I met Jean Dawson at a cafe in Atwater during a hot mid-afternoon. As I greet him, I notice a long tattoo in old English lettering on his right arm, a Virgen de Guadalupe bracelet around his left wrist and gold hoops dangling from his ears. As he talks, I can see he has partial grills on his teeth—he later informs the hardware is inspired by Mike Jones. After we sit, a server brings him his food. Dawson pulls a rosary to pray right before he eats. Dawson is dynamic: mellow yet aggressive and talks purposefully and is very inquisitive.
“I’m not hyper-religious, but I am very smart spiritually,” he says. “I guess. It’s like I pray to God, I believe in Jesus Christ, stuff like that. But I’m Mexican, I can’t help but be Catholic.”
The 23-year-old singer-songwriter was raised near the San Diego-Tijuana border. He is half-Mexican and half-African-American. His parents met in Tijuana while Dawson’s father, a Long Beach native who was stationed in San Diego, was on leave from the U.S. Army. Dawson’s mother worked as an office clerk while living in Tijuana. Although there was a language barrier between his parents, they would phone each other constantly and somehow understood each other.
This relationship resulted in two kids: Jean and his older brother. Because money was tight, they lived in Tijuana at his grandfather’s house for several years. According to Dawson, many border families live in Tijuana because it’s less expensive. To get a good education, many children cross the border to go to school in the States—a long, multiple-hour journey. For several years, Dawson made this trek with his relatives until he moved to the U.S with his mother.
His newest EP, Bad Sports, is influenced by life at the border and his dual identity. “A lot of people don’t know that I’m Hispanic,” he says while explaining why he decided to sing in Spanish and English. “I think it was instilled by my mom. She’s like, ‘be a proud Mexican man and a proud black man.’ So I always made sure that everything I did represented that.”
Bad Sports contains elements of hip-hop and alternative music and is influenced by Kanye West, Jeezy, Mike Jones, The Smiths (although he hates Morrissey and would punch him in the face), Mac DeMarco, Portishead and more.
“It’s sort of a coming-of-age story,” Dawson says of the EP that includes many lyrics pulled from different times of his life. Whether realizing he was in a toxic relationship while on a Megabus to San Francisco or channeling his aggression from the dangerous situation he found himself in as a kid, it’s a personal audio document on growing up and maturing.
“When I was writing the record, I was so consumed by the idea ‘is it you or me?’ and it’s definitely not going to be me,” Dawson says while describing an incident where he was taunted by gang members as he bought ice cream when he was younger. That inspired the track “Bullfighter.”
“You’re scared and you don’t want to admit that you’re scared because if somebody does try something, you have to make a decision,” he explains. “It’s like what comes next? Is it you or me? If I pull out a pocket knife, it gets serious and that’s like a whole other problem.”
Outnumbered, Dawson ended up being attacked by the hoodlums, but he was smart enough to hide his iPod in his shoe before they could pocket check him.
Despite a colorful upbringing, music and school kept him out of serious trouble. He ended up getting accepted to Cal State Los Angeles to study film. He moved to East Los Angeles (where he currently resides), but he eventually dropped out at CSULA to pursue music. Although the importance of college was instilled in him by his mother from a young age, Dawson realized it wasn’t something that would give him what he needed.
“I think getting an education is super important. I don’t know if academia is necessarily an important part. I think you can get an education everywhere and anywhere, but it just really depends on what you like. If you want to be a fucking neurosurgeon, go to college for sure. I think as I got older, the more I realized that being analytical applied not only to academia but to anything I wanted to do.”
Dawson’s biggest motivation is his mother, who is a bonafide hustler at her local swap meet. He hopes to one day pay for her house and buy her a thrift store. “My mom, she is like my fucking everything. My mom’s always been there for me. Fucking everything that I’ve ever gone through in my entire existence, even wanting to leave college to pursue music.”
Jean Dawson performs at Viva Pomona! with Inner Wave, Little Jesus, Los Retros, Ariel View, Brainstory, Lealani, Jackie Mendoza, The Pantones, Ginger Root, Trillones, Xinxin, Gal Pal, Remi Wolf, La Doña, Sgt. Papers, Lauren Early, Strawberry Army, Muxxxe, Cryogeyser, Natia, Parque De Cometas and Jaqck Glam at The Glass House, 200 W. Second St., Pomona; click here for tickets . Sun., 4 p.m. $25. All ages.