Jontha Links
Photo: Sam Orlin

Jontha Links Is Living the Second-Generation American Dream

Shamik Ganguly and Conrad “Connie” Kisunzu quit their six-figure Silicon Valley careers to become real-life rockstars. You still jazzed about snacks at the office?

Abandoning a lucrative Silicon Valley career path in favor of full-time creative pursuits is the kind of outrageous plotline you might find in a Paul Rudd-starred romcom. But Shamik Ganguly and Conrad “Connie” Kisunzu—better known as the alt-pop/hip-hop duo Jontha Links—had the balls to nix their engineering jobs IRL, despite the expectations of their respective first-generation immigrant parents.

“I felt like I wanted to stick to my ideals over the pressures of what's happening around me,” says Shamik, a Detroit native. “There was a strong part of me that wanted to prove everybody wrong and… [recognize] that a lot of things we assume and traditions that we fall into are not the truth.”

These days, the truth looks like TikTok virality (thanks in part to the breezy single “Pretty Carolina”); opening at shows for the likes of Metro Boomin, T-Pain, and Jeremih; and millions of streams of their own tracks. The two 29-year-olds joined forces to launch Jontha Links in 2017, steadily growing their fan base right through the release of Material Love, their eight-song EP released in October that swerves between gentle pop-punk and dazed alt-R&B with a special synergy. It’s a project they’ve pieced together since the outset of their time as a duo. But before they worked on it, they had to face down any lingering professional expectations as the successors of immigrants.


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♬ Pretty Carolina - Jontha Links

We all know the stereotype (some of us first-hand): Children of first-gen immigrants are so often expected to pursue lifestyles that afford them the security that led their parents to America in the first place. Shamik and Connie’s OGs had already established the blueprint. The former’s parents, who emigrated from India in the 1980s, are veteran professionals in the fields of academia, with careers in computer engineering and communications. Connie’s parents—a father from Democratic Republic of Congo and a Black mother from Georgia—were also studied folks; mom was a nursing professor while dad taught math. Shamik and Connie were on their way to following their white-collar footsteps before blazing a trail of their own in music.

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After graduating from University of Michigan and Stanford University respectively, Shamik and Connie connected in 2015 as part of a highly competitive internship program at Amazon’s Bay Area-based Lab126. They developed an artistic kinship, all while accepting full-time job offers at tech companies. In their time out of the office, they’d travel between the Bay Area and Los Angeles to record music together. When they realized they didn’t have the time to perfect their craft, they put their previous career plans on hiatus. Word to Meek Mill, they’re still chasing their dreams.

Jontha Links hopped on the phone with LEVEL to speak about their musical journey and the joys and struggles of going against the grain—and leaving hefty salaries, stability, and those sweet, sweet perks behind.

LEVEL: When did you first get into music, and what were your influences?
My first exposure to music as a listener was probably through my sister's CD collection: Maroon 5’s Songs About Jane, *NSYNC, Britney Spears. From there, I started getting into the radio. I was in the Detroit area, so I listened to Eminem from an early age. I really fell in love with rock—Red Hot Chili Peppers, Green Day, System of a Down. Anything going from heavy to pop rock really drove me into learning a bunch of instruments.

Connie: Growing up in the church, [I was] listening to a lot of gospel. I don't know when I started freestyling, but I would be at the back of the bus performing. I was also the only Black kid. My exposure to secular music came through my friends. They were listening to Green Day; I was in a Green Day cover band, too. I joined the orchestra. In high school, my friend Marcus took my iPod Nan—one of the fat ones—and he’s like, “Bro, I got to put you on some hip-hop.” He took that thing and loaded it: I was in Chicago, so it was Lupe Fiasco, Kanye West. He was deep on A$AP Rocky, so he gave me some heavy stuff there. 

After meeting and learning about your mutual love of music, what was the moment you guys decided to give it a shot as a duo?
I remember working 50-plus hours a week, commuting three hours a day, going to a Stanford studio with Conrad and working as much as we could. But I was feeling unfulfilled. It didn't feel like I was exploring and building as a creative in the way I wanted to at the speed I wanted to. Over the course of a year, it became clear that I couldn’t do it anymore. It was this gauging process of how serious are you about it? We were both thinking the same thing: This is who I want to be, this is the risk that I'm willing to take. That's something that takes time to come to terms with. By the luck of the universe, we did that at the same time.

