On the morning of August 30th, 2012 we lost John, but his work lives on. Madison Mayor Paul Soglin has taken part in memorializing his legacy and declared August 30th as John Vietnam Nguyễn Day in Madison. Charities, scholarships, fundraisers, music and university monuments have been erected in his name, and he is the catalyst he promised to be.
Who was John Vietnam?
A catalyst for change. John Vietnam Nguyễn was born on the north side of Chicago to two very loving parents and a culture that could not have anticipated his fire. As a son, a brother, a friend, a visionary, a dynamic First Wave scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and an irrevocably beautiful soul, he worked endlessly toward the uplift of his community and others like it. He accomplished this through a lethal combination of “expression, therapy, and resistance rooted in hip-hop culture” and coordinated his actions to be directly effective in inspiring those around him.
John loved with a spirit of servitude and his dedication to the craft created in others a passion to “get up and do something”. He has impacted communities both nationally and internationally through art and conversation. His music echoes in the hearts of those he blessed, and you can catch Chicagoan b-boys and b-girls top-rocking some of his signature style in cyphers.
“John Vietnam Nguyen was an artist with drive, passion, and loyalty,” said First Wave scholar Paula “Lala” Bolander, who helped to create the JVN Project. “He was committed to his multiple communities, and never hesitated to serve anyone and everyone who needed assistance. John Vietnam was a brother to all whom he met in his short years. John never put himself first because his values were rooted in the people. To me, John was the epitome of a giver, caretaker, and motivated creator.”
But in a space where a lesser person could have grown a huge, problematic ego, John was always humble, even in spaces where he was of the highest talent or most artistically trained, Bolander said. In a word, “Vietnam” was a special bright soul wrapped in a talented human being.
“John, in all, was a light,” said JVN Project co-founder and First Wave scholar Zhalarina Sanders. In human form he was a son, a brother, and a friend. In essence, he was an inspiration, a teacher, a visionary, a leader, and a powerhouse for social justice.”
“A lot of us spent most of our time trying to believe he was real. We just couldn’t believe someone would honestly prefer to work rather than sleep, play, or sometimes even eat,” Sanders continued. “He made you want to do something and was a constant reminder that there simply isn’t enough time in life. He could inspire a slug to swim and a rock to roll. It was hard to not want to be a better person after witnessing his constant personal attempt to do so.”
This quiet power couple with his quiet persona, was how John stood out without acting out.
“People like John are rare today, were rare yesterday, and will continue to be rare in the coming days.” Bolander said. “There are just not people like John. John’s light was strong enough to impact those who never physically met him. His music and poetry were crafted in such a way that they will remain relevant for years to come. He listened before he spoke, a characteristic that many young people struggle to master. As a listener, he was able to understand what was truly bothering others around him, then spoke to his communities of his responses and suggestions.”
According to Bolander, the creation of the JVN Project is important because John Vietnam started a movement of community resistance through education. “Although he cannot be here to see that it continues to grow, it must. Even those who might not know his name can learn of his morals, vision, and mission through his art,” she said.
After his passing and the immediate mourning of those he loved, there was an air of stagnation and hopelessness that fell over our communities, Sanders said.
“Many of us were losing someone significant for the second and even third time that year and were extremely frustrated. We also knew that John had only just began a great work and worried that we as individuals lacked the will power and resources to continue it. In October of 2012, we decided to come together and do so as a community, as a family,” she said. “The Project would hold us accountable to our promises to John of continuing to uplift the masses with our talents and passions, and we would be covering more ground, touching more hearts, and affecting an even greater change as a collective.”
The creators behind the JVN Project include the following members of the First Wave family: Darline Morales, Cydney Edwards, Zhalarina H.Sanders, Danez Smith, Paula Bolander, Taylor Scott, Natalie Cook, and OMAI Executive Director Willie Ney.
The JVN Project will help cultivate the next generation of listeners by empowering them through their own talents, said Bolander. John may not have mastered every single element of Hip Hop, but he knew them well by trying them all. The JVN Project will help other young artists figure out and triumph over “limits”.
“We have modeled the project’s core values after those of John. All of our initiatives reflect them and we strive toward them every day,” Sanders said. “As an example, we have implemented a social justice framework into the curriculum for the youth that will attend the Project’s One Life workshop series at the Goodman South Branch Library.
Grow — Facilitators and project members seek to cultivate growth in the young person by introducing to them new ways in which they can use the resources around them. In workshop, students learn how and why it is important to gain new perspectives, skill sets, and abilities. While promoting healthy living and development, facilitators teach youth the importance of listening and observing using the Hip Hop arts.
- Build Community — Through teamwork and collaborative assignments, students engage peers from various backgrounds and cultures, learning new traditions and expressions. With art as the gap-bridging element, youth learn how to not only create together, but also how to commune and work conjunctively toward common goals.
- Serve — We seek to instill in students a sense of servitude in the accomplishments and endeavors that they pursue. Students are encouraged to give back to their communities artistically and organizationally. We teach youth how the use of creative expression is important and sometimes necessary when meeting the needs of the community.
- Create — We encourage students to tell their stories, share their thoughts, and redirect any unhealthy/unproductive energies into creative expressions that communicate in unorthodox ways.
- Challenge — Students are pushed to exercise their potential and stretch themselves mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. We hope for them to reach new capacities and learn more and more about how to articulate their experiences with art.
- Inspire — As a project we strive to achieve more, learn more, strive more, and encourage more so that we may be an inspiration to the communities we serve.
- Một đời một tình yêu — It is Vietnamese for One Life, One Love and can be interpreted in a number of ways. Overall, it stands as a constant reminder that we only have one life to live and one love to give. This love being the universal love and respect expressed by all people for all people, regardless of gender, race, class, sexuality, creed, etc.
“I hope John will be remembered as a man who was profoundly impacted by the struggles and stories of those who came before him,” Bolander added. “He was the voice for many people who could not speak up for themselves, and a teacher for many people who did not know they wanted to learn.”
Through the JVN Project, John Vietnam’s talent, passion and power to move people toward change lives on, his friends and colleagues say.
“We can keep this project active and alive through consistent programming and workshops, as well as spreading his book so others can learn about him through his own work,” Bolander said. “I think the project will be healthy and sustainable as long as its members are committed to seeing that John is alive through the services we continue to provide.”
Most importantly, the project seeks to empower people of all ages through hip-hop, Sanders added. In a city like Madison where local clubs and bars are banning the genre because of perceived related violence, hip-hop needs support to have productive conversations within their communities that do not reduce the culture to a stereotype.
“This is how parents and community leaders will learn the many ways in which hip-hop is being used as an educative tool for social justice issues, institutional oppression, and self-love/ respect,” she said.
The JVN Project is partnered with UW-Madison’s Office of Multicultural Arts (OMAI) and the First Wave Hip-Hop and Urban Arts Learning Community along with the Madison Public Library as a community partner to guarantee its programs and workshops are accessible to the greater Madison Community. The bi-weekly writing and performance workshops will be hosted on the Southside of Madison, where high school students can create and build with each other.
John’s passing is very personal to his immediate scholarly and extended artistic family, Sanders said. But if those who were closest to him fail to inspire on Vietnam’s behalf, all their grief, love and admiration becomes a second tragic loss.
“No matter who you are, or what you think your limitations are, you can be a catalyst for positive change and a light in so many dark corners of this world,” Sanders said.
What Would Vietnam Say?
“Stay up fam, I got you. I see you out here, keep putting in work”. –Lala
“He’d most likely smile, nod his head, and say something close to “If you’re sleeping more than I did, you’re doing it wrong.” — Rina