Faces Of Black Twitter: Meet Jean Grae
Jean Grae photographed by Shayan Asgharnia for Okayplayer.
Name: Tsidi Ibrahim
Profession: Musician, Screenwriter
Twitter Handle: @JeanGreasy
Jean Grae is known the world over as a chameleon-esque entertainer, quickly able to change and adapt her skill set to fit her ever-evolving cache of interests. As one of the best emcees in hip-hop, period, Jeannie’s otherworldly rhymes have created memorable songs that range from the painfully introspective to offering listeners a dark insight to how comically macabre her mind can be. Born Tsidi Ibrahim in Cape Town, South Africa to legendary jazz musician parents, Sathima Bea Benjamin and Abdullah Ibrahim — Jean was raised in New York City where she studied vocal performance at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School and majored in Music Business at the prestigious New York University.
From the beginning, when her original rap name was What? What?, Jean was armed with an indomitable will, savvy and was hard to pin down to one category of expression. In short, the woman known as @JeanGreasy on Twitter does whatever the fuck she wants, however and whenever she wants. Oh, and she does it extremely well. After leaving the group thing behind in the early ‘90s to focus on her solo career, Jeannie has generously walked us through her life stories from relationships woes, friendships that have changed to paying tribute to her mother who had recently passed away (“Before the Summer Broke,” from Gotham Down Cycle 1: Love in Infinity). With over 120,000 tweets, there are a lot of thoughts, jokes and conversations being shared by the ambitious artist to the entirety of the online universe.
Having joined the social media network in its early stages in November 2008, Jean found her voice quickly resonating with audiences in a way that wasn’t happening when she was producing albums for the big record labels. Maybe it was Twitter that helped her to announce her retirement that same year? Or better yet, it was probably Twitter that put the battery in her back to just jump into the deep end of the pool to do things on her own terms. Although she doesn’t explicitly state that she’s a part of #BlackTwitter, Jeannie does have thoughts on the term, which she expressed to us in an exclusive interview. “I don’t believe that anything ‘black’ is limiting,” she said. “I think that it’s still not understood by people, why things need to be black, and I’m definitely excited that it is not my job to teach anyone why it is important. Type in some search words and get the free fucking knowledge.” Unlike “MC Superstar” who drops the act when he or she returns home to mama’s house, Jean Greasy has no differences between who she is when she wakes up and who she is when she logs online. “I don’t think people understand that about me at all,” she said to us. “It’s all real life [to me] in different forms. All real stories, honesty, vulnerability and zero fucks given in every way.”
While she isn’t directing that at us (or you) here at Okayplayer, Jean Grae is an artist who loves pushing boundaries. Despite the habitual line steppers (i.e. trolls) that pop up on-and-offline, Jean can be found writing, making jokes, enjoying a taste of brown liquor and cultivating her next idea in shops and coffee houses around Brooklyn, New York City. In the past few years alone, she has produced-and-released a triology of LPs (Gotham Down), a book (2014’s The State Of Eh), a web series entitled Life With Jeannie, a multimedia release with Quelle Chris (Goodnight Courtney) and a recently dropped track for Marvel’s Black Panther titled, “What You Came For” with Ta-Nehisi Coates.
With so many things in the works, Jean Grae has turned her considerable talents towards projects that live outside of the rap game. Her webseries, Life With Jeannie, enabled her to flex her comedy writing muscles. Her audiobook, The State Of Eh, was supported by countless individuals through her Twitter and Bandcamp pages. And while those who love + appreciate Jeannie aren’t coming to her for daily news or gossip, they are entrusting her as a source of honesty and humor that comes straight from the gut, unfiltered. “People know me from music. Some people chose to not enjoy me for whatever reason,” she told us. “That’s cool. Everyone isn’t for everyone. I didn’t [even] know I was included [in #BlackTwitter], which is sad ‘cause, you know, I’m kinda black [laughs].”
“It’s an amazing thing to be able to calculate, in front of the world — in real time — the impact of black culture on everything. Every damn thing.”
