Jason Aalon Butler: “We Have A F*cking Problem. People Are Dying En Masse, Kids Are Going To School And Killing Their Peers… We Need To Find A Solution”
If we were to talk to the Jason Aalon Butler of three years ago, our conversation would be very different. Back then, the frenzied, firebrand mouthpiece of political punks letlive. would regularly lament the state of society, reliving his past experiences and tear open old wounds in a tirade of destructive reflection. But in September 2017, Jason’s life changed forever with the birth of his first child.
Suddenly the problems of the past didn’t seem to matter so much – it was a better future that became the focus of his fight. The revolutionary vocalist found himself feeling humbled, and gaining a new outlook on life, striving for a better world for his son to grow up in.
Jason grew up in Inglewood, California, where he was surrounded by gangs, guns, drugs, violence and myriad other dangers to which children should not be exposed. Straddling the poverty line throughout his formative years, he learned what truly mattered in life, and educated himself on society to understand why his community was being left behind.
Jason’s internal struggles with identity, race and religion all formed the basis of letlive., the project he started back in 2002 and disbanded in April 2017. In its place, a more positive, politically-active force known as FEVER 333 would rise just three months later in the car park of a doughnut store in LA. The guerrilla gig was just the beginning of the FEVER 333 story, holding demonstrations (their preferred term for live shows) across America before dropping the Made An America EP in 2018 and STRENGTH IN NUMB333RS debut album last year. Where letlive. spoke of destitution, racial tension and capitalism, FEVER 333 offer a message of “community, charity and change” as Jason puts it.
He’s also wary of coming across as preachy, admitting “it’s hard not to be didactic when you’re talking about something you feel so strongly about.” But through FEVER 333’s demonstrations, the singer explains he’s facilitating an environment where people can “listen with empathy”.
We catch up with him on his way to band rehearsal in Los Angeles. He’s calm and considered, articulate and polite, often talking himself into knots, picking up and expanding on new ideas as they present themselves in a stream of consciousness. This urge for change is nothing new, but there’s a fresh sense of purpose and a new fire raging inside of him that refuses to be extinguished.
How has fatherhood changed you?
“In almost every way other than my sense of morality. Without him knowing or trying, my son is showing me what’s possible, he’s provided me with a sense of hope that I always dreamed about. All of the choices that I make have become easier because of him. All that matters is making sure that every decision I make benefits him and my wife. Thankfully the relationship I have with my wife and son is synonymous with my relationship with the world – every decision is one that benefits someone beyond myself. I used to worry about what people would think or how they would feel, but now I have a clear, concise vision of what I’m supposed to be doing thanks to my son.”
Early letlive. material was quite negative in tone. Are you looking at the world differently now?
“Yes, 100 per cent. When I found out my wife was pregnant, it made everything possible for me. It made FEVER 333 possible, it made leaving letlive. possible, and my inclusion in the bigger picture became so much clearer. My idea of hope is not just a fallacy anymore. It’s tangible now. It’s embodied in my son and my family. The idea of family was something that I was searching a long time for, in whatever capacity that may be. I was searching for a family that I could fight for and lean on, and I have that now.”
Did you have a happy childhood?
“I look at my childhood and my past as the reason I’m here today, and I must be grateful for what I have right now. My childhood certainly was turbulent and I don’t blame anybody for that – most of our problems stem systemically. Even if there are internal, emotional problems, we live within systems that don’t offer us the help that we not only should have, but we could have. America is one of the most affluent countries of all. I find it ironic and negligent that young people like myself and older people like my parents slipped through the cracks for so long, when there are so many resources that could be readily available – the most important being education. My childhood is nobody’s fault; it’s just the product of a system, and I have to understand the system better now so that my son doesn’t get sent on a trajectory that would be negative. I’m so lucky to have experienced a lot of the things that I did and come out the other end alive, hopeful, and with ambition and drive.”
Growing up, were you aware just how much your family and community were being let down by the system?
“I was going to school outside of my district. I was leaving my disenfranchised area to take part in activities and education in an area where people were very much considered the ‘haves’. I was surrounded by things that were new to me, they seemed a lot shinier, and a lot newer. I remember asking for a candy bar and my parents said we didn’t have money for that – the candy bar was, like, 80 cents. All the other kids had all the candy they could ever need, and when I saw that I put it together in my mind – I understood what poverty meant.
“At the same time, we were rich in amorous equity. My mom loved me and my sister so much, she made me feel so important and that I could do anything. For people who may relate to what I’m saying as far as feeling impoverished goes, understand that there are other things in life that can provide emotional equity. My mom taught me what it meant to give a fuck about yourself and your people. My father was hustling, he was doing it any way he could. Now that I’m a father, a lot of the things he did – even if they ended him up in jail or took him away from us – I understand he was trying to provide for his family. My father was doing the best he could and the best he knew how, given our circumstances and what we looked like. I really appreciate my family for that, showing me you gotta work, you gotta hustle, you gotta believe that love can be strong enough to carry you through some really fuckin’ hard times.”
How does it feel to walk down the street in LA and feel more confident inside your own skin these days?
“It’s something I wanted my whole life. I struggled with my identity as a young person, trying to understand who I was and where I fitted in. Will I make it? Am I good enough? I just don’t fear other people like that anymore. I don’t need to. It goes so far beyond me. Death is inevitable and I know that – I would hope I could stave death off for longer, but I understand it’s a part of life. I’m very comfortable with walking through this life with my head up and knowing that what I do is the right thing. I have a sense of pride and self-worth that I must maintain and enhance for my son, for people around me, for young people from my area, and for young people that listen to this music. This shit ain’t even about me.