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You guys had it made with lucrative engineering jobs in the tech world. Was it hard to walk away?
I've always identified [with] punk music—feeling like a contrarian. Yes, obviously the money thing was huge. I knew I had this very stable, very predictable career path. I was doing well at it. In music, I've always felt inadequate, like there's always been people around me that have been much better and that I had to try harder [while] some people just naturally had the talent. So it was very scary to be like, This thing is just going to work. I'm not going to have to worry about money.

I had friends growing up who always thought I was going to be the one that gets out of Michigan and makes bank. I wanted to prove them [right], but part of me was like, You know how to make money if you're smart. That was the hardest part. I'm privileged that my parents gave me the space to even be a rebel. Some people don't have that option because they have pressures on them to provide and to be a part of a stability that is necessary for survival.

Connie: The expectations at my school were if you get a Stanford degree, you damn well better use that Stanford degree. What are you doing if you're not? So basically, it was like a secret. I had this desire I was afraid to share because everyone would just question why I would do that.

How did your parents react to your career transition?
My mom was very understanding—[she’s] a creative. I didn't have to fight my parents to do what I wanted to do. I had to have discussions. When I said I wanted to go to music school, my dad basically told me I was going to get an engineering degree. He was like, "You can do both, but you can't just do music." But I never felt misunderstood [or] like I was being oppressed. That's a privilege. Also, financially, I had enough of a safety net with the work I had done at Amazon and having a family that's upper-middle class that I was able to make a leap like that. That's something I see a lot in the music industry and the arts in general: People don't want to acknowledge it, but a lot of the people around us have the privilege to take huge risks. I've grappled with that a lot because part of me feels like, “Am I spoiled? I'm here making my art and indulging in my own self-interest because I don't have to worry about survival.” But I think that's driven me to really connect with service. I want to make sure whatever I'm doing, it's serving somebody other than myself. I want to make art that is going to take a lot of personal risk for the sake of changing people's lives.

Connie: I felt like I had to justify this decision [to my parents]. The liberation I felt when I made that decision for myself really started to open up why I did it in the first place—to challenge myself in a new way that was uncomfortable and exciting. At the end of the day, that was what it was about. [I was] blessed with the privilege to do that. I definitely felt a lot of pressure and still feel that way because all my friends are going into tech. I still sometimes wonder how they look at me as this one who went their own way. But they've been supportive and everyone sees what we're going for.

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Have you spoken with peers who’ve also taken unconventional career paths?
I don't know that I've had a lot of conversations but I feel there is this shared sentiment—not just with African immigrants, but with first-gen kids—about that feeling of what it means to buck the tradition. Whenever I tell first-gen kids about my story or our story, they say something like, “Wow, that's really cool!”

Shamik: The conversation happens. The prevailing thing is talking to other first-gen people, especially Indians. I have friends who are first-gen Indians, and they see what I'm doing, and it creates this moment of—it'll break your brain a little bit. They might've come from a more traditional family, or they might have just fallen into the more traditional expectations. And so they see me and they're like, Wait, that's not really possible. The response is most often wonder or curiosity. Obviously, it's not a binary thing. Everybody has their own relationship to their heritage and to the expectations their parents put on them. And everyone's parents are different, too. But most often it's excitement. Even right now, I'm on tour drumming with this band, and I've had [other brown] people come up to me after shows and be like, “Are you brown?” 

Connie: To a certain extent, I felt like my whole life I had been bucking tradition. Growing up, I had oftentimes been tokenized; people experience Blackness in America in different ways. I had a lot of difficulty figuring [it] out sometimes. I wanted to be [an] academic because I wanted people to see Black people doing things that they didn't see on TV and feel like I could do that. It flipped when I was in college because it was a different situation where I was experiencing other musicians who went through similar journeys of focusing on academics really strongly and having this full outlined career, whether in medicine or science or law.

What does success look like for you two as musicians and creators?
In the past, success looked like huge sellout tours, which is still definitely in the cards. I would love to do that. But at a more basic level, the real goal is just to continue to create and to have that coexist with surviving and having a meaningful life and relationships and all the good stuff in life as a creative. I would love to bring our music to larger audiences and have larger resources to express what we want to express. We've had big dreams about what a stage show might look like with a bigger budget. I'll always be an artist, but as long as I'm able to focus my time on that and feel fulfilled in that way and have that coexist with everything else in a healthy life, then I'm happy.

Connie: When people reach out to us and talk to us about the music actually meaning something to them and having an impact on them, it’s surreal. Success for me is striving to do that and cherishing the connectivity with our fans and the people we share our music with.