“As kids, we used to joke about how terribly disgusting the Flint River is. I remember all of us joking at ten and eleven years old. All of us knew, You don’t drink from the Flint River! You don’t get water from the Flint River!” recalls Dr. Dre’s Aftermath recording artist and Flint, Michigan native Jon Connor. “So why would government appointed officials make the decision to get water from the Flint River? I wouldn’t have made that decision at ten years old. Those are the things that begin to hurt.”
The answer to Connor’s question is the result of a comedy of errors that began in 1980, when General Motors began shipping jobs overseas, away from the city it was founded in, Flint, MI. Naturally this led to a mass exodus of the city’s residents, drastically cutting the population in half. By 2011, the city was in debt of $15 million, so the idea was proposed to stop buying water from Detroit and instead get it locally from the Flint River, where it wouldn’t be uncommon to see the Simpsons’ three-eyed fish wading.
Flint’s own Michael Moore wrote in Time this week that “[GM leaving] halved Flint’s population and brought along unemployment, poverty, alcoholism, broken families and other ills.” Connor says that’s a “very accurate” description of what life has been like in his hometown, for as long as he can remember.
“Think about when LeBron [James] left Cleveland. Remember how much of an uproar there was? People were like, ‘This dude is providing jobs, people are coming here to see him play.’ That time period when he left was detrimental to all of Cleveland. It was providing hope,” says Connor. “It’s a crazy analogy because we are talking about one person, but that was what the automotive industry was to Flint. Imagine LeBron James leaving Flint seven times, that’s was what it was like. But Cleveland got him back. We never did.”
Fast-forward to January 2016, and a federal state of emergency has been declared in Flint, after the local government’s failure to respond to 19 months of residents’ complaints of water discoloration and strange odors, as well as reports of burning skin, rashes, hair loss and seizures. Small steps were taken, such as in August 2014 after E. coli was found in the water and the city told residents to boil their water before using it. Finally in October 2015, months after high levels of lead were discovered in both the water and in blood of the city’s children, the city switched back to Detroit water. Yet it was too late, the pipes were too corroded with lead and a generation of children had been poisoned.
Jon Connor, born Jon [pronounced “yahn”] Freeman, wasn’t always sharing studio time with Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. He had been releasing mixtapes on the hip-hop blog scene over the last few years, eventually catching the ear of rapper Xzibit, which led to the two of them touring together. Xzibit promised Connor “Whenever I get a chance to put your music in the right hands, I going to do it,” and then one day he got a call from Dr. Dre.
“I packed one bookbag of clothes and I was on a plane the same day. That was it, I didn’t come back. I hadn’t been home since, it was on. That was around summer 2013,” Connor recalls fondly.
After signing with Dre’s Aftermath imprint, Connor laid down two tracks on Dre’s final album, Compton, with “One Shot, One Kill” alongside Snoop, and “For The Love of Money,” a nod to the Bone Thugs ‘N Harmony song of the same name, also featuring Anderson .Paak. Connor is currently recording his Aftermath debut album and hopes to see it released in the summer of this year.
Despite spending the last two and a half years in California, Connor has come home to Flint for the holidays each year and has witnessed the situation firsthand. He is currently staying in Flint, lending support to his friends and family, as well as helping with local charities.
“For the past two years, I’ve been seeing what’s going on. I’ve watched the gradual deterioration of my city, via this water situation. It’s not pretty at all, says Connor. “When things started getting crazy and crazier, I didn’t want to be in California while my mother, my friends, my aunts, my families, are going through this. People have to understand that, for everybody else it’s a headline, it’s a cool topic to talk about, it’s the charity of the moment. For me, this is my mother, my friends, my little cousin. I know these little kids that the news is reporting on. The residents, the Flint natives that everybody is talking about, these are my cousins, these are my relatives, my best friend. For me, it was like, I have to get home to check on my people.”
Connor says that he and his people noticed something was wrong after the city issued the boil advisory in August of 2014, just four months after they unhooked from Detroit and switched to Flint water.
“It was around two years ago, when they first started saying that you have to boil the water for it to be safe to use.” recalls Connor. “Flint as a whole are a really resilient people; we try to see the best in everything. At first, we thought ‘Okay, this water thing is going to blow over. This is going to be something that we can fix.’ But then it didn’t get better, it just kept getting worse.”
Connor says that he has seen his family and friends directly affected by the water poisoning, yet some do not yet know to what extent the damage has been done.
“The majority of the people that I know still have to go get tested or are waiting for their test results to come back. A couple friends of mine do have people that are affected, that have hair loss, their kids have skin rashes and other stuff,” he admits. “It’s really sad to see, especially when this is a situation that is man made. It’s not like a natural disaster, this is somebody who made a decision that knew that people could die from and it still happened.
“It’s scary because when the water isn’t discolored, it has a bleach smell to it, in which a strong odor comes from the water. So you’ve got a choice, either your water is discolored or it smells crazy. There are seldom cases when absolutely nothing is wrong with it,” continues Connor. “It’s exactly how it is being portrayed, as far as how big of a problem it is. You got people having to get tested for lead, to make sure that they are not poisoned. When I first got back, I saw people handing out containers to see how much lead in their water. It’s not a question of whether or not your water is contaminated. The question is, how contaminated is your water?”
