Mankaprr Conteh sat down with Jessie Reyez when she visited OKP HQ to talk about her fight against double standards, consciousness-raising music, and more.
Twenty-something-year-old singer-songwriter Jessie Reyez exudes gratitude.
On an afternoon as sunny as her sweet disposition, Jessie Reyez paid a visit to our Okay Space, curiously eyeing the colorful acrylic paintings of JOHNXBLACK in the gallery and knick-knacks like a polaroid of Solange and an ATLiens record in the back conference room. She chatted us up, earnest and engaged as if she hadn’t been on a day-long press tour of New York’s premiere music outlets. “Thank God for vitamins, water, and energy drinks,” she said, smiling.
Exhausted and elated, Reyez is having the time of her life. Raised in Toronto, Ontario by attentive Colombian parents, she’s gone from imitating Celia Cruz around the crib as a child to selling out shows on her first headlining tour last summer. Since her electric debut EP Kiddo dropped last April, she’s graced the stage at iHeartRadio’s Jingle Ball in Toronto, won a JUNO Award for Breakthrough Artist of the Year, and tied Arcade Fire for most nominations at the prestigious Canadian celebration of music. This summer, she’ll perform across the globe, including shows at the epic Bonnaroo Music Festival in Tennessee, at another fest on the grounds of a fortress in Norway, and an exclusive, fancy-schmancy dinner event where she’ll open for Drake in Woodbridge, Ontario.
Jessie Reyez is touching lives, too. Her eyes welled as she described the stories her fans have told her about the ways her music has affected them. Kiddo’s lead single, “Figures” paints a harrowing picture of a broken heart. “Gatekeeper,” and its accompanying short film, detail the paralyzing sexual harassment she faced at the hands of an unnamed producer. Her newest track, “Body Count,” which you can listen to below, criticizes sexual double standards that condemn women and reward men for the same carnal behaviors. For Reyez, it seems what makes this life her best one is not just music-making and award-winning, but relationship building and consciousness raising on her ascent to stardom.
Okayplayer: Chance the Rapper, King Louie, Skrillex, and Sir Elton John are already fans of your music. What two songs would you want someone who isn’t already familiar with you to listen to in order to get a sense of who you are as an artist?
Jessie Reyez: First, “Figures,” because of people’s reactions. I get messages or sometimes people stop me in the street to tell me how the song spoke to them when they were going through it with the person they were with. I remember I got one message that had me in my feelings from a girl whose partner had cheated on her. They had been together for years and she said she was too in love to leave him. She had been trying to explain why and how he fucked her up and like hadn’t been able to get through to him. But when she played “Figures” for him, in the car, he broke down. That was when he began to take accountability and understand how deep he hurt her. Now they’re working on their shit. That’s dope. That means a lot to me, that it positively affected them, that somehow these two are communicating better because of that song.
The next song is “Gatekeeper,” for similar reasons. The messages that I’ve gotten give me purpose. There are some days that I wake up and I feel like an asshole. I’m not always this nice person. There are times when I’m a dick. There are times when I’m a bitch. There are times when I have a really short fuse…but if I can help people, it’s like karmic debt being repaid through a song sometimes. That someone can say, ‘I heard this and it made me feel less lonely, ‘cause I just got fucking molested and I haven’t been able to talk about it yet, but this song has given me strength,’ or ‘I’ve never thought about [sexual harassment] from a woman’s perspective, until I heard [Gatekeeper]’ is mind-blowing to me. I get to connect with people I’ve never met and it’s an honor to me.
OKP: Is the power of those connections what’s making you cry right now?
JR: Yeah, it’s super humbling especially because I haven’t had the most positive experiences, so to know that at least out of that pain that I’ve been through, something good is happening makes the pain feel worth it.
OKP: Tell us about your new music. What are you working on now and why are you excited about it?
JR: My newest song is called “Body Count”. It deals with the sexual constructs of society, commenting on the fact that men have the luxury of being sexually promiscuous without much judgment. They can walk into a room and say ‘I just had sex with 10 chicks’ and receive high fives. If a girl walks into the room and says, ‘Yo, I just banged 10 guys!’, there’s going to be a different reaction. It’s not fair ‘cause it’s the same action. So, this song for me is talking about body counts being proud of them—or even if you’re not proud, standing in your truth.
