Apocalyptic hip-hop artist John Wu is full of ideas that shock. THEO PANAYIDES meets a soft spoken musician looking for some peace and quiet
To be honest, I’m not even sure how many of John Wu’s assertions to repeat in the paper. He seems to realise they’re controversial. “I say them in my songs, and I get some opposition,” he admits. “I’ve said things in my songs which have been banned by some people”. He did an interview on CyBC, and afterwards (he claims) the order came down from above never to invite him again.
Why? What did he say?
“I talked about Freemasonry”. How Freemasons get all the top jobs, and have done for centuries. “And Freemasonry is controlled by Zionism, by the Jews.”
Really? He blurted all this out on live TV?
He chuckles: “Yeah, I told them everything.”
I’m here to talk about the music, for the most part – and perhaps the restaurant, which is where we meet. John’s family run the oldest Chinese takeaway in Nicosia: it’s been going for 28 years, started by his father (who still cooks there) about a decade after he came to Cyprus from Hong Kong, initially to run a silk-screen factory. His dad was probably “the first Chinese man in Cyprus,” says John – but neither he nor his three sons (John is the eldest) seem to have experienced any significant racism or discrimination. I thought his anger – channelled into hip-hop, notoriously an angry musical genre – may have emanated partly from being called names in the playground, but apparently not. Then again, he doesn’t look especially Chinese (the mixed-race background is clearer in his brothers, he tells me), having inherited more of his mother’s features.
Is he angry? It’s hard to say. His face is shrewd and unblinking, his head shaved clean – but the voice is soft and steady, never manic or enraged. He was always “a bit reserved as a person”, always wrote poems and lyrics as a kid – even before that day in 1992 or thereabouts, when he was 16 (he’s now 38) and fell in love with a new kind of music. It came straight from the US ghetto, it burned with a sense of injustice, and – unlike the classic rock he’d listened to previously – hip-hop allowed you to “tell a whole story, from beginning to end”. It was a spoken-word genre, more about the lyrics than the music.
And of course there was something else: hip-hop was entirely unknown in Cyprus – indeed, it was almost unknown in Europe – and young John, despite feeling Cypriot, also felt inevitably different. “Back then, everyone who listened to hip-hop was always mixed,” he recalls. “American Cypriots, English Cypriots…” He made cassette tapes for friends, then got together with two other youngsters (one of them went by the moniker ‘DJ Ponokefalos’, or ‘DJ Headache’) to create ‘Vaomeni Esso’ (‘Shut Up Indoors’), the first Cypriot hip-hop band. They gave a concert “where the audience didn’t applaud, or even realise what had happened,” he recalls with a chuckle; ‘Vaomeni’ went to a club, grabbed the mike, played some songs in their baggy jeans – and the locals just stared in bewilderment, like the 50s kids when Marty McFly plays a rock’n roll riff in Back to the Future.
John’s own moniker was ‘Mastermind’, a nod to his status as the mastermind behind the local scene. He’s just about held on to that status, and runs his own studio (currently closed, “for technical reasons”) – but the scene remains small, despite his best efforts, a problem he blames partly on anti-Cypriot bias in local media. “Zero promotion on the FM,” he raps bitterly in a song called ‘Hamena Talenta’ or ‘Lost Talents’ – and radio stations apparently ignore local hip-hop even while promoting Greek hip-hop, a problem not limited to hip-hop. “If you’re a Cypriot coming from Greece, like [Michalis] Hadjiyannis, then you’re OK. If you’re a Cypriot starting from Cyprus, they don’t pay much attention. It’s discrimination against Cypriots.”
Would he do better if he left Cyprus? Absolutely, he nods. “I’ve had many offers to go abroad. But I said no to all the offers, because I’m a man who likes peace and quiet. More than musical success, money and glory and so on, I prefer to have spiritual peace”. He’s had a taste of the lifestyle, playing with well-known rappers – from ‘Lost Talents’: “Surrounded by sycophants / Record companies sucking my blood like vampires” – and was unimpressed. For one thing, he says, if you sign with a record company your music changes: you have to be commercial, you have to talk of things “which don’t wake people up, but send them to sleep even more”. For another, he himself has had an awakening – both musically and otherwise – in the past 15 years: his last two or three CDs, since Aoratos Polemos (‘Invisible War’) in 2003, have delved into spiritual hip-hop, or more properly apocalyptic hip-hop.
This is where we start “going deep,” as he puts it, and begin flirting with controversy. “There are so many things people don’t know,” marvels John. “People only know what they’re told by the TV and radio and magazines”. It’s like in The Matrix, when Neo takes the red pill and suddenly sees the world for what it is – and immediately throws up, because he “doesn’t like the taste of the truth”; that’s how you feel, says John, when you first “get to the bottom of who rules the planet”. His own truth has to do with the ‘New World Order’, that vaguely sinister phrase coined by George Bush Sr. in 1990 – and it’s no surprise that the top result when you Google the phrase is a Wikipedia page for “New World Order (conspiracy theory)”. “When you do some research,” warns John, “you’ll end up going down paths that you didn’t believe existed.”
All his talk of Freemasons and Zionists lies along those paths. So, for instance, does his concern with mass surveillance through microchipping, pointing out that millions of animals have been implanted with microchips since 2000, millions of products have been marked with bar-codes, and the microchipping of humans is now underway (Google “microchip population”, he urges). So does his fear of a single global government, a key tenet of the New World Order – but there’s something else as well: just as Aoratos Polemos was “the first Orthodox hip-hop CD in the world”, so John Wu views the whole NWO conspiracy from a Greek Orthodox perspective, that being the other part of his personal awakening.
