and resilience.
Don’t be fooled by Noa James’s unshakable positivity and think that happiness is easily attainable: he makes it very clear that it’s not. To put it simply, he tells me that “happiness is work,” and if you want to be at peace with yourself and the world around you, you need to put in the effort. A seed will never grow into a flower without the proper soil, so if you truly want to sprout and blossom, you must channel all of that negative energy towards becoming what you want to be. A dirty gospel to keep you afloat. — Yousef Srour
What was it like coming up in the Inland Empire?
Noa James: For people that are born here, it’s a different view for them. Some of them can’t wait to get out of the IE. For me, I couldn’t wait to explore it more – all these mountains and all these different types of people. My best friend was Native American and he introduced me to peyote in high school. For me personally, I met people that were sources of what I needed in life. If I needed to find self-love, I had this friend, if I needed to find someone that knew about strength or working out or some type of something, I was able to find that person within my community. It was different. For me, you had the bullshit. I had homies, gangs, homies getting shot, me going to juvie because I had a knife in my boot. I’m so used to putting a knife in my Timbs, and one day, I end up getting searched randomly and I had this sack in my pocket, some money in my pocket, and I had this 5-inch blade that looked like a fucking sword. It had a handle and a chain on it, and I had this blade in my Timbs, and I’m so used to doing that in New York – bang – put it in my Timbs, put it in my sweats; I always had some type of knife on me. I get caught up in that bullshit too, and that’s some traumatizing shit.
How did that make you into the person you are today?
Noa James: It made me who I am now. All that shit: having my grandmother have to testify in court about how good of a grandson I am, and teachers know that I’m loving and ain’t shit at the same time, so they still have my back. I ended up running a package for my uncle, I didn’t know what was in it, but I ended up doing 8 months for it. What’s beautiful about that – I end up getting taken care of when I got out and I ended up buying a house because my main goal in life was to never be homeless. In Pasadena, when I was living out there, when my grandfather passed, the IRS took our house because of some tax shit he did before he passed, and I slept in the back of a fucking Mazda. I had a bed in there – my grandmother driving, me and my brother sleeping in a Mazda, and then where my mom will sell drugs and shit out of, this motel in Pasadena off Colorado [Blvd], she ended up being a big dog over there, so we end up going to this motel and staying up in there for a whole fucking year. Because of that reason, I always had this mindset where, “Okay, I’ll always need a roof over my head. If I can at least do that, I’m straight.” Anytime I would be like, “Oh, I can get this much,” or I’d get a big lump sum of money, I would figure out what is the most essential shit you need in life. Shoutout to my Jewish homies on that one too. I learned shit from Kosha Dillz about shit like that, like, “Yo, if you get a lump sum of money to pay off your whole apartment for a whole year, pay the rent, even try to get the bills, and don’t even touch that account. Don’t even look at that account,” and I started learning shit like that.
Having been a part of the foster care system, how did your situation growing up help shape you?
Noa James: It gave me understanding and empathy. At the time, it made me bitter; at the time, it made me all these things that you don’t want to be, but when I started experimenting with psychedelics, I started understanding it. Even though I was in foster care, I could be in a boys’ home or I end up going to Granny’s house because now she has enough room to bring more of her grandkids in the house, because she’s raising like 14 of us – there’s like a revolving door. One minute I could be in this boys’ home or group home, then I could end up going to her house, but one thing I’ve always been is a protector. When I look back at it, I wasn’t what I hated. Even though I felt angry and felt abandoned, I never reflected those feelings. I’m a big dude, but I’ve never been a bully. I’ve always been a dude that stood up for motherfuckas, because I felt I was one of y’all. Even though I’m living with Granny, my mom’s in prison and my dad’s in Haiti. When you grow up in poverty, that’s Haitian, Dominican, minority, Black, at least you have your mother.
How did that affect you?
Noa James: Me not having either, it made me feel small; it made me feel all of these things, but when I recognized how big I am and how dominant and how scary I could be, I took the page out of the comic books that I would dive in – with great power, you got great responsibilities. I think comic books made me think, “Alright, I need to use my bigness for good. I’m 5’ 10”, almost 7th grade, big as hell pushing 250.” I’ve been that dude. I can still feel the rage, I can still feel the bitterness to this day, but it did something different to me; it did the opposite to me, to what it would do to a regular person. It would eat them up; it probably made me fat, I could tell you my eating habits were crazy. The eating habits were ridiculous, and I had that too, the emotional eating. Instead of me being violent, or me being this type of person, I found a different vice. Someone asked me, “Would you rather be violent or fat?” and I’m like, “That’s a good question. I’d still be fat; I wouldn’t choose to be violent.” That’s a lot of work; that’s a lot of energy. That’s how you get curses on you. That’s why Lil B’s curse worked on James Harden. I tell people all the time, Lil B’s curse worked because Lil B is love; Lil B is a loving dude, James Harden is a basketball player with a big beard that antagonizes people using a Lil B hand movement, so Lil B didn’t have to put the curse out. The curse activated when it became love against hate. If you hate and someone hits you with a curse, you’re going to go through it. Do you think hateful people are powerful when they’re immobilized? Nah, loving people are way more powerful when we mobilize like ants.