As the conversation continues, Connor gets impassioned with warranted frustration, as he explains the difficulty of everyday tasks that we otherwise take for granted.
“A lot of people are still trying to boil the water, for whatever that’s worth,” he says. “What I personally have to do, since I’ve been here is find a friend that doesn’t stay in Flint, maybe in another community close to us, like Grand Blanc or Beecher, where they are getting water from a completely different source. You might go over to their house to use their shower, but think about that. Think about how inconvenient that is. Then try to brush your teeth using a bottle of water. If brushing your teeth is inconvenient, imagine trying to wash your whole body with a bottle of water. Let’s say you have kids, what are you supposed to do? Pour gallons of water in the tub to bathe one, then drain the tub and do it again for the other? What is the proper procedure to wash yourself with bottled water?”
While countless bottles of water have been delivered to Flint — 6.5 million from Wal-Mart, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, and Nestle alone — Connor insists that this is only a temporary solution to a much more grandiose conundrum.
“This bottled water thing is a Band-Aid for the moment. What is the actual solution? How can we get people to donate money to fix the pipes? What do we have to do to get that to happen? This bottled water thing, how long is that really going to last? And when it’s no longer the hot social trend to talk about and all of these celebrities are not talking about it, the people of Flint are still going to be living this,” he says fervently. “When Flint, Michigan isn’t trending on Twitter anymore, the residents are still going to be going through this. At the end of the day, the people of Flint still have poison water. I don’t care how many bottles of water you donate — and we’re not ungrateful at all — but let’s fix the problem instead of putting a Band-Aid on it. And the people and the children that are already poisoned, what do they do from this point on?”
Solving the problem is where Connor has put most of his energy since his return to Flint. Despite both Hillary Clinton and Michael Moore both calling the crisis a racial issue — citing that because Flint is largely poor and African-American, the problem has been ignored — Connor is less concerned with the politics of the issue and more with fixing the problem.
“I don’t even want to touch it. I don’t want to make it solely about race, because there are white people that live in Flint, there are Hispanics that live in Flint. I think it’s a human issue. I’m not going to get into that. I’m not into this to talk about it to just be a headline. These are human lives,” says Connor. “If this was poison water in an area of all white people, I’d say it’s wrong. If this was populated by all Hispanics, I’d say it’s wrong. I don’t want people to get so deterred and turn it into a race war that we forget that people are dying. I’m an African-American from Flint, MI, so yeah I do feel it. However you feel about the race thing, whatever. Now let’s get back to helping these people. Let’s get back to figuring out how to save these people’s lives.”
Much of Connor’s energy has been poured into both spreading awareness about the situation and donating his time to help out. Last week, he released a song called “Fresh Water For Flint” on SoundCloud, featuring Keke Palmer. The two knocked it out in an hour-and-half, during breaks between Keke’s rehearsals for Grease Live, which aired on Fox this past weekend. “That song wrote itself, I didn’t have to think about what to say,” Connor says of the track.
Connor has teamed with the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan and the Flint Boys & Girls Club to help out as well.
“I first started talking to [Dr.] Dre about this, probably about a month or two ago. He was really, really concerned. He was like ‘How can I help? What can I do to help?’ We wanted to find an organization that whatever we were donating, we knew it was actually going to help the people. The Food Bank of Eastern Michigan was that, because they were helping people get food and water before the crisis,” says Connor. “That’s what they do in general. We’re also helping out at the Flint Boys & Girls Club. Those are organizations that I am in direct contact with, so we know where the help is going.
“I also went and volunteered my time at the food bank. It doesn’t take much to donate your time. Think about it like this, so much water is being donated to Flint, that they are running out of manpower. They’re sending semis and semis of bottles, but there are only so many people that work at these establishments that they need volunteers,” he says. “I talked to those kids at the Boys & Girls Club, looked them the eyes and told them that it’s going to be okay. It’s one thing to see it on TV, but I wanted to see these little kids. I’m watching these little kids play on stacks of bottled water in their gymnasiums. It’s a harsh reminder that their innocence and their childhood is being affected by this matter.”
Jon Connor — who over the years has referred to himself as “the people’s rapper” — chose his rap moniker as a young adult, around the age of 18 or 19. Admittedly a “movie nerd,” he kept his first name, gave it a hard “J,” and adapted the last name “Connor” to match the heroic character from the Terminator films.
“Just to see the impact that that character had on all of humanity was incredible. It was like, if he died, the world would end,” recalls Jon. “That’s how much of an importance I wanted to have on hip-hop. That’s how much I wanted my contributions to mean, as far as Flint in hip-hop. That’s how much I want to mean to the game, that if I’m not here, things just aren’t going to be right. It spoke to me, no matter what John Connor did, he couldn’t escape his destiny and that’s how I felt.”
Like his namesake, Jon Connor of Flint, Michigan’s real world heroism is manifesting in ways he never expected.
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