“I’d been searching for many years,” he shrugs – but “I was searching as an atheist, not as a believer”. That changed at some point when he started studying religion, indeed (he says) he looked into all religions, even the Buddhism of his Hong Kong family. Buddhism attracted him for a while (its Zen aspects must’ve resonated with his longing for ‘peace and quiet’) but he’s long since turned his back on it, and dismisses it as “poison”. Instead, he says, “I had certain experiences, including at Mount Athos” – the enclave for Orthodox monks in Greece which he’s visited seven times – “and discovered that God really exists”.
Does He? Can we really know that?
He nods firmly. “I personally witnessed many miracles at Mount Athos, which happened to me as well,” he declares promisingly – though it’s hard to pin him down when I ask for a description of a miracle. Some of it was just “the emotions you feel inside, which you’ve never felt before. The power of His presence beside you”. Some of it was meeting people he calls saints, monks who live in degrading poverty and are capable of great acts of healing. Much of it was studying “2000 years of Orthodoxy” and realising that all who sought (and found) enlightenment, right through the centuries, reported feeling exactly the same things that he was feeling.
In the end, religious experience is like being in love; it’s almost impossible to describe without sounding delusional. For John Wu, however, religion informs his worldview in a very specific way, especially when it comes to the New World Order – because the danger of a single world government dovetails with “what the Bible says about the Apocalypse”, the single world ruler being (yes) the Antichrist. In short, we’re now living through the End of Days: the corruption, the climate of fear, the collapse of the economic system, the wars and counter-wars we see all around us – none of this is accidental. The idea is “to destroy everything, for people to feel they’ve had enough, for us to find the situation intolerable so they can bring the New World Order. In other words, they’re creating a problem so they can bring the solution they want.”
There’s more, quite a bit more; I doubt he “told them everything” on that CyBC show, if only because it would’ve taken hours. 9/11 was a set-up. (He shows me a video to prove this.) Bin Laden’s death never happened. Islamic State don’t attack Israel because they’re sponsored by Israel. Cosmas of Aetolia, the 18th-century monk, was referring to Greece’s Exclusive Economic Zone (currently set at six miles) when he wrote about the Turks coming to grief at “examili”. Music videos by everyone from Jay-Z to Lady Gaga are rife with Masonic symbols and references to the Antichrist. It’s almost a parallel reality, like in The Matrix: “Where am I?” says John, looking startled like he’s just woken up in a strange place. “It makes you realise that everything is fake”.
You may agree or disagree with what he says; you may acclaim it as truth or dismiss it as conspiracy theory. That’s not the point. The point is that he’s not alone – and the sub-culture seems to be growing, fanned by the power of the internet. John doesn’t live in a cave, after all. He’s well-known, widely respected for his music, and often posts about the New World Order and his other ideas on Facebook. What response does he get? “A lot of opposition to what I write,” he admits. “Some people are like, ‘You need a psychiatrist’. But then there are people who’ve started searching, and finding out exactly the same things as me”.
Aoratos Polemos is now a classic, he insists. Apocalyptic hip-hop is a growing sub-genre, says John, listing a flurry of bands in Greece; “Now, with the internet, people are discovering what I was talking about in 2003”. At the time, his album was widely attacked in the Greek hip-hop community; some called him a fascist, or a religious fundamentalist. His ideas are easy to misunderstand. He recalls having written an anti-Turkish ‘patriotic’ rap as a foolish teenager in the Army, which was later – much to his embarrassment – adopted as an anthem by the far-right Golden Dawn crowd. “I have nothing to do with them,” he says firmly, dismissing the far-right as yet another creature of the System (“They play their role”). But his only real regret, musically speaking, is a fun-loving macho rap he once released called ‘In the Club’, with breezy party lyrics (“I’m in the club / Picking up all the chicks”); it did well, better than his spiritual albums, but he’s sorry he ever wrote it. It doesn’t “tell the truth,” he explains. It’s not “real” hip-hop.
In short, John Wu is a true believer – in religion, obviously, but also in the power of the fiery music that first beguiled him 20 years ago. Not that he’s too grand to compromise. For years he made money writing music and jingles for TV and radio ads, before the crisis – another set-up, incidentally – crippled the advertising industry. He was in a band called 357 with two other rappers, and they had an upbeat anthem called ‘Ola ta Heria Psyla’ (‘Everybody Put Your Hands Up’) that became a huge hit; they even opened for Sakis Rouvas at the launch of the Cyprus Rally. Even now, he’ll write mainstream hip-hop (motivational songs, he says vaguely) as well as the spiritual stuff. But there’s no doubt about where his heart lies.
Is he also a “lost talent”, like the title of his song? Is this a case of a gifted musician who got distracted, and ended up on the margins? Probably not – John is hardly a recluse, and has mentored many young local rappers at his studio – but it wouldn’t matter to him if it were, as implied in his song ‘First Place’: “We all want to be in first place / Like the angel in Heaven, next to God, before he fell,” he raps ironically (it rhymes in Greek, obviously). He likes to talk more than he likes to listen – he seems uninterested when I remark on his rants – but that’s because his version of the world is so clear to him, “like a puzzle where all the pieces fit perfectly in every aspect”. Take the red pill, and he’ll show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.