Who were the first rappers you remember listening to as a kid?
Noa James: Memorizing, it was probably Wu-Tang. Wu was the first, me consciously remembering, actively reciting lyrics. Then, I went further back and started listening to Rakim, Chubb Rock, and Big Daddy Kane. ODB was my favorite; he was so raw and unique and organic; I loved his unorthodox. His delivery was who he is. People wanted to work with him so badly because of who he is and how he does it and his way, and I really admire that. It’s crazy because what got me into music was the blues, like Bobby “Blue” Bland and B.B. King and Muddy Waters and Charles Bradley. Those guys are what really got me into music.
I was just about to ask you that, because I saw you tweeted out that you grew up on artists like B.B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland, and Muddy Waters. How do you think your music has been influenced by the blues?
Noa James: Me calling myself the “Love Monster.” Sometimes my music will be a paradox – I’m yelling, “Keep that shitty energy to yourself,” to a mosh pit. I’m opening up for Denzel Curry, and all my songs are about love and there’s nothing but mosh pits about it, where people are chanting, “Keep that shitty energy to yourself,” and singing, “Love is a beautiful thing,” but the beat is so nasty and raw. I think that’s what blues showed me; blues made music sound sad and happy at the same fucking time. I’m very aggressive, I love the power of my voice and I love the punch in it. I was in a metal band; I was a screamer in a band; I was in two punk bands, and I didn’t want to lose that [what I just gained from being in those bands]. I felt like I just gained another tool in my utility belt, and, “How can I incorporate this?” Blues gave me that, where I started like, “Damn, here it goes. These powerful, loving songs, they evolved now.”Blues made me fearless in creating like that; keeping my grime, and keeping my mud and my dirt.
You started out as a battle rapper in L.A. What was that scene like when you were first starting out?
Noa James: Vicious. Nocando, Dumbfoundead, VerBS, even seeing Daylyt before the mask, it was just vicious. Going to Leimert or going somewhere in Downtown L.A. where they got an event. That’s the thing about me being from the IE – I threw events, I did battles in the Inland Empire, and they would come out to our battles. We was the new LA/IE building bridges with each other like, “Yo, there’s an Import Night,” or, “This nigga Speak! is out here battling GIN.” It was great for me as an artist, but as a person, it was heavy. The shit I would say to people, I felt like I was building up bad karma. Look at the battlers – it takes them a little while to crack. All of us. Every single one of us; we don’t crack until we’re in our late 20s or early 30s, or even mid-30s. It takes a little while to crack in the actual industry, besides battling. You’re like, “I’m doing everything right. I’ve got the numbers, I’ve got all of this, I’m just not cracking.” There’s an audiobook on the 48 laws [of power]. I read the book, but the audiobook tells you, before you even get into this, this is going to build up your bad karma. The fucking book tells you. Anything you put out that’s going to manipulate in a bad way are these words that you’re about to say to a person, and to be a great battler, motherfuckas need to actually feel what you’re saying. You’re activating a spell in a sense.
What’s your relationship like with psychedelics?
Noa James: It’s up there. I like to microdose; it’s pretty healthy. I learned not to do it too much, and when I do it, I do it with intention. For example, two years ago – I’m around a lot of people because I’m at Alpha Pup; I’m signed to Alpha Pup and I’m at all these different places and there are people that I’m meeting and how they are sometimes, it was really getting to me. For me to be around certain people, I was like, “man, I need to go numb; just go numb for a little bit.” My heart’s on my sleeve all the time, but I said, “nah, I can’t do that.” For me to find out what I’m going to do for 2 weeks, I micro dosed. I probably did a gram a day, and I end up meeting this Holocaust survivor at this Subway in Hollywood. We just started talking, it’s about 10-12 of us in this Subway, me and the homies were mobbing, about to shoot a video and stuff like that, and we’re talking. You see the number on the homie’s hand – I started to talk to him, all of us are micro dosing, and we all start crying. All of us.
