The opportunity to cover multiple genres from all over the state is one of my absolute favorite things about writing for Music in Motion. In my travels I am able to meet many different types of artists with distinguished views and talents. The beauty of finding different viewpoints is being able to explore differing opinions and styles from a musical perspective.
One of the most prevalent topics for musicians of just about any genre over the years has been social justice, the idea that everyone deserves equal economic, political, and social rights and opportunities. For Columbus rapper Aaron Ellington, this isn’t just a passing phase in his life.
“Aside from Jesus, social justice is my #1 heart and passion,” he explains. “I feel like that’s the main mission I’ve been given in life.”
It was because of that calling that he chose the moniker Justfyi.
“I wanted my name to reflect what my music was saying. I thought ‘Justify’ would be too… normal?” he shrugged. “So I flipped the I and the Y, and of course it still sounds the same so it works out.”
Ellington’s journey started at Perkins High School in Sandusky, Ohio. He says he always thought of himself as a good songwriter, but he never liked his voice.
“There were a lot of kids who wanted to rap, so I just did beats and stuff,” he explained. “My best talent was writing for people’s specific voices, so I would make all this good stuff for other people.”
“I didn’t think I would ever actually become a rapper, but it was something I dreamed about growing up,” he continued. “Whether I was just writing for other people, or making a career of it, I always wanted to play some sort of role in hip hop music.”
As time passed by, Ellington felt his heart called towards ministry, but he still had a fire inside of him for music. One evening he was looking at a collection of microphones that he owned, pondering whether he should start a podcast.
“I honestly just started rapping over this random beat, and I ended up really liking what I had. I sent it over to some people whose opinions I trusted to know what they thought, and they had positive responses!”
Ellington says he draws inspiration from the likes of Kanye West, The Game and Kendrick Lamar, and just about anyone who can paint a picture similar to his life.
“Growing up, I liked rappers who talked about the things I was living through. Schoolboy Q, Eminem – J. Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive was basically my entire freshman year of high school in musical form.”
“These guys were telling stories of exactly what I was seeing in my life.”
He says this was one of the major reasons he started writing lyrics for himself – to tell his unique story.
“I learned so much about survival and bad situations on the streets from hip-hop music,” he explained. “So in making music I had to let people know that I understood and that they could be understood, too.”
“I think rap and hip-hop are greatest genre of my lifetime! I tell people all the time that I learned more from hip-hop music than I ever did in school!” he chuckled.
Ellington’s catalogue is only just starting to grow, with 3 singles dropped in the last year and an EP, Placebo Pack, that he released on February 18th. The record is a 5-song journey through the American climate in the last 2 years, and how he finds his way through the murkier waters. He says he titled it Placebo Pack because it’s just a taste of the full-length record he’s working on currently.
“Music has always been a good release for me, and the responses have been good enough that I want to continue doing it now.”
The EP opens with Ready Or Not, with a red-hot snare and bass combo as Ellington introduces himself to the world. Bye Bye comments on the prison systems in America, and the disproportionate amount of African Americans locked up throughout the country. Ellington’s honesty and courage to call out the world around him is admirable, and he hammers a stake squarely into the heart of the discussion with the line “cuz y’all put money over people in this country of unequal, even in the walls of our cathedrals – that’s why you see 1 in 3 black men locked up in a cage, the type of stat I’m hoping I can change.”
You can immediately feel his own heart in his words, and his personal experiences are on display in almost every song he has released. Everlasting was inspired by a song he had submitted to a livestream when he was younger that he was roasted for, and what he’s done since then to get better. The track also calls out rappers who “would rather have a hit record” than write something of substance.
“Everybody wants to have the next dance or TikTok trend or whatever – I just want my words to be heard.”
Discouragement is built around a speech from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. about how he (Dr. King) feels discouraged by all the things he sees around him, and the parallels in current day America. The song finishes by calling upon the strength of Jesus to help carry Ellington through the difficult times. Although he is the Youth Minister at LIFE Vineyard Church in Columbus, he says he doesn’t necessarily consider himself a “Christian rapper”.
“I’ve given this a lot of thought, and I just don’t want to be labelled like that and involved with the modern Christian hip-hop scene,” he explained. “Especially with where my heart is in terms of finding equality and justice. It just seems like they’re looking to cancel people, and it’s just so toxic.”
“I would much rather make songs for the world in hopes that they would believe, rather than make songs for believers in the hope that they would have another song for their youth party.”
I asked him to repeat that line while we were chatting in his office, because I was shocked by the depth of the response. The extent of his convictions and consciousness are also found on the final track of the EP, Julius Jones. The song details the thoughts running through his head the day before Jones was sentenced to be executed. You can read more about the story here.
Ellington’s social conscience (and rhymes) hit hardest on the first single he dropped this year, titled Betrayal. The song is aimed at Evangelical churches that he has seen in the past who seem to sweep over disparaged communities, specifically ones that aren’t practicing what they preach.
“Throughout 2020, I was thinking about these preachers who were against Black Lives Matter and all that, and it really put a wall between us,” he admitted. “It almost made me an enemy of the church for supporting the movement, and it felt like betrayal.
“There was one place specifically that had these super right-wing Christians that were practically telling me that their theology had become ‘less Jesus, more Trump.’ I wanted people to hear my song and realize that Jesus wouldn’t say those things. Jesus wouldn’t spew the hate I saw all around me.”
“I also wanted the single cover to be aggressive. I wanted people to see it and want to listen to the song. I wanted them to hear the anger in my voice, but still see the heart of Jesus. That’s where the line ‘I pray my persistence will lead into repentance’ came from.”
Ellington has a solid backbone of life experience, mic skill and songwriting flair to make a career out of music, if he should want to go in that direction. He says that although record labels can be viewed as dangerous to smaller artists, he wouldn’t mind being signed and taking things to the next level.
“There are some labels out there that have a really good system, and I think it’s okay to go along with what they want as long as I continue my legacy. And get my cut, of course.”
“But the nice thing in 2022 is that you don’t actually need it to get your stuff out there. You can put your music on every platform for like 20 bucks. You can record everything in your apartment, and as long as your flow is tight you can still have a relevant message.”
He certainly has the flow down and having seen him perform live for the first time last Wednesday, I can absolutely say that he has the stage presence to catch people’s attention. Personally, I’m excited to have caught him both at the beginning of his ministry and his music career, and can’t wait to see what fresh rhymes he will display on his upcoming album.