At a time where hip-hop and urban culture as we knoweth is starting to grow its first grey hairs, we are too, learning, evolving and maturing with it.
The past decade has seen both female and male artists pushing their pens in bolder new directions, narrating the tales of the complex daily lives of the men and women of the 21st century. As their untamed stories start to emerge, we can finally look beyond the confines of what can be, at times, a sheltered worldview.
This is how I first got acquainted with Jessie Reyez and her music. Her vocal plasticity lends her the ability to deliver some of the most soul-nurturing ballads, as well as, the most visceral, unforgettable truth bombs you will ever hear. Some of the topics addressed in her work might be unequivocally controversial, but they are consistently original. You have to remember, Jessie might be loca, but straightjacket is costume made. (with fucking diamonds).
You can learn a lot about an artist by watching how they perform. Some artists tend to live in a bubble of their own making, but Jessie’s shows usually stand out due to her playful character, her onstage symbiosis with her DJ, and the connection that she seeks to create with her crowd. From the falsetto in ‘Figures’, to a playful acoustic rendition of TDE’s Schoolboy Q’s “That Part”, hook after hook, her transparent and unfiltered display of vulnerability leads the audience through autobiographical highs and lows of her past. There is, however, a particular moment of her set that keeps on reappearing in my waking mind, out of nowhere, even though it has been weeks since I last attended one of her shows. An image of Jessie Reyez, a 5’5 ft tall lavish brown-haired woman, pouncing her chest as she sings the lyrics of ‘Gatekeeper’ at the top of her lungs.
There have been others that have flirted with the idea of tacking socially tabooed, career-suicidal topics such as misogyny, and the predatory sexual behaviours towards females (and males) in the past, but the level of honesty and intensity of this song remains unmatched.
The eerie production, the loud sirens, and Jessie’s snarling vocals left a profound long-last effect in my psyche since the first time I heard it. By placing the narrative from the assailant’s point of view, she unveils the mental bondage she encountered herself to anyone that was willing to listen: A trialling encounter, where her core values and integrity were questioned, and a life-altering choice had to be made. She could have accepted defeat, surrendered, but that night she asserted that if she was ever to be an artist, she was going to be one in her own terms. I regard the ‘Gatekeeper’ as one of the most defiant musical moments of current times, and a preamble to the change in mentality we are currently navigating through.
In previous interviews when asked about her intention while writing this particular track, she does mention time, and time again that she never had any other purpose other than singing about an in real life tribulation that she has been through, as she does with every other song.
“I am human, I try and keep it as honest as possible. I always write by myself, with myself. I feel like the more truth it has, the more it will resonate.” – Reyez declares – “I feel that we have progressed. People talk about “Gatekeeper” and the #metoo movement, but there still things that need to get addressed, not just in the music industry, but in every industry.”
One thing indeed changed in the last year. Since the release of her first critically acclaimed EP ‘Kiddo’, Jessie has been consciously using every opportunity that she is given to unravel the iridescent multifaceted artist that she is.
We met in a hotel lobby not far from Times Square. It’s the morning after the MTV’s Video Music Awards. The night before, Reyez delivered an outstanding performance for “Apple Juice” (recently praised by Howard Stern) and discovered that Steven Tyler from Aerosmith is a fan hers. Jessie was nominated Push Artist of the Year and Video With a Message for “Gatekeeper”. There was also an honorary nomination for a co-write alongside Calvin Harris on Dua Lipa’s “One Kiss”; the second longest-running number one of this century by a female artist.
As we commence this interview, we recap the highlights of this summer’s Euro and American tours, share festival stories, and discuss her increasingly busier schedule.
“Bonnaroo was fucking insane. I crowd surfed during the set, and after finishing, I hopped the fence and went to take photos with my fans. By the time I came back Kali Uchis was already on.” – she shares enthusiastically.
