Rathcoole-born hip hop artist Jun Tzu - aka Johnny Hamilton - was back in Northern Ireland last week giving lyrical masterclasses to groups of children and young people.
Having moved to Manchester with his family when he was just eight years old, Johnny had a troubled childhood and dropped out of school at a young age, eventually turning to poetry and hip hop as a way of expressing himself, dealing with his feelings and making sense of the world around him.
“We moved to Manchester in 1996 - the year of the IRA bomb. It was a crazy time,” he recalls.
“I didn’t really know anything about The Troubles until I moved to Manchester and then they (kids at school) were all calling me ‘IRA’ and saying ‘ you’re Irish, you bombed our city’ and all this sort of stuff. My whole life I’d been told I was British and they were all calling me Irish, so I had a bit of a nationality complex.
“I started to question my own belief system and ask myself what is it I actually believe? Who am I? Am I British or Irish or does it matter, and that’s what I started to look into and that’s where the music all spawned out of.”
Taking on the name Jun Tzu - a nod to Sun Tzu, the Chinese military strategist and philosopher - Johnny’s street poetry and raps performed in his native Belfast accent proved popular among his peers, who were mostly members of Manchester’s black community.
“I got kicked out of school. I was always fighting and getting into trouble. I started hanging about the streets and really going off the rails. I was seeing psychiatrists when I was like 12 and I was quite disturbed, but when I started writing poetry and reading it back it was like self medicating,” he explained.
More than a decade on, the 26-year-old has a growing fan base across the UK, Ireland and beyond thanks to tracks such as Troublesome, Wee Johnny and The Bridge, which have attracted thousands of hits online. He is known for his gritty lyrics and powerful imagery, taking inspiration from The Troubles, sectarian division and violence, family strife and even personal grief to produce his music.
While citing the late Tupac Shakur as an inspiration, Johnny admits that he prefers listening to old country and western rather than hip hop. And he describes much of his work as “very personal and very emotional”.
Now living in inner city Manchester, Jun Tzu gigs all over the UK and has worked with several top hip hop artists and producers. His performance on Charlie Sloth’s BBC Radio 1 show ‘Fire In The Booth’ was a massive stepping stone for his career.
He has already released an EP (Troubles Comin), and is hoping his album ‘The Troubles’ will be available on iTunes later this year.
The son of convicted UVF man David ‘Pakie’ Hamilton, who is now pastor of a church in Manchester, and nephew of Shankill Butcher William Moore, Johnny believes Northern Ireland can have a brighter future if more people, particularly young people, challenge the old sectarian divisions.
“It’s about breaking down barriers and boundaries and looking at things rationally and remembering it’s 2013, not 1916,” he said.
Johnny stresses that he isn’t always going to rap about Northern Ireland and The Troubles, but says he wanted to make “an album which can make a difference”.
“I believe that this will help show the youth of Northern Ireland a common ground because I know that youth from both sides of the divide will find common ground with my songs and my observations and I want to achieve the same on a global scale and discuss greater topics - racism, poverty, challenging ignorance and lack of education - because the world is bigger than Northern Ireland. I believe that trouble and struggle and strife is the same the whole world over and people are the same,” he added.
As well as performing gigs in Bangor and Belfast last week, Johnny was also delighted to get the chance to work with children and young people at schools and youth groups in loyalist and nationalist areas - a part of his work he’s extremely passionate about.
“I show them fundamental basics of writing poetry to express themselves and talk about issues that they would otherwise feel embarrassed to talk about and it gets them to open up and to look at who they really are,” he explained.
Despite his own lack of formal education, Johnny says young people should stay in school.
“It’s not only about staying in school, it’s about getting as much knowledge as you can.
“I want to see the youth realise that we can make a better future for ourselves through education and information. We have to teach the kids how to express themselves in a constructive way and give them hope and aspirations so that we can move on into a new era.”
The father-of-one has many happy memories of growing up in Rathcoole and attending Whitehouse Primary, and he is keen to work with schools and youth groups in Newtownabbey.
He has invited anyone who’d be interested in putting on spoken word poetry or hip hop workshops to contact him via Twitter @JunTzu.