No one knew what was going on, and then one of the homies explained to the person what was going on, and while he was explaining it, I was like, “There’s no way I can go numb. If I go numb, this moment would never happen.” The answer is don’t go numb – dumb question. That was the shrooms like, “You know not to do that. You know better, so you know what you want in life.” Me looking for that, self-consciously I was saying that. The many trips was telling me, “Bring that voice in the back of your head to the fucking front.” I feel like that’s a great relationship, and I love psychedelics. I won’t burn out my pineal gland or my endorphins, I don’t want to burn my happiness. I know some people that would do acid and it burns them out; you’ve got to do everything you love with discipline. I do everything I love with discipline. I have to. I used to weigh 609, and I’m down to 410. That’s fucking shrooms – shrooms has helped me with that; taking knives out of my back that I put there. That was a powerful moment too. Psychedelics give me gifts that I don’t want, but I need.
Given the title of your new album, as well as the Biblical references scattered throughout it, do you consider yourself a religious person, or are you more so guided by spirituality?
Noa James: Spirituality. I think I love everything about a lot of religions – stories, context, its beauty. The dirt to me was people calling me dirt, and I would say back, “I was a seed first.” That was my reply, this awkward-ass response, and they’re like, “Huh? What the fuck?” It was me telling them, “You’re calling me dirt, but I was a seed first. I’m a plant; I’m growing,” and that was the symbol of it. It’s all spiritual, man. My grandmother is a big Christian, I have an aunt out in Florida that’s big into voodoo, I’ve got family that’s in Santeria, I’ve got family that’s Catholic – it was overwhelming as a kid because I’m getting pulled all these different ways. I’d become the black sheep because I would question everything, but when I got older, I would make my family listen. “You know who I am, but I don’t want to tamper y’all faith by questioning you. Don’t question me about my faith and let me love you the way I can love you, and not talk about your faith or question your faith because I don’t want to be the person to take your faith away, or tamper with that. Even though I have these feelings about it, who the fuck am I to do that? It probably took you a long time to gain that faith.” I learned that later in life – when it comes to religion and spirituality, let people be who they are.
What pushes you to be such a personal and introspective artist? You’ve never shied away from being vulnerable and speaking openly about your mental health.
Noa James: I didn’t hear it a lot coming up, in the way I do it. You see Kendrick or you see [J.] Cole or you see small artists nowadays tap into vulnerability to show some type of emotion. It’s always been me. My music’s always been dark – my first five albums are probably the most grimiest shit I ever put out, but I was vulnerable. It was all me talking about not getting caught up in darkness or me fighting something or overcoming something, or how I overcame. It helps me; this is therapy. I was in therapy as a kid, and it was some way that I could keep a journal; this was my journal. My diary, my whatever, became my book, my chapter. My life is interesting enough where I can tap into my imagination, but I can also tell you my stories, and you’d be like, “What the fuck? How?” My mom put me up for collateral for drugs – I have a song with Sahtyre called “Beautiful Moonlight,” and I’m talking about how my mom gave the drug dealer me as collateral for dope. My grandma had a tab for my mom over there, and the dude dropped me back home. I feel like those stories, I have to tell them stories, but at the same time, let me show you someone with these stories overcame; they never demised, they never perished. Some people go through the craziest shit and they become the most loving people; that’s what I wanted to show. People in those positions, they feel like they’re in such a deep hole and they can’t get out of it, and I’m like, “Let me show you this deep hole I’ve been in, and let me show you how I got out of it.” I think that fuels me; that fuels everything about me. I don’t even know when it really became that for me. When I stopped trying to do this for my livelihood – when I stopped trying to become rich or have this wealth or be this type of person, and I started doing it because I really love it and I want you to feel it. It starts feeling out, and it became really effortless for me to be this type of artist. Look at Open Mike Eagle, man, sheesh.
Walk me through the inception of Dirty Gospel.
Noa James:Dirty Gospel is a continuation of The Love Was Never Hidden. The Love Was Never Hidden is me realizing that the love I always wanted had always been in front of me, but I was chasing it from other people or other situations that I wanted. My ego was driving this real love away when I was chasing this fake love, this temporary love, or the love for the moment. That was The Love Was Never Hidden, where you can see the flower is growing out of me because I’m the dirt. Dirty Gospel is like, “This is why the flowers are growing out of me and the flowers have blossomed because of forgiveness. The flowers are growing because I understand my mud, I understand what I’m here for; I understand it now.” Dirty Gospel was me claiming my dirt, understanding that this is my soil. Gospel means good news – the good news is that I grew out of my darkest times, and that was the whole premise of it. Forgiveness, from Majin Vegeta where “The Flood” is talking about fear is your only darkness, talking about how close I wanted to be to my mother and father, so I started doing the stuff they were doing – selling drugs and moving the weight they wanted to move. To fill their love, I was trying to become them, and becoming them was destroying myself.