“Outside Lands in San Fran was also a good one. It was the first time I saw a moshpit during my performance. It was also the first time I got to perform ‘Sola’ since it was out. People started to sing it back to me, and I cried.” – an emotional release to her first song entirely in Spanish.
Jessica Reyez is the daughter of Columbian immigrants. Even though she was born, and raised in Toronto, her Columbian heritage and values are intrinsic to her identity, and continuously imprinted into her artistry. This is a lesser known fact, but Kiddo onto itself is a family affair. The girl on the cover is Jessie’s niece, shot by her cousin, the penultimate track ‘Columbian King and Queen’ is a voicemail in Spanish left by her parents, and on her last track, ‘Great One’ she makes her personal and artistic intentions known both to the listener and the aforementioned family members.
“The first school I went to I did not speak a lick of English. There were Jamaican kids, Indian kids, Chinese kids. Every single one of them was in the same situation, at home they would speak a different language other than English. Everybody in the class had an accent, it was normal.” -Reyez comments on her upbringing in Toronto’s multicultural environment.
“Spanish is my first language, and it is the one I was raised on. It is closer; it’s intimate, rawer.”- she continues – “Some people think it is just language, but it is not. It’s culture. It’s social queues. It is the way people behave. It is the way you speak to your parents, and what you are not allowed to say to your parents. It’s weird. You have almost to switch skins. It is almost like an avatar.”
‘Sola’s‘ tighter production, yet minimal instrumental, quasi-forces you to focus all your attention on Jessie’s voice. The story, tone and level of intimacy in this ballad elevate the nostalgic sentiment carried in her lyrics, where you can hear Jessie reaching far more inward that before. Not that Jessie’s weaponised ballads are wasted in English, quite the contrary.
‘Promises’ her recent collaboration alongside Sam Smith and Calvin Harris, ‘Sola’, and ‘Apple Juice’ might show a softer, more playful side to her artistry, but when asked if this was going to be the new direction for her new extended play, Jessie wittingly, and simply, replied with “Nah, there’s more anger coming”.
And so it did. Short after this interview, Reyez enlisted in Eminem’s latest ‘Kamikaze’ mission. One must mention that the heavy-weight wordsmith, who’s longstanding career inspired other greats, such as J. Cole, or Kendrick Lamar, still counts a minimal amount of female co-signs. Beyonce, Rihanna, Alicia Keys, Nicki Minaj, P!nk, Sia, Gwen Stefani are the only shortlisted few. Well, and now Reyez duetting on the songs “Nice Guy” and “Good Guy”.
Looking at ‘Kiddo’ through the rear mirror, Jessie and her team, decided to release her new EP ‘Being Human in Public’ single by single, week after week, accompanying through the seasonal change.
Over the past weeks she has shared “Fuck being Friends”, an eyebrow-raising statement to keep fuckboys in check, and “Body Count”, a brooding self-empowerment anthem, with the ludicrously hummable “I dodge dick on the daily”. This verse was taken to new heights in the remixed version that includes Kehlani’s equally humorous nod to the LGBTQI+ community “I dodge dick for some pussy”.
Consistency breeds familiarity and considering Jessie’s distinctive voice, enormously charismatic personality with a knack for unpredictability, Fridays have become somewhat of a ritual. According to Spotify’s latest statistics, all this hard work paid off. Reyez is the 31st most streamed artist, with her London fanbase sitting proudly at the top, contributing with over one million of those streams per month. On a more tangible note, since her intimate performances, in tiny rooms filled with cockney accents, at Ace Hotel and Hoxton Bar and Grill, within the space of the year, she already counts with two sold-out shows at Omeara and Scala.
From a promising foot-soldier to rising star, one thing is for sure. Jessie will keep on singing about stuff you don’t want to talk about, and, we look forward to hearing what she has to say.
Being Human in Public is out on October 19th via Island Records/FMLY.
Photography by Setor Tsikudo
Words by Catarina Ramalho