“My confidence walking down the street is just so I can sustain the vessel that is me. Ain’t nobody coming up to me like, ‘Here man, here’s some edification in a box, I’m gonna give you a sense of power in this box.’ You’ve gotta do that for yourself. I do that for me, but the people that benefit from it go far beyond me. Whether it’s eating right, working out or paying attention to a sketchy situation so that I don’t perish, that’s just sustaining the vessel. It’s not about my ego, it’s not about me as a figure, or me as a personality, it’s about sustaining this vessel that might be able to offer representation to others.”
It felt like letlive. focused on things that had already happened to you, but FEVER 333 is about things that are going to happen. Is that fair?
“That’s a pretty good assessment. This is what it means for me to move forward, for me to put my fucking money where my mouth is in these efforts. I’m trying to create a narrative, a situation for me that is more positive and hopeful so I can achieve the things I feel need to be achieved for posterity’s sake. I don’t want to kick the can down the road, I don’t want to talk about how things made me feel in the past and how they were insurmountable. I want to talk about how we’re going to move forward. I want to talk about how we can make things better. That’s why this has evolved into something else. It’s a new sense of living for me, and a new sense of hope that I didn’t have in the letlive. days.”
When did you first get interested in politics?
“I started skateboarding. I was pretty tight and then I got sponsored, which meant I got to take trips and hang out with older people from different areas. They showed me that things were very different from how I grew up. It was the first real thing that showed me the outside and opened my eyes when I was 10 years old. I know it sounds like a much less enchanted answer. Education came first, but then it was skateboarding and meeting people who were not from my area, who had homes with more than one bedroom and garages that could fit cars and not just fucking junk. Reading and going skating with others changed things for me completely.”
Why do you refer to live shows with FEVER 333 as demonstrations?
“I want people to understand that they can come and demonstrate their own idea of freedom: personal, emotional, intellectual and political. That’s what we do. We go on that stage and create an environment. The ideology of this project is very deliberate from when you walk into the venue. Even before you walk in, we have boys and girls outside giving you literature, or people greeting you inside so you feel like you’re being welcomed into this thing. You’re being made to feel comfortable as you arrive into this forum. Onstage we’re trying to demonstrate our own idea of freedom and allow people to do the same, as long as they’re safe with others and not encroaching on the ideas of others. It’s an aesthetic choice of course – we’re artists – but I didn’t just fucking throw things at a wall and see what stuck. I was thinking about what it meant to me to be on that stage with these people, with my band, with the collective, my allies and our friends.”
You’ve been very vocal about your stance on gun control, especially on the track Trigger. What was your first interaction with a firearm?
“My homeboy across the street, Dice, had plenty of guns, and I understood why he felt he needed them. Again, that’s a result of social engineering. They bring in guns and drugs to these areas, letting us kill ourselves. Gun possession in America was founded on the idea of fighting against tyranny and revolting, which I love, but it was also at a time when we had muskets. If you were gonna shoot somebody there was a lot of intention behind that.
“We need to find a better way to control these things we call firearms, because as Americans we’re leading the world in gun-related deaths, and I don’t know how you can argue about that. I’m not saying everyone should throw their guns into a fire and never look back – I understand what it would mean if we were to fully ban guns – but I’m looking for a more feasible, proactive solution. I’m not here to tell people they shouldn’t be allowed to protect themselves and their families, but I am here to say that we have a fucking problem. People are dying en masse – kids are going to school and killing their peers, and that’s a problem. The process of how we acquire guns is a problem. Kids hide heavy artillery and semi-automatic weapons in their garages so their parents don’t know – that’s a problem. We need to find a solution and a common ground, because most people wouldn’t think it’s a good thing that kids are being killed in schools.”
How do you respond to criticisms of FEVER 333 that suggest it’s a cynical move adopting protest culture?
“I’m not here to make people like me. I never really was to begin with (laughs). I’m here to talk about my truth and the truths I observe. I’m here to create and employ ideas of change that I think are necessary and feasible. I come from a place that was underserved, so I come from a very unique position. When I used to pay attention to [online comments], a lot of those people had very little knowledge of who I was, where I came from and why I said the things that I said and continue to say today. A lot of those people have little experience below the median line of finance in their demographic. I know what it’s like to be below that line, I’ve seen things from both sides. I’ve had successes and met some people that’ve done some amazing things with me, but I’ve also seen the darkness, I’ve been there and I know what it is.”
Can you offer an example of what you mean?
“You don’t know what it’s like to wonder if you’re going to eat, wonder if you’re going to make it from the bus stop to get home, but I can’t ask people to pretend like they do know. If they think this is adopting protest culture all I would say is they’re free to feel how they want, because I know what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. I never said that I’m here to topple capitalism or start a coup. I’m not the one to do that, I’m just inspired by these things. I’m not saying I’m anything more than an advocate for change. I’m just like you. If people are upset that we’re appropriating protest culture, I’ll let you know right now that I spoke with Emory Douglas, the man who aestheticised the Black Panther party, and I let him know what we were doing. I’ve talked with other Panthers and I spoke with them humbly, knowing what they’ve done for me and others like me. I was able to speak confidently with them and tell them what we were doing, and I’m not going to sit here and say, ‘They gave me the co-sign’, but I got the co-sign. So I’m not worried about what a dude on the internet thinks (laughs).”
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