When Jay-Z’s grandmother says “I was served lemons, but I made lemonade” on Beyoncé’s “Lemonade,” she could’ve been talking about J. Santino, a Detroit-based Motor City Pride headliner. For years, the 23-year-old pop artist has been mixing, raging and twisting his life and long, neon 18-inch box braids into something sweet. Before, from 2004 through 2008, Santino lived in shelters throughout Detroit with his mom, he tells Pride Source. Those shelters contributed greatly to his evolution as an artist and businessperson.
“Being in a shelter wasn’t the worst experience ever,” Santino says. “I mean, I was young, so everything to me was rainbows and daffodils and shit. Looking back at it now, I’m like, ‘Girl, that was not the best time of your life.’ But I was grateful to experience that youth because my expectations were affected. A lot of things don’t really affect me because of that.”
As an escape, Santino turned to music.
“I’ve been singing all of my life,” he says. “I remember singing when I was 3 in a really small apartment on Joy Road. I remember seeing Beyoncé’s ‘Me, Myself and I.’ I tried to copy every run that Beyoncé did. The backward walk and everything.”
Singing became a “big thing” to him, he says. It was a vehicle for expressing himself.
“Living with my mom, living in a shelter in Highland Park, [the] singing got me through that,” he says. “Even in high school, it helped. I remember singing Leona Lewis’ ‘Bleeding Love’ to get me away from being bullied and it worked.”
Santino says, because he favored pop music and divas when others didn’t, he felt different from his peers. One diva in particular — Mariah Carey — influenced the artist he is today.
“I was like, ‘Oh my god, I can hit this note, I can really do this,'” he explains. “That’s when my fascination with Mariah Carey started and when I really wanted to start to sing.”
Getting into the industry wasn’t easy for Santino. For four years, he put his energy into his craft, only performing outside of Detroit and in venues on Eastern Michigan University’s campus.
“I’d never done a showcase in the city [of Detroit],” he says. “I was like, ‘I do pop music. They don’t fuck with pop music here, so I’m just going to be in my own lane. I’m going to make my own little opportunities.'”
In 2019, Santino’s road led him straight to Motor City Pride’s (MCP) performance application. That summer, while working as a dishwasher, creating his EP and living at a shelter, J. Santino took the chance and applied to MCP.
He says, “I was three days late to applying for MCP, sleeping on a cot on Joy Road and writing songs on my EP every single day.”
The deadline was irrelevant to Santino. He knew what he wanted and went after it no matter the obstacles.
“I spent my last $86 to get my Squarespace website,” he reflects. “I stayed up all night making this website because the best advice I got was to make sure everything [I] have is presentable…I put my heart and soul into that website. When I look at that website now it was not sickening, it was not together. But it was professional enough. I used it to apply three days late for MCP, and they said, ‘We love this.’”
Santino didn’t have much music officially released at the time, so instead he showed MCP a lot of unreleased music. It worked.
“At the time I was only paid $200 to play at the show, and at the time I didn’t even have a project out. I only had one little song. It was a pop record [the catchy bop ‘Lover’]. I was like, ‘Well, you got to figure it out now because you’re here,'” he explains, laughing, “‘and you signed the contract.'”
And he did — on little to no budget, at that. He says he couldn’t afford expensive rehearsal spaces, so he tapped into his resources and did what he needed to do.
“We were rehearsing in classrooms and even parks trying to get this [performance] together,” he says. “It really didn’t faze me because I was like, ‘Well, shit, it could be worse.’ People were having rehearsals in these high-price areas, but I can confidently say I gave a better show because of the hard work and ingenuity I put into my show.”
He says his first MCP performance was more than he expected.
“I performed that whole hour-long performance with no EP out and only one song recorded,” he says. “[The] next thing I know, I looked up and the entire place was packed. We did that.”
That one performance catapulted his career, he says. Now, as one of this year’s MCP headliners and co-host of their official afterparty, he is “so grateful.”
The upcoming performance will mark Santino’s second time working with MCP this year. For MCP’s virtual event in June, he performed a short set that included his single “Forever.” He says he has no intention of ending his collaborations with MCP and expects to perform there “again and again.”
“Without Motor City Pride I wouldn’t have a lot of the opportunities that I have today, he says. “MCP has given me the opportunity to be myself.”