Your new project features a wide range of spoken word pieces to skits from different animés? What is it about animé that resonates with you so deeply?
Noa James: Animé is for the fatherless. I have Dragon Ball Super playing in the background right now. It’s crazy; I learned a lot of viable lessons from animé. Some of them are filled with Buddhism and Hinduism and a lot of knowledge of – there’s another one called On the Flood – tai chi. On track 3, that’s a tai chi clip from the movie. Animé, karate flicks – they deal with peace and serenity and strength and power and knowing how to get that without destroying. Naruto – I learned what to do with my anger and my hate after he beat pain. He went to the waterfall and his anger asked him, “What do I do if you don’t have anger and hate no more?” Naruto was like, “What do you mean? You’re still me; we’re still the same person. You still live in me, you just don’t control me. You’re not overbearing or overwhelming,” and he hugged his hate. I was doing therapy for 10 years, and a therapist couldn’t even get that through to me, but fucking animé did. A fucking animé. Or Majin Buu hugging the blind kid. I don’t think people remember that scene, where Majin Buu was killing everybody and everything in sight, and he comes across a blind kid. The blind kid can’t see him, so the blind kid isn’t scared of him. This motherfucker Buu heals the blind kid so he can scare the blind kid; Buu heals the blind kid so the blind kid can get scared, but the kid cries and runs up to Buu and says, “I love you. Thank you.” That’s the moment when Buu becomes innocent Buu. You’re not born with hate, Bibidi is telling him what to do, teaching him hate, teaching him all these things, but once the act of love was shown to him, he changed. That’s what I get from animé; all of it.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Noa James: I just put something up today, “Happiness is work.” Happiness is effort. Every day, me having the opportunity to make myself happy, or have somebody have a happy moment. That’s my thing, when I started understanding what happiness is and how happiness worked. My girl, we’ve been together for 15 years – when we learned that we can’t make each other happy, not in a bad sense, but like, “I need to make myself happy so I already have that energy, and you have that energy, so when anyone comes down, I can help you, but you can help yourself just in case that other person isn’t there.”
We understand that a relationship is 100%/100%. It’s not 50/50. When I learned happiness is work, I love it. I love that I can work out and make myself happy, I can write a bar and make myself happy, I can have a conversation with you and be in a happy moment expressing my music and my life with light and love. I’ve got to credit hallucinogens. I get goosebumps in some of the weirdest places sometimes because the energy told me something. I just visited a cannabis Disneyland in the High Desert, and when I walked in, I got these goosebumps. I find out later, I hear, “Noa!” and it was someone I hadn’t seen in 10 years working at this cannabis plant. The effort of me doing this interview with this cannabis company and doing this show for them, everything was effort, and I just worked out that morning so my leg’s a little sore, but I’m excited for this. I put happiness out there like I’m trying to book a show. It’s like my life depends on it; it’s not that I forcefully do it, but I do do things that make me happy. I like animé, so if I’m doing some work, I’ve got animé on in the background or I’ve got a podcast on in the background. It’s like social media; I follow everything that makes me happy and challenges me at the same time. Challenging is sometimes my perfect happiness because I have room to grow, or I don’t know something, or I’m about to learn something. I went to Disneyland for the first time last year, and the thing about that happiness is that it was effort because I knew how much I needed to walk if I wanted to enjoy Disneyland, so I did a 30-day cardio the month before. For me to enjoy Disneyland, the happiest place on earth – I did a project called The Majestic Travels of OrcaMane & OGIE, and I wrote 4 of the songs at Disneyland, on shrooms, having the time of my fucking life.
After listening to Dirty Gospel, what do you hope for people to know about Noa James?
Noa James: I want them to know I’m in a great place because of dark and light. That’s what I want people to get from it – no matter if you’re going through it, getting through it, just don’t stop. Be aggressive with it. I want people to know, “Noa James showed me how to be a Love Monster. I can be aggressive towards the thing that makes me be bitter; I can be aggressive towards these things.” You have to fight it. I want people to know I fight my demons – I’m not happy every day, I’m not loving 24 hours. I fight for it. I want them to know, after listening to Dirty Gospel, Noa James fights for his happiness, he fights for his love, he fights for his peace of mind. To get your heaven on Earth, you have to fight for it.