OKP: Are you worried about how people understand you as an artist with this song? Are you worried about there being repercussions?
JR: No. I feel like you can’t go wrong by telling the truth. This is my truth so if someone has a problem with it, if they’re going to hate me, I’d rather they hate me or criticize me for my truth than to criticize something that synthesized.
OKP: Compare ‘Body Count’ to a scene in a movie.
JR: An existing movie? Because all I see in my head is the video we shot for it four days ago. It’s inspired by the Salem Witch Trials, a bookmark in history for one of the many times throughout history where women’s sexuality is persecuted. And I feel like, in a way, we still go through that.
OKP: “Body Count” reminds us of “Gatekeeper” in the ways it centers and criticizes the intersections of sex, gender, and power in society. Released last April, Gatekeeper predates the “Me Too” movement as most of us understand it. Do you think that the music industry can have a “Me Too” movement in the way that Hollywood has had?
JR: Yes. Women are speaking out. Even in meetings. Even the fact that you’re asking me about it. Even the fact that it’s a conversation. It’s not as broad but there have been producers and other executives that have been named. But there’s still room for growth. That’s part of the reason it’s so important for women to keep talking about it.
OKP: Are producers or people in music with power who have abused that power suffering any consequences yet?
JR: Some are. Not all. I think, for that, more men have to be advocates. It’s not just about the people it’s happening to. It’s not just about the victims. And it’s not just about the people that are doing [harm]. It’s about the bystander that’s not saying anything about it. When people step in and say ‘that’s not okay,’ when people start speaking that isn’t directly affected by [sexual violence]. If I tell you my story and you feel a way, the next time you see a woman being degraded then maybe then you’ll speak up. I hope.
OKP: Is there a community that you find yourself forming? You’ve spoken about a music community in Toronto and the family you’ve developed through The Remix Project, an arts incubator. Do you feel like a part of any other musical communities?
JR: I’m proud of being a Latina, I’m proud of my brown skin. I’m proud of that and being vocal and connecting with other women in music like Kehlani. We’ve connected and I love her. I appreciate all her philanthropic work. I appreciate how woke she is. I appreciate her being an advocate for minorities and gays. I think Princess Nokia is dope too. Whenever someone says ‘I listen to Princess Nokia’ and they say ‘Oh yeah, I listen to Jessie Reyez too,’ I feel honored to be included in that thought.
OKP: This month at Okayplayer, we’re indulging in and exploring nostalgia. What do you think you’re going to be nostalgic about when you’re older, thinking back on this time in your life?
JR: Waking up at like seven in the morning and my dad is the only one awake on the tour bus. The sun was rising as we were dragging forward. It was clear. And he was just sitting there, drinking his coffee. So I went and sat beside him, and we just chilled there for a minute. That was really dope for me. It was a sweet moment. What else… Man, getting my first plaque backstage at Air Canada Centre at Jingle Ball. A lot of my family was there. I just remember like when we took that one picture and my brother’s four kids were here surrounding me. And then it was my tia, my aunt, my mom, my dad, my guys, the team. It was just cool, ‘cause I didn’t even know I was getting that plaque until like 10 minutes before. Just having my family on the road. Just being able to do this. Just being able to go crowd-surfing.
OKP: Where do you crowd surf?
JR: Anywhere I can. Every chance I get. Have you ever done it? Do it before you die.
OKP: You’re really enjoying this, your life as a musician.
JR: Hell yeah. Once someone said, ‘Try to enjoy it ‘cause it will fly [by].’ And I felt that. And just like they said, this year has flown by. Last year flew by. Any chance I get I try to just breathe. Like that time on the tour bus when I woke up and saw my dad chilling in there. I was like ‘man, shit.’ I got in my feelings. I can bring my dad out. My dad busted his ass his whole life. So did my mom. So to have them on the road with me and be able to pay that back. My entire life … I will never be able to pay it back [in full], but I know how privileged I am. I know how fortunate I am to have like a loving mom and dad. I know it’s lucky. So I try to just be grateful for that and stay present and appreciate that I can share this with them, I can share it with my brother, with his kids, with my team. I can try to pay it forward ‘cause The Remix Project was a youth program. I’m trying to pay that forward too. Yes, I’m enjoying this.
Mankaprr Conteh is a freelance writer, communications specialist, and creative director based in Brooklyn. Follow her on her adventures on Twitter @Mankaprr.