“My job is to keep people engaged,” Jeannie told us when we asked her about any pressure she felt on Twitter to stand out as she gained a deeper audience. “Before social media / networking, that’s just always been my job.” As she has further established her independence, Jeannie has taken her talents into the singing world, acting in her own sitcom, writing cooking columns for the extroverted foodie and guest starring on an episode of CBS’s 2 Broke Girls. And with a “general disdain” for Facebook, the ever-restless artist continues to utilize Twitter as a means of ensuring that her creative well is full + overflowing. “Instagram doesn’t make me want to hurt people,” Jean said to us while describing what other social media sites she frequents.” “Is BlackPlanet totally relevant? Migente? Asian Avenue? Those are all so popular right now!” You won’t find Jean Grae offering up advice on Periscope (“It like veering off into a dark alley where a bunch of guys peel themselves off the walls, like The Wiz, and start circle jerking and screaming at you.”). Twitter provides Jean with just the right amount of connectivity to offer those who do and don’t know her a chance to experience the personality she delivers through her accounts. “Twitter works. It’s succinct. It’s effective. People can troll in the hopes of getting retweeted, but they don’t have an audience to just spout off to because someone else’s page exists, *cough* Facebook.”
Having been responsible for the cultivation + creation for all aspects of her work, it only was right that Grae decided to up the ante with her list of projects and unveil her Patreon page. For those who don’t know, Patreon is a crowdfunding service with an artist-friendly twist. Creators, or users, enlist “patrons” to sponsor them on either a per-month or per-project basis. The creators who develop these imaginative ideas then offer rewards based on the level of support they receive. In an attempt to showcase her passion and talent, Jean created a touching video that explained her artistic goals in the form of being dressed as a black-clad superhero. “It’s going for the heartstrings,” she said to Forbes’ Shawn Setaro in a recent interview.
With a goal of $2,500 on Patreon, Jean’s online activity on Twitter has helped her gain awareness, dollars and cents in an imaginative way. “It [Twitter] has been pretty fucking amazing. For me to be able to get into rooms where I know I belong, the value of [Twitter] has been immeasurable. I’ve called Twitter, “Cerebro,” before and I continue to think it is an accurate description,” she told us via e-mail. Continuing her adventures as the recording, producing, writing and conceptualizing genius she is — Jean Grae doesn’t fit into the machine and has no plans in aligning herself with it anytime soon. “I do what I want and do my best to inspire anyone else to do so,” she shared with us. “Many things will come out of [my Patreon], so as long as it pushes people to live up to their greatness and beyond it, I’m all for it.” In addition to her Patreon page, the aforemention Goodnight Courtney project with Quelle Chris is of interest, as it serves as a multimedia release that follows the isolated life of a downtrodden cartoon character. A far change from when the rappity-rapstress frequented our Okayplayer message boards as a community member. “My name was Jeanius on OKP,” she admitted to us. “The Jeanius album was directly taken from that. 9th Wonder and I [actually] met on an Okayplayer tour, so it was only right [to do so].”
Whether she is producing and narrating (Goodnight Courtney) or entertaining her 122K followers on Twitter (“A turkey club is not a hot sandwich!”) — Jean Grae is a limitless bundle of energy who does far more than the average creative. Her drive to display her art in her own way runs deep from the womb. Her mother, Sathima Bea Benjamin, implanted that in her from a very young age. In that same interview with Forbes, Jean talked about witnessing her mother create her own record label in an attempt to distribute her and her husband’s music. Fast forward, and Jean has leveraged future tech like Bandcamp, Patreon and Twitter to make in-roads to audiophiles and lovers of creative media without the need of a record exec or industry co-sign. Proving that her extreme talent and passion is more than just music-based, Jean continues to showcase why we all should be free to feel limitless. “Fuck those boundaries,” she said on her Patreon page.
In her view—with everything that has been going on, from the police murdering our black men, women and children to the scrutiny that #BlackLivesMatter has received from those with thin-skin—#BlackTwitter has made so many outside of its demographic upset and retaliatory for one not-so-new reason. “People hate being left out of shit,” Jean told us to wrap up our conversation. “Those without the ability to understand why Black Twitter is necessary, empowering; those who can’t handle the experience of being black or why Black Twitter is a beautiful community that holds an unspoken bond that exists far beyond the realm of the internet are those who cannot comprehend.”
There is no stopping Jean Grae from crafting her own future, and we all wouldn’t have it no other way.
>>>Follow Jean Grae on Twitter @JeanGreasy.