Joshua Runnels, known publicly as J.ARTiz (pronounced jay-artis), makes music with purpose. With a unique philosophy that combines art and education, J.ARTiz aims to infuse his music with cultural significance and use his creativity to equip local youth with artistic skills that can help with self-expression and identification. We sat down to chat with him about his music, his vision, and his backstory.
Interviewer: To get a little background, are you a Columbia native?
J.ARTiz: I’m originally from Chicago. I’ve been here five years. I moved out here for new job opportunities and started working for the university. I’ve always been art-related with my work and then [it] became a thing where I noticed it’s a crossover of art and education. My brand is pretty much art and EDU. Education about art and about culture.
Interviewer: Can you talk about what came first? What got you into the art world?
J.ARTiz: I’ve always wanted to be an artist. When I was a kid I wanted to be a visual artist. That was the first dream job I wanted as a young kid, like fifth grade. I never wanted to be an educator, so it’s funny how that came about. So as a kid I’d do sketch art, animation, comic books. I would be around music through church. My family, being church-going folks, I naturally just kind of looked up to my family who also are musically-inclined and [sang] in church with them. That’s kind of how I realized I liked to sing. I started imitating Michael Jackson from Jackson 5 and it was history from there.
Interviewer: So music is what really got your foot in the door in terms of pursuing art long-term?
J.ARTiz: Yes. In high school I kind of dabbled back and forth between liking traditional art—drawing, creations—and then started doing poetry, creative writing. It was the first time in high school that I also recorded my first song in one of my friend’s basements. From there, I realized—I don’t want to say from that moment, but looking back on that moment, I was a performing artist. Performing art became more of a focus. And also dance. I used to do Chicago-style footworking with a group.
Interviewer: So can you walk me through how [J.ARTiz] got started?
J.ARTiz: It’s an interesting little journey. Even though I had a music mentor [in high school] who was coaching me about the music industry, the business, what it looks like to perform, write, produce songs, et cetera, I didn’t really jump into becoming an artist until I joined this band, Loose Loose. Meaning, I didn’t have any content out. I was just someone who was developing as an artist until I got here to Missouri and joined the band. And then that’s when I became like, okay, J.ARTiz is now an artist that has a product, song, music, music videos, and art to distribute. And then Loose Loose was a great journey. Me and Simone Sparks up front—front woman and front man of that band. Me and her were a dynamic duo along with the trio that started Loose Loose, that went from 2018 to 2020. When we broke up, I couldn’t stop, so I had to start my own thing. So, J.ARTiz and the MO Soul Collective is what came after that.
Interviewer: I know that in Columbia you host Soul Sessions, right? And you host it as J.ARTiz. How did that get started and what inspired you to do that?
J.ARTiz: When I first started as a solo artist, as J.ARTiz out here in Missouri—I’m gonna tell the story, just cause it helps: True/False—Mark, he was the music director—he said, “Hey man, do you wanna perform at True/False? I know Loose Loose is broken up, it’ll just be J.ARTiz.” I said, “Yeah!” He said, “Alright, can you put together a band?” I was like, “You know what? Yeah, I can.” So I put together a band for the first time to back me as a solo artist at True/False 2021. And then, at that time I wasn’t calling it to MO Soul Collective, but what I did know was that the types of musical genres that I point to have so much crossover that I’m gonna be reaching multiple markets with different music in different packages. J.ARTiz might do a different set, or a different sound, but I still want a certain type of sound when I’m with the band. So I wanted [to call] the band something separate from J.ARTiz. So J.ARTiz is one entity. The MO Soul Collective is one entity. And we work together to do Soul Sessions, which is a monthly event. There’s a team of directors who run that, and I pretty much bring in the live music and host and [do] art curation.
Interviewer: And the MO Soul Collective will be performing with you at Roots N Blues?
Interviewer: Now that we’re schooled on your music, can you talk to me about the other projects you do in terms of the education side of things?
J.ARTiz: Yes. I want to give a little pre-context about how the education [part] got started. In high school, when I started doing creative writing, I realized how meaningful writing was to me. I had someone who I also called a mentor who personally got me writing. I never wanted to be a writer or a poet or a spoken word artist or anything like that. But he encouraged me. He pretty much told me I had a future in this. I didn’t realize it, I thought I’d be a track star or an athlete or something. After high school, I had an identity crisis. I felt like I didn’t know who I was and writing was what helped me get back to that. I started to think back on how my mentor helped me with the tools he gave me to get back to who I was. I used those same tools to start teaching other kids how to do it for themselves. Through writing, through spoken word, and through any form of art. Songwriting, lyric-writing, even dance. And now visual art. We did our first visual art workshop recently. And even film studies. I’m also teaching media literacy now.
