Jon Corbin is a Canadian hip-hop artist, spoken word poet, speaker, band leader, writer and DJ based in Milton, ON. Since 2001, first under the name The Runaway, Jon has blessed stages big and small with lyrical themes of faith, love, family, social justice, and personal growth.
As a sophomore university student in a small city near Toronto, Jon Corbin started a campus radio show that helped build into the careers of several emcees, and launch his own.
The show was a platform for positive hip-hop, eschewing the misogynist tropes and gang-affiliated posturing of mainstream rap in the early 2000s.
It was also an attempt to promote authenticity and build community, with legitimate off-the-top freestyle sessions that mimicked street cyphers and drew local emcees the likes of Shad, Ill Seer, Mere Mortal and Soul Natural.
Corbin performed at the time as DJ Runaway, spinning beats for other artists and content to lay back and take it all in. But at the urging of those other emcees, he began to spit bars.
"Something really positive happened,” he said.
“They kept encouraging me to keep going … and we became friends and started to write music together.”
Jamming with The Runaway
By the time Corbin graduated university, he had completed a demo that developed into his first full-length album, A Brief Word, in 2007.
He continued to perform as The Runaway, the moniker a facetious response to a friend who chided Canadians for “running away” from conflict. (Corbin’s response: “Call me a runaway, then!”)
But in time the name took on multiple meanings, including the desire to flee from influences that affected his integrity. It was also an acknowledgement of weaknesses that led him to run away from interactions where he felt he should have engaged.
Several other projects followed. As The Runaway, Corbin released Live at the Palindrome, a concert album featuring a full band performing songs from A Brief Word, in 2008.
Then came a series of EPs: Round Two (2010), Inspired (2012), The Saturday Sonrise EP (2013) and A Few Words More (2015).
Those projects included collaborations with multiple Polaris Music Prize nominee Shad, Juno Award winner Caroline Brooks of The Good Lovelies, and Juno nominee Eternia, as well as Sivion of Deespace5, Theory Hazit and Manchild of Mars Ill.
“I like creating, and that’s my goal,” he said. “The biggest satisfaction I get is from creating something.”
A new direction
As Corbin continued to perform, he also built a career as a high school teacher, married his partner Abigail, and became a devoted father to their five children, including triplets born in a high-risk pregnancy in 2014.
Around this time he had what he believes was a spiritual experience. In a swell of creative inspiration, he confessed a deeply-rooted lack of self-acceptance and the need to move forward.
“One day I was sent a beat and I immediately started to write,” he said.
“I’d done so much work in promoting community and connection and inspiring people. But in this work — in loving myself — I was hiding. I was not facing the issue.”
The Runaway chose to stop running.
He dropped the moniker and released A New Direction, his first album under the name Jon Corbin, in 2016. And for an artist who prizes authenticity and human connection, the change was both liberating and challenging.
"I’m trying to be as honest and authentic as possible,” he said. “The hip-hop that I appreciate is that. If it is honest and authentic, then I can rock with it — a lot of the time — because hip hop is so often based around presenting image and a false narrative.
“And at the worst of times, that could be damaging. So for me it is about, how honest and authentic can I be? And then, is there a narrative within it?”
A mixed-up kid
The lack of self-acceptance Corbin experienced is nuanced, complex, and — at first — difficult to understand.
It stems in part from a lack of connection with his absentee father, who is from Guyana, and the resulting lack of cultural transmission that might have helped Corbin understand his partially-Caribbean heritage.
As a kid, Corbin was connected to with his mother’s family, who are of European descent. They embraced him and loved him deeply, and he often felt more white than black — a rare circumstance for mixed-race kids.
Add to this cultural representations of “blackness” on TV shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, where Will — the main character — is a street-smart athlete and big-man-on-campus who speaks in ebonics and does poorly in school.
Will is seen as affable and desirable, while his cousin Carlton, who has darker skin, is frequently ridiculed for not being “black” enough. He doesn’t speak slang, doesn’t wear baggy clothes, does well in school but does poorly with girls.
“I'm watching this really funny show where someone who looks like me is the butt of a joke,” said Corbin. “So that’s a lot of baggage for a kid, and it’s a lot of baggage also when people react to you because of that show.
“I went where I was loved, and because I was more Carlton, I didn’t get love in social circles from other black folks. I didn’t have the same cultural understanding and that disconnected me from black folks in my community that might have been mentors.
“I was disconnected. I was left to myself.”