But all that comes back to, yes, this time I had an identity crisis and realized how to get myself out of that slump and find out who I really was, what my passion was, what my purpose was. And then I started to work in the Chicago community. I got a job in the Chicago Public School system. Then I ended up moving here and working for the university and so I just kept that going. I started writing my own curriculum, my own programs. And then we even brought a chapter of Louder Than A Bomb, a youth poetry slam competition, out here to Columbia. We set up seven different schools in the community organization. We taught them how to have poetry club sessions every week, how to use certain curriculum to do creative writing prompts every week, and how to develop a slam team of poets. And then we brought them together to do poetry slams in 2018 and 2019. We dissolved in 2020. In a nutshell, that’s the education part. It goes on and on so I don’t wanna [say] too much. I always say, I use art and education as a tool for self-identity.
Interviewer: So how do the education side and the art side impact each other? Does the education side affect how you approach your art and does your art affect how you do the educational side of things?
J.ARTiz: My brand is art education and education about art and culture. That’s the most important thing to me about any community, is to have a presence of understanding of how culture should be valued—art and culture should be valued. Sometimes in communities if art and culture isn’t valued, we start to lose, I guess, color. Metaphorically speaking. Without color, without change, without anything that comes in and shakes up the place, people just kind of become robotic and we’ll be less of ourselves, our beautiful selves. And so if we’re educated about the history of art, artists, and how artists impact the community and how they create culture, we’re able to understand what to do moving forward. If we’re not educated about it, then we don’t value it, don’t understand. We just moved it to the side and we don’t listen to it. And the stuff that keeps us lively and joyful and soulful starts to die and becomes dull. Black and white.
Interviewer: Moving onto the festival, you’ve been in the city for a while so I’m guessing you kind of knew what Roots N Blues was. So what was the experience like of getting to be invited to a part of the lineup?
J.ARTiz: It was manifested. Loose Loose, my previous band, was supposed to do the lineup in  and that was great. Then the pandemic happened. I remember the festival was trying to get 100% of all the  artists but then something shifted and Loose Loose broke up. That was hurtful because the goal out here is to play at the Blue Note and play Root N Blues and play True/False. So it was hurtful I wasn’t able to play [Roots N Blues] back then. But Sifa got a chance to play Roots N Blues last year and she asked me to help her structure her set and sing background, so I helped her out with that. I had a great time singing, I had a great time enjoying the festival. It was my first time going. When Sifa got on it last year, I was like, Okay, we’re on it next year. And that was my mentality. It just kind of happened that I ended up meeting [festival co-producer] Tracy and when I met Tracy, the way we connected, I was like, Yeah. We’re in there. So it just kind of happened like that. Next thing you know, they sent the offer.
Interviewer: When you saw the rest of the lineup, who were you most excited about?
J.ARTiz: Of course, Chaka Khan. That was ridiculous, to know that the Queen of Soul—I didn’t know she was still actively performing. I heard she hadn’t been performing. So it was cool to see that maybe she’s getting back into the groove. I’m excited about Tank and the Bangas. Jon Batiste. He’d just won all these awards and I was like, I get to promote that he’s gonna be at the same festival as me! That was a big deal for everybody. It’s gonna be a lot of good energy and a lot of good momentum that’s gonna continue after Roots N Blues.
Interviewers: Can you give us a hint of what to expect from your set?
J.ARTiz: Definitely MO Soul. I get the crowd doing this thing where I go like, “Hey, I heard y’all need a little mo’.” And the crowd’s like, “Mo’ soul!” Definitely soul music, a lot of fusion sounds. It could be jazz fusion into soul, into a little bit of rock. It’s kind of like a melting pot of what I like to call genre equality. The only thing I don’t do a lot of [is] like country, folk. But you might hear a little blues, a little church. A little mix of things. RNB. Hip-hop. Stuff like that.
Interviewer: Any projects between now and the festival we can look forward to?
J.ARTiz: There’s plenty of events, plenty of education stuff I’m about to start doing. The only thing I’d really wanna promote would be Soul Sessions. Each month I do Soul Sessions. July 30th we’ll be at the Blue Note for Soul Sessions again. And we’ll be probably at the Blue Note in August for Soul Sessions. Other than that, expect some new, original music, a new single to drop from the MO Soul Collective. We’ve never recorded as J.ARTiz and the MO Soul Collective and put out a song.
Keep up to date with J.ARTiz by visiting his website: https://www.jartiz.com/
You can catch J.ARTiz and the MO Soul Collective perform at 2pm on the Equipment Share Stage on Saturday, October 8th. Get your passes here: https://rootsnbluesfestival.frontgatetickets.com/