Hope through hip hop
Corbin’s love of hip hop came later in life, but it came with force.
As a teenager, he was drawn to the freewheeling, thoughtful verses of groups like Grits and Sup the Chemist and, in university, A Tribe Called Quest and The Roots.
He dabbled in music journalism and criticism, covering many of the artists he would eventually collaborate with as a musician. The desire to create, and to tell stories from his life, remained strong.
Marriage and fatherhood continued to influence his writing, as did his meditations on faith, mental health and social justice.
After a short collaboration album called Travis Harmon and Jon Corbin are R&R (2016), Corbin signed to LSTNFND Records as a solo artist the following year.
His first LSTNFND release was a short hip hop and spoken word collection called Hearts Set Ablaze that articulated his desire to be a spark for change.
Corbin continued to do the emotional work required to reconcile his identity, and found inspiration in the words of other mixed-race artists like the writer Lawrence Hill and the speaker Anthony McLean.
“Lawrence reminded me to explore the aspects of my heritage that had maybe been left unexamined,” he said. “And it was a real spark for me to do my own digging, learning and exploring what it would mean to be black in North America, to be black Canadian.
“It was the start of a journey that I’d sort of left by the wayside.”
The beautiful struggle
In early 2018, Corbin began writing what would eventually become his first full-length project for LSTNFND, an album called Every Day.
With help from his labelmates Orijin and Mark Durksen and other collaborators, he stitched together a song collection that garnered a Rap Album of the Year nod at the 2020 Gospel Music Association Covenant Awards.
“Since we had triplets five-plus years ago, life has been a whirlwind,” said Corbin. “The experience gave me this resolve that I just have to make the most out of each day.
“I did that when they were in utero to when they were born. And then when they were born, it was another crazy whirlwind of life and trying to keep three babies alive and raise two other kids.
“All you could focus on was every day, and each day has highs and lows. So I wanted to be authentic to that.
“But the joy that came from experiencing life in the every day, taking time to be grateful for it, counting your blessings, all of those things, that’s the sound I wanted to put across.
“I wanted it to sound like joy.”
Joy in the every day
He captures this remarkably well with songs like “Sunday Best,” an ebullient tune featuring Orijin, Scribe and an energetic gospel choir that evokes the happiest of church services.
“Go Hard” is an energetic anthem for, as Corbin puts it, “every everyman” — normal folks who push themselves to reach their fullest potential from the moment their feet hit the floor.
“Be Alive,” featuring Juno Award-nominated singer Drew Brown, Orijin and Mark Durksen (another LSTNFND emcee), is a bright, effusive attempt to distill the feeling of thankfulness.
Other standout tracks include “In the Pocket,” featuring Eternia; “Lessons to Learn,” featuring Rel McCoy and multiple Juno winner Shad; and “You Care,” featuring Jeremy Rodney-Hall.
A compulsive writer and collaborator, in 2019 Corbin also released Live @ Studio 89, a concert EP featuring Caroline Brooks of the Good Lovelies and followed it in early 2020 with Still Winter, a chillhop beat tape that is gaining traction on streaming platforms.
“These (songs) became snapshots of my day, and snapshots of my current life,” said Corbin. “I wanted to share that with people. Hopefully they find it encouraging.”
A multi-faceted artist
Though his roots are in hip hop, Corbin is also a gifted speaker, educator, spoken word artist, writer and rap coach.
His keynote speeches deal with a broad range of experiences that integrate cultural studies with meditations on personal identity and mental health, and explaining hip hop culture to people who don’t understand it.
“I’ve also been speaking with a friend to churches in restorative justice, and re-evaluating ways that we see our neighbour, especially those people that have been in conflict with the law,” he said.
His rap coaching program centralizes the work Corbin has done throughout his life as a teacher, bringing hip hop into the classroom encouraging students to write rhymes.
“What I see through all of that is the transformative process that happens when people create,” he said.
“It is a character builder. And so for young people, I would like to give them the opportunity to express themselves in that creative form, but to do it with someone who is invested in their character.”
In many respects, the foundations of Corbin’s career were laid on that campus radio show back in the early 2000s. Most people have likely forgotten about it, but that show continues to permeate hip hop culture.
And while his humility and authenticity are what draw many people to him on a personal level, Corbin’s art is a testament to the power of stories to change lives.
“I just want to help young people develop their creativity and find their voice,” he said.
“But at the same time, it’s going to be one of transformation … it can be foundational for them, in terms of setting a course for how they’re going to be creative in the future.”